I’ve got dates for the Autumn Intensives! Join us for the Bark Harvest Intensive in October and the Tincture Intensive in November. I’m also planning to do the Medicinal Herbs in the Vegetable Garden Intensive again in March. Information at the School of Plant Medicine page. Hope to see you there!
I’ve got 2 exciting courses coming up this season, plus 2 single-day intensives for your herbal medicine & gardening edification. Check out the School of Plant Medicine page for information about The Home Medicine Maker Course (Level 1), The Home Herbalist Course (Level 2), Medicinal Herbs in the Vegetable Garden Intensive, and Bark Harvest Intensive. Hope to see you there!
Medicinal mushrooms are often overlooked when we talk about solubility and the best ways to preserve things. We talk a lot about mucilage, berberine and the like, but not so much about considering solubility to make the most effective mushroom medicine. I personally think that’s because
a. folks get intimidated by the complexity (and weirdness) or mushrooms, or
b. folks are scared to experiment with something that comes around so rarely through the year–which makes sense, as you might only get one shot with the precious precious fungi this year.
The basic concept is this: most mushrooms contain both alcohol- and water-soluble constituents, like other organisms we use for medicine. When they’re simply dried, we lose much of the water-soluble and all the alcohol-soluble medicinal compounds. When they’re tinctured, we lose the water-soluble compounds.
Dried turkey tail and powdered chaga are familiar formulations, but do they really pack the most medicinal punch? During the drying process, as the water evaporates, the lovely fruiting bodies that last week were shiny (or dull) and colorful (or not) as you cupped them lovingly in your hands in awe at the majesty of this creation are now hollow bits of corrugated cardboard just begging for a shallow grave in the compost pile. That’s hyperbole, but still–why make anything other than the strongest, most effective, most delicious and uplifting and inspiring medicine possible? Why settle for slightly medicinal cardboard when you can achieve an ambrosia of a panacea? (That was a fun sentence to write.)
Is it possible to dry mushrooms and extract some measure of medicine from them? Yes, obviously, or chaga chai would not be a thing. Mushrooms are incredibly complex, the hard-won fruiting bodies of a vast mycelial network, and some of the medicine will stick around in the dried form.
That being said, drying is not the best way to preserve medicine from these incredibly powerful, slow-growing, central investments on behalf of a gigantic microscopic system of synergy and mutualism. Wasting something that precious is downright…wasteful. And also, why bother traipsing all over the mountain searching for maitake and reishi if you’re just going to let 3/4 of the medicine evaporate off?
The best way to extract the strongest, most complex water-soluble mushroom medicine is to preserve them fresh. This is generally true of water-soluble medicinal herbs, too. The recipe below for Immune Magic Mushroom-Herbal Heaven Ice Cubes (or mushroom ice cubes, if you want to be specific about it) will get you there.
But wait! The true best, most complete, crazy amazing mushroom medicine is made by combining both water- and alcohol-soluble constituents, instead of choosing one or the other. You can taste the difference, too: dried mushroom tea is lovely, tincture is fabulous, but a fresh mushroom concoction makes my whole body sigh with relief as my T-cells sing on their way into battle, in time with the war drums of the macrophages and the storming of the lymph and the gentle humming of my very very calm nervous system. I like it, you could say. Combine tincture and decoction into a concoction (really: double, double, toil & trouble). The classic recipe is adapted below for maximum awesomeness, but there’s still just the three steps: tincture, decoct, then concoct. Instructions below.
Immune Magic Mushroom-Herbal Heaven Ice Cubes
You can tell this is popular around here by the name.
If you’re planning to concoct some of your mushroom decoction, consider tincturing some–maybe a half-pint or a pint–at something water-friendly, like 1:4 60% (info here if you’re like, what?) and putting it aside until it’s ready.
1. Combine equal parts by weight of the following fresh mushrooms in a slow cooker (best) or large stock pot (not as good):
- Turkey Tail
- Chaga (not technically a mushroom, as it’s not a fruiting body–it’s actually mycelium! So cool!!!)
- Or whatever you have, really. But these are what I use, and I usually do 10 oz of each, but I have an truly enormous slow cooker so do what works for you.
2. Add these herbs for extra oomph and tastiness; use half as much of each herb as you used of the mushrooms (I use 5 oz of each):
3. Fill the rest of the way with water.
4. Gently simmer (covered! Always!) for 2-3 days, the longer the better. I go the full 72 hours. It should be a terrible looking brownish blackish brackish color and quite fragrant, in an appealing swamp-creature kind of way.
