Medicinal Herbs

At the height of the summer when the days are long, the trials field is full and our harvests are overflowing, it’s easy to let exhaustion creep into the few spare moments not spent hoeing, transplanting, collecting data, or harvesting.  On the production farms I’ve worked on, this time of year is what we call good for napping, since there’s not enough time for a full night’s sleep.  Between planning the fall crops, harvesting for markets and CSAs, and maintaining the garden, it is good to remember, though, to take some time for rest and relaxation, and to think about your health from now and all the way through the winter.  One of my favorite ways to relax on a summer day is to spend time among the herbs and flowers interspersed throughout the field.  Not only do they give me a lift and bring a smile to my face, but they will also provide me with teas, seasonings, tinctures, salves, and oils all winter long.

We grow a wide range of herbs and flowers at High Mowing, some medicinal, some culinary, and some that fall into both categories.  The more I learn about herbs, the more varieties I want to grow, but just like starting a garden for the first time, it can be an important lesson to start out small.  If you are not already in the practice, it can be hard to find the time and space it takes to process medicinal flowers and herbs amidst the demands of seeding, transplanting, weeding and harvesting all the vegetables.  I’ve found that harvesting and processing in small batches works well for me, especially since I live in a yurt and have limited space.  Throughout the summer, I dry a range of herbs and make infused oils with fresh plant material, but that’s as far as I get—the next steps don’t begin until the fields are put to rest and free time creeps back into each day as the season shifts to winter.

Now is a good time to take a walk through your fields and pick some of your favorite herbs and flowers to bring with you through the winter.  Some of my favorites are lemon balm, sage, chamomile, Echinacea, sacred basil, calendula, and two common garden “weeds” plantain and dandelion, but there are many more, and as you spend time with each one, you’ll find which herbs you are drawn to the most.  You’ll also want to think about how you will most likely use the herbs—are you a tea drinker?  do you get dry skin and need soothing salve in the winter?  do you want to build up your natural medicine cabinet with tinctures for those acute head colds?  Asking these questions will help you better plan what to harvest and what processing set-up you’ll need.  You’ll also want to set aside time specifically for processing the herbs just after harvest so they don’t go to waste or lose any medicinal properties from sitting out too long.

Drying Herbs

My main processing method is drying—I am a big tea drinker, and some herbs can double as a seasoning and a tea, like sage, thyme and lemon balm.  Drying is a simple process with little equipment required: all you need are a few screens, a cutting board and a knife, or a pair of scissors.  If you are drying leafs or flowers, pick a dry day and do not wash them before drying (you don’t want to add any water to the process), but do brush off any dirt and harvest the cleanest leaves possible.  Keep in mind that the plant matter will shrink as it dries and chop or cut the leaves into small pieces and then lay them out on the screen.  Flowers like calendula can be turned upside down and dried whole.

In the yurt, I hang screens from the rafters where the herbs will get good airflow but be out of direct sunlight, as sunlight can leach the medicinal properties.  Check the herbs every day until they are dry.  To test, rub a pinch between your fingers to feel if there is any moisture, and then store in a glass jar out of direct sunlight.  Label each jar with the name of the herb and the date harvested.  It can also be helpful to note where you harvested the herbs from if they are from another’s garden, or if you are wild harvesting.

Tinctures

Another way to process herbs is to make a tincture.  A tincture is made by submerging herbs or roots in alcohol or cider vinegar for a period of at least six weeks in order to extract the medicinal properties and make a more concentrated medicine.  For example, if you are going into flu season you may prepare your immune system by drinking Echinacea tea every day, but if you start to feel symptoms of illness, you may step up to an Echinacea tincture, which is more concentrated and therefore more powerful for acute situations.  I usually make my tinctures in quart jars by filling the jar almost full with fresh plant material, and then covering it with vodka, making sure all plant material is submerged.  Label with the name, date, and type of vodka or vinegar, and let sit for six weeks, occasionally shaking the jar.  After six weeks or more have passed, you can decant your tincture by straining it into another jar or bottle, making sure the new container is labeled.  The amount of tincture you should take at a time depends on the herb, and it is best to consult an herbalist if you are unsure of the proper amount to take.

Infused oils and salves

One of my favorite things to do is to make infused oils and salves—they make great gifts any time of the year, and the process is simple and relaxing as the scent of herbs diffuse into oil and beeswax melts to a beautiful golden liquid.  To make an infused oil, harvest fresh plant material, pour enough good quality olive oil to cover it, and heat it slowly using a double-boiler, keeping it warm for about thirty minutes so the plant constituents slowly infuse into the oil.  Pour the oil through a strainer, and keep stored in a dark, cool place.  At this point, you can use the oil itself, or you can turn it into salve.  For a long time, the thought of making my own salve was slightly mystifying, and though I had heard it was easy, it was not until I took an herb course where we made salve together step by step that I realized how wonderfully simply it is.  All you need is infused oil, beeswax, and containers.

  • To begin, pour the desired amount of oil into the top of a double boiler, slowly heat, and add beeswax so the two melt together.  The ratio of oil to wax depends on the consistency you are going for.  A ratio of 1 ounce oil to 1 tablespoon of wax will yield a firm salve, and adding more oil will give you a softer, more scoopable salve.
  • Once the beeswax has completely melted, remove the mixture from the heat.  You can do a quick test to see how firm or soft your salve will be: simply take a small spoonful of the hot salve, put it on a plate and place the plate in the fridge, or outside on a cold day, for a few minutes to harden.  Go back to test the consistency and adjust as needed (more oil for a softer salve, more beeswax for a firmer one).
  • While the salve is still warm and in liquid form, pour into your containers and let set.  Once all your salves are made, label and store them in a cool place until gift-giving time arrives.

The most important thing to remember is this: have fun, relax, and let yourself enjoy the process!  The process, after all, can be just as healing as the end product.  So happy growing and processing, and may you find some time in the long summer days to sit among the herbs and flowers and relax as the garden grows around you.

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4 Responses to Medicinal Herbs

  1. Cassie says:

    Love your posts! Is there a resource you would recommend for recipes for tinctures and salves? I’m slowly moving in that direction and would like to add this to what I make yearly. Thank you!

  2. I would also like more information. I dry many herbs for food uses. I am working towards medicinal herbs.

  3. Cindy Rubinfine says:

    Making Plant Medicines by Richo Cech is the best book I have seen ( and used) .The directions are very clear and user friendly. Chck out his company, Horizon herbs.

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