Friday, December 30, 2011

Adaptogens and Immune Tonics in Herbal Formulas

The turn of the year can bring a new resolve to live better, and for me that means canning the coffee, spending more time with my two teenagers, and addressing a persistently runny nose and occasional wheeze. I’ve already tried reducing dust and dander in the home and avoiding dairy allergens. Now I need a little help from the plant world.
Herbs that restore strength and stamina (adaptogens) or normalize the immune response (immune tonics) are an important ingredient in formulas for chronic problems such as allergies and asthma. The ginsengs (Panax quinquefolius, P. ginseng, Eleutherococcus senticosus) are the best known adaptogens but are not available for  harvest by most home herbalists. More accessible herbs for restoring health include holy basil in the garden, burdock (Arctium lappa) in fields, and turkey tail mushroom (Trametes versicolor) in the woods. 

Arctium lappa (see Biennials)
Trametes versicolor (see Decoctions)

Ocimum basilicum
My budding herbalist sweetheart and I chose holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) as the local adaptogen for my formula because it also has the specific function of stabilizing mast cells, a desirable effect for allergies and asthma. The plant grows quite heartily in our garden, providing fresh leaves for salads and seasoning until early fall. The strongest medicinal effects are in the flowering tops so dead-heading has the dual function of prolonging leaf growth and providing the material to be dried for teas and tinctures. But don’t pick all the flowers – if left to it’s own fecund devices, holy basil will reseed itself for the next growing season. 

HERBALIST’S NOTES: 1)Your garden variety basil (Ocimum basilicum) can be substituted for holy basil for most medicinal applications, though it may not be quite as effective as an adaptogen or immune tonic; 2) Burdock is not widely recognized as an adaptogen but has the characteristics of one in that in normalizes most body systems to improve strength and stamina. 

Holy basil in tincture and dried for tea

DOCTOR’S NOTE: Recurrent or persistent wheezing should be evaluated by a medical practitioner because some causes are better treated medically.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Infusion By the Folk Method

What's the difference between a cup of tea and a dose of medicinal tea? The herb, it's amount, and the steeping time.

Herbal infusions don't use the tea plant (Camellia sinensis) unless a nervine stimulant is called for in the formula. Instead,  aromatic plants are chosen for their taste and desired effect on the body. 

The amount of plant material is critical for medicinal effects. Many herbalists use the weight-to-volume method for infusions: An ounce of dried plant per 16 ounces of water. It's simpler at home to estimate dose by using a teaspoon of herb per cup, presuming the dried herbs are finely cut, crumbled, or ground. For fresh plants which have a high water content use two teaspoons per cup.

Lastly, steeping time is longer for medicinal teas than for black or green tea: 10-15 minutes for most herbs, though there are exceptions. 

Mentha spicata
In early winter you still might find a few garden plants that escaped the first freezes. Last dusk I was surprized to uncover some spearmint sprigs from under fallen leaves and a handful of fennel seeds poking up from the plant's umbrella tops - just in time for post-Christmas gastrointestinal distress. For the most part, though, we'll shift to dried plants for winter teas and tinctures.

1) Be absolutely certain about fennel identification because other plants with an umbrella-like seed head can be deadly (i.e. hemlock, Conium maculatum);
2) Infusions in which boiling water is poured over the herbs are the best method of water extraction for leafy or soft plants. Decoctions in which the herb is boiled in water are better for hard or woody plants.

EARLY WINTER TUMMY TEA – A mint and fennel infusion for promoting normal digestion (carminative) and treating indigestion:

1. Crumble a couple handfuls of dried spearmint (Mentha spicata) leaves (substitute peppermint, lemon balm, catnip, or other aromatic mints);
2. Place two teaspoons of the mint in a 4 cup or larger teapot. For fresh herbs, double the amount;
3. Add two teaspoons of fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) seeds to the teapot;
4. Pour 4 cups of boiling water over the herbs, place the lid on the pot, and let steep for 10 minutes;
5. Strain off the tea and serve a cup at a time with honey, refrigerating the unused portion;
6. Drink one cup 4-6 times a day for medicinal effects.

