Properly Use Herbs for Optimal Benefits

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Popular health writer Dr. Michelle Schoffro Cook profiles thirty-one common and easy-to-grow (or readily available) herbs, sharing scientific discoveries about their usefulness and offering more than one hundred easy ways to use them in delicious recipes, healing teas, and soothing body treatments.
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Delight body and mind as you incorporate Mother Nature’s medicines into daily life, where they nurture and protect.

Be Your Own Herbalist: Esential Herbs for Health, Beauty, and Cooking (New World Library, 2016), by Michelle Schoffro Cook, PhD, DNM, combines cutting-edge research demonstrating the therapeutic properties of herbs with growing information and recipes perfect for aspiring herbalists and advanced practitioners alike. In this excerpt Schoffro Cook discusses the different ways of using herbs.

You can purchase this book from the the Mother Earth Living store:Be Your Own Herbalist: Essential Herbs for Health, Beauty and Cooking.

Making your own herbal medicines and body-care products can save you money and improve your health and it’s much easier than you may think. If you already make herbal teas, making infused oils, tinctures and salves can quickly become part of your repertoire too. In this excerpt I share step-by-step instructions for making herbal remedies, as well as some essential therapeutic information to help you become your own home herbalist. Herbs can be used in many forms, including teas (infusions and decoctions), tinctures, wine infusions, vinegar infusions, glycerites, oil infusions, ointments and salves, lotions and creams, syrups, honeys, oxymels, poultices and fomentations. Don’t worry if this list sounds confusing; you’ll soon discover how to harvest and prepare plants for different uses and learn everything you need to know to create home herbal medicines and body-care products.

Before you begin, always make sure that you are using the correct part of the plant, as some parts may be toxic if used internally.

Drying Herbs

One of the easiest ways to preserve an herb for future use is to dry it. The simplest way is to pick stems of the plant, tie them together in bunches no more than one inch in diameter and hang them upside down in a dry, warm spot until all the plant matter becomes dry and brittle. You can also spread herbs out in a thin layer on a baking sheet and dry them in an oven at a low temperature (preferably 175 degrees F or cooler) until the herbs dry. If you have a food dehydrator, set it to a low temperature setting (around 110 degrees F) to dry herbs, spreading them out on trays. The amount of drying time varies significantly from herb to herb. Place the dried herbs in a glass jar with a tight seal and store away from sunlight and moisture. Always make sure you label your herbs with the date of harvesting and the name (including the scientific name), to prevent possible confusion between similar herbs.

How Long Do Dried Herbs Last?

Most leaves, flowers and green parts of plants last for about one year after being dried. Roots, seeds and bark may last for up to three years. Powdered or ground herbs tend to lose their medicinal and culinary value quickly and should be used within six months.

Tea Time

Making herbal tea may seem fairly straightforward, but if you want to reap the greatest medicinal value from the herbs you use, there’s more to it than dunking a tea bag in hot water. There are two main forms of herbal tea: infusions and decoctions. Infusions are the commonly known form of herbal tea, in which herbs are literally infused in hot water, usually one heaping teaspoon of dried herb per cup of hot water for ten to twenty minutes. This is the ideal method for extracting the medicinal compounds in most berries, flowers and leaves. You can also use fresh herbs, but because of their higher water content, you usually need to double the amount of herb matter per cup of water.

To extract the medicinal compounds from seeds, roots, or stems, you’ll want to make a decoction, which involves boiling the herbs and allowing them to simmer for longer, about an hour, usually allowing one heaping teaspoon of dried herb per cup of water. Note that this method is less suitable for berries, flowers and leaves because it tends to destroy many of the delicate medicinal compounds they contain. As with infusions, you can use fresh herbs, but you typically need to double the amount of herb matter used per cup of water.

What if you want to make a tea from some combination of roots, berries, seeds, stems  leaves? Start by making a decoction with your chosen roots or seeds. Bring it to a boil and then reduce to a simmer to continue brewing for an hour. Turn off the heat and add any berries, flowers and leaves. Allow the herbal mixture to steep for an additional ten to twenty minutes. Now you’ve extracted the best medicinal compounds from all of the herbal components you’re using.

