Medicine Making a brief introduction-excerpts from the Apprenticeship notes
The way in which a medicine is prepared from a plant will have an effect on the way it expresses itself (in part due to the actual constituents, the matter that is extracted, and also due to the interactions that occur during the preparation process). The overall meaning and medicine of the plant, for example Avena (Oats), will be there but maybe certain aspects of its personality will come through more strongly, depending on the way it is prepared, who is giving the medicine and who is receiving it.
It also depends on the part of the plant that is used, where it grew, with what other plants it shares in community (plants such as opium poppy secrete their alkaloids into the soil and have a relaxing effect on the plants in their community, for example); how it was harvested (it is generally considered that lavender essential oil prepared from flowers hand cut in the traditional manner is vastly superior to the oil prepared from whole plants grubbed up by machines). We will explore this a little more when we talk about cultivation, harvesting and processing but suffice to say that the more we ask permission, set clear intention from a place of integrity, and communicate with the plant as to what we are intending to use the medicine for, whether it is to use for ourself or for use with a wider community, the better the medicine given by the plant. Each plant is an individual of its species that expresses that species in its own unique way, in the same way that each human expresses Homo sapiens sapiens in their own way– physically, emotionally, spiritually.
One of my students made an extremely important point; the plant works to heal, not by treating a particular symptom, or symptom set, but by feeding in meanings that align the person to the essential character of the plant. She made this point when we were discussing wood betony in class and I mentioned how I had had a discussion about it’s therapeutic application with a colleague and he said he used it for the exact opposite to what I used it for. When she said that I looked at the plant again and saw how it has really strongly grasping roots, a rosette of beautifully scalloped leaves hugging the ground and then throws up a slender stem (sort of wiggly, like the vagus nerve), at the end of which appears a spike of deep pink flowers. Wood betony anchors us down to the earth, balances the vagal tone and the heart energy, it is traditionally described as driving away fear – what better way to do this than to be grounded and connected to the heart? But that is just an energetic explanation of all the other things that it does and the specific therapeutic actions it possesses, and this is a very important part of understanding the meaning of wood betony.
Added into the therapeutic process are other factors; the intentions of those preparing and dispensing the medicine, and the medicine that they put into the process will affect the outcome. The medicine of the person ingesting the preparation; in any healing process there is an interaction between the person seeking healing, the person holding the healing space and the medicine itself.
We are all aware of the fact that we bring forward different aspects of our personality when interacting with different people or groups of people and in different scenarios. Plants do the same thing; so, although there may be broad similarities in the therapeutic effects of Lavender from individual plants of the species Lavandula officinalis on most humans, there will also be variations, nuances. In the same way that not all people get on together (however wonderful we are, our medicine does not always blend well with that of equally amazing people), part of the skill of working with the plants is to listen to them with regard to the specific person who is seeking medicine, to the time and the situation you are working with – there are no absolutes. We deepen our relationship and knowing of the plants, incorporating information such as their constituents, their properties, their general uses, and we also sit with them to deepen our relationship with them and we continue to do this as we do with dear friends, with people in our community. We deepen our relationship with them so that when we are asked to we can match up that sacred knowledge with what we read from the person asking for assistance; we listen to the person’s story clearly and we never make assumptions.
To put it another way: the plants are our allies, particular plants become our special allies and then there are those that we work with less often, our acquaintances. This is similar to the way we have close friends amongst our own species, but also a wider circle of acquaintance with whom we interact from time to time; and there are those that we know we do not work well with and those with whom we have a more challenging relationship. So, the plants are our allies and our teachers. We need to get to know them on every level and to ask them how we can work with them.
Methods Of Preparation Of Herbal Medicines
A note on doses; the doses below relate to a normal, ‘healthy’ adult. In pregnancy and during breast feeding these should be reduced to a half or third, and certain herbs should be avoided altogether. For elderly and frail people doses should also be reduced, seek the advice of a professional if unsure about what dose is suitable; any real herbalist will help out with this kind of advice.
