Herbal preparations and preservation.
As a beginner herbalist there is an excitement that comes with creating your own herbal preparations. It can be so exciting that you jump right over the very important part of getting to know your herbs.
In this segment I’m going to go over the many ways you can preserve and prepare your herbs. I however urge you, before you jump into preparing a bunch of herbal remedies, choose one herb and really get to know it.
A great way to get to know an herb is to grow it, identify it, taste, touch smell it and then use it. Simples are a great way to get to know and use herbs. Simples are remedies or preparations that include only one herb. Together herbs can be very powerful but alone you get to know them best, then you will be able to understand how each herb will work well with another.
So as we go through these preparations think about one herb that you would like to try in all of the preparations. That being said, many herbs have a preparation that works best for them and others just aren’t worth the work. As you go on this journey you’ll get to know what preparations work best for which herb.
There is so much that goes into herbal preparations. Like I said above, knowing the herb is a great start. Then proper harvesting and storage of the herb is also important. As you get to know your herb through research (from trusted sources) you’ll learn the best harvesting practices.
You will also run into differing practices. What I teach you here may be different from what you learn from a different resource. That is okay. Experiment, try different methods, see which works best for you. Be sure to share with the group, it’s always fun to see what everyone is up to and what works best for others! I follow and research many well known herbalists and it is interesting to me how their methods vary but still they have such wonderful success in using herbs.
A general bit of information on when to harvest each part of an herb.
Roots and bark
Best harvested when the plant has gone dormant in the fall or winter months, before new growth starts in the spring. After the seed or fruit has matured.
Leaves, Above ground parts, Shoots
Can be harvested all throughout the season, usually when the plant is well established. To harvest the highest quality, harvest just as flower buds begin to form but before they open.
Harvest when they are well formed and completely open. Get them harvested before the petals start to fall, before the fruit begins to set or the seeds start to form.
Harvest when they are deep in color, firm and before the show signs of rot.
Best harvested when they are fully mature, the plants may be dead or dormant by this time.
These are all wonderful guidelines. DO NOT stress yourself out about this. If you find the herb you are studying gives different guidelines follow those. Again experiment, take notes on when you harvest and discover what works best for you. Some herbs are exceptions to these rules. These are just meant to give you a good starting point.
Time of day is also something to consider when harvesting herbs. The general rule I follow is early in the day after the dew has dried. This way the plants haven’t been wore out from the sun beating on them all day. When harvesting roots the time of day doesn’t usually matter.
Harvest guide Printable
Preservations and Preparations
Drying is one of the easiest ways to preserve your herbs. It’s also wonderful to have some dried herbs on hand because they can later be turned into other preparations.
There are many methods to drying herbs. You can hang them to dry, lay them flat on screens, or dehydrate them using a dehydrator or an oven. If you are hang drying or laying them flat on screens it is important to dry them in a protected area out of direct sunlight, where there is good airflow and where they won’t get dusty or dirty. This process usually takes about two weeks. You want to move them to storage when they are crisp but still retain good color.
Dehydrating can be done in less time usually within 24-48 hours. These are also ready when crisp and retain color.
The goal of drying is to reduce the level of moisture in an herb so it will not grow bacteria or mold, ruining the herbs. Some plant parts such as fruit, roots, and barks, are best dried using a dehydrator or oven.
Store your dried herbs in an air tight, moisture free (as free as possible) dark container. Discard any herbs that show signs of mold. It’s not recommended to powder, grind or crush your herbs until you need them. Keeping them as whole as possible will help them last longer.
Poultices (sometimes called pastes) are a very simple preparation. You simply squish out the juices from herb parts such as leaves and flowers and place the mashed plant parts where it’s needed. Let the juices from the herbs work their magic! You can do this with your mouth as a spit poultice, with your hands, with a mortar and pestle or even a food processor.
You can also create poultices with dried herbs by adding a bit of water to create a paste.
Poultices can be spread on gauze or other permeable cloth such as cheesecloth or tea towels. This can then be placed on the affected area.
Teas, infusions and decoctions.
These are preparations. Herbs are not preserved well in water but they make amazing preparations.
Teas can be enjoyable, balancing, preventative or healing.
Infusions are wonderful for balancing, support and can also be used topically as washes, soaks or a fomentation (application of hot moist cloth.)
Decoctions can also be used topically.
Each one of these is an herb part (fresh or dried) infused in water, usually boiling water, but cold water can be used as well.