Foeniculum vulgare

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Early Winter Medicine Making

Rosa species
Today begins the paradox of early winter:  The days are getting longer but colder and the medicinal plants scarcer but more needed  - for colds and coughs from close quarters, joint stiffness and pain from lack of movement, and injuries from getting about in snow and ice. The birds turn from bugs to berries and seeds and so can we for home medicine making. Wild rose hips, elderberries, and bilberries have dried on their woodland vines.  Fennel and burdock seeds are ripe for the picking in gardens and fields.

And then there’s plain old winter blues, just the ticket for a fragrant berry cordial to share with friends and family at Solstice, Christmas, or New Year’s.

HERBALIST’S NOTES: 1) A cordial is an herbal beverage made for social well-being while an elixir is one made for healing, though in many cases this distinction has more to do with intent than ingredients; 2) Rose seeds can cause headache, vertigo, and lethargy and should be removed before medicinal or culinary use of rosehips.

WINTER BERRY CORDIAL – a delightful aperitif for winter blues and general well-being. (adapted from master herbalist and cordial expert Teresa Boardwine’s “Framboise Cordial” in her book Cordially Yours available at

Rubus idaeus

rose hips (Rosa species) – a handful crushed with seeds removed
bilberries (Vaccinium myrtillus) – 1 lb fresh, dried, or frozen (substitute blueberries)
blueberry or raspberry jam – 1½ cups
raspberries (Rubus idaeus) – 1 cup fresh
water – 4 cups
brandy – 8 oz
Champagne (substitute sparkling grape juice)

1. Crush rosehips, remove seeds, and place in a medium pot;
2. Add blueberries and water and simmer uncovered on low for 2 hours, pressing the berries occasionally to squeeze out the juice;
3. Strain off the juice and return it to the pot on low;
4. Stir in the jam until well mixed;
5. Pour it over the fresh raspberries in a nice bottle;
6. Add the brandy and swirl to mix;
7. Cool and serve in a clear cordial glass half-filled with berry cordial and topped off with chilled champagne.

DOCTOR’S NOTE: Persistent winter blues should be evaluated by a healthcare professional because it can be caused by a number of illnesses better treated with accurate diagnosis. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tincturing By the Folk Method

Malva neglecta
By early December those roots we harvested before the ground had frozen should be fully dried and ready for tincturing. Such extraction of medicinal constituents in alcohol and water can be done simply (folk method) for family and friends or by using standardized ratios (weight-to-volume method) for sharing outside the home. For this first tincture recipe, I’m going to use the folk method for one of my favorite roots, common mallow (Malva neglecta). You’ll find this plant’s ruffled whorls and pink-striped flowers at untrimmed edges of the yard and garden. The soothing and moistening effects for the lungs and colon are similar to it’s harder to find cousin marshmallow (Althaea officinalis).

  1. Any medicinal plant, fresh or dried, root or aerial parts, can be extracted as tea or tincture, although some herbal remedies are stronger when extracted in alcohol and others in water. In general, aromatic plants are best extracted as tea or low alcohol tincture whereas oily plants are more potent in 50% or greater alcohol;
  2. Apple cider vinegar can be used instead of vodka for those who prefer no alcohol;
  3. Other late fall root options include dandelion from the yard for digestion and bowel function, valerian from the garden for sleep, burdock from the edge of fields for metabolism, and wild yam from the woods for hormonal balance.

MALLOW ROOT TINCTURE (Malva neglecta)  – an anti-inflammatory emollient (soothing moistener) for sore throats, painful coughs, gastritis, peptic ulcers, colitis, and hemorrhoids.

