Herbs and their uses

Herbs have been used all through the ages by people of all walks of life. In fact up until the advent of synthesised medicines they were the building blocks of all medicines that were prescribed and remain today the key component in many widely used and indispensable medicines such as morphine. They can not be simply assigned to the past as they continue to have the potential to heal and bring about well being. Increasingly Doctors are becoming more and more reticent about prescribing antibiotics as the rise of antibiotic resistant strains of bacterium such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) have shown that over prescription can indeed be deadly. So how about taking another look at what Nature has provided for us and this time let’s utilise her bounty to it’s maximum. Instead of taking a lozenge for a sore throat try a gargle with sage.

Please note that the advise given in these pages is meant for information only and if you continue to have symptoms of ill health you should consult either a doctor or a qualified herbal practitioner, who is a member of the NIMH (in the UK). This link will take you to their web site search page so you can find one near you.

Ways of using herbs

Eat them!

Herbs can be added to food to aid digestion and help the body fight other ailments there is nothing like a hot spicy curry to ward off the first signs of a cold the list is endless so rather than bore you by preaching about all the benefits let’s move on to the herbs! Cooking does kill off some of the active ingredients but try infusing oils or adding fresh herbs to salads.

Drink them!

Herbs can also taken in various different ways the most common of which for home use is as a tisane ( herbal tea) or even fresh juice.

Wear them!

Herbs can be infused in oils or made into essential oils which in turn can be made into balms or ointments.

What are the different methods of preparing herbs for use?

Tisanes are made slightly differently depending on what plant material they are being made of and they are referred to as being either a infusion or decoction or maceration

Infusions are hot water extracts of herbs whether fresh or dry, such as chamomile or mint, through steeping.

Time and dose vary according to herb type and dose but it is usually about 30g per half  liter of water and the tea is left to brew for 5-10 mins, under a lid, to prevent too much goodness evaporating, before drinking. At 10 minutes it’s reached peak potency and begins to go back down hill. Remove the cover and strain the herb out of the water. Medicinal herbs like culinary ones call for twice the amount of fresh herb to dried as a general rule of thumb. Any remaining tea can be refrigerated in a closed container and used within 3 days; if to be ingested longer if to be used externally such as a horse chestnut hair rinse.

Decoctions are the long-term boiled extracts, usually of harder substances like roots or bark.  The same proportions of water to plant material apply, but it is best to start with 800 ml (1½ pints) to allow for evaporation. Teas and decoctions may be consumed either hot or cold. When making a decoction use a non reactive saucepan(no aluminum please!) with a lid, a clear glass lid is helpful as you can see what is going on in the pot.

Any remaining tea can be refrigerated in a closed container and used within 3 days; if to be ingested longer if to be used externally such as a horse chestnut hair rinse.

Macerations

A maceration is essentially an infusion that is made by soaking the herbs in cold instead of boiling water. Herbs that have high mucilage-content, such as sage, thyme, etc. are recommended for this method. Some herbs are most effectively infused in cold water, including marshmallow root and Valerian. Be sure to research your herbs before you begin the process. Some herbs can be macerated in oil such as St John’s Wort to make a liniment for sore muscles.

  • Use the same proportions of herb to water as for an infusion, and steep the herbs in the cold water.
  • Leave the mixture overnight in a cool place.
  • Strain the mixture in the morning, and consume the same way you would an infusion.

Plant Juices
Freshly harvested plant parts can be pressed to release their juices. The shelf life of the expressed juice is usually extended by pasteurization or by rapid, ultra-high-temperature treatment. In addition, alcohol may be added as a preservative.

Tinctures
A tincture is made by soaking the plant material in a solution of alcohol and water for a period of time followed by filtering. Tinctures are sold in liquid form and are useful for both concentrating and preserving an herb.They are made in different strengths that are expressed as ratios.

Ratio of 1 part herb to 5 or 10 parts liquid (1:5 or 1:10) has been used. These ratios represent 100 g (3½ oz) plant material in 500 ml (1 pint) of solvent, or 100 g plant material in 1000 ml (2 pints) solvent. If making tinctures at home buy the highest alcohol content vodka or grappa that you can. In an ideal world one should use 100% but 80% will produce good results. Due to the amount of herb added this method produces a tincture of varying potency.