One of the simplest and oldest ways of using herbs is to eat them as food. Hippocrates said let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food; well, we can really do this with herbs. Dieting on herbs is a most excellent form of preventative medicine, a way of connecting properly with our environment, making ourselves more aligned with nature, part of nature. Herbs are full of all sorts of nutriments which are anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, immune system and tissue building, cleansing and tonic to the blood, clearing for the liver and much more besides. Studies are emerging showing that including forage foods and good quantities of herbs and spices in the diet are preventative and curative for most of the ills of Western culture such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, chronic inflammatory disease in general.
Kids love the frisson of preparing food from ‘weeds’ and wild plants. Many of our most valuable native and naturalized plants can be included in the diet easily and are much easier to grow that the cultivars that we tend to eat; they are fresher, in season, totally local and are really flavoursome. For inspiration explore the recipes in the profiles at the end of the book.
Teas, tisanes or infusions are probably the next oldest way of using herbs, and definitely one of the easiest ways of using them. They are generally prepared from leaves, flowers, aerial parts and some seeds, either fresh or dried; they can also be prepared from powders of harder plant parts such as roots, barks and seeds. Teas will mainly extract the water-soluble components of the plant. If you are using an aromatic plant (one containing essential oil) use a teapot, or place a sauce over the cup whilst infusing. Always use freshly boiled water. Some plants are used as a substitute for tea and up to 5 cups can be safely consumed in a day. However, I would recommend that if being used in this way a maximum number per day would be 3-4 for any single herb, and to use a variety of herbs from day to day or during the day, rather than just one (unless you are dieting with a particular plant to get to know it better). Some herbs are much stronger in their action, not really suited for food use, and should be taken less often in the day.
The standard way to prepare a tea is to use 1 tsp dried herb or 2 tsp fresh herb (or mixture of herbs) for one cup; pour on boiling water and allow the herbs to infuse for 5-10 minutes. If you are preparing a pot use 20g dried herb or 30g fresh herb to 500 ml water. Infusions can be stored in a covered container in the fridge for up to 24 hours. They may also be made in a thermos flask and stored in this for 24 hours.
Do not add milk as this may bind some of the active constituents. Try to take without sweetening since the taste of the herbs has healing qualities and informs the gut brain and vagus nerve of the plant’s medicine, but if necessary add a small amount of honey or apple juice concentrate.
Cold infusions are used for herbs containing large amounts of mucilage e.g. Althea officinalis Marshmallow, linseed, psyllium. Aromatic herbs, those containing significant amounts of essential oil, are sometimes also extracted by cold infusion; soaking in cold water for 12 hours, this can be good if a cooling effect is being sought for example making cold Tilia linden blossom infusion to calm hot flushes.
Teas can be prepared from a single species or you can experiment with blending herbs together in a tea; there are some examples in the profiles but this can be an extremely creative process and encourages us to work with taste, smell and the appearance of the tea.
Decoctions are used to prepare harder plant parts such as roots, barks, twigs, berries and seeds that need a stronger extraction method. Decocting is simply simmering in boiling water. The plant material, whether fresh or dried, should be cut or broken into small pieces before simmering to allow maximum extraction. The herbs are placed in a pan, covered with cold water and brought to the boil. They are then simmered for 20 -30 minutes. In Chinese herbal practice the herbs are traditionally decocted until the water volume is reduced by two third, whilst in European herbal medicine the tradition is to reduce by one third for internal use, and two thirds for external use.
Use 20 g dried herbs or 40 g fresh herb in 750 ml cold water, reduced to about 500 ml by simmering; sufficient for 3-4 doses. The standard dose is 3-4 cups per day (about 500 ml) and decoctions may be stored in a similar way to infusions.
Alcohol Tinctures are made by soaking, or macerating, the herb in a mixture of alcohol and water for several weeks to dissolve the active constituents. The alcohol facilitates the extraction and also preserves the plant extract for up to 5 years. To prepare them you need a wine press, or very strong hands. Normally one part of herb is added to 5 parts alcohol if dried herb is used, or 1 part to 2 for fresh herbs, but there are some exceptions to these rules and there are as many approaches to tincture making as there are people doing it; Judith Hoad, a traditional herbalist from Donegal, just packs her tincturing jars with herb material and pours over enough vodka to cover them before leaving to macerate whilst other people do very exact measuring of factors such as the water content of the herb, the precise % of alcohol needed and make the whole process extremely scientific or alchemic-it depends what rocks your boat.
