One of the most beautiful aspects of herbalism is how easy it is to learn the basic skills of making natural remedies. The following skills for herbal preparations from tisanes to salves are basic enough that almost anyone can learn them in a matter of minutes. The preparation methods described here will allow you to fully utilize herbs and customize treatments based on your needs. Using Chapter 4, Materia Medica, as a guide, you’ll be able to craft a wide range of natural medicines, using items from either your local environment or your long-term storage. You will increase your medical preparedness as well as amass many valuable barter items.
A tisane is an herbal tea consumed for its medicinal effects. The words “tisane” and “tea” are often used interchangeably, but a tisane is a tea intended to have a therapeutic effect as opposed to one that’s simply pleasant to drink.
Plant material can be either dry or fresh. If you are storing dried herbs, be sure to rotate your stock, just as you do stored food. Dried herbs have a shelf life of about a year. Be sure to grow or purchase enough to last that length of time.
There are two methods for making tisanes: infusion and decoction.
An infusion is made with the delicate parts of a plant, such as the flowers and leaves. When making an infusion, steep the plant parts in water. This almost always involves heating the water to just short of boiling and steeping the herb for a minimum of 15 minutes. Cover the pot to keep the essential oils from evaporating along with the steam.
A standard infusion calls for 1 teaspoon of herb to 1 cup of water. However, I prefer my tisanes to be a bit stronger than tea intended simply as a beverage. I typically use 1 tablespoon of herb to 1 cup of water. And while a usable tisane can be steeped in just 15 minutes, I often steep mine for anywhere from 30 minutes to overnight.
Mason jars work well to make a lot of tea all at once. I set mine up at night. The following morning, I strain the herbs, return the tisane to a clean mason jar, and reheat the tisane throughout the next day as needed.
Another way to make multiple cups is to use a French press. Put loose plant material in the carafe of the press, and pour in hot water. Place the lid with the plunger on top, preventing evaporation. When the steeping time is up, simply press down on the plunger, which separates and secures the plant material at the bottom, leaving the strained tisane above to be poured.
Convenient mesh tea strainers are available for brewing a single serving. Some are shaped like a ball, others like a basket. I have a basket type that fits in my cup. After putting the plant material in the mesh basket and setting it in my cup, I pour hot water over top and then cover the cup with the lid from my smallest pot to prevent evaporation. When the steeping time has passed, I remove the lid and mesh strainer.
There are times, however, when a cold infusion is preferable. This is the best option for extracting polysaccharides known as mucilage from demulcent herbs, such as marshmallow root. This mucilage is what gives demulcents their sticky, gooey, even slimy texture. Demulcents trigger a mechanism in our bodies to lubricate our mucus membranes.
To make marshmallow root tisane, fill a clean jar 1-quarter to half full with marshmallow root. Pour lukewarm water over the cut root, cap the jar, and let it sit for about 6 hours, a minimum of 4 hours is okay, but leaving it overnight is better. Then strain out the marshmallow root from the thick, somewhat viscous liquid. This liquid can now be used instead of water in making other tisanes. It is soothing to the mucosa and skin tissue throughout the body.
Decoctions are made from the hard parts of a plant, such as bark, stems, seeds, roots, and dehydrated fruits. In contrast to infusions, where avoiding evaporation is important, decoctions depend on evaporation to reduce water content.
To make a decoction, use 1 ounce by weight of plant parts to 2 cups of water. Place the plant material in a pot with cold water, bring to a boil, allow to boil for 10 minutes, and reduce to a simmer. Let the decoction simmer for about 20 minutes (for a total cooking time of 30 minutes). At this point, the liquid should have reduced by half. For a thicker liquid, continue simmering for another 20 minutes or so until the liquid has reduced by half again. This is called a double decoction. I use this double decoction method almost exclusively when making the decoction portion of a syrup recipe.
When you have finished reducing the liquid, strain out the herbs. You now have your tisane decocted from hard plant parts. If you wanted to use both hard and delicate plant parts, you would make a decoction of the hard plant parts first, strain out the herbs, reserve the liquid, and reheat to just below boiling. Then you would add the delicate plant parts to the reheated decoction, cover with a lid to prevent evaporation, and strain after 20 minutes.
BLENDING HERBS FOR TISANES
A tisane can be made from a single herb or a blend of herbs. When blending herbs, I occasionally go with my gut and use a pinch of this and a pinch of that. Most of the time, however, I use the following formula as a guideline:
•70% herbs that directly address the primary health concern
•15% to 25% herbs that supportively address the primary health concern
•5% to 15% herbs that strengthen (tonic) and/or herbs that soothe (demulcent, anti-inflammatory)
Here is an example of how this formulation might work in a tea to help someone with a urinary tract infection, using only ingredients that I can easily wildcraft in my area.
