No matter how you intend to use your herbs after harvesting a few basic rules still apply.
- Tree Leaves should be gathered before Midsummer. After that, the percentage of natural insecticides in the leaves are too high.
- Leaves are at their most fragrant, and richest in volatile oils, before any flowers have opened. The exceptions to this are: borage, coltsfoot, cowsslip, fenugreek, lungwort and sweet violet; they should be gathered after flowering. Rosemary can be gathered at any stage. Gather early on a dry day, after the dew has dried but before the sun is too strong. Dry in a shady, cool, and airy place away from any strong heat sources. Avoid steamy places such as kitchens or bathrooms. Once dry, crumble the leaves and discard large pieces of stem, store them in a lidded glass or ceramic jar away from the light.
- Flowers are gathered on a dry day when the flowers first begin to open. They should always be dried in the shade. Carefully cut each flowerhead off the stalk, remove any insects or dirt, and place on a paper lined tray. Leave to dry in a warm place and turn regularly Small flowers such as lavender, are dried in the same way as seeds – by hanging them upside down and collecting the flowers in a paper bag. Once dried, store in a lidded glass or ceramic jar. Dark colored jars are best because they keep out the light. Calendula petals should be separated from the center part once they are dry.
- Roots are generally gathered in the fall after the plant has begun to die back. The exception to this is dandelion roots, they should be gathered in the early spring. Wash them thoroughly to remove any dirt. Chop large roots into smaller pieces to speed up the drying process. Spread the root pieces on a paper lined tray. Preheat the oven and turn it off. Place the trays inside with the door ajar for 3-6 hours (depending on how large the pieces are). Transfer the trays to a warm room away from the sun until completely dry. Store in airtight containers away from the light. Check periodically as dried roots have a tendency to reabsorb moisture from the air, discard any pieces that become soft.
- Seeds should be gathered as they ripen, usually in the fall. Seedheads should be hung to dry inside a paper bag. Don’t use plastic as any condensation that gathers could lead to mildew and cause the seeds to rot. Once dry separate the seeds from their cases and store in the same manner as leaves and flowers.
- Berries are harvested when they are just ripe, usually in the early fall, before they have become too soft to dry effectively. Spread on paper lined trays, discard any that show signs of mold. Preheat your oven and then turn it off. Place the trays of berries inside with the door ajar for 3-4 hours. Transfer the trays to a warm, airy spot, away from the sun until completely dry. Turn regularly to ensure even drying.
- Tree barks generally contain the desired medicinal properties in the soft inner layer (cambium) between the sapwood and the dead outer bark, or the bark of the root. Bark should be harvested in the autumn when the sap is falling. This will avoid damaging the tree too much. Never remove all the bark or even a strip of bark completely surrounding the tree. Dust or wipe bark to remove moss or insects. Break into small pieces (about 1-2 inches). Spread the bark on paper lined trays and leave to dry in a warm, airy room away from the sun.
The doses indicated in these pages are recommended for 150-lb adults. Children should receive one-half the recommended amount. Infants receive one-quarter dose and newborns should receive the dose through the mother’s milk.
Basic Herbal Infusions
When Using Leaves or Flowers:
Steep two teaspoons per cup of water for about twenty minutes. Strain and store in a refrigerated, airtight container. The dose is one-fourth cup four times a day, not with meals. Children take one-eighth cup.
When Using Roots, Bark, Seeds, and Twigs:
Simmer two teaspoons of the plant matter to one cup of water for twenty minutes, strain and store as above. The dose is one-fourth cup four times a day, not with meals.
Herbal teas will stay fresh in your refrigerator for about one week when stored in an airtight container.
Infusions are a very simple and popular way of using herbs, infusions may be taken as remedies for specific ailments or just be enjoyed as relaxing or revitalizing teas. An infusion is made in a very similar way to tea, using fresh or dried herbs. The water should just have begun to boil, since vigorously boiling water disperses valuable volatile oils in the steam. Infusions can be made from a single herb or from a combination of herbs, and may be drunk hot or cold. It is best to make them fresh each day.
Parts Used: Leaves, flowers, and most aerial parts (dried or fresh)
Standard Quantity: For most medicinal teas with a therapeutic action, add 25g dried or 75g (for best results use a kitchen scale to weigh the herbs) fresh herb to 500 ml (approx. 2 cups) water to make 3 doses. If using a combination of herbs, be sure that the total weight does not exceed the standard quantity.