The % strength of the alcohol solution depends on the plant being extracted and it’s constituents; for example if resins are the main constituents (Commiphora molmol, Myrrh) then 90% is used, if volatile oils are the main constituents 45% is used and if water soluble constituents are the ones being extracted then 25% is used; having said that Stephen Harrod Buhner recommends 50% alcohol for most plants, whilst in Ireland the strongest proof alcohol the ordinary consumer purchase is 40% so many people just work with that.
Some people have developed a whole new creative art around tincturing, for example Joe Nasr uses tincturing or decocting or the preparation of aromatic waters as the first step in tincturing and believes that heat potentiates the process.
Probably the best starting place is to use 1:5 parts of dried herb or 1:2 of fresh, use 25% alcohol for plants that contain mainly water soluble constituents and 40% for those requiring more alcohol for extraction. From that starting point you can become as creative as you want to; it is all supposed to be fun, creative and a conversation with the process.
In Europe, the maximum dose used for most tinctures is 5 ml 2-3 times per day, but some have a substantially lower dose rate so double check this for any species that you are working with. Also, often a much lower dose is all that is needed so start small and work up if in doubt. The plants give generously of their medicine but we use them with healthy sustainable frugality in honour of their generosity.
Some books suggest that if one wishes to remove the alcohol from the tincture dose it can be added to a small wine glassful of boiling water and left to stand for 5 minutes. Unfortunately this will also remove any volatile compounds and does not remove all the alcohol either. If alcohol is to be avoided then it is better to use an alternative preparation, such as an infusion, decoction, vinegar tincture, aromatic water, capsule or juice.
Herbal juices can be purchased, or prepared with a suitable juicer at home. You need to use a wheat grass juicer, rather than the juicers sold for making fruit and vegetable juices. They need to be prepared fresh, or frozen if stored for more than 24 hours. This can be done in ice cube trays. The standard dose for juices is 5-10 ml 2-3 times per day.
Powders are an alternative to the liquid forms for internal use and can also be used in external preparations. Once a herb is powdered it is more susceptible to oxidation due to the fact that a larger surface area is exposed to the air. This means that powders need to be kept in air tight containers and used before they lose their potency. Powders are a great way to use herbs for adding into food; they can be sprinkled on soups or other foods, added to smoothies, or used to prepare infusions. They can also be used to pack capsules. Capsule fillers are available from various sources online. Capsules suitable for vegans and vegetarians are also available from several suppliers. The standard dose is 2-3 00 capsules twice a day – this dose contains about 250 mg of herb. The equivalent amount of powdered herb could also be sprinkled on food.
Powders are also used in some external preparations, such as poultices, ointments and creams; these forms of preparations are described below.
Syrups are sometimes prepared as a way of disguising unpalatable herbs for children (of all ages), as a way of preserving herbs, and are particularly useful for sore throats and coughs. 500 g honey, sugar or apple juice concentrate is added to 500 ml of prepared infusion or decoction (1ml of herbal extract to 1g sweetener). The liquid and sweetener are gently heated together until the sweetener is dissolved and the consistency is syrupy. The mixture is then removed from the heat and cooled. The syrup can then be stored in sterilised jars or bottles with corks. Be aware that they do sometimes ferment and explode, so store with caution! They can be stored for about 6 months (preferably in the fridge), and the standard dose is 5-10 ml 3 times a day. Two classics are elderberry syrup to boost the immune system, and as a gentle laxative at higher doses, and thyme/liquorice as a cough remedy (see monographs for recipes). Syrups can also be used as cordial drinks in the winter and used as a food poured over ice cream, stewed fruit, fruit pies and crumbles and other foods.
Herbal vinegars/vinegar tinctures/aceta Although alcohol tinctures have predominated for the last century or so we are finding that vinegar tinctures are a really good alternative. Some people find the sour taste a little challenging at first, but this really tones up the digestion and can help with heat in the digestive system. Vinegar also is better at extracting minerals from the herbs and helps with their absorption, especially calcium abosrption so these tinctures are particularly useful for bone repair, nerve function and have many other uses. Vinegar is also traditionally used to extract herbs high in alkaloids.