•7 parts dried juniper berries
•2 parts horsetail
•1 part corn silk
The juniper berries are antibiotic and help to kill the bacterial infection. The horsetail is a diuretic that doesn’t alter the body’s natural balance of electrolytes. So while horsetail does not act on the infection directly, it plays a supportive role by increasing urine flow to help flush out the bacteria. Corn silk, which is the long, silky hair from an ear of corn, lends a potent anti-inflammatory action to the tea, soothing the urinary tract.
This tea could be made even more soothing and effective by using a marshmallow infusion for at least half of the water used to make the tea.
A tincture is made by macerating (soaking) an herb in alcohol. The chemical constituents in the plants are extracted into the alcohol. Tinctures are uniquely suited to emergency preparedness. They are easy to make, and can last many years if stored in a dark, cool space. They never spoil because of the alcohol. The shelf life of a tincture is indeterminate. However, after many years some of the plant particles can begin to migrate out of the alcohol. If that happens, simply shake the bottle before each use.
Tinctures are fast acting because of how the body absorbs alcohol. A small percentage of the alcohol is immediately absorbed into the bloodstream upon ingestion. When the alcohol is absorbed, so is the plant’s medicine. The tincture then proceeds to the stomach, where another 20% of the alcohol is absorbed, before heading to the intestines. This process allows tinctures to start working much faster compared with other preparations such as capsules.
There are two methods for making tinctures: percolation and maceration. Percolation is the more advanced skill. It calls for packing a powdered herb into a special piece of equipment, a glass cone. Alcohol drips down through the herb in the cone to produce a fluid extract.
I’ll focus on the easier method, maceration. The herbs (the marc) are macerated (steeped) in alcohol (the menstruum), which acts as a solvent to extract the chemical properties from the plant. The marc is macerated in the menstruum for 6 weeks and then strained, and the resulting liquid is the tincture. You can macerate one herb at a time (a “single”) or you can macerate a blend of herbs all at once.
There are three variables in tincture making that you must decide on before you start:
•Will you use the measurements method or the simpler’s method?
•Will you use fresh or dried plant material?
•What alcohol percentage will you use?
I’m not sure if there is a formal name for this method, but this is what I call it. If you are using fresh plant material, the ratio is almost always 1:2. This means 1 ounce of plant material by weight to 2 ounces of alcohol by volume. If you are using dried plant material, the ratio is almost always 1:5. This means 1 ounce of plant material by weight to 5 ounces of alcohol by volume.
For example, to make a tincture of dried burdock root, use a scale to weigh 1 ounce of burdock root. Then pour 5 ounces of alcohol into a liquid measuring cup.
This is more of an intuitive approach. It’s also quick and easy, and I’ve made lovely tinctures with this method. Grab a canning jar, fill it with plant material, and then pour alcohol to cover the herbs. Run a knife down the sides of the jar to release any air bubbles, just like you would for pressure canning. Add more alcohol and fill to the top of the jar.
No matter which method you use, cap your tincture securely and store it in a dark, cool location. Shake the bottle once daily (or whenever you remember) for 6 weeks. After that, strain out the marc and bottle the liquid. Be sure to label your bottled tincture right away. Please listen to the voice of experience on this: Given enough time, you will forget what you bottled.
The herb you use will determine the resulting volume of tincture to macerate. For instance, 5 ounces of alcohol by volume more than covers the burdock root from the previous example. However, 5 ounces of something fluffy, like mullein leaf, requires much more menstruum to completely cover the marc, resulting in a weaker tincture. The only way around this is to cut the plant material as small as possible, almost to a powder.
Fresh vs. Dried
The next variable to consider is whether to use fresh herbs or dried herbs. My preference is for fresh whenever possible. However, each spring I inventory my dried herbs. Those that are getting close to a year old get tinctured. If I have demulcent herbs that need to be preserved at this time, I prefer to make cold infusions and preserve them by adding alcohol to equal 20% of the total volume.
The choice to use fresh or dried plant material determines the final variable in your tincture making: alcohol percentage. Plants have certain chemicals that are water soluble and others that are alcohol soluble. Using the correct alcohol percentage is the key to getting as much of the water-soluble and alcohol-soluble ingredients as you can out of the plant and into your tincture.
Your two options are: For fresh plant material, use grain alcohol (95% alcohol, or 190 proof). For dried plant material, use vodka (50% alcohol, or 100 proof) or watered-down grain alcohol.
