Old Ways Herbal

Vermont Herb School, Clinical Herbalist, Plant Remedies, & Herbal Farmcraft Wisdom.


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Preserving Water-Soluble Magic Beyond the Growing Season: Herbal Ice Cubes

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:

  • Solubility
  • Freshness (things that are harvested at the same time are ideal)
  • Flavor
  • 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.  It should be decadent in that kitchen.

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:

  • Borage
  • Lemon Balm
  • Holy Basil
  • Calendula

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:

  • Jewelweed
  • Plantain
  • Mullein Flower
  • Oatstraw
  • Nettles

Bam!  Take that itchy rash.

Winter cocktail parties?  Something like:

  • Rosemary
  • Lemon balm
  • Anise-hyssop
  • Ginger

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.

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Starting Seeds!

Starting seeds is a cornerstone of my herbal practice, not to mention my sweet sideline as homestead queen.  This article was first published in the spring issue of The Country Grind Quarterly, where I write a column about making and using herbal medicine.  Even though starting seeds is technically maybe a little off topic in that setting, I sent it in because it felt relevant for the spring issue.  It’s certainly involved in “making herbal medicine,” if higher on the food chain.  Also, it’s what I was thinking about at the end of February, and I was having trouble redirecting.  And now I will share it with all of you.  Pictures coming as I take them.

Tools:

  • Soil mix
  • Cells or pots
  • Quick-read or soil thermometer (optional but good)
  • Depth gauge, like a pencil or chopstick with a line drawn on it
  • Humidity cover or plastic wrap and duct tape
  • Heating pad
  • Grow lights or sunny window
  • Seedling watering can, or jar with a bendy straw

    You've got the moisture level right when the soil clumps in your hand.

    You’ve got the moisture level right when the soil clumps in your hand.

The basics are easy–it’s all about balancing light, water, and heat. Put the soil mix in a bucket and mix with lukewarm water until it clumps in your hand.

Let the soil warm up until it’s close to the seed’s germination temperature (use the thermometer). Fill the cells or pots and tap to settle the soil. Use the depth gauge to plant seeds to the right depth.

This pen is marked with 1/8", 1/4", and 1/2" so I can easily control how deep my seeds are planted.

This pen is marked with 1/8″, 1/4″, and 1/2″ so I can easily control how deep my seeds are planted.

Cover the tray and place on the heating pad. When seeds germinate, remove the cover and heating pad and put the tray in the window or under a grow light.

If you do that, you’ll be able to grow your own starts for most vegetables, flowers, and herbs. With a little more detail, though, you can get your germination rates close to 100% on almost anything you care to grow. Here goes.

Records, Resources, & Timing

Write stuff down—this process takes months and you don’t want to forget stuff or look the same info up repeatedly. Label flats with the name of the plant, date of sowing, and special considerations like “needs light to germinate” or “ideal germination temperature 60 degrees”. You think you’ll remember; you won’t.

Look through your seeds and identify cultural needs like stratifying, soaking, etc., as well as when to start them in your climate.  I often use the Fedco catalog, as their cultural information is relevant to us cold climate folks–also, they’re a worker-owned cooperative and deserve your money.  I also really like Eliot Coleman’s books.  For medicinal herbs, Horizon Herbs & Richo Cech’s book have a lot of great info, but if you live in a cold climate take things like “start in fall” or “overwinter outside” with a big grain of salt because Richo lives in a mild PNW climate and that type of thing doesn’t translate well for those of us with winter. Richter’s is a Canadian herb company that sometimes has helpful info for cold climates. I don’t know anything about warm climate resources, so if that’s you, sorry I can’t be of more help here–feel free to post your favorite resources in the comments, if you feel motivated.

Note when your resources recommend setting out plants: as soon as the ground warms, late spring, after danger of frost, etc. Then count backwards to figure out when to start seeds, adding 1 week for hardening off. For really long season crops that might be hard in your climate—for me it’s habeneros and watermelons—count the “days to maturity” backward from your fall frost date, to make sure you get them going early enough.

Soil

You can make or buy a seed starting mix. There are a lot of ethical issues surrounding growing media like sphagnum, peat, and perlite, so chew that over before you buy the detritus of what was once mountains and wetlands. I’m not going to reprint recipes here but they’re easy to find. I use a DIY version of Eliot Coleman’s soil block recipe from New Organic Grower.

Humidity

Humidity covers mimic the rain cycle for better germination.

Humidity covers mimic the rain cycle for better germination.

 

Humidity is the combination of water and heat, and is essential to good germination rates.

Cover your seed trays with either a commercial cover or plastic wrap and a seal of duct tape. The warmth from the heating pad evaporates water in the soil, which then condenses on the cover and rains back on the soil.  This gives even moisture and nutrient dispersal across the seedbed and simulates the spring rain and dew cycles. You lose moisture and warmth when you remove the covers, so no peeking until you see green.

Temperature

Seeds: Seeds need warmth to germinate; look up the ideal germination temperature for your seeds. Heating pads really increase germination rates, and they sell ones specifically for seeds that are waterproof and don’t get too hot. That said, you can use a regular one, just be careful with water around it and know that it may get too hot. Test it first by putting it under an empty seedbed for 24 hours and then temping the soil.

This soil is nice and warm for my ashwaganda seeds.

This soil is nice and warm for my ashwaganda seeds.

Plants: In the beginning keeping trays warm can be a challenge, but as the plants grow they put off their own heat so make sure you have a way to cool down the room if necessary. A fan can prevent fainting on warm spring days. If you’re growing plants with different temperature needs, do it in stages: brassicas first, then move them to a cold frame as the nightshades start setting true leaves, etc.

Water

Seeds: Watering is risky: seeds can rot or get dislodged, or soil gets muddy and cracks when it dries so seedlings can’t push through. If the soil dries out under the humidity cover, use a spray bottle, or fill 1 cell with water to increase the humidity.

Plants: Once your seedlings have unfolded, remove the cover and give them a drink without knocking them over. Soil should be dry but not baked. Under-watering twice a day is better than overwatering once a day, to avoid damping off. More water is usually not the solution to any problem, unless the plants have bent over away from the light in a deep bow, in which case a little sip will perk them right up. Less is more with water!

