Herbal Apothecary 101: Infusions, Decoctions and Syrups

| June/July 2009

  • Health made simple: A few herbs and you in your kitchen, preparing medicines with simple techniques as ancient as time.
    iStockphoto.com/Mona Makela

Infusion: a beverage made from herbs.

The words simple and tisane were used in the past to describe a beverage made with herbs (usually a single herb rather than a combination). To make an infusion, steep or soak herb leaves or flowers in water heated to just below the boiling point. You also can infuse herbs in juice, milk, cream, alcohol or vinegar to extract plants’ flavors or active constituents. Heat the liquid barely to a boil, drop in leaves and/or flowers, cover the vessel and allow herbs to steep for 3 to 10 minutes. Strain the infusion and drink hot or cooled to room temperature. It is best to use the infusion on the day it is prepared; otherwise, refrigerate it after it has cooled to room temperature and use it by the next day. Although it takes longer, infusions can be prepared without heat by steeping the herbs for 4 to 6 hours. Keep refrigerated and use within two days of preparation.

Tea: a beverage of cured tea leaves (Camellia sinensis) infused in boiling water.

Tea has mild stimulant and tonic properties. (A tonic invigorates and/or strengthens the body.) Tea contains the alkaloid caffeine and is astringent because it contains tannins. “Herbal tea” refers to any of numerous aromatic and/or medicinal plants infused in water to make a tea-like beverage. 

Decoction: made by boiling the harder parts of plants such as roots, bark or berries (rather than leaves or flowers) to extract flavor or an active constituent. 

For a decoction, the proportion usually is 5 parts medicinal herb to 100 parts water. The cooking time varies depending on the plant; it generally is 15 minutes to 1 hour. For instance, a softer root like fresh gingerroot decocts for about 20 minutes, while a hard bark or root, or dried berries, might take up to an hour to soften. Decoctions can be taken hot, warm or at room temperature. Once cooled, refrigerate and use within 24 hours.

Susan Belsinger and Tina Marie Wilcox use herbs every day in and around their homes and greenhouses. Some of this article’s information and recipes are from their book The Creative Herbal Home (Herbspirit, 2007).

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