Fresh plant material still contains water. Alcohol is dehydrating. Using 95% grain alcohol dehydrates the plant and extracts the water along with the water-soluble constituents and the alcohol-soluble parts. Grain alcohol is usually sold under the brand name Everclear. Grain alcohol is also available online (see Suppliers on page 152). If you cannot obtain 95% grain alcohol, just use the strongest-proof alcohol that you can get. But do not use isopropyl alcohol because it is not safe to ingest.
Dried plant material has no water. If you use 95% alcohol, you will be able to extract only the alcohol-soluble constituents, leaving the water-soluble constituents behind. The answer is to use a menstruum with a lower alcohol percentage plus water. You can either use vodka or dilute the strength of grain alcohol with water.
For most dried plants, the optimal alcohol percentage is between 40% and 50%. Certain highly resinous plants require a higher alcohol content to extract. However, the majority of plants fall into this 40% to 50% range. Most vodka falls into this range as well, at either 80 or 100 proof (40% and 50% respectively).
This may sound like a lot of alcohol. In reality, doses of tinctures are measured in drops, normally between 30 and 60 drops in an ounce or two of water. That’s approximately the same amount of alcohol found in a ripe banana. If you want to avoid the alcohol, you could add the drops to a steaming cup of tea. Alcohol cooks off at 173°F, whereas water boils at 212°F. Even if you are pulling the water off the heat just before boiling, the water is still hot enough to cook off the alcohol.
To get the exact alcohol percentage, you will need to consult a materia medica, a listing of substances used for remedies and cures. It details their properties, actions, uses, and directions for preparation, including ratios and percentages for tincture making. I have included my own materia medica for 50 of the most useful herbs and natural substances; see Chapter 4.
Let me tell you how I make burdock root tincture using the measurements method. Ordinarily I would measure 1 ounce of fresh plant material by weight and 5 ounces of alcohol by volume. However, the alcohol percentage recommended for burdock is 60%, slightly higher than the average vodka, although 120-proof vodka is sometimes available. The other option is to water down 95% grain alcohol to reach that 60% concentration.
To keep the math simple, I double the amount of burdock and alcohol, and use a pint mason jar whenever I make this tincture. I also treat the 95% as 100%. It’s close enough, and I’ve never had the “tincture police” chase me down for having done so.
I measure 2 ounces of burdock by weight on my scale. In a liquid measuring cup, I measure 6 ounces of grain alcohol and fill to 10 ounces with either filtered or distilled water. Because of the alcohol, I’m not concerned about any impurities growing in my tincture, but I do want to avoid chlorine and fluoride. The 2 ounces of burdock and 10 ounces of 60% alcohol fit into a pint jar with room to spare.
One consideration in making alcohol-based tinctures is that they require alcohol. Home distillation is largely illegal in the United States. Laws change, however, so periodically check your state laws. Thankfully, alcohol can be stored for a long time and can be a vital part of your herbal preps.
An acetum is an herbal infused vinegar. Distillation was developed during the Middle Ages. Prior to this, there were no steam-distilled essential oils or alcoholic spirits. Stable oils (true fats, like olive oil and sunflower oil), wine, and vinegar were used as solvents to extract various chemical constituents to make medicines.
Vinegar can be an excellent substitute for alcohol in tincture making, particularly if the plant is rich in alkaloids. Alkaloids are soluble in both vinegar and alcohol, but not in water. The primary difference between the two as menstruums is that vinegar does not have the indeterminate shelf life that alcohol has. The shelf life of an herbal vinegar is approximately a year. Also, vinegar will not extract resinous compounds.
On the plus side, apple cider vinegar, the most popular vinegar for tincturing, is easy to make (see page 12). Apple cider vinegar comes with its own health benefits. And as long as you have apples nearby, you can make apple cider vinegar. If you do not, then raw apple cider vinegar with the vinegar “mother” is available from most grocery stores, and is much less expensive than alcohol. Just like baking bread or making yogurt, you need a starter. For vinegar, it’s the mother. The bottles list an expiry date, but I have never found a bottle of apple cider vinegar that’s gone bad after that date.
There is no need to dilute or calculate percentages with vinegar. Just use it straight. Make your plant material as small as possible, although completely powdering it makes it a little messy to strain. A muslin bag or several layers of cheesecloth are required to produce a clear vinegar. If you leave your plant material in larger pieces, a mesh strainer will work just fine. The idea is, the more surface area (meaning, the smaller the pieces), the more the liquid you can extract from the marc.
