When I was maybe seven, my wonderful grandmother gave me a book called The Herbalist, by Joseph Meyer. Her friend Margaret Freedman may have done the dustcover, which is a wonderful medieval woodcut of an apothecary’s garden, but I think it was a very shrewd gift on her part. Many is the afternoon nap I spent studying the discolored entries, the Latin names, the medicinal parts, the medicinal virtues, the dosages. Many is the afternoon I spent wandering in the woods, looking for a cathartic or emetic plant to slip into the sandwich of a classroom bully. It is not difficult to imagine me as a nerdy little girl with glasses; a budding herb granny.
Yesterday I saw a sign at Walmart which reminded me why I don’t go there much. Over a bottle of pills was a sign that said “Take Medicine Not Myth.” Ok, excuse me, but that is nothing but pharmaceutical propaganda. Who thought up thalidomide? When I burned my face with an explosion of boiling hot glue, the ER nurses fed me percocet and recommended that I not apply my traditional Chinese herbal burn cream. I looked like Freddy Kruger. I threw up the percocet and used the burn cream, and the burn clinic specialist at John Hopkins the next morning was amazed at how much the inflammation had gone down. I was married a month later and the burns were completely faded and smooth.
Many of my women friends who are experiencing sleep difficulties because of approaching menopause come to me for my Valerian root tincture. I make it from the plants in my flower bed. It helps them to sleep. Ashwaghanda tincture gives me energy and positive attitude to blast through my chores; they call it Indian ginseng. It is tricky to grow in our climate but I usually have enough for the year. Pokeweed eases any little twinges I get in my right foot where I had a postoperative bone infection years ago. Chamomile, peppermint, lemon balm, catnip, bergamot, and passionflower leaf tea are soothing to my husband when he gets in from a long drive all full of caffeine.
Oregano or thyme tea eases a tricky stomach and is delicious. Mugwort saves the day when you have overindulged in fried chicken. I will say that Immodium/Loperamide is hard to beat when you have Montezuma’s Revenge or Dehli Belly, but that’s just because I’m not taking the time to search out the right herb, boil it up, and wait for it to work.
OK, so yes, you must know how to identify these plants. Learning to identify medicinal plants is is a passion not unlike bird watching. I have been interested in this all my life and I am still learning. I like A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: Of Eastern and Central North America (Peterson Field Guides)-James Duke rocks, but there are many wonderful field guides. It takes time to acquire the descriptive vocabulary and be able to know what you have found at what time of the year. Until you do, buy them. It is possible to make a very bad mistake. Carrot, Angelica, Osha, Parsley, and the deadly Water Hemlock are all in the same Apiaceae family. You could easily mistake Hemlock for Angelica and die horribly. Some boy scouts mistook Hemlock for some kind of wild carrot. They were saved, but it was touch and go. Penn Herbs has a large selection and is cheap. Generally you want “tea cut” herbs; not powder.
Tea is the simplest way to take an herb. Most herbs just want boiling water poured over them, like black tea. Some plants should be infused in cold water, and some need to be decocted, which means “cooked down.” Roots and barks need this. Some plants need to be concentrated, like the very bitter Boneset, after straining off the plant material.
Tinctures are a very convenient way to take herbs. Most tinctures are done with alcohol, and while there are complex formulas for tincturing dry or fresh herbs, etc., it is also easy to make a simple folk tincture which is good for home use. I came across tincturing by way of liqueurs: one day when I was making mint juleps I noticed that an hour later the remaining drips of bourbon had turned green in the glass with the sugar and crushed mint. I tasted it. Yum! A light bulb went on in my head. I immediately threw various herbs into white rum, the most successful of which were lemon verbena and peppermint. The peppermint mixed with honey or simple syrup makes a delicious creme de menthe except that it eventually goes from green to brown. I then realized that orange peels in alcohol soon became orangey, fennel seeds became anise flavored, barks and roots gave off their flavors- anything resinous works very well. The oils and resins are soluble in alcohol, and then the alcohol preserves anything watery.
The French eau de vies that are so delicious are just this sort of tincture. Eau de vie, by the way, means water of life, as does uisce beatha, in gaelic, pronounced whiskey be-ata (almost seems like it could mean happy water, since beata means happy). Aquavit comes from the Latin aqua vitae, same meaning. You take my point.