Make sure the alcohol covers the plants because plant materials exposed to air can mold or rot. This is especially important if you use fresh herbs. Store the jar at room temperature out of sunlight, and shake the jar every day. After three to six weeks, strain the liquid with a kitchen strainer, cheese cloth, thin piece of muslin or a paper coffee filter. Even when you’ve managed to strain out every last bit of plant material, sometimes more particles miraculously appear after the tincture has been stored. There is no harm is using a tincture that contains a bit of solid debris. Tinctures will keep for many years without refrigeration.

Because the usual dosage of a tincture is 15 to 30 drops, you receive enough herb to benefit from it’s medicinal properties with very little alcohol. If you are alergic to alcohol – or simply don’t wish to use it – try making vinegar-and-glycerine based tinctures. They dissolve plant constituents almost as effectively as spirits. (glycerine is available at most pharmacies).

Vinegar Tinctures

Vinegar, which contains the solvent acetic acid, is an alternative to alcohol in tinctures – especially for herbs that are high in alkaloids, which require aids to dissolve. You can use herbal vinegars medicinally or dilute them with additional vinegar to make great tasting salad dressings and marinades. Apple cider vinegar is good to use with herbs. Apple cider vinegar is made by naturally fermenting apple juice, whereas white distilled vinegar is an industrial by-product. Rice vinegar, red wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar are also good choices, but they are a bit more expensive, and their strong flavours sometimes require additional herbs.

You can apply a vinegar tincture to the skin to bring down a fever. Dilute the tincture with an equal amount of cool water. Soak a cloth in the solution and bathe the body. As the solution evaporates, it cools the body, often lowering the body’s temperature by several degrees. Vinegar is also a potent antifungal agent and makes a good athelete’s foot soak when combined with antifungal herbs.

Herbs for Vinegars : Basil, Savory, Dill, Tarragon, Marjoram, Thyme, Rosemary.

MAKING INFUSED HERBAL OILS

To make infused herbal oil you will need the following supplies:

  • Fresh plant material
  • Scissors or a knife
  • A clean dry jar with a tight lid
  • Some olive oil
  • A label and pen; a small bowl

Harvest your plant material in the heat of the day, after the sun has dried the dew. It is best to wait at least 36 hours after the last rain before harvesting plants for infused oils. Wet plant materials will make mouldy oils. To prevent this, some people dry their herbs and then put them in oil

Coarsely chop the roots, leaves, or flowers of your chosen plant. Fill your jar completely full of the chopped plant material. Add olive oil until the jar is completely full. (Patience and a chopstick are useful tools at this point.)

Tightly lid the jar. Label it. Put it in a small bowl (to collect seepage and over-runs). Your infused oil is ready to use in six weeks.

Suitable herbs for infused Oils

Arnica flowers (Arnica montana)

Burdock seeds (Arctium lappa)

Calendula flowers (Calendula off.)

Comfrey leaves or roots (Symphytum uplandica)

Dandelion flowers (Taraxacum off.)

Plantain leaves (Plantago majus)

Poke roots (Phytolacca americana)

Spruce needles

St. John’s wort flowers (Hypericum perforatum)

Yarrow blossoms (Achillea millefolium)

Yellow dock roots (Rumex crispus)

How to use infused herbal oils

Infused oils are stunning used as salad dressings but that is not their only use. Infused herbal oils can be used to heal and ease the pain of wounds, bruises, scrapes, sprains, burns, rashes, sore muscles, insect bites, and aching joints. I make my infused oils into ointments, salves, and lip balms. Infused oils are used in rituals, to anoint. Infused oils after bathing can be used to moisturize. Infused oils may be used as sexual lubricants. Infused oils can nourish the scalp and hair.

Apply infused herbal oils directly to the body. Rarely are infused herbal oils used as internal medicines although it would be safe to do so. Infused oils to make salves, ointments, and lip balms.