Light

Seeds: Window light is enough for light-dependent germinators. If grow lights are turned on before germination, the soil can get way too hot.

Plants: When plants are up, remove covers and position lights several inches above seedlings so they don’t get leggy. If you’re using a window, back it with a mirror so the plants get light from both directions. There’s a lot of discussion about how many hours a day seedlings need to flourish, and the answer is it depends on the plant and the kind of light. I give them my day, because they’re going to have to make it in my climate anyway.

Simulating Natural Conditions

This is where it gets complicated. A lot of herbs, especially the at-risk ones, are fussy germinators—they just won’t grow under normal conditions, or you get a terrible germination rate. The key is to ask yourself what natural conditions the seed would be exposed to in its natural environment. Many resources have this information, but I’ve found that many seeds benefit from these treatments even if the books don’t mention it. Again, those of us in harsh climates do things a little differently than our more temperate counterparts.

Allow space for intuition: watch how and when wild plants grow, and build an understanding of their needs. The following techniques cover most natural conditions that can be a limiting factor in germination.

Stratification mimics the freeze-thaw cycle of winter and spring. For wet stratification, wrap seeds in a moist paper towel or rag, then put it inside a plastic bag in the fridge, away from high-moisture foods like tomatoes and apples (and then take your tomatoes and apples out of the fridge before you destroy the nutrients, goofball). For dry stratification—this is less common—put the seeds in a pot with a little soil, again in the fridge.

Stratify fussy germinators that are native to places with winter. Some seeds need a long time, like 3 months of wintery conditions. Others need multiple stratification: cold for a month, then room temperature, then cold again for a few weeks, room temperature, cold for 1 week, etc. to really simulate spring; I do this routine for our fussy woodland natives, as well as difficult-to-germinate cold climate natives from elsewhere. It’s generally the first thing I try if I don’t know what to do.

Scarification mimics the physical breakdown of the seed coating in an animal’s digestive tract. Just sand the seeds a little, or if they’re big enough, nick them with a knife. Think about which plants rely on animals to spread their seeds, as well as seeds that have really thick, impervious coatings, so they can last a long time in the soil before germinating. Usually scarification is combined with a second treatment, like compost or soaking.

Fire is pretty specific to prairie natives, although I bet there’s a bunch of plants that would like this treatment out on the West Coast where they have all those forest fires–I don’t know because I don’t grow any, but if you do, let me know if fire improves your germination! Anyway, spread the seeds on a baking tray or something else that won’t catch fire and use a grill lighter to burn them (gently! gently!).  Some people plant the seeds first and then burn the soil, or even build an actual fire on top.  This is often followed by soaking—if you’re Echinacea pallida, your spring routine is ruled by flood and fire.

Soaking is probably the most common and combines well with most other treatments. It mimics rain and spring flooding, a biological alarm clock, and softens hard seed coatings, making it easier for the seedlings to poke through. Use non-chlorinated water and soak the seeds for a day or so. If you really have to use chlorinated water, let it sit on the counter for 24 hours before you put the seeds in.

Compost gives a nutrient boost to seeds that have to pass through an animal’s digestive tract before germinating. It’s almost always combined with scarification. Put a little compost in the bottom of the seed tray with your regular soil mix on top. The water cycle within the seed tray will disperse the nutrients slowly and make them accessible to the seedlings. Most seeds do not need this, and in fact can be burned by compost, so only do it if it’s actually necessary.

Overwintering is appropriate for cold climate natives, if you get to it in the fall. It provides the benefits of stratification and soaking that so many plants need. Prep fertile garden beds in the fall, direct seed, and mulch well—think dead prairie grass or goldenrod, really protective. In mild climates, people overwinter seeds outside in pots, but in cold climates that’s unreliable because there’s no natural insulation that the ground would normally provide. I’ve had this work occasionally, but really only with plants that are actually native to a place that routinely has 4+ feet of snow. A shed can work, but then you have to remember to water it in the spring.

Good luck, hooray for spring, and send me your success and failures!


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Homegrown Tea

As the snow piles up and icicles grow from the eaves, tea becomes a central part of my life. Drinking a steaming, fragrant cup of last summer’s bounty in front of the woodstove on these long winter nights is a cold weather ritual that resonates to my bones. I love the seasons; I love how the most basic ways I spend my time change throughout the year in perfect rhythm with the world around me, and how just when it starts to feel a little stale—say, April snowstorms—the earth is changing to its next phase, as the earliest plants push their way towards the sun. But now it is only the beginning of the season, when the smell of woodsmoke and the silence of a snowstorm feel like coming home after too long away. In honor of this season of joyful homebodiness, of planning next years’ crops and spinning wool by the fire late into the night, here is an explanation of how to make a truly beautiful cup of tea.

tea

A Good Start Tea is the backbone of herbal medicine and it is often the easiest way to get herbs into your daily life. If you have wanted to fiddle with herbs but are having trouble finding the rhythm to actually do it, try drinking a cup of herbal tea every night after supper, when the day’s tasks are complete and you can relax with a book or guitar and just be. This practice helps put the days’ worries to rest, soothes us after overeating at supper, makes up for that last beer, and settles our minds for sleep. It’s surprisingly effective at giving us a good start tomorrow, and it’s an easy stepping-stone to inviting herbs into your life.

Many folks who drink medicinal tea as part of their daily routine like to make a large amount at once to drink throughout the day.  To do this, make a quart jar or 2 of tea, let it cool, and refrigerate. It’s good for 24 hours.

Healing Ritual The ritual of drinking tea plays a powerful role in healing and maintaining health.  Tea as a medicinal form is a full sensory experience that can be extremely soothing.  That deep breath of fragrant steam when you first lift the cup contributes to relaxation, promoting health and healing. As all the yoga folks will tell you, deep breathing engages the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing our bodies time to ruminate and heal from the hectic go-go-go of our cortisol-fueled lives. Taking the time to make and drink a cup of tea can be very grounding, a short break from our obligations and to-do lists.  The ritual of tea drinking is a powerful one that can’t be discounted in any conversation about tea.