Vinegar tinctures can be taken internally in the same way as alcohol tinctures, singly or in blends. Some practitioners find that patient compliance (getting people to take them) can be an issue as a lot of people find the sourness challenging initially. They are really good when people wish to avoid alcohol. They can be mixed into a little fruit juice to help with taking them. They can also be sprinkled over vegetables, rice or salads as a food-medicine. In France this vinegars are used as summer cordials due to their wonderfully cooling properties.
They are also excellent for the skin, treating inflammation, correcting the pH of the acid mantle and encouraging a good skin flora (most of our skin flora prefer an acid environment and over use of soaps and detergents over alkalises the skin).
They an be combined into creams (vinegar creams make an excellent vegan ‘mayonnaise’, see the culinary section) or used in compresses and poultices. Added to drawing poultices they potentise the action.
According to Paul Bergner William Cook, a Physiomedicalist of the 1800s, preferred vinegar as a menstruum for issues of the respiratory system. He felt that it concentrated the herb’s actions to the respiratory system.
They are really helpful in anti-inflammatory creams since the vinegar is also good at reducing inflammation.
Pickled herbs are another possibility – sushi ginger but many other possibilities. When we made our burdock vinegar we took a little of the pickled roots that had not been pressed off and added them to our forage salad; they were delicious. Other favourites are black currant leaves and fennel seeds.
The classic weights and measures are:
200g dried herb
Or 300g fresh herb, finely chopped
1 litre organic cider vinegar
(or just do the measuring by approximation)
The herbs are placed into a clean jar (sterilize with boiling water, Milton fluid, in a baby bottle sterilizer or a microwave). Pour on the vinegar, ensuring that the herb is covered. Close the jar tightly and label with the date and contents. Shake thoroughly for 1-2 minutes to ensure that the herb is thoroughly soaked in the vinegar. Shake every day for 1-2 minutes for 14 days.
The easiest way to extract the vinegar is by using a wine press. Pour the mixture into the press and collect the liquids in a jug. Press down the material until no more can be extracted. If you do not have a wine press, strain the material through a jelly bag or muslin bag, then squeeze thoroughly, wearing food preparation gloves to prevent contamination. For small quantites one can use a potato ricer lined with muslin to press off the vinegar.
Pour the pressed vinegar into sterilized jars or bottles and close firmly. Label the bottles clearly with the date and name of the preparation. Vinegars should keep for up to 3 years if stored in a cool, dark place. They can be used medicinally, to flavour food, as hair and skin tonics and as cleaning products (e.g. mopping floors, cleaning glass). For medicinal use, the standard dose is 5 ml 3 times daily in a little water or fruit juice for a healthy adult. Some people claim that this method is no good for extracting essential oil rich herbs but I have not found that to be the case.
Live vinegars are a valuable fermented food that helps to alkalise the body, encourages good liver health and also tones the whole digestive system, including the pancreas and its secretions. Vinegars can help with the absorption of minerals and can act as a prebiotic that will encourage a healthy bowel flora. They have many uses both internally and topically.
As with all foods and fermentations local is best so in Ireland we would consider making apple cider vngar as a first choice but could also prepare malt vinegars from beer and other vinegars from hedgerow wines. The scope is very wide. Cathy Skipper who lives in France uses local wine vinegar since that is the local live variety.
To make apple cider vinegar
Peel and core apples, either cookers, eaters or cider apples. Place the peels and cores in a crock, an enamel or stainless steel pan with a close fitting lid and cover with water. Leave at room teperature. Open and stir every day. For the first few days bubbles will start to appear and the mixture will smell distinctly cidery and slightly alcoholic. Some people skim off the bubbles each day, I don’t bother. Once the bubbling stops (about a week) continue to stir each day until a good strong vinegar aroma develops. Strain and bottle. Depending on the type of apple used there may be a degree of sediment; this can be decanted off or just left to settle to the bottom of the bottle or jar the vinegar is stored in. This vinegar can be used andcan also be used aas a starting mother for future batches. So far I have not included live vinegar as a starter but some people add some live vinegar to the start of the process to ensure good vinegar flora to get the process going. The fruit pulp that is left from peeling and coring can be used to make apple purée or apple suace to add to curries, pies and all sorts of dishes. Some people make their cider vinegar from pressed apple juice rather than the cores and peels. In this case I would take the pressed juice and add some live mother vinegar. Another possibility if one has the facility is to syphon off some of last years cider that is still brewing away and add some vinegar to start off your new batch.
