Making home remedies is not only simple, it’s also enjoyable. So fear not: this section gives you an insight into the process of home crafting a medicinal treatment.
All you need to do is follow the steps. No Bunsen burners or expensive knives are required. Some recipes included in this blog and in my books are practically instant, as simple as tea to drink or a leaf blitzed in a blender with some vodka and rubbed in. Some may take a few weeks’ infusing in oil or another base before being whipped up into a cream or lotion – but while the time required is long, the process is not time-consuming. Others are culinary in nature and, even though ‘medicinal’, they are tasty and formulated to easily fit into your lunch or as part of dinner in the evening. This is practical herbalism, so it must also be accessible. That said do consult a naturopath or GP before embarking on any self-medication journey
To help you explore more herbal treatment options, what follows is a brief guide to the basic extraction methods.
To make our treatments, we first need to obtain the phytochemicals from the plants. There are four main ways to do this.
Many healing phytochemicals will quickly leach out of a plant into hot water (e.g. herbal teas and leaf infusions), while some will need to be decocted or boiled out (e.g. roots and twigs). Other can be retrieved by the hydrosol method. Hydrosols are also referred to as floral waters and are extracts produced by steaming plant materials. They are often considered ‘aromatic waters’ and can be used in aromatherapy, but because they retain the essential oils of the plant parts they have medicinal potential too.
How to make a basic hot-water infusion herbal tea
In general, 1 tablespoon of herbage to 1 cup (250 ml) of hot water is the ratio required. Extra herbage can be added for a stronger extraction. Simply boil a kettle, pour the boiled water over the plant parts and steep for 5–10 minutes. Sometimes extra steeping is necessary for a specific treatment and this is noted in individual recipes.
How to make a basic decoction
Decoctions can be made from roots, bark, berries or foliage. Generally, 1–2½ tablespoons of herb per cup of water utilised will deliver a good decoction. In a saucepan (avoid aluminium saucepans if possible) bring the ingredients to a boil and then simmer for 20 minutes. Strain and cool. Only the strained liquid is used. Decoctions can be sweetened with a little brown sugar, molasses or honey to make a syrup. Decoctions and syrups can be refrigerated. Most decoctions will keep for three days, and syrups will keep for several weeks.
Decoctions can also be made by boiling plant parts in cider vinegar, beer or other liquids. A good tip is to crush, mash or score the plant parts just before boiling to extract the maximum amount of beneficial ingredients. Foliage easily releases its oils and other constituents to boiled water and so makes good tea and infusions, but roots and twigs often need to be boiled for quite a while. Many of the root and branch treatments in this book are decoctions.
How to make a hydrosol by steeping
Harvest some flowers and place the petals in a saucepan. Add just enough distilled or spring water to cover them, or no more than double the volume of the petals. Bring to a simmer. Cover and steep until the petals lose their colour and it leaches into the water. Strain and decant into a container. Hydrosols can be kept in dark glass bottles for several weeks if stored out of direct sunlight – ideally in a cupboard or other cool, dark location. You can extend the shelf-life to many months by adding 2 per cent high-proof vodka to the volume you have. Hydrosols can also be refrigerated for several weeks to a couple of months.
How to make a hydrosol by distillation
This method creates a pure essence similar to the witch hazel extract you can get from your pharmacy. Its concentration is stronger than that created by the steeping method. The process is more involved but it’s worth it. First, make your makeshift still: you’ll need a large pot, a slightly smaller lid, a cup, a small bowl and a tallish glass. Invert the cup in the centre of the pot. Then add petals to the pot and enough water to cover them, or no more than double the volume. Balance the bowl on top of the cup and place the tall glass in the bowl. Place the lid on top of the glass. The steam will hit the lid and form condensation, which will drip down the side of the glass into the gathering bowl. Bring the water to a simmer and keep it steaming, without allowing it to boil hard, for long enough to gather a decent amount of distilled essence. When the petals lose their colour, you can stop distilling. If balancing lids, bowls, cups and glasses gives you a panicky feeling, you can use cling film as a lid (weighted down with a stone in the centre). It will funnel the drips into the gathering bowl.
Other phytochemicals may need an acid to extract them. For this, you should use a safe acid such as vinegar or lemon juice. You can add herbs to your kitchen vinegar and infuse for a few days to a few weeks to make topical spritzes or medicinal washes. By adding vinegar or citric acid from fruit juice to the mortar and pestle mash or when blitzing you can obtain more constituents from the crushed plant parts.