To make an acetum, use either the measurements method or the simpler’s method. Remember to shake the jar daily for 6 weeks. A usable acetum can be obtained in 2 weeks, if you are in a pinch for time, or if the vinegar you’re making is spicy hot and it has sufficient heat for your liking. Whenever you macerate herbs, such as when you make a tincture, acetum, or glycerite, or when infusing herbs into oil without heat a heat source, the minimum time necessary to get a usable extraction is 2 weeks. At 6 weeks, you have extracted what you can out of the plant material. It won’t hurt anything if you keep the herbs in the menstruum for longer than 6 weeks, but it won’t be any stronger. If you wanted to make it stronger, you could strain out the spent plant material and pour the liquid extract (tincture, acetum, etc.) you just made over new plant material. Try to remember to shake it daily.
Before distillation was developed during the Middle Ages, there were no distilled spirits with which to make tinctures. Herbal wines, however, were quite common. Although herbal wines are not as capable of extracting the alcohol-soluble constituents from plants, you should explore them as an option for your preps. It is far easier to make wine, especially mead (honey-based wine), than it is to distill spirits.
You can include herbs in the wine-making process itself, or you can mull them (warm and steep them) in the finished wine and then strain them out. This is a type of remedy I personally associate with winter. The wine can be ready in less than an hour with a little bit of heat, but steeping the herbs in wine as you would for a tincture does make for a more effective product.
GLYCERIN AND GLYCERITES
Glycerites are extracts made from glycerin. Glycerin is a sweet-tasting alternative to an alcohol menstruum. Its sweetness makes it a favorite menstruum for children’s complaints, and its skin-soothing properties make for lovely herbal ear drops.
Glycerin is a derivative of soap making. If you are interested in having access to this product as part of a long-term disaster preparedness plan, you will need to know how to make it at home. Learning to make soap is a fun and rewarding pastime, and something a lot of preppers already know how to do.
The glycerin that comes directly from soap making, however, is not food grade. It must be further distilled to produce a pure food-grade product. This is an advanced skill, and outside the scope of this book. But if you are learning how to distill for other reasons, such as making your own biodiesel or getting a small amount of precious essential oils, then it may make sense for you to learn how to process food-grade glycerin. It will certainly be a valuable barter item.
For everyone else, glycerin is a finite resource. Once you run out, that’s it. Glycerin has a decent shelf life, several years if kept in a cool, dark location. Firm capping is essential because glycerin tends to absorb moisture from the air, and that will change the shelf life.
Glycerin can be used alone as a menstruum, or combined with other menstruums, such as alcohol, vinegar, or water. Because of its sweetness, it can be used to make a strong-tasting remedy more appealing to the taste buds. However, when it comes to digestive bitters, the taste of bitter is necessary to begin the digestive processes. Bitter herbs, such as dandelion root, gentian, and milk thistle, are better prepared with alcohol or vinegar.
You prepare a glycerite the same way as you do a tincture or an acetum. Using either the measurements method or the simpler’s method, fill a jar with your chosen herbs, and fill to cover the herbs with glycerin. Run a knife down the sides to remove and air bubbles and make sure that the glycerin is coming in contact with your entire herb. Allow to the herb to infuse into the glycerin for 2-6 weeks, strain out the herb, and reserve the glycerin, now called a glycerite. Glycerites have a shelf life of approximately a year. However, unlike other sweeteners, such as honey, maple syrup, or molasses, glycerin doesn’t contribute any nutrients or enzymatic properties to a remedy.
An oxymel is a blend of sweet and sour made by combining honey and an acetum. It doesn’t matter if your blend has more honey than vinegar or more vinegar than honey. The ratio is entirely up to you.
To make an oxymel, take an herbal infused vinegar that has been steeped for a minimum of 2 weeks and strained. Then measure the volume of vinegar recovered from making the acetum and add about half of that volume in honey. If you want it sweeter, add more honey. Add it a little at a time because once you add it, you cannot take it out. Stir the vinegar and honey until they are thoroughly mixed to make the oxymel. As a variation, I often add lemon or lime juice for another layer of flavor and vitamin C.
When I make my version of herbalist Rosemary Gladstar’s traditional fire cider, for example, I fill a quart mason jar with onions, garlic, horseradish, cayenne, ginger, turmeric, astragalus, and hibiscus (the last three being my additions), and pour in apple cider vinegar until all the ingredients are covered. I let this macerate for 2 to 4 weeks, and then strain out the plant material. I usually end up with about 2 cups of vinegar. You may get more or less depending on how tightly you pack your jars.
Next, I put in 1 cup of lemon juice, and then finish by filling the jar with 1 cup of honey. You could take this cider in a 1-ounce shot glass or, as I like to do, add 2 ounces to a small glass of apple juice.
