Herbal Apothecary 101: Tips for your Herbal Apothecary

| June/July 2009

  • “There are innumerable great minds and souls who, by their words, deeds, and writings, contributed to the rich body of herbal knowledge that has been passed down to us. Most of the herbalists who were instrumental in creating and recording this collective system of healing will never receive recognition, yet we carry the seeds of their knowledge each time we use plants as medicine.” ~Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal (Storey Books, 2001)
    iStockphoto.com/Ivan Nanov

Warning: Prussic Acid

Elderberries should always be cooked before being eaten because unripe berries contain prussic acid, which according to botanical medicine expert Francis Brinker can cause cyanide poisoning. In the past, we made Elderberry Shrub with Honey without cooking the berries and believed that the vinegar “cooks” them. To be safe, we now recommend that you bring your vinegar to a simmer, add the berries, remove from heat, then proceed with the recipe.

Do Not Decoct These Herbs

Some plants valued for their volatile oils, such as mint and rosemary, don’t lend themselves to decoction because their oils will be lost in the decoction’s steam. The mucilage of such herbs as senna and slippery elm is rendered useless in boiling water. If these plants are to be used with other herbs, add them after the solution has been removed from the heat and let the mixture steep briefly.

Apothecary Caution!

Those with impaired immune systems should not use immune-stimulant herbs, except under the guidance of a qualified health professional. Also, beware of echinacea allergies; it is a relative of ragweed.

Safety First with Essential Oils

• Keep out of the reach of children.
• Do not take internally or put in ears, eyes or other mucous membranes.
• Pregnant and nursing women should consult with their health-care providers before using essential oils and herbs. 
• Do not apply to babies or children without professional consultation.
• If you suffer from serious medical conditions, do not use without medical  supervision.
• Do not use undiluted on the body.
• Always wash hands and surfaces after working with essential oils.
• When making essential oil products and remedies, use a well-ventilated room, wear chemical-resistant gloves and be aware that extended exposure may result in headache or nausea.
• Use whole milk, mayonnaise or vegetable oil to dilute spills; then remove with soap and water.
• Many are solvents and will deteriorate plastics and finishes on furniture.
• Essential oils are flammable; keep them away from open flames.

How to Administer a Skin-Patch Test

People have different sensitivities to plants and oils. If you have very sensitive skin or are taking prescription medication, do a “patch test” for every new essential oil before exposing larger areas of your body to the oil. Mix 3 drops of the essential oil in 1/2 teaspoon carrier oil. Apply this mixture to the pad of a Band-Aid and secure the bandage to the inner part of the forearm. Leave on for 48 hours. If the area shows any irritation under or around the patch, don’t use this essential oil.

Three Essential Oils to Keep on Hand

• Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus): antibacterial; mind-clearing; helps with congestion; soothes muscle pain; used in house cleaning
• Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia): antibacterial; relaxing; used in baths; great for headaches and burns; a favorite for aromatherapy
• Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia): antibacterial; antiseptic; antifungal; antiviral; soothes cuts, scrapes, insect bites and wounds



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