5. Cool to room temperature, covered, a matter of up to 6 hours or so.
6. Strain through a wire mesh strainer into a large pitcher or batter bowl, something with a pour spout.
7. Pour into ice cube trays and freeze. When completely frozen, pack cubes into freezer bags or jars, label, and store in freezer. You will probably have to do numerous rounds of freezing ice cube trays to get all the liquid frozen.
Immune Magic Mushroom-Herbal Heaven Ice Cubes can be added to tea, soup (simply the greatest addition to miso since the discovery of wakame), or just thawed and drank throughout the year as needed, any time you would use dried mushrooms or mushroom tea. I use cubes as fresh decocted mushrooms in the concoction recipe below.
Perfection Mushroom Concoction
1. Tincture FRESH mushrooms at something water-friendly, like 1:4 60% (info here if you’re like, what?), as noted in the intro for the recipe above. When the tincture is ready, strain it into a clean jar, with at least twice the volume as the tincture (i.e. put a pint of tincture in a quart jar).
2. A. If you’re concocting on the same day you made the decoction:
Allow the decoction from the recipe above to cool to room temperature, then ladle through a fine strainer into a measuring cup until you have equal parts tincture and decoction.
2. B. If time has passed since you made the decoction:
Remove Immune Magic Mushroom-Herbal Heaven Ice Cubes from the freezer and thaw them at room temperature in a measuring cup, until you have equal parts tincture and decoction.
3. Combine equal parts tincture and decoction. Some people also choose to ad raw honey at this stage.
4. Label and store in a cool, dark place, and use instead of mushroom tea or tincture.
There you have it, delicious and effective. Not the easiest way of making mushroom medicine, but it sure works great. Enjoy.
For folks who live locally, Old Ways Herbal & Riversong Farm will be placing our annual order with Fedco Seeds on February 5. You are welcome to order with us, receive whatever volume discount we qualify for plus free shipping, and pick up your seeds when they arrive either at the farm or in Brattleboro.
If you aren’t familiar with them, Fedco is a worker-owned cooperative that provides the highest quality and most affordable heirloom, organic, biodynamic, non-GMO, and non-proprietary seeds and plants for cold climates (they’re in Maine). Check out their offerings here. Lots of cold-hardy medicinal fabulousness from the most ethical of companies.
We will also be ordering from Fedco Trees (native heirloom and hybrid fruit, nut, ornamental, & forest trees, plus many perennials), and you can order with us to save on shipping, although there is no volume discount.
The deadline for seed orders and payments will be February 4; trees, February 14. Please let me know as soon as possible if you’re planning to participate. To get in on the order, contact me and I will send you the instructions to set up your order through the Fedco website.
This thing happens kind of a lot when you live in a place with significant seasons: you harvest some wonderful medicine, enough to last you a while–maybe all year–but then you have to actually do something with it while it’s still good, knowing you can’t get more until next year. Most people’s gut reaction is to either dry or tincture the wonderful medicine, and generally speaking that works great for most things.
Except when it doesn’t.
If you’re familiar with solubility, you know that some medicines extract best (or in some cases only extract) in water-based preparations, so tinctures aren’t an option. (If I lost you, try this article and scroll down to the section on solubility.)
Some (actually, many) herbs with significant water-soluble medicinal constituents, and generally herbs with high volatile oil content, tend to dry as weak medicine. Obviously this isn’t true across the board–otherwise tea wouldn’t be a thing–but think of the difference between fresh basil and dried basil and I think you’ll get what I mean: there’s a real difference, and fresh is better.
And sometimes the medicinal properties evaporate straight out with the water when the plant dries, making it essentially useless in its dried form–think of borage, or jewelweed: wonderful fresh but downright lousy when dried.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to preserve water-soluble constituents without drying the herbs.
No, just kidding. Here’s an easy & fun solution that allows us to preserve water-soluble medicine at the peak of its medicinal awesomeness. This is the sort of fun kitchen witching that yields instant gratification: you might find yourself passing around your latest success at a dinner party, and any kids in your life are likely to think you’re a genius.
Herbal Ice Cube Recipe
1. Choose herbs that make sense together. Keep in mind:
- Freshness (things that are harvested around the same time are ideal)
- Formulation purpose
- Energetics & synergy
2. Harvest the herbs properly, at the appropriate time of day & moon phase, on a day when you have time to deal with them.