Infused Oils: Massage and More

The infusion technique works to transfer the healing properties of herbs to oils as well as to water. Infused oils are excellent for massage or as a basis for balms and salves, which I discuss below.

Infused oils are simple to make. You can use any type of vegetable oil or carrier oil, other than petrochemical-based oils like baby oil or mineral oil; however, it is best to avoid oils that break down when exposed to heat, such as flaxseed oil. I prefer olive oil or sweet almond oil, which can be warmed to encourage the transfer of healing compounds from the herb matter to the oil. You can make many different types of infused oils, but two of the most common are St. John’s wort and calendula oils.

St. John’s wort oil, made from the flowers of the plant, is excellent for treating bruises, swellings, hemorrhoids, scars and sprains. Avoid sun exposure for a few hours after using this oil on your skin, as it can cause photosensitivity. Calendula oil, also made from the flowers of the plant, aids wound healing and alleviates various skin conditions.

There are two methods for making oil infusions: cold and warm. For flowers, which are delicate, it’s best to use the cold method. This is also effective for the leaves of many plants. It involves adding fresh flowers or leaves to a jar and filling it with oil, such as sweet almond oil, apricot kernel oil, or extra-virgin olive oil. You’ll want enough plant matter to ensure the medicinal value of the infused oil but not packed so tightly that the oil cannot penetrate the plant material. The plant material must be completely submerged in the oil to prevent mold from forming. Date and label the jar and allow the infusion to rest for two weeks. You can shake the bottle periodically to encourage the infusion process. After two weeks, strain the herbs from the oil, squeezing out any remaining oil with clean hands. Cap and label the jar and store away from light and heat.

The warm method involves placing the herbal matter in approximately the same volume of oil (or enough oil to cover) into a small Crock-Pot and allowing the mixture to “cook” on low heat for at least a few days, but preferably a week or two. Strain the herbs from the oil, squeezing out any remaining oil with clean hands. As with the cold method, pour the strained oil into a jar, cover with a lid, label and store away from light and heat.

Infused oils can be used as is for massage or skin care or as a base for balms and salves.

Ointments, Balms and Salves: Skin-Soothing Sensations

Salves and balms are basically herbal ointments made by thickening oil infusions with melted beeswax. Most health-food stores sell plain beeswax, which can be shaved with a potato peeler or grated with a cheese grater and then melted over low heat. Be sure to avoid other types of wax, since they are made of petroleum by-products.

Allow two tablespoons of shaved, melted beeswax to a cup of infused oil after the herbal material has been strained off. Melt the beeswax over low heat to prevent overheating of the oil. Stir regularly. Remove from the heat as soon as the beeswax is melted and well incorporated into the oil. Pour into small, shallow jars, tins, or lip-balm containers. Let cool undisturbed to allow the ointment to set. Use for skin irritations and other skin conditions and for dry or chapped lips.

Creams and Lotions: Body Care with a Difference

If you’re tired of all the chemicals and synthetic fragrances in store-bought creams and lotions, you might want to consider making your own. Most people think that making creams and body lotions is difficult, but it’s actually quite easy. I frequently make my own and give them as gifts to friends and family members, who seem to love them.

I recommend that you keep an old blender, a small- to medium-sized glass bowl and a spatula exclusively for making natural body-care products. Although it’s safe to use your kitchen blender and food utensils, the beeswax used in natural creams can leave a residue on them.

As with salves and balms, you begin by melting beeswax into a plain or infused oil. Then you pour the oil-beeswax mixture into a blender and slowly pour in water or a strained herbal tea. As it blends, the oil mixture will thicken into a cream or lotion.

For the oil, you can either use an herbal infusion, such as peppermint, echinacea, or yarrow, or you can purchase essential oils, which are oils extracted from herbs. You can use both infusions and essential oils if you want to, but it is not necessary. Herbal teas usually create a milder-smelling lotion or cream than essential oils do, but both offer therapeutic value. Recipes for making creams and lotions appear throughout this book. With practice, you’ll be able to vary the recipes to make products of different consistencies. For example, you might adjust a recipe depending on whether the cream is intended for oily or dry skin: the basic rule of thumb is less oil for oily skin, more for drier skin. But I encourage you to try the recipes in this book before you start experimenting, as you’ll have a greater chance of success.