Glycerites (thanks to Jane Wallwork-Gush for this information)
Vegetable Glycerin is produced by the hydrolysis of vegetable fats, most commonly palm or coconut oil. It is better to use vegetable glycerin rather than animal glycerin or glycerin that has been chemically synthesised or produced from other less desirable sources such as the petro chemical industry.
Glycerine is both a solvent and a preservative in the same way as alcohol although it is not quite as an effective a solvent as alcohol. It sits somewhere between alcohol and water as a solvent and likewise in its efficacy as a preservative. Another way of looking at this is to say glycerine can extract a wider range of constituents but at lower levels. It does however have a wide range of applications in herbal medicine and is the perfect choice when looking to manufacture alcohol free preparations.
A glycerite is a preparation that uses glycerin to extract the constituents from a herb in a similar fashion as to how one would use alcohol when making a tincture. Glycerites can be produced from both fresh and dry herbs using different ratios for extraction purposes.
Dry Herb Glycerite : Specification: 1:5@60% 1kg herb to 5 litres of liquid, 60% of which is glycerin and 40% water
Fresh Herb Glycerite : Specification 1:2@70% 1kg herb to 2 litres of liquid, 70% of which is glycerin and 30% water
A higher percentage of glycerine is used with the fresh herb due to the higher water content of the herb.
- Weigh herbs and place in a glass jar or pail, label with specification and contents.
- Measure glycerine and add to the jar
- Measure water and add to the jar
- Shake well
- Allow to macerate for 28 days shaking each day to distribute the liquid
- Press the herb and glycerin mixture into another jar, discarding the marc
- After a couple of days decant the glycerite into a dark bottle and label.
- Store in a cool place out of direct sunlight
Warm Glycerite Method: Dry Herb Specification: 1:5 Fresh Herb Specification 1:2 using neat vegetable glycerine
- Place your herbs in a clean glass jar
- Cover with glycerine
- Cover with lid
- Place a folded dishcloth in the bottom of a saucepan or crock pot
- Place your jar on top of the cloth
- Fill your saucepan or crock pot full of water – cover as much of your jar as possible
- Cook on low heat for 3 days refilling water as it evaporates
- Shake 2-3 times a day
- Strain herbs through a cheesecloth or muslin and dispose of them in the compost heap
- Store liquid in a glass jar, label, and keep in a cool, dark place
- A glycerite made using this method will typically last about 1 year when stored properly.
A fresh glycerite can be considered a more efficacious product than a dry glycerite as the extraction process release more constituents and has better preservative qualities. This is due to the increased “toughness” of the cellular wall in a dry herb which can compromise extraction and preservation. However, both fresh and dry glycerites have their applications and there is empirical evidence to support both methods of extraction. The hot method of manufacturing glycerites produces a product more akin to a herbal syrup, concentrated, effective and quicker to make than the cold methods.
A glycerite should contain between 55-70% glycerine to prevent deterioration and potential mould growth during storage. When manufacturing a fresh herb glycerite a standard of 70% will ensure the water content of the final product is not too high and thus preventing a risk of breakdown.
Poultices are made with a mixture of fresh, dried or powdered herbs, simmered or simply steeped in the minimum quantity of water for two minutes and applied externally. Marshmallow root powder, green clay, or linseed can be added to give a better texture and for their own drawing qualities, especially for infected wounds, ulcers or boils. Poultices are also used for nerve and muscle pain, sprains and broken bones – in these cases a small pinch of ginger or a couple of drops of ginger oil may be added to ‘potentise’ the action. Poultices may also be used for mastitis or engorged breasts- either cold cabbage leaves or warm calendula. Try to ensure that only sufficient water is present when simmering or soaking in hot water to form a firm texture without having to squeeze off any liquid; apply some oil to the area being treated to prevent the poultice sticking and the herbs are applied as hot as possible, taking care not to scald the skin. The herbs are laid on lint and covered with gauze, then the poultice is applied gauze side to skin and bandaged in place. It may be left for between 30 minutes and 24 hours, depending on what is being treated.
