Over the years, I’ve learned that the most user-friendly home apothecaries are well organized, easily accessible, and carefully stocked to meet the needs of their household. However, with the many herbs and forms of herbal medicine from which to choose, it can be difficult to know where to begin when creating a natural medicine cabinet for your family, not to mention the struggle of keeping everything safe and in its proper place! Luckily, by following a few simple tips and techniques, your home apothecary can reach its full potential and help keep you healthy for years to come.
Choose Herbs That Meet Your Needs
The most important place to begin with any home apothecary is to accurately assess your home health care needs. If you know your family will need winter health support, then herbs to strengthen immunity will be the place to start. If you have a tendency to get colds that settle in the lungs, you may wish to have several lung-supporting herbs and expectorants on hand. Identifying the key areas where you need home remedies will help you focus your attention when stocking herbs and medicines.
The other key piece to efficiency in the home apothecary is to become as familiar as possible with the herbs you keep on hand. The more you understand about an herb, its properties, and its applications, the more versatile it will be. Most home apothecaries don’t have hundreds of herbs, and for good reason! A simple collection of 10 to 20 will do most people just fine. And the better you know those 10 to 20 herbs, the more useful you will find them.
Let’s take burdock for example, a wonderful tonic for the body’s channels of elimination, most specifically the liver, kidneys, and lymphatic system. Within the same week, I could use burdock for a hives outbreak, a urinary tract infection, or a head cold. Echinacea is another excellent example; as an immune stimulant and cooling lymphatic herb, echinacea is helpful for boosting immunity upon exposure to any kind of virus or bacterial invasion, bite, sting, infection, or fever. Keeping herbs with many diverse uses on hand — and knowing how to use them — will help you maximize efficiency and ensure you always have the right herb for the job.
Forms of Herbal Medicine
Loose herbs, pre-prepared teas, alcohol tinctures, glycerin tinctures, syrups … There are so many forms of herbal medicine to choose from. Knowing which preparation of herbs to have on hand will greatly increase the practicality of your home pharmacy.
Dried bulk herbs: Dried bulk herbs are in many ways the most versatile in the home apothecary. (Unless you consider your garden a part of your apothecary, in which case I would say fresh herbs are the most versatile.) Dried herbs can be used as the base for herbal syrups, baths, steams, and home projects, such as dream pillows and sachets. You can also use dried herbs as the base for an herbal tincture, glycerin, or infused oil, so if you are interested in making your own medicines, then stocking up on dried bulk herbs may be the best choice for you.
Dried bulk herbs are also the base for herbal teas, which are one of the most important herbal medicines you will make. Hot tea is an excellent preparation for aromatic plants, such as peppermint, fennel, or chamomile. It also works well for diaphoretic herbs, such as yarrow or elderflower, which are only effective when administered hot. (You could dilute a diaphoretic tincture in hot water for the same effect.)
Teas are an excellent choice any time a health condition could benefit from hydration. They’re great for digestive upsets and conditions, which benefit from the warm liquid and easily extracted aromatic oils. Water-based preparations are excellent for vitamin- and mineral-rich herbs, as water is a great way to extract these properties. Teas also work well for stress and anxiety, partially because the simple act of making a cup of tea, not to mention drinking it, is calming.
Alcohol tinctures: These concentrated alcohol extracts of herbs are easy and convenient to transport and use. They work very well for people who are on the go and may not have time to make or drink a tea. Because they are compact and travel well, tinctures also work wonderfully when a medicine needs to be used outside of the home, many times during the day, or while traveling. Alcohol tinctures have a long shelf life, five or more years, which makes them convenient and popular for commerce.
Doses of tinctures are usually quite small, in general ranging from 1/4 to 1 teaspoon. I recommend diluting tinctures in a sip of water before taking them. Tinctures are a great way to take unpleasant-tasting herbs because you’ll consume the entire dose in one sip, whereas drinking an entire cup of tea for the same effect would be a challenge. Alcohol-based tinctures are also very quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, making them a good choice if you want an herb to have a fast-acting effect.
Alcohol extracts made from fresh plants preserve the properties of the plant in its fresh state. This makes extracts a great choice for herbs with constituents that are more potent when fresh rather than dried.
Glycerins: Vegetable glycerin is a thick, sweet, syrupy substance that can be the base of herbal extracts. The resulting glycerin-based tinctures are excellent alcohol-free options for the home apothecary that taste great, which makes them very user-friendly. I use glycerin tinctures for many nervous system herbs, such as lavender, chamomile, rose, or lemon balm. I think most of us would agree it is much more relaxing to take a delicious remedy, and the sweetness accentuates the calming, soothing properties of the herbs.
Storing and Labeling
Where to keep your apothecary: Herbs will last longest if they are stored away from heat or direct light. Cupboards, closets, and pantries are all great options, as is a shelf covered with a curtain. I prefer to have my apothecary as near as possible to my kitchen to increase accessibility. Especially when storing dried herbs for tea, the closer they are to your tea kettle, the easier it will be!