Herbal syrups are sweet medicine made by mixing a decoction or a double decoction (page 21) with either honey, glycerin, molasses, or simple syrup. Simple syrup is made by dissolving white sugar into water. It makes a sweet syrup, but offers no nutritional value or healing properties to the herbal syrup. One thing I have never had an issue with is getting my kids to take their medicine.
Unlike tinctures, aceta, and glycerites, syrups have far shorter shelf lives. The honey in a syrup helps to preserve it somewhat, but after about a month the syrup will start to spoil.
I prefer to make double decoctions for my syrups. It is the water component that encourages spoilage. By making a double decoction, I am reducing the amount of water in my syrup, minimizing the risk of spoilage while thickening the syrup.
You can also make syrups with cold infusions of mucilaginous, demulcent herbs, and use that thick water loaded with polysaccharides as the water portion in a tisane. Then blend the tisane with honey or another sweetener in a 1:1 ratio.
Elderberry syrup, a very old and traditional remedy, has been a staple syrup in my home for many years. It is one my most trusted go-to remedies for the flu, as well as to support the immune system on a daily basis during the cold and flu season.
I use elderberry syrup to make homemade gummy candies, and I also pour it on top of homemade yogurt. Sometimes the lines between food and natural medicine can get a bit blurry, and I think that’s as it should be. As Hippocrates, the father of medicine, said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” For my version of elderberry syrup, see Natural Flu Syrup on page 128.
You can preserve syrups by storing them for a year in the freezer or for 2 to 3 weeks in the refrigerator. Preserve syrups with alcohol if you wish to store them on the counter. The ratio must be of 1 part grain alcohol or 2 parts any 100 proof alcohol, such as vodka or brandy, to 4 parts syrup.
If I wanted to preserve my elderberry syrup with alcohol, I would use 4 ounces of my double decoction, 1 ounce of brandy, and 11 ounces of honey. Not only does this very small amount of alcohol provide the added benefit of preserving the syrup, but it also assists in the quick absorption of medicinal herbal constituents.
Other than honey, natural sweeteners that make wonderful medicinal syrups include molasses, maple syrup, birch syrup, and yacon syrup (tastes like caramel). If you have access to some other local syrup, then that’s the perfect choice, as it will still be available to you in a post-disaster situation. If you have only white sugar from your long-term storage, you can use it. Although it won’t add any nutrients, it will still produce the correct thickness and taste to transform bitter and pungent herbal flavors into syrup with a better flavor.
Elixirs are made by macerating herbs in honey and brandy. The combination has a good shelf life, generally tastes better than grain alcohol or vodka extractions, and takes effect faster than a syrup. An elixir can be taken just like a syrup, but elixirs and syrups differ in several ways:
•The herbs used in elixirs are macerated, not decocted.
•There is no water component in an elixir.
•Syrups can be made in under an hour, while elixirs can take 4 to 6 weeks.
•Alcohol in a syrup is both optional and significantly less than in an elixir.
An elixir is one of my favorite choices for a violent, hacking cough, such as in acute bronchitis. Alcohol creates a warming sensation, temporarily calms a cough, and can also numb a sore throat. In small amounts, alcohol has great value as a medicine. Overdoing it can suppress the immune response. Some people, however, cannot imbibe alcohol. The reason may be religious principle, addiction, or allergy. If you want to avoid alcohol, choose an oxymel instead of an elixir, and an acetum instead of a tincture.
Honey is powerful natural medicine on its own, without any assistance from humans. However, herbs can add another layer of healing to the honey and create some unique remedies. Honey has antibacterial and humectant properties, and is superb as a sore throat remedy as well as indispensable in herbal wound and burn care.
I strongly encourage everyone not allergic to bees to consider raising their own beehives. There is so much natural medicine in that hive! Bees provide honey, wax, and propolis, all ingredients in natural medicine. At the very least, I urge you to contact your county beekeeping association (every county has one), and find out if the members are selling honey and wax. If so, get to know these people. You will be depending on them and their bee products if shipping is interrupted, and so will everyone else making natural and herbal remedies.
When I make an infused honey, I used the simpler’s method. I pack my jar as tightly as I can with plant material and then pour honey over it. I find a nice warm place to let the jar sit for 4 to 6 weeks. Then I strain out the herbs. This can be tricky since the honey is so viscous. Letting the honey sit somewhere warm keeps it on the thin side and easier to pour—mine sits in the cabinet over the stove. I use a large mesh strainer that fits on top of a large bowl, and I pour the honey into the strainer.