Compresses are the application of a soft cloth or clean flannel/towel, soaked in an appropriate infusion, decoction or diluted tincture, either hot or cold, depending on what is being treated.
Aromatic waters are also known as hydrosols, hydrolats, distillates, floral waters or flower waters. They are the water phase of steam distillation, saturated with water-soluble volatile components such as alcohols and acids. These have their own therapeutic properties and are widely usedin continental Europe. Aromatic waters can be prepared from that do not contain any essential oil too; in France and other countries on the Continent many rural households will have a small still for preparing this sort of medicine to use at home. Hydrosols are used internally at a similar standard does to tinctures; they can also be used externally as skin washes, and as ingredients in creams or compresses. They are also used in cooking. N.B. mixing distilled water and essential oils does not produce the same product. For home use aromatic waters can be prepared using a pressure cooker or a preserving pan.
Macerated or infused oils are made by soaking the herb in a cold pressed unrefined vegetable oil (almond, olive, sunflower are commonly used) for several weeks to obtain a cold infusion or by gently heating to about 60o C over a water bath for about three hours for a hot infusion. Once the maceration process is complete the oil is put through a press to complete the extraction and remove the spent herb. This process extracts the fat-soluble components of the herb for use in massage oils, liniments, creams and ointments. If a stronger preparation is required then the process is sometimes repeated with a fresh batch of herb. They will keep for up to a year if stored in a cool dry place.
250g dried or 500g fresh herb
750ml cold pressed virgin and preferably organic vegetable oil (olive oil is the most stable for heating.
- Mix the chopped herbs and oil together in a pyrex bowl and place over a pan of boiling water. Cover and simmer gently for 2-3 hours.
- Remove from the heat and allow to cool, then pour into a wine press as described for the vinegars, or through a muslin bag.
- Collect the strained oil in a sterile jug and pour into sterile bottles. Label with date and contents.
- Store in a cool dark place for up to 1 year.
1 loosely pack a sterile jar with fresh or dried herb. Herbs with a high water content such as calendula, chickweed, basil or comfrey are best prepared with dried herb, or by the hot method to prevent them going rancid. St. John’s Wort is best prepared by the cold method.
2 Place the jar on a sunny windowsill or in the hot press and leave for 2-6 weeks.
3 Strain as described for vinegars.
4 Label and stored as described above.
Infused oils may be used for culinary purposed, as massage oils or as the base to prepare ointments and creams.
Ointments/salves/balms are oil-based mixtures that help to protect the skin and only contain oily ingredients. They can be thickened with any wax, including paraffin wax, but beeswax is preferable as it has it’s own therapeutic proprieties. Use unbleached beeswax. If beeswax is not available use cocoa butter or another plant wax/or fat. Previously duck or goose fat and pig lard have been used and would be deemed to have their own therapeutic benefits Ointments stay on the skin for a long time, so they are useful for forming barriers to protect the skin. They are also healing and soothing. They are good for nappy rash, and for protecting the lips. They are also useful for dry areas such as knees, heels, feet and elbows.
They also keep heat and water in soare good for rheumatic aches, dehydrated skin and conditions made worse by cold weather. Do not use them if the skin is hot, inflamed or weepy.
300 ml infused oil or base oil
25 g beeswax; shredded or in beads.
Warm the ingredients together in a bain-marie just to the point where the waxes melt. Add essential oils if desired and pour into clean jars. Label and leave to set in the fridge.
Plaisters are made by spreading the ointment onto clean bandage. Cover the bandage with a layer of cling film or oilcloth and roll up to store. Place in an airtight container in the fridge, or a cool, dry place. Label with the ingredients and date. They are a convenient way of applying ointment to aching joints etc. All these preparations should be used within 9-12 months.
