Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Well my pretties, it’s time to burrow out of the hole we’ve dug ourselves into in the darkest time of the year.  Why not use some of last summer’s dried lovelies for a soothing and warming body lotion to kick off the returning of light in late winter?


almond oil – 3/4 cup (substitute other vegetable oil)
rose petals – handful dried (substitute other dried herb)
distilled water – 1 cup
calendula flowers – handful dried (substitute other dried herb)
bee’s wax – ½ ounce
rose essential oil – 1-3 drops (substitute other essential oil)

1. Make an oil infusion of rose petals:

a) Crumble rose petals in a small pot and cover with almond oil, stirring to ensure all petals are coated;
b) Place the uncovered pot on a hotplate on low or in an oven at the lowest possible setting and heat for 2-4 hours, stirring every 15-30 minutes to coat herbs and prevent charring;
c) Strain the rose-almond oil infusion into another small pot and return to low heat;

2. Make a water infusion of calendula flowers:

Calendula officinalis

a) Pour a cup of boiling distilled water over crumbled calendula flowers in a teapot and infuse for 10-15 minutes;
b) Strain the hot calendula-water infusion into a blender;

3. Make an oil and bee’s wax emulsion:

Rose-calendula emulsion (double recipe)
a) Add bee’s wax to the oil and stir occasionally until melted;
b) Turn the blender to high and slowly dribble the hot oil into the swirling tea.  Add the oil drop-by-drop over several minutes until the mixture thickens into an emulsion, then thoroughly blend in the rest of the oil;
c) If desired, add 1-3 drops of rose essential oil and blend until thoroughly mixed;
d) Pour the warm emulsified lotion into suitable jars and allow it to cool before putting on a lid;
e) Pour off any water that separates out of the lotion before use.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


In the dark of winter we all need a ray of sunlight to carry us through. Enter medicinal plants, most of which also have a tradition as charms or spells.

Periwinkle in winter

Check south slopes for periwinkle flowers in winter

Need a little more love in your life? Periwinkle (Vinca major, V. minor) is reputed to help bring together lovers in body, mind, or spirit. Place a sprig of this evergreen vine under your pillows or sprinkle a few bright blue flowers in a bubble bath and voila tout, the coldest nights are warm again!

Greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia) has black tipped thorns

Stressed about heating bills and pending taxes? Grab some stout gloves on a mild day and head for the forest for a little sarsaparilla (Smilax species).  This thorny vine also known as greenbrier is verdant all winter but it is the sweet tasting root that soothes green worries.

Smilax rotundifolia
So don those gloves, bend your knees, grasp the base of a vine, and pull with all the might your legs and back can muster. Then use garden shears to snip the washed root into thin sections that will decoct into an orange tea destined to improve your fortunes.(see January 9 post Decoction by the Folk Method)

Spotted wintergreen

Feeling a little insecure in 2012 with all the election name calling and doomsday soothsaying? Call on wintergreen (Chimaphila species), a forest floor plant I introduced in the December 9 post Making a Medicated Salve. Harvest a handful of leaves from a woodland patch for a protection tea but be sure to help protect this rare plant too by leaving plenty untouched.

These three evergreens can be harvested in winter but many other magical plants can be discovered with a Google search on “magical plant properties”.  To make them work for you just listen to Olivia: “Have to believe it is magic…”.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


The taste of herbal teas and tinctures can be important for their medicinal effects, particularly for bitter herbs that stimulate the gall bladder (chologogues) and liver (hepatics). Some people, however, find bitterness, sourness, saltiness, or pungency (spiciness) unpalatable, making it hard to take certain herbal preparations. Not to worry - we can call on the fifth taste, sweetness, to soften repulsion from strong tasting plant medicines.  

Sweet tasting herbs with general or complementary actions can be added to a bitter tea or tincture formula. Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) and licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) are adaptogens that can also bind together other herbs for palatability. Another option is an aromatic mint (spearmint, peppermint, lemon balm) to complement bitter herbs for stimulating the gut or calming the mind. And then there’s the quick and easy solution that every child of the 60s knows from Mary Poppins - a spoonful of sugar, or some other natural sweetener. My favorite is maple syrup which I’ll show you how to make at home. But since calories and nutrients are negligible most of the time for herbal sweeteners, it’s really a case of six of one, a half dozen of the other as long as you don't add quite that much to your tea or tincture.


per tsp

to sugar


Agave nektar




Cane sugar












Maple syrup


1x +/-






HERBALIST’S NOTE: Taste of herbal medicines can be used to stimulate organ function according to principles of Chinese medicine – sour for liver, bitter for heart, sweet for pancreas, pungent for lungs, and salty for kidneys.