Standard Dosage: Take a teacup or wineglass (approx. 2/3 cup) dose 3 times daily. Repeat doses may be reheated if desired. Add a little honey or unrefined sugar per dose to taste. Reduce the dose for children or the elderly.
- Warm a teapot with hot water. Add the fresh or dried herb.
- Pour on hot water that has just boiled. Cover the teapot with the lid and infuse for 10 minutes.
- Strain the infusion through a tea strainer.
- Take a dose, adding honey or a little unrefined sugar to taste. Strain the rest into a jug, cover and store in the refrigerator.
The decoction method is used for tough plant materials, such as barks, berries, or roots, which need a more vigorous extraction than is possible using the infusion method. Decoction involves heating the plant material in cold water, bringing it to a boil and simmering for 20-40 minutes. Combinations of herbs can be mixed together, or herbs can be used singly. The standard quantity, which can be drunk hot or cold, is enough for three doses and should be make fresh each day. As with infusions, decoctions are frequently used as the basis of other remedies, such as syrups.
Parts Used: Barks, berries, roots (dried or fresh)
Standard Quantity: Add 30g dried or 60g fresh herb to 750 ml (approx 3 cups) of cold water. This reduces to approx 500 ml after simmering. If using a combination of herbs, be sure that the total weight of the mixture does not exceed this standard amount.
Standard Dosage: Take a teacup or wineglass dose 3 times daily. Repeat doses may be reheated. Honey or unrefined sugar may be used to sweeten each dose, or they may be flavored with a little lemon juice. Reduce the dose for children.
- Place the herb in a saucepan (do not use aluminum!) and pour in the cold water.
- Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer gently for 20 to 40 minutes, until the volume has been reduced by a third.
- Take the decoction off the heat and strain through a nylon or plastic sieve into a jug.
- Pour the decoction into a covered jar or pitcher and store in the refrigerator.
Tinctures are made by steeping the herb in a mixture of alcohol and water. They should be make individually, and then prepared tinctures may be combined as required. As well as extracting the plant’s active ingredients, the alcohol acts as a preservative, and tinctures will keep for up to two years. The liquid is usually composed of 25% alcohol and 75% water, but for some resinous herbs the amount of alcohol is increased to 45%. Commercially prepared tinctures use ethanol, but diluted spirits are suitable for home use: vodka is ideal since it does not contain additives, but rum helps disguise the flavor of less palatable herbs.
Parts Used: All parts of the plant (dried or fresh)
Standard Quantity: Use 200g dried or 600g fresh herb to 1 liter of alcohol/water mixture (25% alcohol and 75% water – e.g. dilute a 1 liter bottle of 75 proof vodka with 500 ml water).
Standard Dosage: Take 5 ml 3 times a day diluted in a little warm water. A small amount of honey or fruit juice can often improve the flavor.
Storage: Store in dark glass bottles for up to 2 years
- Put the herb into a large jar and cover with the alcohol/water mixture. Seal the jar and store in a cool place for 2 weeks, shake the jar occasionally.
- Fit a muslin bag inside a winepress. Pour the mixture through.
- Press the mixture through the winepress into a jug. The residue can be added tot he garden compost heap.
There are times when giving tinctures made from alcohol in a normal way is unsuitable, for example in pregnancy, in gastric or liver inflammation, or when treating children or recovered alcoholics. Adding a small amount (25-50 ml) of almost boiling water to the tincture dose (usually 5ml) in a cup and allowing it to cool effectively evaporates most of the alcohol, making it safe.
TINCTURES – ALTERNATE METHOD
Tinctures can be made by grinding the leaves, roots, or other plant parts with a mortar and pestle (or a blender) and just barely covering them with high-quality vodka, whiskey, or grain alcohol (Everclear). After 21 days, add a small quantity of glycerin (about two tablespoons per pint) and about 10 percent per volume of spring water. Strain and store in amber glass airtight containers. Keep the herbal tinctures in a cool, dry place for up to five years.
The dose is generally twenty drops in a cup of herb tea or warm water four times a day. In acute or emergency situations the dose is given more frequently; in the case of labor pains, for example, it might be a dropperful every five minutes.
A compress is a cloth soaked in a hot or cold herbal extract. They can be applied to painful joints and muscles, and are useful for soothing skin rashes and irritations. A cold compress is sometimes used for headaches. The cloth may be soaked in an infusion, decoction, or a tincture diluted with hot or cold water. An old tea towel is ideal, or use muslin or cotton wrapped in surgical gauze. Compresses are sometimes called fomentations.