Decoctions are usually roots and barks simmered in water for 15-30 minutes and then strained.
Teas and infusions are made with the more tender parts of a plant, such as leaves and flowers. Boiling water is poured over these parts and allowed to sit. Teas are brewed for 3-5 minutes. Infusions are brewed for at least 15 minutes up to 12 hours. Infusions are more powerful medicinally than teas.
Tinctures are liquid extracts made with herb parts. These extracts are concentrated. This is done by soaking herb parts in a menstruum (solvent.) Herb parts can be fresh or dried. The menstruum is usually alcohol but can also be vinegar or glycerin. You can find tinctures in pharmacies but there is a difference between tinctures sold commercially and making your own at home.
Commercial tincturing involves the proportion of water, plant moisture and alcohol put into the tincture. It can get very complicated but it is interesting. The Medicine Maker’s handbook explains it if you are interested in learning more.
The folk method is the method I use and that is what we will talk about here. It is the way tinctures have been made for centuries and it gives wonderful results.
Tinctures are quite simple done the folk method way. It is simply a matter of soaking herb parts in your menstruum of choice for 6 weeks or more.
Tinctures are both a preparation and a preservation method. They are used orally and can be taken alone or used in tea or other drinks. They can also be used topically, directly on the skin, or as a fomentation.
Simple, one herb tinctures are the best way to start. You can always mix simple tinctures to create combination tinctures later. If you find a combination you love then by all means make a combination tincture.
If stored correctly alcohol tinctures will keep the longest at 5 years or more. Vinegar tinctures should use 5% acidity or more and will keep a year or two. Glycerin tinctures should also be used within a year or two. Store these in dark jars, out of direct sunlight in a cool area.
Infused oils are herbal extracts in oil. They can be extracted by cold method or heat method. You can use fresh or dried herbs. Cold extraction works well with dried herbs but heat will work well with fresh herbs. Fresh herbs have a higher moisture content and therefore may mold easier with cold infusion.
As a work around to this, I let my fresh herbs wilt for few hours to overnight before infusing them. This helps evaporate some of the moisture making a cold infusion more successful.
The best oils for this process are Extra Virgin Olive Oil or Grapeseed oil. Some will use other oils such as jojoba, especially when they are making oils for skin salves.
To make cold infused oil you can use either oil. You simply infuse the herbs of choice in your oil of choice by pouring the oil over your herb parts, covering and letting it brew for two weeks. Some say cover it tightly, some say use cheesecloth to cover it. Some suggest storing in a dark area while infusing, some say to set it in the sun. I’ve done it each of these ways and they all work wonderfully.
Heat extracts can be done in a matter of hours. It is best to use Extra Virgin Olive Oil, it tolerates higher amounts of heat then Grapeseed oil. These are made by brewing the herb parts in oil over very low heat for a few hours. .
After these are finished cold or hot, strain the herbs out and store your oil in a cool dark area.
Infused oils don’t store well for long. They can be used topically and are often created to be turned into salves.
Salves, sometimes called ointments, were once created by cooking herbs in fat, tallow, lard or other fatty material. The herbs were then strained out and the fat was allowed to harden. While these sometimes got the job done they are also a little gross and can cause other problems.
Nowadays salves are usually made by combining the infused oil with beeswax to harden it up. This will allow you to keep the infused oil in contact with the skin longer than if just using the oil. It is also less messy. Salves are very fun to make. You can start with simple, one herb salves and then you can create combination salves. You can add essential oils. You can decide on the consistency by using more or less beeswax. I always add vitamin E oil to preserve my salves longer.
To make these salves you melt the beeswax in a double broiler system, pour in the oil and remelt the mixture, add the vitamin E oil, pour into containers and allow it to harden.
Fomentation’s are very simple preparations. They are a topical application. Fomentation’s are made from teas, infusions, decoctions, or tinctures in hot water. A cloth is then dipped in this hot water and placed over the affected area and left in place until no longer hot. Some will wrap with plastic wrap to contain the heat. You can do this as often as needed or until you see wanted results. Re apply as needed to make sure the cloth is still hot to warm.
So that sums up the preparations intro. This section was a quick overview but you will find many recipes and videos on how to create these different preparations, why you would want to and how to use them. So now that you’ve got your foundations, jump on in!
Book Recommendations: The Modern Herbal Dispensatory, Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A beginners guide.