Allow tree to swell around tap
1. Obtain a maple tap with bucket hook from a hardware store;
2. When early to late winter days get above 40° for three or more days in a row drill a tap-sized hole into the thickest part of the healthiest trunk of your maple tree. For trees larger than arm length circumference, two or three taps may be inserted into separate trunks or opposing sides of the main trunk;
3. Insert a tap into the hole and allow the tree to swell around it for a couple hours before hanging a bucket from it;
4. When the bucket is full pour the maple water into a large pot and rehang the bucket from the tap in the tree;

A coffee filter removes debris

5. Bring the pot to a full boil and then reduce heat to maintain a rolling boil for 2-6 hours depending on the amount of maple water;
6. When the liquid starts to thicken and bubble size decreases, reduce the heat to low to avoid scorching the syrup;
7. When very little boiling remains, remove the pot from the heat and strain the syrup into a glass bottle with a lid;
8. Allow the syrup to cool before tightening the lid.

DOCTOR’S NOTE: Those with diabetes, metabolic syndrome, or hypoglycemia should avoid the simple sugars of most natural sweeteners but can use stevia to sweeten herbal medicines.

Monday, January 9, 2012


Most medicinal teas are made by steeping the dried plant in hot water (infusion) but some woody or fibrous herbs need immersion in boiling water (decoction) for dissolution of constituents. When the medicinal part of a plant is the root, bark, or fibrous stem, decoction is the preferred method of water extraction.

Shelf fungi on fallen trunk

True or false turkey tail?
Turkey tail mushroom (Trametes versicolor) is a tough shelf fungus growing year round on old tree trunks or downed logs in moist forests. Turkey tail is related to reishi and artist's conk mushrooms (Ganoderma) and has similar immune stimulating properties (see December 30, 2011 post). 

Unlike some mushrooms, the shelf fungi have no deadly look-alikes, although they might be confused with similar but less active species. Turkey tail has small pores on the underside while the bottoms of the medicinally inactive false turkey tail (Stereum ostrea) are smooth.

Tops of true and false turkey tail 
Bottoms of true and false turkey tail

HERBALIST’S NOTE: Water extractions (infusions and decoctions) have limited shelf life and should be refrigerated and used within 36 hours of preparation.


Chopped turkey tail ready for decoction
1. Gather a bagful of turkey tail mushrooms and snip off any bark still attached to the stems;
2. Cut or tear the turkey tails into small pieces and place in a glass or ceramic pot with a lid; 
3. Pour in enough cool water to completely cover the mushroom pieces;
4. Place the lid on the pot, set it on a burner set to high, and bring the water to a high boil;
5. Reduce heat to maintain a low boil for 10-15 minutes;
6. Strain the decoction into a quart jar and press or squeeze out the liquid, saving the mushroom pieces for tincturing;
7. Place a tight sealing lid on the jar and refrigerate until use;
8. For turkey tail mushroom, take one cup daily as an immune tonic, use as a stock for healing soups, or mix the decoction 50:50 with turkey tail tincture (high proof) for preservation and enhanced immune stimulation - decoction before tincturing softens the cell walls for enhanced extraction.

Decoction will be combined 50/50 with high proof tincture

DOCTOR’S NOTE: Tumors and persistent infections should be evaluated by a medical professional for accurate diagnosis.

Friday, January 6, 2012


Usnea thallus on tree branches

Most herbal tinctures are effective for home use when made by the folk method in which the plant is covered by vodka and steeped for two weeks before straining off the medicine. But certain powerful plants need more specific extraction to avoid under or over dosing. The time honored weight-to-volume method is the most accurate way of standardization short of biochemical analysis. This method uses a ratio of one part plant to five parts alcohol (1:5) for dried or woody herbs. For fresh green plants that contain a lot of water, the ratio is instead 1:2.