Unique Medicine Some health conditions can be best served by tea, as hot water has its own medicinal attributes in addition to whatever herbs you add.  People who use herbs to help with anxiety find the ritual of tea drinking very soothing, and it is a safe, reliable ritual to engage in (as opposed to the ritual of smoking cigarettes, for example).  The same can be said of herbs to enhance sleep: the tea itself is relaxing.  For cold and flu, tea soothes sore throats and rehydrates us, in addition to whatever medicinal stuff you threw in there.  The heat of tea is wonderfully soothing to belly aches.  For folks concerned about chronic kidney stones (did you drink Beast Ice for 10 years?) or urinary tract infections, the more you pee the better, so take your herbs in tea.  The list goes on, but the point is to consider how hot, fragrant, medicinal water can benefit your health when you are deciding how to take an herb.

Drying and Storing Herbs

It’s obviously the wrong time of year to be drying herbs for tea, but it’s the right time of year to be planning next year’s garden. As you consider companion plants, culinary herbs, and general bounty, think about what herbs you might add for tea.

Drying herbs is easy. For most herbs, hang them in bunches or dry them flat on screens or stretched pieces of lace or muslin. Some herbs—the very dense, resinous, or gooey herbs like mullein, calendula, and comfrey—are harder to dry without molding, but there are tricks like using a fan, leaving them in the sun for a few hours before bringing them in, etc. that can be found online.

Store dried herbs in resealable bags, containers, or jars, in a dark, cool place. I have a ton of dried herbs, so I store mine in bags inside of those giant light-tight plastic containers (there are 6, and they’re alphabetized…) but if you don’t have too many, jars in a cabinet works great. Just don’t store them over the stove or fridge, where they’re exposed to heat and humidity, or they’ll get stale or moldy.

If you’re a gardener, storing your own herbs is effortless and rewarding. Blending your own tea is a natural extension of consuming your garden’s bounty that will continue throughout the year. If you’re not gardening, you can buy dried herbs online or from a local herbalist and still blend your own tea.

Choosing Good Tea Herbs

Taste There are some herbs that taste truly terrible. Don’t torture yourself. You get 0 points for suffering through a cup of valerian, kava kava, and spilanthes. If it tastes gross, make a tincture (see Country Grind #1 or my blog for instructions if you don’t know how).

Solubility Tea is appropriate for herbs with water-soluble medicine (constituents).  That means the medicine comes out in water, as opposed to alcohol.  All plants contain both alcohol- and water-soluble constituents; it’s just a matter of the best way to extract the medicine you’re trying to use.

Picking water-soluble herbs is easy—just think of what you’ve drank before. Any of the herbs that are generally sold in commercial tea blends are high in water-soluble constituents, for example mint, hibiscus, chamomile, dandelion, rosehips, oatstraw, raspberry leaf, and holy basil.  Any herbs that are gooey (demulcent) when you taste them are high in water-soluble constituents, too, like violet, mullein, and borage.  Likewise, very aromatic herbs do great in tea, like ginger, elecampane, lemon balm, hyssop, prickly ash, and licorice. Also, food herbs such as nettles, burdock, and chickweed are high in water-soluble constituents. Right there is a reasonable list to get you started and I bet you can name half a dozen more off the top of your head.

Composition of the Perfect Cup

teapot

Blending your own tea seems a little daunting, but it’s really pretty straightforward—and then you have fresher, higher quality tea tailored to your needs, and at a fraction of the store price. What Celestial Seasonings knows and most of us don’t is essentially just balancing flavors in an intentional way. A knowledge of herbal energetics really helps with this, but that’s a little complicated for now—suffice it to say there is more to this that you can learn if you want.

It’s totally okay to throw one herb in your cup and call it good; mint tea is a standard for a reason. But if you want to do some blending, choose a few herbs using these general guidelines, or make up your own. What it really comes down to is activating all your senses and taste buds at once.

Purpose What is your tea for? Emotional balance, digestive problems, immunity, overall health? Start there and think of a couple herbs you could use. Try to identify if they are warming or cooling, drying or moistening in your body, and use that to narrow down your choices based on what you want.

Use All Your Senses The fragrance and appearance of the tea have a huge impact on how much you enjoy drinking it. Bright colors glow among clumps of green leaves, so think of fruits like rosehip, schisandra, prickly ash berries, and tiny dried flowers like lavender. Large dried flowers will open in the cup to be little bright surprises, like calendula, rose, and red clover. This is in addition to the medicinal qualities, taste, and fragrance they add.

Balance Your Blend Now pick an herb that is very fragrant, an herb that is tangy or sour, an herb that tastes great, an herb that looks beautiful, and an herb that is sweetly mild tasting. That last one is essential: it will give your tea depth of flavor and provide a backbone for everything else; it’s the central element that holds everything else together.

Like So…Okay so maybe my beautiful herb is red clover, fragrant herb is hyssop, tangy herb is rosehip, incredibly delicious herb is holy basil, and mild herb is oatstraw. I’ve made a blend that will increase overall health, tonify my endocrine system, lessen depletion or adrenal exhaustion, balance my cycle, protect me from toxins, nurture my nervous system, mood, and sleep cycle, protect against sickness and infection, and is high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. I can make a month’s worth of this tea for the cost of a few days supply of good loose tea at the store, if I buy dried herbs; considering I have these herbs dried from my garden, it will be free. It will also look, smell, and taste wonderful—which is really the point, anyway.

Actually Making Tea

There is more to life than teabags. If you separate your tea ingredients into infusions and decoctions, you will have much stronger medicine and fuller flavors, as tough plant parts need more oomph in their boil than delicate parts (this is true of people too).

Infusions

An infusion is usual tea: hot water, herbs, done.  We make infusions of delicate plant parts like leaves and flowers—think chamomile, mint, lemon balm, etc. They’ll fall apart to mush and shreds if you boil them.

To make an infusion, boil water in the kettle. Crush dried plants between your hands or chop fresh plants to release the fragrance and increase surface area for the water to do its thing.  Use 1 to 2 Tablespoons of dried herbs or 2 to 4 Tablespoons of fresh herbs per cup of water, adjusted for taste and strength. Or use a pinch of this and a dab of that, which is how I do it.

