Friday, April 15, 2016

Backyard Medicine, Start Your Herbal Journey!

Backyard Medicine, Start Your Herbal Journey!
 by Tina Sams

There have always been the mountain herbalists, the grannies, and the people who used weeds and plants as medicine. For a couple of decades, we were encouraged to look to exotic plants from far off lands to use as medicines, ignoring those that grow all around us. Perhaps because of the locavore movement, people are looking to the medicinal weeds and herbs right outside their doors.

It is not uncommon for people to tell me that they’ve sent off for seeds for plants like chickweed, dandelion, and burdock. It can be difficult to  convince people that the dandelions in their yard are the exact same thing that they are wishing to grow. This is not unlike our tendency to drive past vast wild raspberry patches in order to plunk down $3 for a pint of cultivated berries at the store. We have become distanced from our food sources. We’ve learned not to trust ourselves when it comes to things like foods or first aid.

Luckily, right now there are more classes, books, and online sources of information that there has ever been.  Everyone can learn at their own pace.  The Essential Herbal Magazine is a great place to start.

Sometimes people are completely overwhelmed at the thought of learning all about medicinal herbs. That’s easy to understand. There are thousands of plants with properties that we can use.

There are very few that we cannot, as a matter of fact. It is a lot of information to learn. But here is a little secret: Most of us use about 10 herbs 90% of the time, so the easiest way to learn them is one or two at a time. Within a year or two, one can have a very good arsenal of knowledge. It is easy to do it seasonally. In early spring, perhaps good choices would be chickweed, or violet, or thyme. In summer, chamomile, comfrey, valerian or plantain abound. Autumn brings elderberry, echinacea or dandelion roots. Read about one plant.  Use it in every way possible.  Get to know it, and very soon it will be second nature to reach for a plantain leaf when someone nearby is stung by a bee.

There are many ways to use these herbs in preparations, and that is really more than half the fun. The following methods are the easiest ways that I’ve learned to do them. Some people do extremely careful measurements, complicated procedures, and that’s fine. The most important thing is to find a method that feels right and get started.  There are almost as many ways to do things as there are herbalists, but remember that these things have been done for centuries without the availability of scales, thermometers or well written instructions.

 Most people begin with teas – or tisanes. In many herb books they are also referred to as infusions, but in recent years that term has come to be used in other ways, so to avoid confusion, teas or tisanes will suffice.
For herb teas, simply pour hot water over the herb (1T fresh or 1t dried) in a cup. Tea balls are great, or heat sealable tea bags, muslin bags. There are all kinds of available means to strain out the herb prior to drinking.
My own first summer of wild-crafting, I gradually filled a gallon jar with dried things that would be good in tea. A few roses, some mint, elderflowers and berries, lavender, thyme, Echinacea leaves etc. All were dried and added to the jar. Over the winter, each cup was a wonderful surprise. Each was delicious.
As you learn more about the medicinal properties of herbs, it gets easier to blend useful teas.
Leaves and flowers should be steeped 5-15 minutes.
Roots, barks, and dried berries are “decocted”, meaning that they are simmered on the stove for 15 minutes or so to extract their useful components.

Bathing herbs
 These are made in much the same way as teas that are formulated to drink, but are combined to soothe or nourish the skin. Sometimes one can drink the same concoction that will be used for bathing. Many times instructions say to hang a muslin bag from the faucet while drawing the bath. That really doesn’t work well, though. A better means is to fill a ½ gallon pitcher with very hot water, and then submerge a muslin bag filled with the herbs in the water while running a bath. It makes a strong tea that is then poured into the bath. Additions like oatmeal, powdered milk, or salt can be added directly to the bag. Herbs can be used fresh or dried.  Good choices are comfrey root and leaf, calendula flowers, lavender, chamomile, mints, yarrow, plantain, chickweed and sage.  Different herb choices would be made depending on the purpose.

Balms and salves
 Making a balm or salve is simply using beeswax to harden a quantity of oil to a desired consistency. To use herbs in these products, herbs are infused in the oils prior to being blended with the beeswax. I find it easiest to use gentle heat for a few hours, but many people give them a few weeks at room temperature.
If using fresh herbs, wilt them for 12-24 hours (depending on the moisture content of the plant) first to get rid of as much moisture as possible.
If using the room temperature method, be sure to cover the container with a porous material (coffee filter, for instance) to keep dust and debris from contaminating the oil while allowing moisture to evaporate.
Add one part beeswax to 4 parts of the strained oil, and heat slowly to melt the wax. Stir, and pour into containers. Add more or less beeswax for a different viscosity.

Tinctures – folk method
Click to enlarge
 Tinctures are simple to make, and a perfect way to preserve medicinal herbs.
Constituents in most herbs are partly water soluble and partly alcohol soluble. Wilt the herbs to get rid of excess moisture and then use a good quality (100 proof) vodka. Fill a jar with chopped herb. Cover with alcohol of choice. Wait 6 weeks, and it is ready for use.
Some people put their herbs in a food processor first. Some people shake their jars every day.
If the tincture is not needed right away, it is fine to leave it unstrained for years. In fact, tinctures keep for many years just as they are, strained or with the herbs left in the alcohol.
A general usage would be about 1 dropper full (about 25 drops) equaling a strong cup of tea. For young children a drop per year of age is a common usage rate, but for kids, a little research is in order.
If alcohol is not an option, glycerin can be substituted. It isn’t quite as good, and the tinctures only last for a year or so, but it is a decent substitute.

Capsules are another way to consume medicinal herbs. The herbs in capsules lose their efficacy more quickly than tinctures, but many people feel most comfortable with capsules. Whatever means are going to be most likely used is the right way to use herbs. Empty capsules can be obtained at health food stores and herb shops, and then filled with freshly dried and ground herbs.

Herbs can also be infused in vinegars, made into jellies and syrups, brewed into wines and cordials, and used in food recipes. There are endless ways for herbs to be implemented.

 Spring is here now, so we’re tossing stinging nettles into just about anything we cook.  Chickweed, dandelion leaves, and garlic mustard find their way into our meals too.  All wild edibles offer health benefits, and it’s worth noting that just about any fruit, veggie, or grain that you might purchase at the grocery store do too – but generally speaking, the wild ones have more.

When summer arrives, we’ll be gathering all the comfrey, calendula, plantain, jewelweed, holy basil, lemon balm, and… well you get the idea.  We gather a LOT of herbs and find ways to preserve those that we don’t immediately make into products.  Purslane and lambsquarters will be the extremely nutritious wild foods we’ll pursue.
We'll fire up the still about once a week in the summer.
As Autumn approaches, the elderberries beg to be harvested and used in the coming winter to help our family avoid colds and flu.  We’ll make tincture and syrup, and freeze many of them for pies and jams so we can eat our medicine.  Goldenrod will be harvested for the assistance it can give us with upper-respiratory issues, and plantain, calendula, and sage will be dried or infused in oil for later use.  We gather wild and cultivated mints and rosehips for tea blends.  Various roots and barks will be gathered as well.  Any one of these herbs would be a good place to begin an herbal journey.

Winter will allow us to slow down, write, study, read, and decide what new herbs we’ll study in the coming year.  The sooner you start, the sooner you can enjoy the work.

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