Most of the honey will pass through the strainer, but I wait an hour to allow more honey to drop off the strained plant material. Rubber or silicone spatulas make it fairly easy to scrape every last drop of the honey out of the bowl and into a wide-mouth mason jar for storage. Be sure to use a wide-mouth jar because it’s much easier to clean than a jar with a narrow mouth. Getting the honey into the jar is even easier with the type of wide-mouth funnel commonly used as a canning accessory.
While honey never spoils, it eventually crystallizes. The remedy for crystallization is to warm up the honey. If I find that a bottle of honey in my cabinet has crystallized, I pop it into a ziplock bag, fill my slow cooker with water, and place the bagged bottle in the slow cooker set to warm. The last thing you want to do is to cook your raw honey. The warm setting on most slow cookers will keep the temperature low enough to preserve the enzymes in the honey.
If you have glycerin on hand, you may wish to add a small amount to the final product. Glycerin prevents the honey from crystallizing. I wouldn’t add glycerin to a bottle of pure honey, but it’s a smart addition to herbal infused honey. Why risk cooking away the plant properties or the honey’s enzymes if you don’t have to?
An infused honey that I make in large batches every year is rose infused honey. Rose has a cooling effect on the body, and it also has a profound impact on a person’s mood and sense of inner peace. This is something I give regularly to my young daughter, who has made temper tantrums into an art form. Partly from the rose and partly from the ritual of getting something sweet from mom, rose infused honey is often all I need to soothe her spirit.
For preppers, however, it is important to have something on hand to help soothe the spirit after a trauma. During times of crisis, having something to help cope with The End of the World As We Know It (TEOTWAWKI) situation, whether a devastating storm or an economic collapse, is important. In the moment, adrenaline will be high. Afterward, people will likely have some sadness to face. Rose infused honey won’t make the trouble go away, but you may be surprised at how effective it can be in helping people cope.
Another use of rose infused honey is as a personal care product. After a collapse, it won’t be possible to head to the local drugstore or shopping mall and pick up soaps, astringents, moisturizers, and so on. I have been transitioning my family from all store-bought personal care products to home-crafted ones. This is partly because of the questionable chemicals in the store-bought items, but also because I want to be able to continue our quality of life even if a disaster hits. Protecting our quality of life is a huge factor in why I prep.
You can apply rose infused honey to the face as a facial or as a spot treatment for acne. Just apply with your fingertips, and allow it to sit for 15 minutes. The heat from your body will begin to thin the honey. Wipe off completely with a warm, wet facecloth. This pulls away bacteria without drying the skin. It may be the best facial ever developed for any skin type.
Honey can be infused with sage or horehound for sore throats. A garlic and lemon honey is a wonderful tonic for the immune system, as well as a tasty glaze on chicken. Be sure to check out Wound, Burn, or “SHTF” Honey recipe (page 113) using honey infused with St. John’s wort.
Another remedy made from honey is an electuary, a blend of honey and a powdered herb. The consistency can vary from being nearly liquid to being almost dry enough to shape into pastilles.
An electuary may be one of the easiest remedies to make. Choose your herbs for the medicinal purpose you have in mind. Powder the herbs, and then spoon a little bit of honey at a time into the herbal powder. Use a clean spoon each time you take some honey from the jar. Stir well before adding more honey. You can always add more honey or powder to get the consistency you want.
It is impossible to give exact ratios for an electuary, as it will really depend on your personal preference. Mine is for the electuary to have a spreadable consistency as opposed to being a drier paste. I also have a tendency to include powdered marshmallow root in almost every electuary.
You can make herbal powders with a traditional mortar and pestle, plus a lot of patience and elbow grease—or you can opt for the assistance of a coffee grinder. I have multiple mortar and pestles, as well as electric and non-electric coffee grinders and flourmills.
It is not easy to make a fine powder. No matter if you use a mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder, you will end up with some fine powder and a lot of coarse, granulated powder. You can use a fine mesh sieve to separate the two, and return the larger bits to either your mortar and pestle or coffee grinder. In many cases, the only way to get a truly fine powder is to use a flourmill capable of producing fine powders, like cake flour.
Powders begin to break down shortly after powdering. Only powder an herb right before you are going to use it.
Powders are great for encapsulation and any powder that would be shaken or sprinkled onto the hair or body, such as a wound powder. Powders can be used to make tinctures, but straining them is a mess. Encapsulation is perfect for an herb with a less-than-pleasant taste. If you are taking the highly bitter herb andrographis for its antiviral properties, there is no need for you to put up with its bitter taste. If you are taking cayenne for its circulatory properties, you do not need to taste the heat. Encapsulation makes sense in these instances.