Syrups and Honeys: Sweet Solutions

Syrups and honeys are made by infusing herbs in sugar syrups or honey. I prefer to use honey because it is more natural than refined sugar and provides its own medicinal value, such as soothing the throat. Some herbs, like thyme and oregano, lend themselves well to cough syrups, since they have antiviral and antibacterial properties. Other herbs, like lavender, chive flowers, sage and ginger, add uniquely delightful flavors to the already delicious taste of honey.

Oxymels: Softening the Intensity of Herbs with Vinegar and Honey

Oxymels are simply blends of herbal honey with a little vinegar. They are often used for diluting the flavor of intensely strong herbs such as cayenne or garlic. To make an oxymel, measure one cup of vinegar into a pot. Add approximately two ounces of ground herb matter (except garlic, which should be added later). Bring the mixture to a boil and let it simmer for fifteen minutes. Remove from the heat. If you’re using fresh garlic, add it now. Let the mixture cool. Strain the herb material out of the vinegar and add honey to the vinegar to taste. Simmer over low heat until it has the consistency of syrup. You can make an oxymel out of almost any herb you like — or even ones you don’t like but whose medicinal benefits you would like to enjoy.

Tinctures: The Ultimate Herbal Medicine

Tinctures are alcohol extracts of either fresh or dried herbs. Sometimes just referred to as extracts, they are extremely effective at preserving the plant’s active constituents. You can make a tincture from roots, leaves, seeds, stems, or flowers.

To make an herbal tincture, finely chop the fresh, clean herb you are using. You can also use dried herbs. Place the herb in a quart-sized glass jar. Fill the jar with as much plant matter as possible to ensure the medicinal value of your tincture, keeping in mind that you’ll need enough alcohol to ensure the herbal matter is completely submerged. Top with vodka or pure grain alcohol, making sure all the plant matter is submerged in the alcohol to prevent mold growth. Date and label the jar and allow the mixture to sit for two weeks, shaking daily to encourage extraction. After two weeks, strain the contents through a cheesecloth-lined sieve. After most of the liquid has gone through the sieve, pull up the corners of the cheesecloth and, using clean hands, carefully wring out any remaining liquid. Store the herbal tincture in a jar, preferably away from heat or sunlight to preserve its healing properties. Tinctures usually keep for a few years. You can make an herbal tincture out of any medicinal or culinary herbs. A typical tincture dose is thirty drops three times daily unless otherwise specified.

While tinctures are excellent herbal medicines for most people, the alcohol base makes them unsuitable for people with certain health conditions, including pregnancy, liver disease, diabetes, or alcoholism. For most other circumstances, the small amount of alcohol is fine, but it’s best to check with a qualified herbalist if you are uncertain.

Herbal Wines and Vinegars

Herbal wines and vinegars are made in the same way as tinctures, except that you use wine or vinegar in place of the vodka or grain alcohol. Obviously the taste will vary depending on the ingredients used. Not all herbs make great-tasting wine or vinegar, so select herbs you are familiar with. As with tinctures, you’ll need to strain out the herbal matter through fine cheesecloth. Port, sherry, Madeira, mead and even sparkling wine are all good candidates for making herbal wines.

To make herbal wine, simply grind the dried herb you’re using to a coarse powder. Mix with the wine of your choice. Let it sit for fourteen days, shaking frequently. Strain it through cheesecloth and pour into a sterilized bottle. Cap and store in a cool location. Herbal wine does not last as long as tinctures.

For herbal vinegars, use red or white wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar. To make herbal vinegars, follow the instructions for herbal wine, substituting the vinegar of your choice. Be sure to strain out all the herbal material before storing to prevent mold growth. The shelf life of herbal vinegars varies depending on the type of vinegar and herbs used, but in general it’s best to use them within a month. Discard the vinegar if you notice mold formation.

Both herbal wines and vinegars can take some practice to perfect and are best attempted after you’ve gained some experience making some of the other herbal remedies.

Glycerites: Alcohol-Free Extracts

Glycerites are tinctures made with glycerin instead of alcohol and can be used instead of tinctures when needed. Glycerin is derived from the sweet-tasting components of fats and oils. It is available from most health-food stores and is typically made from coconut or vegetable oil. While glycerites taste sweet, they typically do not contain sugar. Glycerites tend to be inferior to alcohol extracts, infusions, decoctions, or oil infusions simply because fewer herb components are extracted with glycerin. I tend not to make them for this reason, but please keep me posted on your adventures making glycerites if you choose to try them.