How to make medicated vinegar
Empty the contents of a bottle of vinegar into a jug. Put as much herbage as will fit into the bottle and then refill with the reserved vinegar. Allow to sit for two weeks and then use as required. There’s no need to strain off the solids – they may continue to leach phytochemical and aromatic ingredients for several more weeks, intensifying the treatment.
Some of the most common over-the-counter herbal treatments are tinctures. First a simple solution is made by extracting plant elements into an alcohol base. The resulting liquid is often referred to as a mother tincture. This can be diluted and taken orally, or used neat as a topical rub or as an ingredient in other recipes. A tincture is as much a dosage as it is a preparation and usually consists of 10–20 drops of a mother tincture diluted in a glass of mineral water, three times daily for five days. Take a few days’ break before beginning a second round of treatment.
How to make a mother tincture
The traditional way to make a tincture is using the menstruum method. It involves soaking a ½ cup of herbage in 2 cups (500 ml) of vodka or brandy for four to five weeks. I prefer to use vodka, as the more noticeable colour change acts as an indication of complete extraction. A quicker method is to blitz the same ingredients in a blender. Then pour into jars, place on a sunny window ledge and shake daily for a week. Allow to stand for a second week and then strain off the solids and bottle up.
If an ingredient is fat-soluble – e.g. vitamin D – then an oil or a fatty substance is called for to help it leach out. Infused oils extend the seasonality (availability and storage) of the medicinal plants too.
How to make infused oil (sun method)
Simply fill a jam jar with as many plant parts (foliage, roots or petals) as will fit, cover completely with olive oil or any culinary oil you may have and place in a sunny window for a minimum of one to two weeks. This will allow the phytoconstituents of the herb to naturally leach into the oil.
How to make infused oil by heating
Using a bain-marie (a bowl suspended over a saucepan of boiling water), heat the oil (olive, almond, sunflower, etc.) and add your herbs. After 5–10 minutes, turn off the heat and allow the oil to rest and slowly infuse for a day or until it has fully cooled and is safe to work with. The beneficial constituents will continue to leach into the hot oil as it cools. For a more intense oil, you can simply fill a jam jar with herbs and oil, boil up some water and sit the jar in the water for an hour or so every day for several days to draw out as much goodness as possible. This is a cheat’s version of the sun-infused oil above.
In many cases the method of extraction is dictated by the intended use. For example, a thyme tea is a great antiseptic rinse to treat a cut or wound, but a thyme salve (thyme infused in an oil base and then set with beeswax) is great for healing and sealing moisture into chapped lips or hands. Similarly, using a different base can make an ingredient suitable for different applications. For example, calendula oil (the petals infused in some olive oil) can be used as a culinary aid to obtain fat-soluble vitamins A and D from foods in order to treat a deficiency-connected ailment. Or it can be set with beeswax, vegetable or nut butter to make a soothing skin cream. Herbs have a lot of versatility.
Measurements and Methodology
Most of the remedy recipes in this blog and in my books and articles are based on ratios, so as long as you’re using the same cup or same size tablespoon, no technical difficulties should arise. We may be making a whipped body lotion but we’re not making soufflés!
Even the food recipes are not complex. A margin for error is built in so a heaped teaspoon over a level teaspoon won’t spoil the batch. You can scale up to mugs and even buckets if you wish, but small fresh batches are best. The cup measurement used in these recipes is equivalent to 250ml.
There may be subtle differences in thickness or texture if you use a store-bought dried herb over a freshly harvested garden grown herb, but the phytochemicals and benefits of the plant are contained in both.
This blog is about easy engagement with nature and natural health, so a sprig of rosemary in a cup of vinegar or a handful of leaves in a footbath will often do the trick without turning your kitchen into a lab. Where a degree of precision is necessary to achieve the proportions to effectively deliver the treatment, or to create a lotion and not a puddle, or a lozenge and not a toffee, I give specific measurements.
Note – If you keep your salve in a warm handbag or backpack as opposed to a cool drawer or bathroom cabinet, it may be runnier some days and suitably set other days. Similarly if you stick with unadulterated emulsifying wax or raw shea butter, the outcome will be different than if you add emulsifying cream or a processed shea product. Variations are not a bad thing. The recipes contain no preservatives other than natural essential oils, alcohol and so on, so remember that shelf-lives are not infinite, which is no bad thing either.
And while this is all about handy treatments that are easily made and don’t require a laboratory or any industrial processes, you should nevertheless consider preparation hygiene and sterile storage containers. The treatments are natural but they are still going on your skin or into your bloodstream, so avoid contaminating their natural goodness. Glass jars can be easily sterilised by putting them through the hottest dishwasher cycle or by thoroughly washing in soapy water, rinsing clean and then oven drying for 20 minutes at 120˚C/gas mark 1