Labeling and storing: I like to store all my loose, dried herbs in glass jars with tight-fitting lids. I prefer to use wide-mouth jars for loose herbs, as they slide out more easily than a narrow-mouth jar. Not only do airtight jars help preserve the freshness of the herbs, but they are also stackable and can be readily organized. You can also see what is inside the jar, adding to the appeal of your home pharmacy and helping you to get to know the color and texture of the herbs themselves.
Clearly label all dried herbs and alcohol and glycerin tinctures with the name of the herb (the common name, as well as the Latin name if you are interested in learning it) and the date it was harvested, dried, or purchased. This will help you maintain quality and organization. Labeling also helps make herbs clearly identifiable for others who might not recognize one by sight or smell. I prefer to store all my herbs as individuals rather than blends. This way I can use them for different preparations anytime I need.
Labeling can also be a helpful way to improve ease of use. Labels can be color-coded based on categories or decorated to help you remember their uses. Once, I made a home apothecary kit as a gift for my brother and his fiancée. I labeled the lid of each jar with the name of the herb, a little picture of the plant, and a basic list of uses.
My all-time favorite way to store dried bulk herbs is on a shelf, one jar deep. This allows you to see all the herbs at one time, rather than a deep cupboard where you have to move aside the jars in front to see what is behind. I keep my home apothecary on a set of shelves that I found secondhand — I couldn’t believe how perfect it was. I eventually figured out the shelf is meant to store CDs; it turns out that a CD is the same height as a pint jar. The shelves are only about 6 inches deep, which allows just one jar per spot, making them all visible at once. Another storage solution I have seen work well is to have an apothecary in a corner cupboard or drawer that you open and look down on. In this case you can label the lids of the jars for easy identification. I personally don’t like that you can’t see the herbs with this system, but it is still a great option.
If you do need to store your herbs in a deep cupboard or shelf system, consider organizing the herbs into categories, with labels in front of each category, and having the herbs you use most often in front to increase accessibility. In any storage system, in fact, organizing alphabetically or by categories may be helpful.
Since I make all of my own alcohol and glycerin tinctures, I have an organizational system for that as well. I keep my strained tinctures in one area, next to tinctures that are steeping or waiting to be strained. Once strained, I store the large batch of tincture in a jar from which I fill smaller dosage bottles. Since I don’t access my reserve of tinctures very often, I store these in a less accessible cupboard. I then store all of my dosage bottles in different and more easily accessible places for daily or weekly use. The same tips on labeling herb jars apply to tincture bottles. Clearly label and store them in a way that can increase accessibility, such as the shelf of a shallow medicine cabinet, a set of shelves, or on their sides in a drawer so you can see the labels.
A note about quantity: Herbs do go bad; their medicinal benefits dissipate over time. Even properly stored dried herbs will begin to lose their potency, vibrant aroma, and color in 1 to 2 years. For glycerin tinctures, this time frame is 1 to 3 years, and 3 to 5 years for alcohol tinctures. For this reason, it is best to keep only as much herb as you anticipate using in a reasonable amount of time. If you grow your own herbs to store and make medicine, only harvest as much as you think you will need until the next growing season. If you purchase from a local herb or natural health food store, buy what you think you will use in the next 3 to 6 months and re-stock as needed. This will ensure that your herbs are of the highest quality.
And remember, you can stock different amounts of each herb. If there is one you use every day, by all means stock a lot of it! But if you are keeping something around just in case you get a cough, an ounce or two of dried herb or an ounce of tincture is probably enough. And, as mentioned earlier, keeping herbs around with a variety of diverse uses will increase the efficiency of your home apothecary. The most famous everyday herbs are famous for a reason — their diverse applications lend them well to many home ailments.
Brittany’s Favorite Home Apothecary Herbs
The following are the most important home apothecary categories for my family, along with the herbs I find most useful to have on hand for each use. This list is long; half this many herbs would be enough for most households to build an effective home pharmacy.
Stress, anxiety, and sleep support:
• Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
• Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
• Linden (Tilia spp.)
• Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) or spearmint (Mentha spicata)
• Oatstraw or oat tops (Avena sativa)
• Rose petals (Rosa spp.)
Immunity and winter health:
• Astragalus root (Astragalus membranaceus)
• Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea)
• Elderflower and elderberry (Sambucus spp.)
• Garlic (Allium sativum)
• Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
• Marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis)
• Mullein leaf (Verbascum spp.)
• Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
• Fennel seed (Foeniculum vulgare)
• Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
• Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
• Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) or spearmint (Mentha spicata)
Bath and beauty:
• Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
• Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)
• Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
• Sage (Salvia officinalis)
• Rose petals (Rosa spp.)
Daily nourishment and elimination support:
• Burdock root (Arctium lappa)
• Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale)
• Stinging nettle leaf (Urtica dioica)
• Red clover blossom (Trifolium pratense)
Brittany Wood Nickerson is a professional herbalist and owner of Thyme Herbal in Western Massachusetts where she offers courses in plant medicine and earth-based rituals. She is passionate about empowering others to use herbal medicine in their homes, and she wrote Recipes from the Herbalist’s Kitchen and The Herbal Homestead Journal.