Pour boiling water over herbs.  Cover and infuse until it cools to a non-tongue destroying temperature; the longer it infuses, the stronger the medicine will be.  Strain and consume in massive quantities.

Decoctions

A decoction is when herbs are simmered, as opposed to having water poured over them.  Decoctions are used for denser, tougher plant parts, which need more time and bubbling power to extract the deep goodness.  These include roots, barks, fruits, and seeds, like ginger, burdock, fennel, elderberry, and black birch.

To make a decoction, simmer water in a small saucepan.  You want to add a little extra for evaporation.  Chop or grate fresh herbs.  Crush dried herbs between your hands.  Use 1 to 2 Tablespoons of dried herbs or 2 to 4 Tablespoons of fresh herbs per cup of water, adjusted for taste and strength (or a pinch and a dab).

Add herbs to the simmering water, reduce heat, and cover.  Allow herbs to toil and trouble until the room is fragrant and your tea is a rich, dark color, 10-20 minutes, then strain and feel really good about your herbal prowess.  Be careful not to burn decoctions or you’ll have to start over due to unavoidable grossness.

Have a beautiful winter and happy kitchen witching.

This article originally appeared in The Country Grind Quarterly. 


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Bark Harvest & Ethical Wildcrafting

Autumn is the season for bark harvest, one of the most fulfilling medicine making tasks. A walk through the woods on a crisp fall day followed by several hours in the sun as the days grow shorter and the world goes to sleep—it is definitely worth the effort, and a few trees will provide a lifetime’s medicine.

Bark is highly potent, as it is constantly growing and changing based on the needs of the tree and the influence of its surroundings. Interacting with the wider world makes for strong constituents—as in “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”—so we make medicine from plant compounds generated to ward off pests, disease, sun damage, etc. Trees are part of a larger system, so they’re forced to interact and protect themselves, making strong compounds along the way. Bark contains the growing cells of the tree, as well as the cells required to transport water and sugar for photosynthesis—on a cellular level, bark is always interacting with the rest of the organism, the mycorrhizae in the soil, and changes in its surroundings, so it contains quite a lot of plant magic.

Ethical Wildcrafting

Ethical wildcrafting is the practice of harvesting plants and trees conscientiously, to avoid damaging the health of the population or the overall ecological system. It’s especially important here because if you don’t harvest bark properly, you’ll kill the tree, which is like killing a chicken for the eggs. The basic principles are simple: don’t kill something when taking part of it will do; don’t take more than you need; and don’t take more than the population can stand. This issue is close to my heart, as I’ve watched plant populations decline as people violate the sanctity of the natural world in the name of greed. Ignoring the longevity of other creatures is buying into the mythos of man as supreme ruler over the birds and fishes—which solidly places us on the path toward unwitting acceptance of large-scale corporate rape and pillage of the natural world, violating the basic principles of land stewardship and of simply being a decent person. Harvest intentionally and teach the people around you, so our natural world stays awesome.

Don’t Kill It This is an issue with any wildcrafting or wild foods harvest, but it’s blatantly obvious when you harvest trees. Trees are keystone species, meaning they form the center of the complex ecological web that surrounds them, from plants that only grow in soil with the pH maintained by that tree’s leaves, to the lichen on its branches, to the birds that eat the bugs that eat the wood, to the foxes that eat the birds…you get the idea. Trees are important fellows among their woodland brethren, so it’s easy to imagine the impact of removing one for a shitty reason, like by accident. The most common way this happens in wildcrafting is by girdling, or removing a section of bark around the trunk of the tree. Girdling kills the tree because the leaves and roots can’t trade water and sugar, leaving the tree to starve to death. Girdling is one thing if you’re carving a homestead out of the wilderness—it’s a time-honored way of clearing forest—but it’s something entirely different if you’re just doing it because you don’t know any better. Girdling is specific to trees, but the overall principle applies to any plant: don’t kill it if you can avoid it. For example, instead of taking the whole root of a perennial, cut off most of the root, then replant the root bud where the stem comes out so the plant will grow back. If you’re harvesting leaves, cut the stem above a leaf node so it will easily regrow, instead of cutting it off at the ground. This is an easy habit to get in to.

Take What You Need… There’s no reason for wildcrafted herbs to end up in your compost. It’s better to go back for more than it is to take too much the first time.

…But Not Too Much When harvesting wild plants, take about 1/5 of the population, max. I’ve heard this explained as “1 each for the animals, birds, fish, plants, and people,” and “1 left for each of the four directions,” but those are maybe a little out-there for me. I just don’t take more than 1/5. It’s easy—if you’re really not sure, count to 5 and take the 5th plant. It’s especially important not to take too much when you’re harvesting from a small population, a rare or threatened plant, or at a place that’s really popular for wildcrafting— in these situations, you might decide to harvest far less to avoid having a negative impact. The United Plant Savers website has great resources to tell you if a plant is threatened.

How to Harvest Bark

Tools:

  • Small handsaw
  • Pruners
  • A small, sharp knife, not serrated
  • Quilt or bed sheet, spread on the ground in a sunny spot

Timing Harvest bark when nights are cool and days are warm and crisp, as the leaves change and fall. You want the tree’s energy to be focused on shutting things down for winter, so it’s heavily present in the moving part of the bark. Bark harvest is best done in a group, since the yield is high and it’s more medicine than you really need just for your family; together with friends, it takes on an air of cider-pressing or finishing a quilt, celebrating community and the work of your hands.

Pick a Tree Common species that make great medicine include willow, cherry, witch hazel, sassafras, birch, black haw, and many others. It’s easiest to find the trees in the early fall, so you can positively identify them when they still have leaves, and come back when the time for harvest is nigh. Choose a smaller tree so you can reach the branches.

Next, taste the tree: cut off a little twig, the smaller the better, chew on it until you get a real good sense of the flavor, then spit. With a little experience, you’ll be able to tell how strong the medicine will be from this tree. Even if you’ve never tasted this medicine before, know that strongly medicinal bark will effect your mouth: willow sucks up all the spit, sassafras makes your mouth feel wet, black birch tastes like root beer, cherry tastes like nasty almond air freshener (or cyanide…) so if you don’t notice anything, even if you don’t know what it should taste like, move on.

