While you can find as many ways to make herbal medicine as there are blogs on the internet, the following is a short plant medicine making tutorial based on my more than 30 years of making herbal remedies.
Herbal remedies. It’s important to know how to make the basics and to have many options to accommodate preferences. How can we support a person with plants if they won’t or can’t take alcohol tinctures, don’t like the taste of teas, or think that all herbal medicine is hippy voodoo? The goal is to get the medicine to the people in a way that they’ll be happy to take so that healing can occur!
To gain a deeper understanding of these and other remedies, dosing, correct identification of plants and their uses and more, please register for any of the upcoming workshops and/or apprenticeship programs that Cedar Mountain Herb School offers.
Plants have walls around their cells which act as fortresses to keep the intracellular material intact and stable when the outside surroundings may be unfavorable due to environmental changes such as drought and direct sun. Cell walls have pumps and channels which allow for exchange of materials including alkaloids and nutrients from both inter- and intracellular activities.
An alkaloid is a substance that causes a physiological change in the body. An example of an alkaloid is caffeine. Caffeine, as we all know, stimulates cardiac activity, raises the blood pressure, and affects brain activity. Too much caffeine can be detrimental to one’s health. In herbal medicine, it’s imperative to dose correctly to insure healing versus harming.
Plant medicine – explanations and directions:
When we buy dried cut and sifted plants to make herbal remedies, we have no idea of the correct identification beyond what the source says, the length of time the plant has been stored, whether the plant has been harvested sustainably, etc. I use freshly harvested plants over dried plants as I believe fresh contain not only the best quality medicine and nutrition, but also the vital energy of the plant. Additionally, I collect the plants myself to ensure that the harvesting is done at the right time of year and that sustainable harvesting methods are in place.
In all herbal medicine making, the plant material needs to be finely chopped. This goes for leaves, bark, roots, and some flowers. In order to make the finest quality medicine and allow the menstruum to easily pull the alkaloids and nutrients from a plant, it needs lots of open access. Think of it this way – it’s easier to get in a house that has open doors and windows than a house with tightly closed doors and windows. Sounds logical, yes? Yet many people either use whole or roughly chopping plant material. The whole point of making medicine is to help people be as healthy as they can be. We facilitate this by making the best medicine we can with our plants and menstruum. I fill my jars with finely chopped live plant material 3/4s of the way up the jar with all my remedies with the exception of herbal vinegars. With those, I pack the jars full. More on that later. To strain the spent plant material from the liquid remedy, I use produce bags lining a bigger strainer. The produce bags have a very tight mesh that strain out both big and small particulates. Straining into pyrex measuring cups make for easy pouring into large containers or small treatment bottles or jars.
Tincture – A tincture is an alcohol extraction of some medicinal alkaloids and antioxidants of a plant. Alcohol acts against a cell wall by its very drying nature to pull out the water within a cell through the channels by a dehydration process. In the water can be alkaloids and antioxidants, although some minerals such as iron may be extracted as well.
To make a tincture, fill your jar 3/4s full with chopped plant material, then fill the jar all the way to the top with alcohol. Each plant may have a different alcohol proof need. Some plants have more water soluble constituents such as antioxidants, which means using a lower alcohol proof of 80-100, while other plants have more alcohol soluble alkaloids, needing a higher proof alcohol. 100 proof is generally what I use for most of my tinctures, although I research constituents of each plant I want to make remedies with by utilizing Dr. Duke’s Phytochemical database and adjust the alcohol proof to extract and preserve specific constituents/medicinal properties. Yes, this takes time and effort, however, effective remedies sure beat remedies that don’t work, don’t they?
People ask about the 190 proof alcohols. Don’t use them unless you are wanting to extract purely gums and resins. You’ll have to add some water anyway to make the correct proof, so just stick with the 100 or 151 proof. Let the tincture sit 2-3 weeks to fully extract the constituents, then strain. When stored properly in dark jars or dark rooms, the shelf life of a tincture can be up to 5 years, depending on the herb used.