Dried mallow roots
       1. Pull up and scrub 5-10 mallow roots (easiest after a rain);
2. Place these thin roots on a flat screen or tie them together by the stems and hang to dry in a warm room or sunny window for at least 1 week. Thicker roots (>1/4 inch) need to be cut into 1/2 inch or less rounds to allow drying without molding;
3. Coarsely chop the dried roots and place them in a wide-mouthed glass bottle or jar with an airproof lid;
4. Completely cover the chopped roots with vodka (100 proof = 50%);
5. Close the lid tightly to keep out air, using a layer of wax paper under the lid if not snug;
6. Place in a warm dark room for a least two weeks, swirling the bottle or jar daily;
Pressing after straining
 7. Strain off the liquid through unbleached cheesecloth into a storage bottle, wringing the cheesecloth to press out as much tincture as possible;
8. Label the bottle with the genus and species, date, and  tincture method (i.e. Malva neglecta root, 11/21/11, folk method in 50% vodka) and store in a cool dark place;
9. Dispense into a dropper bottle when needed, taking 1-2 droppers 3-4 times a day.

DOCTOR'S NOTE: Specific plant identification to genus and species is essential to avoid poisoning with internal use of herbal medicines - see my December 12 post on Identifying Medicinal Plants.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Identifying Medicinal Plants

Teas and tinctures – these are the two main internal delivery methods for herbal medicines and we are about to learn how to make them both from common plants in the yard, garden, fields, and woods. But before any plant is taken internally, it's identity must be certain. 

Do you know the common yellow flowers in the picture to the right?

Now look at it's foliage in the picture below and you'll see that it isn't dandelion (Taracum officinale), a safe herbal diuretic and digestive tonic. It's really colt's foot (Tussilago farfara), an effective cough suppressant but with potential liver toxicity if incorrectly prepared.

Tussilago farfara

Precise plant identification is essential before using it to make a tea or a tincture. This is easy in the garden when you've planted from a seed or seedling identified by genus (i.e. Taraxacum) and species (officinale) (don't really plant this one in your garden, it will arrive of it's own free will). Many plants in your yard will be familiar too, though you should always look them up in a field guide to medicinal plants for potential poisonous look-alikes. For example, the young leaves of wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa) look  like those of dandelion but can induce hallucinations in concentrated extracts. Any plant wildcrafted from fields or woods needs to be identified to genus and species using a reliable field guide before use in an internal remedy. My favorite is Newcombe's Wildflower Guide (Little-Brown 1989) because of it's simple key based on flower and leaf types. Peterson's field guides to the wildflowers, shrubs, or trees are also very reputable. Or you can buy dried medicinal herbs for tinctures or teas from your local natural foods store. To do anything other than specific identification is to risk poisoning those who you love and take care of.

Taraxacum officinale

Friday, December 9, 2011

Making a Medicated Salve

Last night’s wet snow and then hard freeze here in southeastern West Virginia was a stark warning of the waning of both the sun and the medicinal plants. But beneath this icy veneer of late fall we can still find healing herbs: Wintergreen or pipsissewa's striped lances poke up through the frost from the leaf-littered forest floor; A spray of white pine needles forms a sparkling snow cone in the morning sun.  Today I’ll describe using these two evergreens to make a warming and soothing salve for stiff and sore joints or scaly patches of winter skin on the feet, knees, or elbows – and just in time for those winter solstice stockings.

WINTERGREEN SALVE (Chimaphila  maculata shown here, C. umbellata, Gaultheria procumbens) – a warming and anti-inflammatory salve for dry skin or joint pain and stiffness:

1.   Mold will grow if any water is introduced into the mixture. Be sure plant material as well as pots and measuring cups are thoroughly dried before use;
2.   When extracting dried plants in oil, the material must be completely covered in oil at all times to avoid cooking the plant which results in an offensive beany smell for the salve;
3.   Avoid overharvesting wintergreen and pipsissewa which are dwindling along with the eastern U.S. forests.

wintergreen or pipsissewa leaves (dried) – 1 handful
almond, safflower, or olive oil – 1 cup
bee’s wax – 1 ounce
vitamin E oil – 10 drops
pine essential oil – 5 drops

