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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Cold & Flu Tea Recipe

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.  teapot

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.

Monarda didyma

Monarda didyma

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. tea

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.

gardening weeds

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

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.  Some Tinctures BrewingHowever, 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.bark

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!


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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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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