here is nothing mysterious or even particularly clever or skillful about making healing formulations from plants. Intimidated by the pharmaceutical elite, we think that to be of any use a medicine must be made by a Ph.D. wearing a white lab coat, and then packaged with half an acre of rain forest material. Not so! If you can make a cup of tea or cook a simple meal that your family and friends are willing to eat, you are qualified.
Various ways of using plants to release and activate their healing properties have developed over the centuries. No doubt, our distant ancestors first used herbs by simply eating the fresh plant. Since then many other methods of preparation have been developed. With our modern knowledge of pharmacology, we can make conscious choices as to which process we use to release the biochemical constituents needed for healing without insulting the integrity of the plant by isolating fractions of the whole. Many excellent herb books now available contain detailed guides to making herbal preparations.
The most effective way of using herbs is to take them internally since it is from within that healing takes place. The ways of preparing internal remedies are numerous, but in all cases it is essential to take care with the process to ensure the desired result. Three kinds of preparations are used for internal consumption: water-based extracts (teas), tinctures, and fresh or dried herbs in pill or capsule form.
Water-based extracts are decoctions and infusions. Certain basic rules of thumb may be used to select the method for a particular herb.
If the herbs to be used are hard and woody, it is better to make a decoction to ensure that the soluble contents of the herbs actually reach the water. Roots, rhizomes, wood, bark, nuts, and some seeds are hard with very strong cell walls; to ensure that the constituents are transferred to the water, more heat is needed than for infusions, and the herb has to be boiled in the water.
• Place one teaspoonful of dried herb, or three teaspoons of fresh material, for each cup of water into a pot or saucepan. If large quantities are made, use one ounce of dried herb for each pint of water. The container should be glass, ceramic, or earthenware. (If metal is used, it should be enameled.)
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• Add the appropriate amount of water to the herbs.
• Bring to a boil and simmer for the time given for the mixture or specific herb, usually ten to fifteen minutes. If the herb contains volatile oils, cover it with a lid.
• Strain the tea while still hot.
If preparing a mixture containing soft and woody herbs, prepare an infusion and a decoction separately to insure that the more sensitive herbs are treated accordingly. For a woody herb that is volatile-oil rich, it is best to powder finely and then make an infusion, thus ensuring that the oils do not boil away.
Decoctions are necessary if the herb contains any hard or woody material (e.g., roots, bark, or nuts). The denser the plant or the individual cell walls, the more energy will be needed to extract cell content into the tea; this explains the value of decocting. Infusions are most appropriate for nonwoody material, such as leaves, flowers, and certain stems.
As with all generalizations, of course, there are exceptions. For example, in the case of a root rich in a volatile oil such as valerian root, the woodiness would suggest decocting, but if the roots are simmered, the therapeutically important volatile oil will boil off and be lost.
If you know how to make tea, you know how to make an infusion, the simplest method of utilizing either fresh or dried herbs. In recipes that prescribe one part of dried herb, it can be replaced with three parts of the fresh herb.
• In a china or glass teapot that has been warmed, place about one teaspoonful of the dried herb or herb mixture for each cup of tea.
• For each teaspoonful of herb in the pot, add a cup of boiling water and then cover with a lid. Leave to steep for ten to fifteen minutes. Infusions may be drunk hot (normally best for a medicinal herbal tea) or cold. They may be sweetened to taste.
Tea bags can be made by filling little muslin bags with measured herbal mixtures. These can be used in the same way as ordinary teabags.
Larger quantities can be made in the proportion of one ounce of herb to one pint of water. An infusion is so full of life force that any microorganism entering the brew will multiply and thrive in it. If there is any sign of fermentation or spoilage, the infusion should be discarded. Whenever possible, infusions should be prepared fresh; if an infusion must be kept for any time at all, hold it in a thermos for a few hours or store tightly covered in the refrigerator.
Infusions are best for nonwoody parts of the plant, such as leaves, flowers, or green stems, where the substances wanted are easily accessible. If an infusion must be made of bark, root, seeds, or resin, it is best to powder such parts first to break down some of the cell walls and thus make them more accessible to water. Seeds, such as fennel and aniseed, should be slightly bruised before infusing to release the volatile oils from the cells. Any aromatic herb should be infused in a well-sealed pot to ensure that only a minimum of the volatile oil is lost through evaporation.
If the herbs are sensitive to heat, either because they contain highly volatile oils or because their constituents break down at high temperature, make a cold infusion. The proportion of herb to water is the same, but in this case the infusion should be left for six to twelve hours in a well-sealed pot. When ready, strain and use it.
Many herbs are not only medicines or alternatives to coffee, but in their own right make excellent beverages. Every individual will have favorites, and the following popular choices may be prepared either singly or in combination. Selection can be based upon both taste and medicinal properties.