So, to make a fennel aperitif, I stuffed a pickle jar full of almost mature seed heads (fully mature ones would be losing their oils to the rain) and topped it off with vodka, waited two weeks, poured it off into another jar full of fennel seed heads, and waited another 2 weeks. This is actually called double tincturing and is also used in medicinal herbalism. The result was smooth and dark amber, with a strong licorice flavor and faint celery undertones. A shot of this with coffee is excellent after dinner, as fennel has been used for thousands of years to ease the stomach. My mother and sister, who are German, always gave the babies Fencheltee for gas and other tummy troubles. After WWII it saved many a dehydrated sick baby. But to return to happier times, most of my friends prefer it sweetened with honey and kept in the freezer next to the peppermint liqueur and the homemade triple sec.
Now, medicine. Tinctures are convenient because you can carry around 1 ounce bottles of medicine, and the dose is generally between 15 and 30 drops- half to a full dropper full. You can drink it straight, in a glass of water, or in tea. The alcohol will keep it for about 3 years. There are glycerin tinctures, but I have not gotten into that because I am not concerned about alcohol and most herbs tincture best in alcohol. Such a small amount mixed in water or tea would certainly not be a problem for a child, and if allowed to sit for a bit, perhaps the alcohol would evaporate so that an alcoholic wouldn’t taste it? But again, there is glycerin if that is an issue.
For me, Richo Cech’s Making Plant Medicine was the best introduction to tincturing. I have corresponded occasionally with Richo for years. He is a really fun and interesting person with immense energy and a gift for story-telling. His plant knowledge is vast, particularly in cultivation, which makes the catalog for Horizon Herbs, the medicinal plant seed company he and his wife and children have in Oregon, a very fine read. All of his books and catalogs are wonderfully illustrated by his daughters. Making Plant Medicine is very easy to read and full of stories, but also contains precise and clear information on how to tincture medicinal herbs. If you get heavily into it, you may want to buy a press from him.
Press what? Plant material. OK, here is a basic tincturing example. Go out to the garden and dig up some echinacea plants. I am presuming you have Echinacea purpurea, your basic purple Coneflower. If you have E. angustifolia too, the thin, droopy Coneflowers that grow better in the West, I’m impressed. Use them 60/40 as they have a synergistic effect. The whole plant has medicine, but the roots are the strongest. I am just making it for me so I just use the roots. Those roots are tough so I’m glad I have a Vitamix. Wash and scrub them really well, and snip off what you will use with clippers. Throw them in the blender with enough vodka to make them move- generally to cover. (This is a folk tincture; Richo will tell you how to weigh them. He even has software for that.) Whizz it to a slurry and carefully get it all into a mason jar. Brown glass is best but if you keep it in the dark that is ok. Label with the ingredients and the date and let sit for 10 days, shaking when you remember. I have some small muslin bags with seams I have reinforced which fit neatly over the mouth of a mason jar. Pour the contents of the jar into the bag over a big measuring cup or something. Squeeze the bag as hard and long as you can to get out all the medicine. I have a small press but you could also weight it down with a clean rock in a colander. Richo’s press will turn your herbs into a dry cake without a drop of medicine wasted. Clean out your jar and return the medicine to it, since it is already labeled. Let it sit a day or two and then pour it off the sediment which will accumulate. The sediment can spoil the medicine. You can buy 1 ounce brown glass bottles with droppers for a little over a dollar apiece, and also ask your friends to save such bottles for you to clean and reuse. Always label and date. It will keep about three years in the dark, although eventually the rubber bulbs on the droppers begin to add a bitter taste. Herbal tinctures generally run about $10 an ounce. If you make good medicine, that is quite a savings.
Scripture says that God has given us the herbs of the field. He had His reasons. It seems to me in my travels that indigenous people knew the remedy for each disease with which they were familiar. We in the US has been pretty efficient in killing off the native people who knew the plant lore of this continent by introducing diseases with which they were not familiar. However we also brought new plants with us which have helped to reestablish some balance between man and disease, although many of those plants threw off the balance of the plant world. In South America I have studied with people who knew medicine for anything that could happen to you-diabetes, AIDS, cancer, schizophrenia,- and if they didn’t, they would ask the plants, who knew.