1. Gather wintergreen leaves and dry them for at least one week in hanging bundles in a sunny window or on a flat screen in a warm dry room;
2. Crumble a handful of the dried leaves into a small pot;
3. Cover the leaves with 1 cup of almond oil (alternatives: safflower oil for a lighter salve; olive oil for simplicity);
4. Place the uncovered pot on a hotplate or in the oven and heat on the lowest possible setting for 3-4 hours (no hotter than 150°);
5. Pour through a strainer into another small pot, pressing the leaves into the strainer to recover as much oil as possible;
6. Add 1 ounce of beeswax (finely chopped, shredded, shaved, or beaded) into the oil and heat on low until dissolved;
7. Add 10 drops of vitamin E oil;
8. Add 5 drops of pine essential oil (juniper or peppermint for joint pain, lavender or chamomile for muscle tension);
9. Pour into small wide-mouthed jars and allow to cool and harden before sealing the lid;
10. Label with the product name, date, and ingredients.

Other herbs for joint and muscle salves:
·  Calendula flowers (Calendula officinalis) – warming anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic for joint pain and muscle tension. (garden)
·  Cayenne peppers (Capsicum anuum) – warming analgesic for joint and nerve pain. (garden)
·  Chamomile flowers (Matricaria recutita) – cooling antispasmodic for muscle tension and anti-inflammatory for joint pain. (garden)
·  Goldenrod leaves and flowers (Solidago Canadensis) – cooling anti-inflammatory for muscle tension and joint pain. (fields)
·  Horsetail stems (Equisetum species) – vulnerary (heals wounds) for joint pain. (woods)
·  Juniper berries (Juniperus communis) – warming anti-inflammatory for joint pain. (yard)
·  St. John’s wort flowers (Hypericum perforatum) – warming analgesic and anti-inflammatory for nerve or joint pain. (woods)
·  Willow bark (Salix species) – analgesic and anti-inflammatory for joint pain and stiffness. (yard)

DOCTOR'S NOTE: Persistent joint pain and/or swelling for more than a month should be evaluated by a professional practitioner because it can be caused by certain infections, diseases, or cancers.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Late Fall Medicine Making

Frosty mornings, sunny afternoons, crystal clear evenings with the seven sisters circling into view – it’s late Fall and the plants are retreating underground. Now is the time to harvest roots which have been packing in energy to survive the coming winter: Mallow under ruffled leaves at untrimmed edges of the garden; Burdock under wilting hearts on the edges of fields. It’s also time to make remedies that will help take you and your family through the long winter: Sage’s bluish leaves hanging down into the first hard frosts for sore throats and coughs; Wintergreen’s striped lances poking up from the leaf-littered forest floor for joint pain and stiffness.

Let's begin our venture into making herbal remedies at home with a little something from the garden.

 SAGE GARGLE (Salvia officinalis)–an antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory tea for sore throats, colds, and coughs:
sage leaves, fresh or dried - 1 handful
sea salt - 1 teaspoon
distilled water - 1 cup
vodka 100 proof (50% alcohol) - 1 cup

1. Pour 1 cup of boiling water over a handful of sage leaves and steep for 10 minutes;
2. Add 1 cup of vodka (substitute sage tincture for an extra wallup, use sage tincture in glycerin or cider vinegar if no alcohol is preferred). This will result in a solution with 25% alcohol which will prevent bacterial growth in both the throat and the bottle;
3. Stir in 1 teaspoon of sea salt until dissolved;
4. Pour into a bottle with a lid and label with the plant name, date, and ingredients. It's also good to write down your formula in an herbal journal for future reference;
5. Gargle for 30-60 seconds with a mouthful every 2-4 hours as needed for immediate relief of sore throat or cough.

Doctor's Note: For children under 18 with a sore throat it is important to get a throat culture because untreated Streptococcal infection can cause rheumatic fever or kidney problems.