Flowers: chamomile, elder flower, hibiscus, linden blossom, red clover
Leaves: peppermint, spearmint, lemon balm, rosemary, lemon verbena
Berries: hawthorn, rose hips
Seeds: aniseed, caraway, celery, dill, fennel
Alcohol is a better solvent than water for most plant constituents. Mixtures of alcohol and water dissolve nearly all the ingredients, and the alcohol acts as a preservative. Alcohol preparations are called tinctures (an expression that is occasionally also used for preparations based on glycerin). The method given here is a basic approach; when tinctures are prepared professionally according to descriptions in a pharmacopoeia, specific water/alcohol proportions are used for each herb, but for the herbs described in this book such details are unnecessary.
• Place four ounces of finely chopped or ground dried herb into a container that can be tightly closed. If fresh herbs are used, twice the amount should be used.
• Pour one pint of 60 proof vodka over the herbs and close tightly.
• Keep the container in a warm but dark place for two weeks and shake it once a day.
• After decanting the bulk of the liquid, pour the residue into a muslin cloth suspended in a bowl.
• Wring out all the liquid. (The residue makes excellent compost!)
• Pour the tincture into a dark bottle. If kept out of direct sunlight and well stoppered, it will keep indefinitely.
As tinctures are much stronger, volume for volume, than infusions or decoctions, the dosage to be taken is much smaller, depending on the herb to be taken. Tinctures may be used in a variety of ways. They can be taken straight, mixed with water, or they can be added to a cup of hot water. If the latter course is followed, the alcohol will largely evaporate, leaving most of the extract in the water and possibly making the water cloudy, as resins and other constituents not soluble in water will precipitate. A few drops of tincture can be added to a bath or footbath, used in a compress, or mixed with oil and fat to make an ointment. Suppositories and lozenges can also be made using tincture.
Another way of making a kind of alcohol infusion is to infuse herbs in wine. Even though these wine-based preparations do not have the shelf life of tinctures and are not as concentrated, they can be both pleasant to take and effective.
Tinctures based on glycerin have the advantage of being milder on the digestive tract and do not involve the problems associated with alcohol. However, they have the disadvantage of not dissolving resinous or oily materials well. As a solvent, glycerin is generally better than water but not as good as alcohol.
To make a glycerin tincture, make up one pint of a mixture consisting of one part glycerin and one part water, add four ounces of the dried ground herb and leave it in a well-stoppered container for two weeks, shaking it daily. After two weeks, strain and press or wring the residue as with alcohol-based tinctures. For fresh herbs, which have a greater water content, put eight ounces into a mixture of 75 percent glycerin/25 percent water.
Dry Herb Preparations
There are two advantages to taking herbs in a dry form. Here the taste of the herb can be avoided, and the whole herb (including the woody material) can be taken. Unfortunately, a number of drawbacks are involved as well.
• Dry herbs are unprocessed, and their constituents are not always readily available for easy absorption. During infusion, heat and water help to break down the walls of the plant cells and dissolve the constituents, which is not always guaranteed during the digestive process.
• When the constituents are already dissolved in liquid form, they are available a lot faster and begin their action sooner.
• A subtler drawback lies in the very fact that you do not taste the herb when it is taken in capsule form. The bitter herbs work best when tasted, as their effects result from a neurological reflex. When bitters are put into a capsule or a pill, their action may well be lost or diminished.
Taking all these considerations into account, if herbs are to be used in dry form they should be powdered as finely as possible. This step guarantees that the cell walls are largely broken down, which will promote easier digestion and absorption of the herb.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Healing Arts Press.
©1993, 2007, 2014 by David Hoffmann. www.InnerTraditions.com
Herbs for Healthy Aging: Natural Prescriptions for Vibrant Health
by David Hoffmann FNIMH AHG.
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About the Authors of this chapter:
David Hoffmann, FNIMH, AHG, has been a clinical medical herbalist since 1979. A Fellow of Britain’s National Institute of Medical Herbalists, he is one of the founding members of the American Herbalists Guild and the author of 17 books, including Medical Herbalism, The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal, and The Herbal Handbook. He teaches herbal medicine throughout the English-speaking world and lives in California.
Diana De Luca has been a practicing Herbalist in Sonoma County, CA since 1980. An author and nutritional chef, she offers workshops on herbal folkways, women’s health, erotic botanicals and plan-based diet and cooking. She draws upon her rich Sicilian-American heritage and love of all things edible and aromatic to share her passion of yummy plants. Diana is the author of Botanica Erotica: Arousing Body, Mind, and Spirit. She lives in California, with her husband, medical herbalist and author David Hoffmann.
View a video of a presentation by David Hoffmann: A Call to Herbs: From Rhizotomoi to Radicle (Part 1), (Part 2), (Part 3). He discusses the origins of herbal wisdom and the pitfalls of commercial herbalism. His views touch on political activism as well as herbal activism. While this talk was recorded in 2005, it is still very important and relevant today.