If you’re not routinely tasting the plants you harvest, get in the habit. Medicinal content changes throughout the season and from year to year, based on where each tree is in its growing & reproductive cycle, and what its life has been like this year. Triumphing over adversity makes us all stronger, but sometimes it takes a while for our personal strength to recover from a major life-changing setback, so even if that particular tree isn’t strong enough this year, come back next year and see what it says to you.

Harvest So now you’re sure you’ve got the right tree, and it tastes great/terrible so you know it’s got some magic in it. The next step is to harvest the bark. Choose a small branch, maybe the size of your arm or smaller. Find a place where the branch branches, then identify the collar, or the fatter part at the base of the branch. Use your saw to cut the branch just beyond the collar; if you cut into the collar itself, the tree won’t heal right and can rot. Make your cut parallel with the collar, so water won’t collect in the cut. Don’t let the wood split or crack, cut it cleanly so you don’t hurt the part of the branch you’re leaving behind; if necessary, cut part of the way through from the bottom up, then finish by cutting from the top down. Remember that the priority is to not hurt the tree: don’t take more than the tree can spare, don’t take more than you can use, and don’t make cuts that will hurt the tree long term.

Process Bring the branches to your blanket in the sun. Look them over carefully and wipe off any dirt, lichen, insects etc. Use the pruners to remove tiny twigs and pile them up—they’re medicinal but you don’t need to shave them. You can cut the branches into smaller pieces at this point to make them more manageable, 3-foot sections work well. When you’re ready to shave bark, sit on the blanket with one end of a branch in your lap, and the other braced on the blanket in front of you. Use your knife to shave down the length of the branch, removing long strips of bark. You want to make sure you get the cambium, the inner bark that contains all the good stuff, but not the wood. Cambium can be white, green, yellow, even pink, and is generally smooth, moist, and clearly alive—it’s the part that splits into the cells responsible for all that transport and growth stuff. If you’re shaving off wood, make your cuts shallower; if you’re leaving the cambium on the wood, go back and shave it again. If you’re struggling to shave the bark, try switching knives—sometimes a different size or shape blade does the trick. When you’re done, the branch should be all wood, no bark visible. The bark will have fallen on your nice clean quilt, so it’s easy to gather.

Making Bark Medicine

To make bark medicine, you can tincture it fresh or dry it for later use.

Dried Spread the bark in a single layer on a drying rack in a cool, dark place, and stir regularly until dry, a few days. Once it’s dry, store in jars, bags, or containers, in a dark place. Dried bark is useful for tea, poultices, baths, salves, or to make syrups or tinctures later.

You can build a drying rack in a few hours by screwing 1×2’s into rectangles, attaching legs, then stapling lace or muslin over the frames. Alternatively, pin the corners of large pieces of lace to the ceiling, then place the herbs you want to dry on top.

Tinctures Bark tinctures best at a lower ratio, like 1:3 or 1:4 for a fresh tincture or 1:4 or 1:5 for a dried tincture, because it is so fibrous and dense—it needs more liquid to extract all the medicine. Most barks prefer lower alcohol content, too, so use 50%-60% alcohol for a fresh tincture or 40%-50% for a dried tincture. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, please look back at the article about making tinctures in Country Grind #1 or read about it on my blog.

I hope you decide to give this a try—it’s really satisfying, especially in January when you clear up that cough with your own cherry bark, or fix a brutal headache with willow you processed yourself. I love hearing your successes & failures with medicine making, so let me know how it goes!

This article originally appeared in The Country Grind Quarterly. 


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Make Your Own Herbal Allergy Syrup

This article was originally published in The Country Grind Quaterly, an excellent rag full of fabulous articles. Check it out.

Seasonal allergies can destroy an otherwise beautiful day, especially among those of us who have done a lot of travelling or have moved from one bioregion to another. Many folks turn to Benadryl in desperation, then waste the rest of what would otherwise be a lovely, productive day sacked out on the porch with a medicine-head high. While I understand the desperation behind reaching for the magical decongestants, I urge you to reach for homemade allergy syrup instead. You can make it yourself, and you can still drive the tractor without fear of passing out and rolling the thing. If you take it every day the intensity of your allergies may lessen over time. Seriously, the pharmaceutical companies will not take as good care of you as you can take of yourself.

Allergies Attack! Allergies are essentially your immune system overreacting and slaughtering innocent bystanders. Your immune cells have to tell the difference between things that belong in your body and things that don’t, and then annihilate the intruders to protect the fortress. If your immune cells are lazy or drunk on the job, they could miss an intruder—and then you get sick—or they could overreact and attack cells that aren’t really a threat. Pollen, dog hair, dust, and small children are not threats to your wellbeing, and yet some people develop allergies.

It’s not clear what causes folks to develop allergies, but it’s probably connected to an inappropriate inflammatory response related to chronic physical stress, especially from eating unhealthy fats, having chronic vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and being exposed to significant pollution. There’s a reason allergies and asthma affect the urban poor more than other populations: if your body is in a constant state of hypervigilance (from pollution, junk food etc.), your immune cells are more likely to overreact because they’re halfway to red alert already.

How to Eat Right, in 15 Seconds or Less: Eat real food. Immune cells are made out of fat and need vitamins and minerals to work. If you’re plagued by allergies, quit eating that processed garbage and focus on anti-inflammatory foods, especially omega-3 fatty acids (“good fats”) like in avocados, nuts, and fish. Vitamins and minerals are found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and animal products—in other words, actual food. If you eat like crap your cells will be made out of crap. Don’t be a dumbass and buy into the myth that the FDA or big pharma has your back because they don’t, fool—they directly benefit from your poor health choices.

Honey, Nectar of the Gods/Bees: Honey is a famous seasonal allergy tonic (something you take for a long time to reduce a chronic problem). I also use it as a formula base for other kinds of allergies and chronic inflammation including inflammatory autoimmune disorders. Promoting healthy immune function reduces inappropriate responses like allergies, so honey probably works because it’s an anti-inflammatory and a probiotic nutritive. Honey contains vitamins, minerals, amino acids, bioavailable enzymes that aid digestion, and healthy bacteria that enhance the function of your body. These nutritive aspects of honey are anabolic, meaning honey builds the body’s reserves of strength and nutrition, enhancing overall structure and function. Honey is especially appropriate for folks who tend towards deficiency and are chronically frazzled or worn out.

