In the last post in this series, we learned about the history of herbal medicine, the myths and misconceptions surrounding it and some of the reasons it has remained so popular throughout the ages. Now, let's get down to the nitty gritty and find out a bit more about how to use herbs to help you and your family stay healthy!
Working with herbs
There are a few things to know about how to work with herbs before you dive in. Let's lay a good foundation so that you can build your knowledge of herbal medicine step-by-step.
Most people who begin using herbs as medicine will start by purchasing their herbs. Here are a few tips to help you get started:
When you are purchasing herbs, you want to know that what you purchase is going to be high quality, is going to have all the medicinal benefits it's supposed to and it's going to be pure. Here are a few tips to follow to ensure you are getting premium herbs.
- Know and trust your supplier
- Make sure the herbs smell fresh and their aroma is intense
- Make sure they look vibrant and deep in color
- Look for organically grown
Preparing your own herbs
Alternatively, you may want to harvest and prepare your own herbs. There are many reasons for this. Here are just a few:
- You know where they came from
- You know how they have been handled
- You know how fresh they are
- You can infuse your own energy into them
If you are going to harvest your own herbs, there are certain guidelines that it is best to follow to make sure you will end up with the highest quality, most medicinal end product that you can. Here are a few things that you will want to keep in mind:
- Make sure you have positive ID of the plant!
- Know which part of the plant you need
- Know when that part of the plant has the most energy
- Be gentle, with the plant and the environment
- Avoid roadsides, railroad tracks, industrial areas, any area that could be contaminated, etc
Gathering Aerial Parts
If you are looking to gather the leaves and/or flowers of a plant to use medicinally, here are a few tips to help you out:
- Spring and summer are usually the best times
- If picking leaves, gather just before plant blooms
- If gathering flowers, right before they are fully open is best
- Gather late morning after a dry spell of a few days
Harvesting seeds and fruits have a few guidelines of their own:
- Gather seeds when mature, but not so dry they shatter
- Place paper bag around seed head to catch seeds
- Harvest fruit when fully ripe, unless otherwise indicated
- Harvest in dry weather
Gathering the bark of a tree for medicinal use has it's own set of challenges and guidelines. Here are a few:
- The inner bark is the medicinal part of the bark (the cambium layer)
- Branches the size of a half dollar or smaller are good to use
- Do not take trunk bark
- It is important to get bark off the branch before it dries
- Harvest in spring through summer until leaves turn
- Harvesting windfall branches right after a storm is often the best option
When harvesting the roots of plants to use medicinally, here are some considerations and pointers for you to follow:
- Harvest when the root is acting as a storage organ-fall/winter/early spring
- This can make ID difficult, since the plant has died back, so be careful and make sure you have positive identification
- Waiting until rains begin can make digging easier
- Long-lived perennials (ex. Echinacea, ginseng) are not harvested until after 3rd, or more, year of growth
- Biennials, such as burdock, harvest in the fall of 1st year or early spring of 2nd year
How to store herbs
Once you have harvested your herbs, you are going to need to know how to keep and store them properly so they will last longer and remain potent for a longer period of time.
- Drying Herbs – make sure your herbs are completely dry before storing them. There are several options here – hanging in bunches in a dry area out of direct sun, laying on drying sceens with plenty of air circulation, or using a dehydrator on the lowest setting are all good choices, depending on the herb.
- Storing – your herbs will last longer if they are housed in a place that is cool and dark, and in an air-tight container.
- Avoid – to keep your herbs in good shape for a long period of time, avoiding these things is necessary: light, heat, air, moisture and insects.
- Label with date of harvest and name and check often to make sure the herbs are still in good condition.
Some of the myriad methods of utilizing herbal medicine include tea blends, glycerine or alcohol tinctures, elixirs, oxymels, capsules, oil or vinegar infusions, salves, ointments, liniments, compresses and poultices.
Here are a few descriptions of the most commonly used herbal applications:
- Teas/tisanes – most of us are familiar with herbal teas, but there are a few things to know about herbal teas to make the most of their medicinal properties.
- Infusions – these are steeped in water for around 20 minutes, then strained and drunk. Leaves and flowers are the best choices for an infusion.
- Decoctions – these are simmered in boiling water for around 20 minutes, then strained and drunk. Seeds, barks and roots are good choices for a decoction.
- Fomentations – the act of applying a tea externally turns it into a fomentation. An herbal fomentation can be applied easily by soaking a cloth in the tea and applying it to the skin, or spraying in on.
- Steam Inhalations – this is accomplished by taking a steaming cup or bowl of tea and placing your face 10-12 inches above the vessel, in the path of the steam so that it can be breathed in. Sometimes tenting your head with a towel can increase the effectiveness.
- Poultices – a poultice can be described as applying mashed up, torn up or water soaked herbs externally onto the skin.
- Tinctures/extracts – Many of us have used herbal tinctures and are familiar with them. Here are some details to remember:
- To make a tincture, you need to soak the herb in liquid for a length of time. This is called Macerating the Mark in the Menstruum (macerate = soak, mark = herb, menstruum = liquid)
- The menstruum (liquid) used is generally alcohol, alcohol and water, vinegar or glycerine.
- Tinctures are most often used Internally, but can also be used externally if needed.
- Oils – herbal oils are a wonderful and soothing way to experience the medicinal benefits of the plant kingdom. Here are a few things to remember:
- To make an infused oil, the herb is soaked in an oil for a length of time, similar to how a tincture is made.
- There is a big difference between infused and essential oils. Essential oils are a component of many plants which are extracted, concentrated and extremely potent, needing to be diluted before use. Herbal infused oils are gentle and many different oil soluble components of the plant are extracted into them.
- Precautions with fresh herbs – fresh herbs contain a lot of moisture which may cause the oil infusion to mold. It is best to use dry herbs or herbs that have been wilted for a couple of days.
- Salves and Lotions – herbal infused oils are perfect for creating easy to use products like salves, balms and lotions.
Armed with all this great information, the next step is to become educated on the medicinal properties of different herbs. In the next post in this series, I will be giving you an overview of some of the most commonly used medicinal plants, what their benefits are and how best to use them. Stay tuned!