3. Immediately infuse or decoct as appropriate (instructions here). Infuse or decoct at double strength. Infuse for at least 6 hours, decoct for at least 2 hours. You want super strong, fragrant awesomeness.
4. Cool to room temperature, covered, a matter of hours.
5. Strain through a wire mesh strainer into a large pitcher or batter bowl, something with a pour spout.
6. Pour into ice cube trays and freeze. When completely frozen, pack cubes into freezer bags or jars, label, and store in freezer. You will probably have to do numerous rounds of freezing ice cube trays to get all the liquid frozen.
Herbal Ice Cubes can be added to tea, juice, soup, or just thawed and drank throughout the year as needed.
Sample Herbal Ice Cube Formulas
To beat wintery blues in these cold, dark climes, I make ice cubes with:
- Lemon Balm
- Holy Basil
And they’re there and easy when the days are short and cold and difficult and my family is grouchy in the deepest part of winter–pop it into a cup of tea with some honey and boom! Cheerful people everywhere.
My husband’s poison ivy? Yes, he still gets it in the winter. How about:
- Mullein Flower
Bam! Take that itchy rash.
Winter cocktail parties? Something like:
- Lemon balm
And everyone thinks I’m special.
You get the idea. Experiment & have fun.
Oh! And also check out this article about the same concept, but for the amazing Immune Magic Mushroom-Herbal Heaven Ice Cubes. They’re only so-so.
When all is right in the world, it’s easy to mess around with kitchen witching. That’s not the case when we can’t sleep, or the kid’s sick and screaming, or whatever the current herbal crisis happens to be. Over many years of drying herbs to infuse in honey “when I get to it” and not pressing tinctures until I actually have to use them (because farm life is just that kind of busy), I’ve learned that when I need medicine NOW, having to make it is a huge hurdle. Although I’m not as on top of my home apothecary maintenance as I’d like to be, I’ve made it a point to have a few basics in stock all the time, so I don’t have to make it in a pinch.
Here’s a recipe for a cold and flu tea to have on hand going into winter. This formula works well as a base, since it’s a general respiratory infection and get-well-soon mix. If you’ve got other symptoms, it’s a lot easier to add some willow and a sprinkle of angelica than starting from the top when you’re hacking up a lung.
Although there are lots of great immune herbs from around the world, we’ve got what we need right here in our own backyards. If bioregionalism is a new concept for you, please see this article, but I’ll spare everyone else the rant repeat. These herbs are native or naturalized guests that flourish in cold climates, but if they won’t grow where you do, get out your books and talk to your neighbors to find a similar herb that does. For info on drying your own tea, see this article.
As well as bioregionalism, a couple of other concepts that come into play with formulation are synergy, balance, and energetics; if you’re interested in getting awesome at formulation, read up on those here, here, and here, but it’s too much for right now; hopefully in the future I’ll write an article or several just on formulation, but today is not that day.
Crumble together in a quart jar or airtight bag, 1 cup each of the following:
Monarda: Monarda fistulosa and M. didyma, with their many common names (bee balm, wild bergamot, oswego tea, scarlet monarda etc.) have thousands of years of traditional use in North America for cold, flu, fever, respiratory infection, and other permutations of winter illness.
I use them together, as I have found them to have a synergistic effect on stimulating the respiratory tract and “burning off” a fever (as Matthew Wood calls it), but you can use whichever species is local to you. Monarda is very useful as a warming (and later cooling, if you sweat out a fever), drying, stimulating, dispersing agent of change throughout the respiratory tract and sinuses. It will move out whatever cold garbage is stuck in your lungs, dry up a drippy nose, act as an anti-inflammatory and decongestant to sinuses (postnasal drip, headache with facial soreness, weird ear pressure), and sweat out a fever. It is antimicrobial, gently immune-boosting, and improves the mood.
Elderberry is one of the best-known immune stimulators and antimicrobials. It’s used daily to prevent sickness, and is wonderful in higher doses to help you get better, faster; the science is very good on this, numerous studies indicating some very high power T-cell stimulating scary-antigen-annihilating magic. I put it in almost everything immune-related because it’s so effective and delicious. Generally, you want to decoct elderberries and add them to the rest of the tea, but making separate batches kind of defeats the purpose of having a lazy sick person blend ready to go, so here’s a little cheat: dry elderberries thoroughly, then grind them in a mortar and pestle or grinder. They won’t last long, and they won’t be as strong, but they’ll get you through when you need them to, and you can infuse them with everything else if you have to. The herbal demagogues will frown at this advice, but I’ve found that there are a lot of folks out there infusing roots and berries as a matter of convenience—but at least grind them first so you actually get some medicine out.