Only use raw honey because pasteurization kills the probiotic critters and denatures many of the proteins that give honey its medicine. Use local honey exclusively; yes, honey from Brazil is cheaper than the fancy local stuff, but the fancy local stuff contains trace amounts of the pollen that’s actually making you feel sick, and exposure to tiny amounts of pollen over time desensitizes your immune system. My favorite is wildflower honey, which is dark and rich with all that wild plant magic, but blueberry or tupelo or whatever is made in your area will do just fine.  More about honey here.

So to make a really great formula against allergies, start with honey. You can keep it simple and just eat a tablespoon of raw, local honey every morning (darn), or you can add herbs to make it work better. Honey will help allergies eventually, but if you feel sick today you want something that will help right now—and that’s where the herbs come in.

The Herbs

As always, I strongly recommend choosing herbs that grow in your bioregion. These examples have a wide range, but you’re better off using a local substitute than ordering this or that miracle wonder herb from wherever. The land around you provides; figure out what categories (herbal actions) you need, and then find a local version. No sense in ordering something from Siberia when a fresher, cleaner version is growing in your neighbor’s hedgerow. Remember to look up any herb you’re planning to use to make sure its precautions are safe for you.

Goldenrod: High summer is the ideal time to make your allergy syrup because it’s goldenrod’s heyday. Goldenrod is a strong astringent, so it sucks up extra moisture and tightens mucous membranes (mouth, sinuses, GI tract, etc.), giving an anti-inflammatory effect. When you take the gooey wetness and inflammation out of mucous membranes, most allergy symptoms disappear (also great for UTI’s, but that’s another topic). The beauty of goldenrod is that it kicks in right away: you feel sick, you take goldenrod, you feel better. If you don’t feel better, take more goldenrod, and then you feel better. It’s safe for your kids, too.  Goldenrod

Poor goldenrod has a false reputation for being a major allergen. We can be allergic to pollen that floats through the air from wind-pollinated plants. Although goldenrod is blooming when folks are sneezing, it’s pollinated by bees. Goldenrod pollen isn’t floating through the air, hoping to land on a flower and make little goldenrod babies to continue the genetic line—the bees do that. The culprit is ragweed, a wide spread wind-pollinated plant that blooms at the same time as goldenrod. Looking at the two plants side by side, it’s easy to see that ragweed is wind pollinated, with its little green flowers hanging down from its armpits and swaying in the breeze, whereas goldenrod is covered in bees, who are in turn covered in its pollen.

There’s a staggering number of species of goldenrod (Solidago spp.), and you can use any species for medicine as long as chewing on the leaf dries your mouth out unpleasantly right away. Harvest goldenrod by cutting the stem with pruners. Choose flowers that are about to open; they will continue to open as they dry. Chop goldenrod up and tincture it fresh at 1:2 75%, or hang the stems in a dark, cool place to dry for tea.

Nettles: I’m sorry to repeat myself, but nettle is so wonderful against allergies that it would be herbal sacrilege not to mention it here. Nettle is a cooling anti-inflammatory strength-builder (like honey!) that is a famous tonic against seasonal allergies and allergies that manifest themselves in skin and mucous membranes. Using nettles in your allergy syrup requires some planning ahead, since we harvest nettles in the spring. I use spring nettles tincture in allergy formula, or you can use dried nettles. It’s important not to harvest nettle leaf once it blooms, as it can have weird effects on your hormones and irritate the kidneys. Please see the article in Issue #2 for more about harvesting nettles.

Holy Basil: Holy Basil, also called Tulsi, Tulasi, or Sacred Basil, is an adaptogen, an herb that balances different body systems by changing how our endocrine system (hormones) reacts to stress. Different adaptogens work best on different body systems, called having an affinity. Holy basil has an affinity for the immune system: if the immune system is overreacting, like with allergies, holy basil will calm it down; if it’s underreacting and you’re sick all the time, holy basil will jumpstart it. It also has an affinity for the nervous system (stress, anxiety, depression, memory) and digestive issues related to stress or immune function, among other uses. You should feel something immediately, but its real effects take time to kick in. Taken daily, holy basil can help retrain your immune system’s lousy response to allergens.Holy Basil

Harvest holy basil when it’s in full bloom by cutting it part of the way up the stem, at an angle above a leaf node, to give it a chance to come back this season. Hang dry for tea, or tincture fresh at 1:2 75%.

Some Other Adaptogens: Adaptogens are one of the main types of herbs that people order from far away because of their supposed miraculous properties. Again, there’s something in your area that will work, you just have to figure out what it is. I love holy basil for allergy syrup because it’s delicious, effective, and it’s insect-pollinated (meaning you’re not allergic to it and it’s got trace pollen). That said, there are a lot of other adaptogens that work well on the immune system, so if your growing season is too short for holy basil, try something else. Nice cold climate adaptogens include artist’s conk (Northern reishi, Ganoderma applanatum or tsugae, which is milder), chaga fungus (Inonotus obliquus), licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota or G. glabra), and schisandra (S. chinensis). If you can’t grow holy basil, maybe one of these will be your herb.  Ganoderma

 

Seasonal Allergy Syrup Recipe

In its simplest form, syrup is medicinal tea mixed with sweetener. This one is made to work well and last for a long time. It contains tea, honey, and tincture, yielding a delicious, potent medicine.  It tastes like medicinal candy and is safe for kids. You can substitute dried herbs for fresh if you’re making it out of season, but then also try to make a fresh one next summer–it’s very potent.  Yields about 15 ounces.

You will need:

6 oz raw local honey

Herbs:

  • Goldenrod, 2 T fresh
  • Holy Basil, 2 T fresh
  • Nettles, 1-2 T dried
  • Your 4th herb, ½ T dried or 1 T fresh

1 oz each of the following tinctures:

  • Goldenrod
  • Holy Basil
  • Nettles

Follow the syrup-making instructions here, way down at the bottom.  Put about half of each herb in the honey and half in the tea. 