Creams are lighter than ointments, as they contain water and oil in an emulsion. Creams are more cooling than ointments and are absorbed more quickly. They are more suitable for hot, inflamed and weepy skin conditions. They are also useful for applying to warm areas of the body such as the groin. The ones described below are water in oil emulsions, which are good for moisturising. Oil in water emulsions are more difficult to make at home. A basic cream can be made with:
50 ml oil
15 g beeswax
50 ml water/ infusion/decoction/ floral water/ tincture
Galen’s Cold cream
40 g almond oil
10 g beeswax
40 g rose water
10 drops essential oil
Cocoa butter cream
50 g calendula oil
35 g cocoa butter
10 g beeswax
45 g floral water
25 drops essential oil
Coconut oil cream
50 g virgin coconut oil
20 g almond oil
25 g floral water/infusion
20 drops essential oil
Cream method: Make sure ingredients are weighed accurately in a clean scales, otherwise consistency will be affected. If beeswax is being used then shred finely before weighing or use beads. Put oily and fatty ingredients into a stainless steel or pyrex bowl (oils, beeswax, cocoa butter etc.). Put watery ingredients – floral waters, spring water, decoction, infusion or tincture into a separate stainless steel or pyrex bowl and stand both bowls in a shallow pan of water or bain marie over a gentle heat. Liquid lecithin can be added to the oily ingredients to help emulsification, borax can be added to the watery ingredients for the same effect. Stir the bowl with the fatty ingredients to facilitate melting, remove both bowls from the heat. The best way to form an emulsion is to use an electric egg beater on its’ lowest speed. Alternatively, use an egg whisk or a balloon whisk. Add the water slowly (a few drops at a time, increasing to a small stream), until it is all incorporated – like making mayonnaise. When all the water has been added stop beating at once, too much beating can make the cream separate. If adding essential oils, stir in carefully. The cream can then be put into jars and left in the fridge until set. Make sure to label jars with ingredients and date. The cream can also be divided into several jars and different essential oils added to the individual jars.
Formulae can be multiplied up to make larger batches of cream. Once the technique has been mastered you can also play around with the proportions to make lighter or firmer creams – enjoy.
To increase the shelf life, part of the oily ingredients can be substituted with wheatgerm oil, or with vitamin E oil. The base oil can also be varied to give a different quality of cream. Essential oils that are particularly good for preserving the creams are lavender, tea tree or benzoin. None of these are as effective as the preservatives that are used in commercial creams, but they will give a longer shelf life. Storing in the fridge will also lengthen shelf life. Also, rather than dipping fingers into the jars use a spatula or spoon to dispense the cream.
Before making any of these preparations you need to prepare your equipment and ensure that it is spotlessly clean. Use stainless steel, or glass containers, bowls and pans. Use stainless steel implements, for stirring, mixing, chopping ingredients and so on.
Avoid using any dirty jars, or implements, tie back long hair and keep fingers out of all mixtures to prevent contamination. Any preparations that show signs of contamination (mould growing or smelling ‘off’) should be discarded immediately. Occasionally, water will ‘bleed’ out of the cream. This does not mean that they have gone off, but that some separation has occurred. They are still ok to use.
Baths: Bathing with herbs has a long tradition. In Ireland there are still several places that offer seaweed baths for health. Herbal baths can be used for many purposes. Footbaths are really good for detoxifying the system and stimulating the circulation. Hand baths can be valuable for arthritic hands. Full body baths can be great for delivering a good dose of herbs transdermally (through the skin). Our skin is permeable to many of the plants constituents and they get straight into the general circulation. Sitz baths are used to treat the bowel, kidneys, reproductive organs and congestion in he abdomen and pelvis and problems with the hips. For a sitz bath one needs two containers that are large enough to sit in; one contains hot water with the herbs or oils added, the other contains cool water. One sits first in the hot water and herbs with the feet in the cool water so that the circulation and the medicine are drawn into the lower trunk for about 10 minutes. Then one sits in the cool water with the feet in the hot water for 10 minutes to draw the circulation to the extremities. This can be repeated several times. Baths can be prepared with infusions, decoctions or essential oils and salt or Epsom salts may also be used.
There are many other forms in which herbs can be used; these ones are easy enough to prepare and fun to make at home. The books listed below give other formulae and recipes and there are some excellent recipes available online.
Bartram Thomas Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine
Chevallier Andrew Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants Dorling Kindersley
Green James The Herbal Medicine makers’s Handbook A home Manual
Hedley, Christopher and Shaw, Non Herbal Remedies Mustard
Hoffmann David The Holistic Herbal Element books
Priest AW and Priest LR Herbal Medication CW Daniel
Bruton-Seal Julie and Seal Matthew Hedgerow Medicine, Kitchen Medicine and Wayside Medicine