Elixir – An elixir is simply an equal part alcohol/honey extraction of plants’ medicine and nutrition. Honey is hygroscopic which means it draws water to it. What I appreciate about honey is its ability to pull both the alkaloids plus the nutrients from a plant’s cells. Elixirs are my personal favorite way to make herbal medicine. The resulting remedy is not only medicinal and nutritional, but tasty as well. For those who ingest alcohol, but don’t always like the taste of tinctures, they get the double bonus of a great tasting remedy with the addition of all the nutrition of the plant used.
To make an elixir, start with filling your jar 3/4s full with chopped plant material. You’ll want to add the alcohol to the jar first, then top off with the honey. Equal parts. That means fill the jar halfway up with the brandy, then the honey after, as it takes a while for the honey to filter down through the plant material. Wait a few minutes and add more honey as needed. 80 proof brandy is what is typically used. Since alcohol and honey both draw out the medicine of the plant, a lower proof alcohol may be utilized. Elixirs need a 4-week steep before straining. Elixirs will keep approximately 2-3 years.
Herbal syrups – We start with an herbal decoction and add twice the amount of honey to make a syrup. Simple as that! To make a decoction, put 2 cups of water in a saucepan, add about an ounce of dried and crushed plant material, bring up to a boil then immediately turn down to medium simmer. Let simmer 15-20 minutes or until the volume of water has reduced to half. Strain and set the liquid aside. Rinse out the pot, measure the liquid, and return it to the pot. Add twice the amount of local honey, turn the heat on low and allow the honey and decoction to incorporate thoroughly. Pour into a jar and keep in the fridge. Herbal syrups stay viable in the fridge for up to a year. To note: other sweeteners are not advisable. Honey is acidic and this acidic nature is what preserves the syrup. It also allows the iron and calcium in the decoction to easily enter our cells. Other sweeteners such as molasses, cane sugar, corn syrup (gack), maple syrup, and agave (processed to resemble corn syrup in its action) are alkaline and do not preserve the syrup. Herbal syrups made with these will keep for only a few days at best and must stay in the fridge.
Herbal extracted honey – Super tasty and versatile, herbal extracted honeys are a perfect fit for those who don’t/won’t ingest alcohol. The herbal honeys can be used in teas, on toast, oatmeal, licked from the spoon – the possibilities are many.
To make an herbal extracted honey, fill your jar 3/4s full with chopped plant material, then fill the jar to the top with honey. It will take a while for the honey to drizzle all the way down to the bottom of the jar and fill. Patience, Grasshopper. Honeys require a 4 to 6-week steep before straining. To strain, put the jar with lid on in a saucepan on the stove. Fill the pan halfway with water, then heat on low until the honey is thin enough to strain from the plant matter. This may take 10-15 minutes. Cool fact – the very center of a beehive is kept at 100 degrees by the bees’ labor. If you keep the heat on low, the honey should not go over 100-110 degrees, so no worries about the breakdown of the enzymes and good stuff. Honeys have a long shelf life. When using raw honey for the extractions, expect the honey to crystallize over time. That doesn’t mean the honey has gone bad; it’s a natural occurrence. The honey may be thinned again by the warming method above.
Oxymel – The Greeks invented the oxymel. Very smart, those Greeks! An oxymel uses equal parts apple cider vinegar and honey to extract the medicine and nutrients from plants. Brandy and honey make an elixir, apple cider vinegar and honey make an oxymel. Drying and heating plants destroy the flavonoids in plants! Oxymels, herbal honeys, and elixirs are rock stars at preserving the immune supporting and antiviral vitamin C complex and flavonoids.
To make an oxymel, fill your jar 3/4s full with chopped plant material. Are you starting to see a pattern here? Fill half the jar with apple cider vinegar. Top off with honey. Tightly cover the jar and put it on a dish as there may be some leakage. Let steep for a month and strain. You now have an oxymel that can be taken by the teaspoon straight, added to fizzy water to make a shrub, use as an ingredient in salad dressings, and more. Oxymels will keep up to 2 years.