If you must store powdered herbs, encapsulate them as quickly as possible, and store the filled capsules in a dark, cool place. The refrigerator is ideal.
Powders can be used for many remedies and applications. Uses include pastilles, tincture making (especially with the more advanced percolation method), electuaries, capsules, poultices, wound powders, tooth powders, and dry shampoo.
Pastilles are lozenges that are quick and easy to make with powdered herbs and some kind of liquid. Mix the two together, just as you would for an electuary, but let the pastilles dry and age for a couple of weeks. The ratio of powder to liquid will vary depending on the recipe.
Using a powdered mucilaginous herb in the powder portion helps you to form the pastille. Slippery elm is my favorite, as it is naturally sweet, although you could use marshmallow root. If you are purchasing slippery elm, be sure to look for a reputable source; slippery elm is an endangered plant due to overharvesting of the wild population.
In addition to your choice of mucilaginous herbal powder, add one or more herbal powders depending on what you want the pastille to do. Kava kava pastilles are incredible, non-habit-forming mood enhancers. Stress has a negative impact on the immune response, blood pressure, and sleep patterns, and it can do awful things to the endocrine system. Kava kava pastilles are ideal if you are under a great deal of stress and cannot unwind at the end of the day.
For the liquid portion, you have several options. A decoction of licorice root is nice in a sore throat pastille. Plain or infused honey makes for a wonderful pastille. You could also try a cold infusion of marshmallow root to add another layer of demulcent action to your pastilles.
A poultice is a topical application of herbs that have been moistened and applied to an injury. The poultice is usually warmed for low back pain and to relax contracted muscles. However, a poultice can also be used cold on a sprain or when inflammation is present.
I credit a poultice of comfrey leaves, arnica flowers, and lavender flower powder with speeding the healing of a badly sprained ankle of mine. I had taken a serious fall shortly before my mother’s health began to fail, spraining my ankle, and I needed to be up and on my feet, walking through long hospital corridors, and ultimately standing at the wake and funeral. I couldn’t afford to be off my feet.
Making the poultice was simply a matter of warming the comfrey and arnica in some water on the stovetop, and then adding lavender flower powder to make a paste. The infused water was absorbed into the lavender powder. Once the mixture was somewhat clumpy, I allowed it to cool in the refrigerator.
While I still needed to wrap my ankle and rest it whenever possible, this poultice helped my ankle to heal with reduced pain, swelling, and bruising. For the recipe and procedure for applying the poultice, see page 111.
An infused oil is a stable, liquid fat that has been infused with one herb or a combination of herbs. The process is very similar to the other infusions: Herbs are covered in oil and allowed to macerate. The infusion can be cold or warm.
To make a cold infusion, fill a jar with a dried herb and then fill to the top with oil. If you are using leaves or petals, make sure to pack it. You would be surprised to see how much air space ends up between the delicate plant parts. If you are using roots or anything hard, just fill the jar. There’s no need to pack hard pant material. If you are using a fresh herb, allow the plant material to wilt slightly. The wilting is the water evaporating. Water in the oil can lead to spoilage. I tend to use dried herbs to avoid this potential problem, but certain infused oils, such as those made with St. John’s wort, require fresh plant material.
When all of the herbs are covered in the oil, run a knife or the flat, plastic utensil from your canning accessory kit (they are designed for this purpose) around the inside of the jar to allow any air bubbles to surface. You may find the level of oil has come down. Top off the herbs with additional oil, and cap the jar. Place in a dark, cool location to reduce the chance of the oil turning rancid, and check on it frequently. Shake the jar daily, or whenever you check the oil. It usually takes 2 to 6 weeks to get the desired strength.
Adding low heat to the infusion speeds the process. I almost always choose to make a warm infusion in a slow cooker. If you have a series of sunny days, you could conceivably re-create the process in a solar over, although you would have to pay close attention to avoid cooking the oil instead of warming it.
A warm infusion couldn’t be simpler. I place my plant material in the slow cooker, cover with oil, and turn the setting to warm. Use only the warm setting. If your slow cooker doesn’t have a warm setting but just a low setting, you’re better off using the cold-infusion method or getting a different slow cooker. Both the “low” and “high” settings on a slow cooker will reach the same temperature. It just takes the “low” setting longer to get there. The warm setting is not for cooking but instead for holding food at a warm temperature. This is exactly what you want when making an infused oil.
The minimum time needed to infuse herbs into oil is 2 hours. However, I typically macerate the herbs for 2 weeks. I turn the warm setting on during the day and turn it off overnight. This allows me to keep an eye on the infusion while I’m awake. I am uncomfortable allowing oil to be warmed when I can’t pay attention to it.