Happy kitchen witching.  Let me know how it goes for you.


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Nettles, Burdock, & How to Make Tinctures That Actually Work and Don’t Taste Like Death

This is an excerpt of a longer article originally published in Country Grind Quarterly about spring tonics and tincture-making.  Much more info here about making weight-to-volume tinctures, and some gems here on troubleshooting tinctures.  If you’re in Vermont, come to the tincture-making class in June!  Info here.

Spring is the time to start making your own herbal medicine, or get way better at it, because you have the whole growing season ahead of you to screw up and try again. Almost over night, medicine is popping up out of the ground all over the yard and the woods and the roadsides—and at the same time, we’re antsy to get outside without the coveralls, snow boots, and wool we’ve been sweating in for the last 4-6 months.

Weedy spring medicines called spring tonics get a lot of attention this time of year. Their medicine is gentle and cleansing, helping us shed the sluggishness of fireside hibernation, too much sleep and too much booze and not enough fresh vegetables. These herbs stimulate and rejuvenate the liver, kidneys, digestion, blood and lymph system, energizing us for the growing season. Tonics should be taken every day for best effect. Common examples include dandelion, burdock, yellow dock, cleavers, chickweed, nettles, and many other early weeds, depending on where you live. We’ll cover nettles and burdock as examples and talk about how to preserve them in alcohol (tincture), because digging up a bunch of burdock doesn’t do you any good if you can’t use it.

One thing to note is that many spring tonics have high mineral & soluble fiber content, neither of which dissolves in alcohol. If you want the fiber or minerals, make tea, food, or tincture them in vinegar.

Like always, look up any herb you’re thinking of using to make sure it’s safe for you if you have health concerns, and make sure you’re harvesting the right plants.

Burdock is a cool, moist, calming anti-inflammatory rejuvenator. Use the tinctured root to stimulate sluggish digestion; cleanse the liver, gall bladder, kidneys, and blood; and relieve hot, congested skin conditions like acne and boils. It’s soothing to PMS symptoms with liver involvement, like acne and constipation, combined with a woman’s herb like black haw. Use it to cleanse the liver during recovery from substance abuse. Root tea (decoction) is used to relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, or as a gentle every day medicine against chronic urinary tract infections and kidney stones. The root is high in minerals and soluble fiber, so the tea is useful against anemia, to help recover from antibiotic use with probiotic foods, and to help neutralize high cholesterol and reproductive hormone imbalances with a woman’s herb. The root is good in soups and you get the effects of the tea. Seeds can be collected for a strong diuretic medicine, but in the fall so we’ll skip it.

Harvesting burdock Look for the 2nd year’s growth: the leaves will be larger, usually in an area that went weedy last year. Dig roots in the early morning during the new moon, within a day or 2 of rain for the best medicine.

Nettle is a cooling anti-inflammatory strength-builder that stimulates kidney function and cleanses the blood (alterative). It’s used in tincture, tea, or food for a wide range of conditions of deficiency. Use it for any deficient depression or exhaustion, when you feel dragged down, frazzled, and overwhelmed, with herbs for the nervous system (nervines). Nettle is a tonic against seasonal allergies and allergies that manifest in skin and mucous membranes (like sinuses). Use it for skin conditions related to stress, fatigue, or dryness. Nettles stimulate milk production in nursing mamas and protect against postpartum depression and exhaustion.

Because of its effect on kidney function, the tea is protective against chronic urinary tract infections and helps relieve symptoms of arthritis and gout with anti-inflammatory herbs like willow, and high blood pressure with a heart tonic like hawthorn. Tea and food are high in minerals, so nettle helps protect against iron-deficiency anemia, osteoporosis, and electrolyte deficiencies. It combines beautifully with other spring tonics like burdock for diuretic and mineral benefits. Cook the leaves like kale for springtime joy. Fresh seeds & roots are also collected for very strong medicine (not a tonic), as a diuretic and adrenal rejuvenator.

Harvesting nettle Harvest on a sunny day during the full moon. Wear gloves to cut young nettles off at an angle ½ inch above a leaf node (so you can cut again this season). Never harvest nettles after they bloom with tiny hanging green flowers from their armpits, they can have major effects on hormones. Hold the end of the stem in one hand and strip the leaves off away from you. Only harvest nettles from good clean soil, they uptake heavy metals.

Making Fresh Herb Tinctures

So in the original Country Grind article, this is where I talk about all the nitty gritty tincture-making details of ratios, concentrations, fresh vs. dried plant matter, solubility, and the rest.  If you want those details, please read this much more detailed article on how to make tinctures.  Otherwise, read on for the specific recipes.

To illustrate how to follow a recipe to make genuinely good tinctures, and in honor of spring: the nettle leaf tincture represents higher alcohol tinctures of delicate plant parts, and burdock root tincture represents lower alcohol tinctures of dense plant parts. This recipe can be applied to any herb you would tincture. I’m using fluid and solid ounces, but if you’re a metric user it works just as well in ml and gm.

You will need Grain alcohol; scale; measuring cup; knife and cutting board; clean canning jars; waxed paper or clean muslin; labels or scrap paper; packing tape. Eventually, a potato ricer or press.

1. Pick the ratio, 1:2 to 1:6.

Nettles: 1:3

Burdock 1:4

2.  Pick the liquid concentration, 40% to 95%.

Nettles: 75%

Burdock 60%

3. Chop and weigh the herbs using ounces.  This number is the 1st number in the ratio (the 1); let’s say the herbs weigh 4 oz.

4. Multiply the weight of herbs by the second number in the ratio.  This number is the total volume of liquid.

Nettles: 4 oz nettles, 1:3 ratio, 4×3=12 oz liquid

Burdock: 4 oz burdock, 1:4 ratio, 4×4=16 oz liquid

5. Multiply liquid volume (the number you got in step 4) by the alcohol concentration you want.  This is the volume of alcohol. We’re pretending grain alcohol is 100% instead of 95% for our sanity.