Poultices: Herbs Got You Covered

A poultice is a paste made with herbs that is applied to the skin. It is typically applied while hot or warm, except when made with herbs that are naturally chemically hot, like chilis or ginger. To make a poultice, fill a natural-fiber cloth bag with powdered or chopped fresh herb matter. Tie it closed and then place it into a bowl of hot water just long enough to soak and heat the herb. Remove it from the water and apply to the affected area until the poultice has cooled and until you experience some relief. Reheat and reapply the poultice. It is best to use a fresh poultice every day.

Poultices are particularly effective in soothing aching or painful joints or muscles. Calendula helps bruises and damaged skin, echinacea boosts the immune system to help heal long-lasting wounds and ginger is especially effective at reducing pain and throbbing.

The Fomentation Sensation

Fomentations are compresses made from herbal infusions or decoctions. A cloth soaked in an herbal tea is applied to an affected area. A fomentation can be used hot or cold, depending on the application. Cold fomentations work well on areas that are inflamed, while hot fomentations work well to relieve the pain of sore muscles. A cold fomentation can be used on an injured joint or headache, while a hot fomentation relieves tightness and soreness in muscles. You may already be familiar with using black tea compresses to treat conjunctivitis (pinkeye).

It may feel a bit overwhelming to try to remember all of these terms and how to make these different remedies. But you can simply refer to this article whenever you need some herbal relief. With a little effort, you’ll be a pro in no time.

Ethical Wildcrafting and Herbal Medicine Use

We are all stewards of the planet on which we live and we share the responsibility to care for it. As the Haudenosaunee Native American Ely Parker once said, “We are connected to a community, but a community that transcends time.” Caring for our global community means respecting and nurturing the herbs and plants that grow upon the earth. While you may plan to grow many of your own medicinal plants, here are some ethical guidelines for gathering wild plants:

Learn which species of herbs are endangered (a list that can vary over time) and avoid their use. Wild ginseng and goldenseal have been harvested nearly to the point of extinction and while both are valuable herbs, I have not included them among the herb profiles because I do not wish to contribute to further harvesting of these endangered plant species.

Recognize that every time we remove a plant from its growing place, we need to leave others to ensure the survival of the species. Obviously, with plants that are highly prolific, such as dandelion, this is not as much of a concern as it is with endangered species. But few herbs can match dandelion’s inherent ability to grow and spread; most herbs require us to be cautious and considerate when harvesting them.

If you need only the leaves or flower of the plant, then harvest only those parts. This may seem obvious, but some people unthinkingly uproot a plant, killing it unnecessarily.

Do not harvest too many different types of plants in a single day unless you are certain that you will have the time and energy to process them. It’s important not to waste these precious plants.

Avoid wildcrafting on private property unless you have received the permission of the owner.

Respect the plants’ habitat as well as individual plants. Avoid harvesting herbs in vulnerable, compromised, damaged, or at-risk areas in which the removal of plants could adversely affect other species or the sustainability of that ecosystem. If you walk your dog or other animal while harvesting, keep it leashed and avoid habitats where the animal may cause harm, such as nesting areas for birds.

Avoid harvesting in any national park areas, which is illegal.

For your own safety, avoid harvesting plants near roadsides, highways, brownfields, or other polluted areas, as environmental toxins can become concentrated in the plants harvested there.


Michelle Schoffro Cook, PhD, DNM, is the author of Be Your Own Herbalist: Essential Herbs for Health, Beauty and Cooking and a certified herbalist and board-certified doctor of natural medicine. She holds advanced degrees in health nutrition, orthomolecular nutrition and acupuncture. She lives and grows her own food and herbal medicines, near Vancouver, BC, Canada. Her websites are DrMichelleCook.com and HealthySurvivalist.com.

Excerpted from the book Be Your Own Herbalist: Essential Herbs for Health, Beauty and Cooking. Copyright © 2016 by Michelle Schoffro Cook, printed with permission from New World Library. Buy this book from our store:Be Your Own Herbalist: Essential Herbs for Health, Beauty and Cooking.

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