USING MEDICINAL PLANTS WITH MARY ANN ARMBRUSTER
This is a departure from my normal column, but I was having a terrible writer’s block – I just could not think of anything to write – so Theresa suggested that I do this instead. I hope you enjoy it. Many of us want to use medicinal plants, but how to use them? It’s fairly simple, so here goes. Before I start, I have to include this NOTICE: The information presented here is meant for educational and historical use only. It is not meant as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment.
Today we will talk about infusions. To use plants, we want to extract the compounds inside the plants into a liquid that we can take or use in some way. This extraction is called an infusion. There are many different types of infusions, but the simplest is a tea. A tea is an infusion made using boiling or near-boiling water. If you can make cup of Lipton, you can make an herbal tea.
It’s certainly possible to make tea a cup at a time, but it is easier to make enough for 2-3 days at a time and refrigerate the unused portion, well covered, until needed.
HOW TO MAKE TEAS: For 1 cup: 1-3 teaspoons dried plant material to each cup of water depending on your preference. For 1 pint: 1 ounce dried material to a pint of water or 2 ounces of plant material to a quart. If you wish to use fresh plant material, use twice as much as you would
use dried. Place the plant material into a heat-safe container, bring water to a boil and pour over the plant material. Cover and steep 3 to 5 minutes, strain and use.
HOW TO MAKE COLD INFUSIONS: This is used for compounds that are heat-labile (those that will be damaged or destroyed by heat.) Use the same quantities as for a tea, but instead of using boiling water, mix the plant material with unheated water and allow it to steep for 30 to 60 minutes, strain and use. As with teas, it is easier to make enough for 2-3 days at a time and refrigerate the unused portion until needed.
HOW TO MAKE DECOCTIONS: Decoctions are used for hard plant material, like roots, bark or hard seeds. For a decoction, mix the plant material with water in a pot. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer gently for 20 to 60 minutes, strain and use. Refrigerating any unused decoction will keep it good for a few days.
HOW TO MAKE SYRUPS: Syrups are long-lasting and good-tasting infusions. To make a syrup, start with 2 ounces of dried plant material to a quart of water in a pot. On low heat, simmer gently until the volume is reduced to about 1 pint. Strain out the plant material, then add 1 cup of honey, maple syrup or vegetable glycerin, and mix well. Optional: You can add 1 ounce of brandy to each pint of syrup. This will increase the
shelf-life by acting as an anti-microbial. Syrups will keep for months at room temperature or longer if refrigerated.
HOW TO MAKE TINCTURES: Tinctures are the most potent infusions and are super simple to make - no heat required. The liquid used can be 80 or greater proof alcohol (usually brandy or vodka, but pure grain alcohol works very well), raw apple cider vinegar or vegetable glycerin. Alcohol is the most efficient solvent, being able to extract both acidic and basic compounds. Vinegar or glycerin are less efficient, but there are situations in which it is best to avoid alcohol - when the tincture is to be used to treat children comes to mind. Chop the plant material finely; this is one preparation for which it is best to use fresh material rather than dried. Pack the finely chopped plant material in a clean, dry jar. Pour in the liquid to cover the plant material by 1 to 2 inches. Make sure that the plant material is continually kept under the liquid – use something nonreactive to hold it under the surface of the liquid, if necessary. Store in a cool, dark place and mix by inverting every day or two. Caution: Alcohol, especially, can seep from even fully closed containers, and alcohol can damage furniture finishes. To make sure you avoid damage, place the tincture jar on a glass plate or another non-reactive container that will capture any leaks and prevent the liquid from coming in contact with your furniture. Better safe than sorry. Continue to mix by turning the container over and over every day or two for 4 to 6 weeks. When the extraction is complete, strain out the plant material, squeezing to salvage as much liquid as possible. The used plant material can go on your compost pile. Tinctures are handy to use and only require about 30 drops per dose or two droppers full. If placed in a small bottle, they can easily be carried in a pocket or purse, so it’s best to store them in small dropper bottles. To use, the tincture can be diluted in pre-heated water to make a tea, but the most effective way to take a tincture is to place the drops under the tongue. Taken this way the medicinal compounds are transferred directly into the bloodstream without having to go through the GI tract (mouth, stomach, intestine…).
HOW TO MAKE INFUSED OILS: Infused oils are also easy to make and can be used in the kitchen as well as the medicine cabinet. This is one place that dried plant material is MANDATORY. DO NOT USE FRESH HERBS, USE ONLY DRIED! Fresh material contains water; water makes it possible for Clostridium botulinum to grow, potentially leading to botulism. Using only dried materials and oil avoids introducing water into the oil. Without water, the bacterium cannot grow. Here is a link to an article from the University of Maine on
making infused oils: http://umaine.edu/publications/4385e/ Mix the herbs with the oil in a pot and heat gently for 25 to 45 minutes. Cool and strain. Bottle - dark bottles are preferable here. Stored in a cool, dark location the infused oil will last for months. Infused oils can be used in turn to make creams and lotions.
HOW TO MAKE LINIMENTS: A liniment is made using the same procedure as a tincture, except that it uses rubbing alcohol as the liquid instead of ethanol (brandy, vodka, etc.). This means that the finished product must be used externally only. A tincture could be used externally, but usually isn’t used this way because drinking alcohol is much more expensive then rubbing alcohol. It is more cost effective to make a separate batch for external use. So remember, TINCTURE INTERNAL, LINIMENT EXTERNAL. Next time look for information on lotions and creams and a very attractive recipe!