Add ½ cup each of the following and mix well:
Hyssop is a warming, drying, stimulating fix-all for respiratory woes, sinus issues, and fevers. It’s antiviral and has a powerful effect on moving out deep-set, chronic conditions of cold-stuckness, especially accompanied by low-grade fever, thready pulse, and feeling sad or down. It has a synergistic effect with monarda in terms of flavors, energetics, and physiological effect. If you can’t grow hyssop, try elder flower.
Lemon balm is a delicious antiviral famous for soothing frazzled anxiety, sleeplessness, mild pain, and imparting a feeling of general well-being. It’s effective against viral infections, soothes dry-behind-the-eyes exhaustion, and improves mood. It’s cooling, calming, and soothing, helping to ground excess energy to focus on rest and healing.
Thyme is a vigorous antimicrobial immune stimulant. It’s full of volatile oils that evaporate when dried, so it’s most powerful infused fresh into honey or syrup. That said, it’s still a very useful addition to tea in its gentler dried form. Thyme is very warming and moving to stuck secretions as an expectorant and decongestant, will help break a fever, and brings the antiviral magic right where it needs to be by stimulating circulation.
Add ½ cup of ONE of the following:
If you tend towards cold, stuck, inflamed, phlegmy (productive or nonproductive) congestion, especially with loss of appetite, facial pain, or sore throat that needs to be cleared:
Elecampane is a warming, stimulating respiratory decongestant, a mover and shaker that brings blood flow to the lungs, throat, and face and puts lots of power behind ejecting any disgusting slimy business stuck in there. This is strong medicine. It’s a root, so like elderberry it’s normally decocted. Keep it separate and decoct with the elderberry, or use this lazy sick person cheat: chop it up as fine as you can when it’s fresh, dry thoroughly, then grind and add to your tea blend. It doesn’t need to be powder, tiny shards of root will infuse if necessary.
If you tend towards dry, spasmy congestion, especially with painfully dry hacking cough, blood when you blow your nose, dry sore throat, eye soreness, and unequal ear pressure:
Mullein or violet leaf: These are both moistening herbs that cool, soothe, and heal dry inflamed tissues, especially the lungs, nose, and sinuses. Make sure to accompany them with honey.
If you always get sick this way, consider using a full cup (you can take out the thyme, if you need space in the jar).
Make your tea by adding 1-2 tablespoons per cup of boiled water, cover, and steep for 10-20 minutes.
Based on symptoms, add appropriate things to your tea like:
Honey is antimicrobial, immune stimulating, anti-inflammatory, and very soothing. It should be added to all tea made for someone who isn’t feeling well.
Immune-boosting tinctures like Echinacea, spilanthes, Oregon grape, yellow root, Japanese barberry (this is invasive so use a ton!) help you get better faster. However, don’t add these herbs dried to your tea, use them as tinctures: their magic is primarily alcohol-soluble, so the medicine is found in tincture, not tea.
Fever tinctures like willow, boneset, meadowsweet, catnip for kids, especially when accompanied by sore muscles and headache. These herbs don’t have to be in tincture form, but it’s easier in the moment—however, feel free to decoct/infuse to your heart’s content.
Cherry tincture (or decoction, syrup, honey) as a cough suppressant, for hacking coughs accompanied by muscle pain, when you just need it to stop.
Mushroom ice cubes: medicinal mushrooms are wonderful for the immune system, but they really lose their oomph when dried. My favorite way to prepare them is to make a 3-day decoction, freeze in ice cube trays, and add cubes to tea and soup when we’re sick. There’s a recipe for this on its way this week.
There are a million other awesome immune herbs local to your area, so have fun playing around with this and let me know how it goes. Have a nice winter!
The winter course is scheduled! This 5-part home herbalism course will focus on specific uses of herbs (materia medica), how they work in the body, contraindications, etc. organized by body system. We will dive deep into the interactions between systems and how disparate symptoms can indicate deep-set imbalances. Although classes are titled for a specific body system, each class will discuss numerous systems as we see them cooperate in the body. We will weave in our learning from the summer series about holism, synergy, energetics and more. Full description and schedule here.