A poultice of bread or mashed potato soaked in herbal extract was once a favorite household remedy for minor injuries and ailments. Today, poultices are generally made with chopped fresh herbs. They are usually applied hot.
Parts Used: Whole plant (dried or fresh) chopped
Standard Quantity: Use sufficient herb to cover the area.
Standard Application: Apply the poultice every2-4 hours or more frequently if necessary.
- Boil the fresh herb, squeeze out any surplus liquid, and spread it on the affected area. Smooth oil on the skin first to prevent the herb from sticking.
- Apply gauze or cotton strips to hold the poultice in place. To protect against stains, clear plastic wrap may be wrapped around the gauze after the poultice has been applied.
A cream is a mixture of water with fats or oils, which softens and blends with the skin. It can easily be made using emulsifying ointment (available from most pharmacies), which is a mixture of oils and waxes that blends with water or tinctures. Homemade creams will last for several months,but the shelf life is prolonged by storing the mixture in a cool pantry or refrigerator, or adding a few drops of benzoin tincture as a preservative. Creams made from organic oils and fats deteriorate more quickly. The method shown here is suitable for most herbs.
Parts Used: All parts of the plant (fresh or dried)
Standard Quantity: Use 150g emulsifying ointment, 70 ml glycerol, 80 ml water and 30g dried or 75 g fresh herb.
Standard Application: Rub a little into the affected part 2-3 times a day.
Storage: Store in sterilized, airtight, dark jars for up to 3 months in a cool place.
- Melt the emulsifying ointment in a double boiler or a bowl over a pan of boiling water. Pour in the glycerol and water and stir well. The mixture will solidify slightly when the liquid is added, so keep the bowl over the boiling water and stir to remelt it.
- Add the herb and stir well. Simmer for 3 hours, regularly adding more boiling water to the lower saucepan to prevent the pan from burning.
- Use a winepress or a jelly bag fitted to a jug, and strain the hot mixture as quickly as possible into a bowl. Stir the melted, strained cream constantly as it cools, to avoid separation. If it does start to separate, return it to the double boiler and reheat with an additional 10-20 g of emulsifying ointment.
- When the cream has set, use a small palette knife to fill storage jars. Put some cream around the edge of the jar first, and then fill the middle to avoid any air bubbles.
Massage oils are made from a few drops of essential oil diluted in a carrier oil – sweet almond or wheat germ is best, but sunflower or other vegetable oils may be used. Infused oils are also used as carriers. Once diluted, essential oils soon deteriorate, so it is best to mix small amounts frequently. Massage requires skill and patience, and is not suitable for some conditions.
Cautions for Massage
Pregnant women should seed professional advice and should not use essential oils at all during the first three months of pregnancy.
Do not massage anyone suffering from an infection, epilepsy, a contagious disease, acute back pain (especially if the pain shoots down the arms and legs), or from an inflammatory condition such as thrombosis or phlebitis.
Do not massage bruised or inflamed areas.
Parts Used: Essential oil (be sure to use good quality 100% pure essential oil, some additives can be particularly irritating to the skin.)
Standard Quantity: In general, use no more than a 10% concentration of essential oils, i.e., up to 5 ml of essential oil in 45 ml of carrier oil. Reduce this to a maximum of 5% essential oil for children, the elderly, or those with sensitive skins.
Standard Application: Pour 1/2 to 1 tsp onto the hands (not the body) and rub the body gently.
Storage: Store in a sterilized, airtight dark glass bottle in a cool place.
Ointments contain oils or fats, but no water. Unlike creams, they do not blend with the skin, but form a separate layer over it. They are suitable where the skin is already weak or soft, or where some protection is needed from additional moisture, as in diaper rash. Ointments were once made from animal fats, but petroleum jelly or paraffin wax is suitable. Infused oils may be used instead of the herb itself.
Parts Used: All parts of the plant (dried or fresh)
Standard Quantity: Use 500 g petroleum jelly or soft paraffin wax and 60 g dried or 150 g fresh herb.
Standard Application: Rub a little into the affected part 2-3 times a day. Storage: Store in sterilized, airtight, dark jars, for 3-4 months in a cool place.
- Melt the jelly or wax in a bowl over a pan of boiling water or in a double boiler. Add the herbs and heat for 2 hours or until the herbs are crisp. Do not allow the pan to boil dry.