Nettles: 12 oz liquid x75%=9 oz alcohol

Burdock: 16 oz liquid x60%=9.6, let’s say 10 oz alcohol

6. Subtract the alcohol volume from the total volume of liquid.  This is how much water you need.

Nettles: 12 oz liquid–9 oz alcohol=3 oz water

Burdock: 16 oz liquid–10 oz alcohol=6 oz water

7. Put herbs in jar, then pour alcohol and water over herbs. Mash the herbs down to keep them under the liquid.

Nettles: 4 oz herbs, 9 oz grain alcohol, 3 oz water

Burdock: 4 oz herbs, 10 oz grain alcohol, 6 oz water

8.  Line the lid with waxed paper or muslin so alcohol doesn’t eat away the lining of the lid and put metal and BPA’s in your tincture. Label with plant, date, moon phase, harvest location, etc.  Cover label with packing tape so it doesn’t disappear.

9.  Let sit 6 weeks or more in a cool, dark place, shaking occasionally.

10.  Strain, then squeeze the herbs in a potato ricer to extract the last, strongest part of the tincture.  If you don’t have a potato ricer you can use 2 plates but the potato ricer works better.  Feed the herbs to your chickens or the compost.

11.  Store in a glass jar or bottle in a cool, dark place. Dosage is different for different herbs, but for these 2 recipes try 1-3 droppers (1-3 ml) daily. Tinctures last for years.


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How to Make Herbal Teas

Herbal tea is the backbone of herbal medicine.  It is often one of the easiest ways to get herbs into your daily life, just by having a nice cup of delicious whatever in hot water as part of your routine.

Mullein, borage, and holy basil are all wonderful water-soluble herbs

Mullein, borage, and holy basil are all wonderful herbs with water-soluble properties that make delicious medicinal teas

However, not all herbal teas are prepared using the same method.  In herbal medicine making we talk about infusions and decoctions; this article explains the difference, when to use each method, and provides a simple how-to.  As always, I welcome your comments.

When Tea is the Right Choice

Solubility Tea is appropriate for herbs with water-soluble constituents.  That means the medicine in the herbs comes out in water, as opposed to alcohol.  All plants contain both alcohol- and water-soluble constituents; it’s just a matter of how the medicine you’re trying to use is best extracted.  There’s a longer discussion of solubility in this article about making tinctures.

Any of the herbs you can name that are generally sold in commercial tea blends are high in water-soluble constituents, for example mint, hibiscus, chamomile, dandelion, and holy basil.  Any herbs that are demulcent (gooey) when you taste them are high in water-soluble constituents, too, like violet, mullein, and borage.  Also, food herbs such as nettles and burdock, are high in water-soluble constituents.

Healing Ritual For many people, the ritual of drinking tea plays a powerful role in healing and maintaining health.  Tea as a medicinal form is a full sensory experience that can be extremely soothing.  Most people take a nice, deep breath of that fragrant steam when they first lift the cup.  That deep breath contributes to relaxation, which in turn promotes health and healing; as all the yoga folks will tell you, deep breathing engages the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing our bodies time to ruminate and heal from the hectic go-go-go of our cortisol-fueled lives.  Additionally, taking the time to make and drink a cup of tea can be very grounding, a short break from our obligations and to-do lists.  The ritual of tea-drinking is a powerful one that can’t be discounted in any discussion of tea.

Some health conditions can be better served by tea than by tinctures or capsules.  People who use water-soluble herbs to help with anxiety find the aforementioned ritual of tea drinking very soothing, and it is a safe, reliable ritual to engage in (as opposed to the ritual of smoking cigarettes, for example).  The same can be said of those who use herbs to enhance sleep: the tea itself is relaxing.  For colds and flus, mothers everywhere soothe sore throats and rehydrate their children with herbs in hot water.  The heat of tea is wonderfully soothing to belly aches.  For folks concerned about chronic kidney stones or urinary tract infections, the more you pee the better off you are, so take your herbs in tea.  The list goes on, but the point is to consider how fragrant, medicinal hot water can benefit your health when you are deciding how to take an herb.

Most importantly, make tea from herbs that taste good.  No need to make yourself miserable.

Infusions

An infusion is what most people think of when they think of making tea: hot water, herbs, done.  We make infusions of delicate plant parts like leaves and flowers.  Common examples of herbs to infuse include chamomile and mint.  Many people who use tea as part of their daily health routine like to make a large amount at night or in the morning to take to work or school with them.  To do this, use 2 quart jars to make your infusion and allow it to cool before refrigerating.

To make an infusion, boil water in your kettle.  If you have hard water or city water I recommend using filtered water in your kettle, but this isn’t strictly necessary.

While the water boils, prepare your leaves and flowers.  To release the fragrance and increase surface area for the water to do its thing, crush dried plant parts between your hands or chop fresh plant parts.  Use 1 to 2 Tablespoons of dried herbs or 2 to 4 Tablespoons of fresh herbs per cup of water, adjusted for personal taste and the strength of the herbs.  Put the herbs in a teapot, mug, or reusable muslin teabag.

Pour boiling water over herbs.  Cover and allow to infuse until cool enough to drink; the longer it infuses, the better the medicine will be.  Strain or drink through a bombilla.

Decoction

A decoction is when herbs are simmered in the water, as opposed to having water poured over them.  Decoctions are used to make tea from denser, tougher plant parts.  These include roots, barks, fruits, and seeds.  Common examples of herbs to decoct include ginger, burdock, fennel, elderberry, and black birch.  Just as with  infusions, you can make larger quantities ahead of time and refrigerate them.

To make a decoction bring water to a simmer in a small saucepan.  You want to add a little extra for evaporation, so for example if you want 2 cups of tea you’ll use about 18 oz water.  Again, filtered water is very nice for those of us who have hard water or city water.

Chop or grate fresh herbs.  Dried herbs do not need further prep.  Use 1 to 2 Tablespoons of dried herbs or 2 to 4 Tablespoons of fresh herbs per cup of water, adjusted for personal taste and the strength of the herbs.

Add the herbs to the simmering water, reduce heat, and cover.  Allow herbs to decoct until the room is fragrant and your tea is a rich, dark color, 10-20 minutes.  Be careful not to burn decoctions or you’ll have to start over due to unavoidable grossness.

Allow your decoction to cool to non-tongue destroying temperatures, then strain and enjoy.

Coming soon: an article on drying and storing your own tea herbs