Stems branch from a central stalk (thallus)

I’ll demonstrate this process with old man’s beard (Usnea thallus), a lichen with antiviral and antifungal properties, because it’s available for picking in winter. We found a large patch of it growing on tree branches in the lower swampy part of the property where two springs converge to join Price Run.

Other herbs best extracted by weight-to-volume include sedatives like hops, passionflower and valerian root, analgesics like willow bark, Indian pipe and wild lettuce, and endocrine tonics like wild yam, black cohosh and greenbrier.

HERBALIST’S NOTES: 1) Most plants can be coarsely ground or chopped before tincturing but airy or fluffy plants like usnea need to be finely ground in a blender to achieve the proper weight-to-volume ratio; 2) Weight-to-volume measurements can be in ounces to fluid ounces as illustrated below or in grams to milliliters for metric scales; 3) Most plants can be extracted in 50% vodka but those with high oil or resin content may require higher proof.

Usnea is very light and airy

Blend it for alcohol coverage

1. Gather usnea and snip off any bark remnants from the stems;
2. Weigh it on a precise kitchen scale, write down the weight (i.e. 1.2oz), and place the usnea in a blender;
3. Determine the amount of alcohol by multiplying the weight by five (i.e. 1.2oz X 5 = 5oz). The antibiotic oils in usnea extract better in higher proof alcohol, in our case 75.5% Everclear which is the highest proof available in West Virginia; 
4. Pour the alcohol over the herb and blend until completely immersed;
5. Pour all of the liquid and herb into a non-translucent jar and seal with a tight fitting lid;
Usnea extracts with high proof and heat
6. Label the jar with the herb, ratio, alcohol, and date (i.e. Usnea thallus 1:5 in 75.5%, 1/2/12);
7. Place the jar in a warm dark place for two weeks, briefly swirling the mixture daily. Usnea extracts better with heat so a boiler room or on top of a water heater is best;
8. Strain and press the tincture into an appropriately labeled storage bottle;
9. Dispense in one or two ounce dropper bottles at a dose of 1 dropper  (10-15 drops) three times a day when an antibiotic is needed.

DOCTOR’S NOTE: Serious infections or those resistant to herbal treatment should be evaluated by a healthcare professional who may need to obtain a culture for determination of microorganism and antibiotic sensitivity.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


Stinging nettles

Herbal formulas for chronic problems often include an alterative in addition to an adaptogen and one or more specifics.  Alteratives are important for recovery from long-standing organ dysfunction because they gently restore normal function. Common alteratives available for home medicine making and taking include mullein (see Biennials) in fields or red clover (Trifolium pratense) in the yard for the respiratory system. Gastrointestinal alteratives include chickweed (Stellaria media) in the yard and garden or nettles (Urtica dioica) in the woods. Cleavers (Gallium aparine) in fields or motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) in the garden or fields improve cardiovascular function. The urinary system is is normalized by nettles or dandelion leaf. The aerial parts (leaves, stems, or flowers) of each of these plants can be taken as tea or tincture to help restore organ function in the recovery from chronic illnesses.

HERBALIST'S NOTE: Before medicinal use of any plant, further study in a materia medica is recommended to be familiar with it's diversity of effects. My favorites are Medical Herbalism by David Hoffman, The Earthwise Herbal by Matthew Wood, and Medicinal Plants of the Southern Appalachians by Patricia Kyritsi Howell.  

Chickweed on January 1, 2012

Red clover

In last week’s post I let slip that I’m using holy basil as the adaptogen in my formula for a chronic runny nose with occasional wheeze. Since the wheeze occurs when I’m emotionally stressed, we chose motherwort as my alterative because it is a nervine sedative like most mints in addition to having smooth muscle relaxant properties to facilitate breathing and circulation. Last summer Shannon and I were ecstatic to find a patch in a nearby meadow where we walk the dog, and so far this winter it has survived a half dozen hard frosts and a couple snows here in the central Appalachians.

So my herbal formula now includes holy basil as an adaptogen and immune tonic and motherwort as a cardiovascular alterative and nervine sedative. Now I need to add herbs that are specific for the runny nose and wheeze. Do you know of any? Please help me out by entering your recommendation in the Comments section below.

Motherwort surviving a late December frost

DOCTOR’S NOTE: Avoid red clover when taking blood thinners or when there is a bleeding disorder because it has anticoagulant properties which could make bleeding worse.