Herbal Vinegar – Vinegar extracts the vitamins, minerals, flavonoids, essential oils, and some alkaloids from plants as well flavors. The acidic nature of vinegar assists in the uptake of calcium and iron into our cells. For those dealing with health issues such as anemia, arthritis, and bone loss, herbal vinegars can be helpful in restoring health.
To make an herbal vinegar, pack a jar tightly with finely chopped plant material, then fill to the top of the jar with apple cider vinegar. Add a piece of parchment paper between the jar and lid (if metal lid) to keep the lid from rusting, or use a plastic lid. Let the herbal vinegar stand on your counter for a month. Strain and enjoy! For more information on herbal vinegars and a nice variety of uses and combinations, check out our herbal vinegar tutorial. Herbal vinegars will keep up to a year max.
Medicinal Oils – Medicinal oils can be used as is, are easily absorbed by our skin and/or can be made into salves and creams. Medicinal oils can be made with herbs for pain relief, to soothe dry, itchy skin, relieve congestion, kill fungus, heal wounds, alleviate inflammation and much more. The medicine from plants is commonly extracted into oil by 2 processes: heat process and cold maceration. I prefer using fresh plants with the heat process, as the tendency towards molding that often happens with cold maceration is minimal to none with the heat process, if done correctly.
Heat process: Cut up the plant material pretty fine; minced, if possible. This allows the oil to get into the plant matter easier, making a stronger medicine. Place the plant material in a crock pot, and cover with oil of choice. I primarily use extra virgin olive oil. Turn the crock pot on low (or just plug it in if it has no temperature gauge), and let it go *uncovered* until the oil has extracted the medicine. The time for this is different for each plant and part of plant. What will probably happen is that the oil with start bubbling. This is good. That doesn’t mean the oil is boiling, it means that the moisture from the plant is escaping. When the bubbling stops, let it continue one extra night, just to ensure that all the moisture has evaporated. With a crock pot, you get a strong medicinal oil in a matter of days. Strain out the plant material for use as is, or to make salves, creams, and whipped body butters.
Herbal Salves – Salves are made with medicinal oils and some kind of wax or thick fixed oil, such as beeswax, shea butter, coconut oil, and cocoa butter to make a thick consistency. They are crafted to be very moisturizing to the skin, and depending on the plants used, can be a natural vapor rub, pain relief, antibacterial, antifungal salve, etc. Generally, I use 1 oz of melted beeswax per 8 – 10 oz of medicinal oil depending on the consistency that I want. Melt the beeswax in a saucepan and take off the heat. Pour in room temperature medicinal oils and stir. What may happen is you’ll see little strings of hardened beeswax forming. That happens because of the temperature differences. Stir until the beeswax is melted again and incorporated into the salve. To check for the correct consistency, take a small spoonful of the salve, and put it in the freezer until it is cool. Not warm, not cold, but cool. This will show you the true consistency of the salve. If it is too hard, add a bit of medicinal oil. If the salve is too soft, add a bit more melted beeswax. Play with this technique until the salve has reached your chosen consistency.
Herbal salve with shea butter instead of beeswax
For those who cannot or choose to not use beeswax, the following is a basic recipe for making a salve with shea butter. Basically, what you’re looking for here is 65% shea butter and 35% medicinal oils to get a nice salve consistency without the beeswax or other waxes.
7.5 oz shea butter
4.5 oz. medicinal oils of your choice
Up to 1/4 tsp. essential oils
Melt the shea butter in a saucepan, turn off heat, add medicinal and botanical oils. Stir well and pour into jars. With a shea butter salve, you’ll want to cool the jars in the fridge so that the consistency will be creamy. Letting the salve harden at room temperature may result in a grainy salve.
With all herbal medicines, make sure you label well. Consider putting the uses and dosing on the remedy labels. When we’re sick, or hurt, or hungry, or in a chaotic first aid situation, or someone other than us is searching our shelves, it’s much easier -and safer- to look at labels and clearly see which is best to use, instead of wasting time staring at all the jars and wondering what remedy to utilize.
Well, there you have it! As always, I’m Wild About Plants and so happy to share some of what I know with you all. Take care and happy remedy making!