- Pour the mixture into a jelly bag fitted with string or an elastic band to the rim of a jug, or else use a muslin bag and a winepress.
- If using a jelly bag wear rubber gloves, since the mixture is hot. Squeeze the mixture through the jelly bag into the jug.
- Quickly pour the strained mixture, while still warm and melted, into jars.
Herbs that are useful for skin conditions (such as comfrey, lavender, calendula, pine needles, aloes, elecampane root, burdock, and elderflowers) can be made into salves. The ideal time to make a salve is summer, when the herbs are fresh and abundant, but dried herbs may be used as well. Green walnut hulls and whole, smashed horse chestnuts may be added to the basic mix for their skin-healing and painkilling virtues.
Simmer herbs in good quality olive oil in a large pot. In a separate pot, melt and simmer three to four tablespoons of fresh beeswax (the beeswax should be of a golden color with a strong honey scent) per cup of oil. Put enough oil in the pot to cover the herbs. Simmer the herbs in the oil for about twenty minutes. When wax and oil reach the same temperature, pour in the wax. Strain and pour into clean jars. Tincture of benzoin may be added as a preservative (about one ounce per quart) while the salve is still liquid although it is not strictly necessary. The most important factor in controlling mold is to have immaculately clean and dry jars and utensils. Boiling followed by a thorough drying is all that is usually needed. Persons living in very hot and damp climates may wish to take the extra precautions of adding the tincture of benzoin.INFUSED OILS
HOT INFUSED OILS
Active plant ingredients can be extracted in oil for external use in massage oils, creams, and ointments. Infused oils will last for up to a year if kept in a cool, dark place, but they are more potent when fresh, so it’s best to make small amounts frequently. The hot method is suitable for leafy herbs such as comfrey, chickweed, stinging nettle, cleavers, bladderwrack, and rosemary.
- Put the oil (500 ml sunflower or cold pressed olive oil) and the herb (250g dried herb) into a glass bowl over a pan of simmering water or in a double boiler and heat gently for about 3 hours.
- Strain the mixture through a muslin bag or a jelly bag.
- Pour the oil into storage bottles, using a funnel if necessary.
COLD INFUSED OILS
This method of making an infused oil is suitable for flowers such as calendula, st. john’s wort and chamomile. It is a slow process, the flowers and oil are packed into a jar and left for several weeks, after which the once-infused oil is used again with fresh herb to extract as much active plant ingredient as possible. Cold infused oils are used in massage oils or as the basis for creams, salves, or ointments.
- Pack a large jar tightly with the herb and cover completely with oil (safflower or wheat germ oil work good for this). Put the lid on and leave on a sunny windowsill or in a greenhouse for 3 weeks.
- Pour the mixture into a jelly bag fitted with string or rubber band to the rim of a jug.
- Squeeze the oil through the bag. Repeat steps 1 an 2 with new herb and the once-infused oil. After 3 more weeks strain once more and pour into storage bottles, using a funnel if necessary. Store for up to a year in a cool place away from direct light.
Honey or unrefined sugar can be combined with infusions or decoctions to make syrups. As well as helping to preserve the active plant ingredients, the sweetness is useful for disguising the flavor of some herbs, such as goldenseal. Syrups are frequently used to treat children. Honey has a particularly soothing effect and is often combined with herbs with and expectorant action to make cough syrups.
Parts Used: Aerial parts, bark, flowers, leaves and roots
Standard Quantity: Use 500 ml infusion or decoction and 500g honey or unrefined sugar.
Standard Dosage: Take 5-10 ml 3 times a day.
Storage: Store in sterilized, dark glass bottles with cork stoppers for up to 3 months.
- Make a 500 ml standard infusion or decoction or your chosen herb.
- Strain the infusion or decoction into a clean saucepan.
- For each 500 ml of infusion add 500 g of warm honey or unrefined sugar and stir constantly until dissolved. Simmer gently until the mixture has a syrupy consistency and then remove from the heat and allow to cool.
- Pour into bottles and seal with a cork stopper. Syrups can ferment and cork stoppers will simply pop out, whereas screw-top bottles can explode!
Syrups can be made by boiling three pounds Sucanat (desiccated sugar cane juice) in one pint of water until a syrupy consistence is obtained and then steeping the herbs in the hot mixture for twenty minutes. The herbs can also be simmered directly in honey or maple syrup for about ten minutes. Use two teaspoons of herb for every cup of liquid. Strain the syrup and store it, well sealed, in the refrigerator.