Since I have stocked up on olive and coconut oils because they store well and resist rancidity, I might choose one of them. Another option is to choose an oil with specific properties I would like to harness. Grapeseed oil, for example, is valued in skin care for its light feel and quick absorption rate.
Also known as an ointment or balm, a salve is a topical treatment made from oil and wax. If you simply warm up some olive oil and melt some beeswax into it, you will get something very similar to petroleum jelly.
A salve is a skin protectant. It provides a barrier between the elements and the skin. Lip balms are very hard salves, whereas the olive oil and beeswax “petroleum jelly” is a very soft salve. Adding more wax makes a salve harder.
I typically use ⅔ cup of oil to 2 tablespoons of purchased beeswax pastilles (beadlike bits of wax) or beeswax shavings from wax we harvested and processed from our hives. If you are buying beeswax, you have a choice of either a solid bar or pastilles. Choose the pastilles—they are more convenient to use than shaving a large 5- or 10-pound block. When we process the wax from our beehives, I melt and pour the wax into small, 1-ounce blocks from which it’s easy to make shavings.
The oil can be infused with an herb prior to making the salve. In my Anti-Scar Salve (page 94), which is ideal for burns and blisters, I have comfrey, calendula, and Oregon grape root infused into pumpkin seed oil. I also add some lavender essential oil because I have it on hand. However, lavender essential oil is not easy to replicate on your own without a lot of land to dedicate to lavender and a knowledge of and specialized equipment for steam distillation. If I wanted to, I could add lavender to the other herbs I infuse into the pumpkin seed oil.
Melt the wax into the infused oil in a double boiler, then pour quickly into jars or tins. If you add any essential oils, you can let the oil/wax mixture cool a little. But don’t wait too long or the mixture will start to harden before it’s in the container. Pouring it into the jar while it’s still warm leaves a smooth, professional look on the top of the salve. Wait too long and it will be gloppy and look like someone has already used some of the salve.
LOTIONS AND CREAMS
The skin absorbs lotions and creams more easily than it does salves. However, lotions and creams are trickier to make than salves because they contain water. The water component is what makes your skin absorb them more readily. There’s just one little obstacle: Oil and water do not like to mix without an emulsifier.
This is the same concept as making mayonnaise. With mayonnaise, the lecithin in egg yolk is the emulsifier. Technically, you could use egg yolk to make lotions and creams as well, but the shelf life would be extremely short.
Right now, while times are good, emulsifiers are easy to come by. One common emulsifier is called emulsifying wax (a.k.a. e-wax), which is often sold as a vegetable-based wax and touted as a natural product. It’s actually a highly processed product that requires by-products of the petroleum industry to manufacture. No preppers will be able to make emulsifying wax on their own.
Truly natural emulsifiers are very few. Beeswax is often called an emulsifier, but it is not. It is a hardener and a thickener, and it can sometimes do a halfway decent job of keeping water and oil together. When beeswax and borax are used together in a lotion (wax with the oil phase, and borax with the water phase), they do function as natural emulsifiers. Unfortunately, borax is found only in a few places on the map, and odds are it’s not in your backyard. However, if you live near Boron or Searles Lake in California or in the southwestern United States, and you happen to enjoy chemistry, borax may be an option for you.
Gum acacia is another natural emulsifier. Unfortunately, unless you live in East or West Africa, you’re probably not going to be growing the tree this comes from. However, as with borax, you would be able to store quite a bit of gum acacia since it doesn’t go bad.
Lanolin, also known as wool’s fat and wool grease, is my favorite emulsifier. It works best when emulsifying a water-in-oil emulsion. This means that the oil is coating the water. This type of emulsion helps preserve the lotion or cream a little longer since the water is protected by oil. If you have access to sheep and can get the wool after it’s been shorn, you can obtain lanolin by boiling the wool. Keep the better looking fleeces for spinning. Instead, look for a fleece that breaks easily or has an uneven crimp that would be a pain to spin.
To harvest the lanolin, give the wool a good once-over and “skirt” it, which means pulling off vegetable or other matter that may be in the wool. Put the wool in a large pot of water on the stove, and bring to a boil. The fats will separate and come to the top. Remove the wool, which may have turned into a mass of felt, and let the water cool. If you put a large rock or other heavy weight that will withstand being boiled on top of the wool, you may avoid the felting. You will be able to skim the lanolin off the top. You do not need much lanolin for emulsifying.
If you don’t spin or you don’t have access to sheep, lanolin is readily available to purchase now and keeps for a very long time. Some people have had skin irritations from lanolin, but I haven’t heard of this happening with lanolin from sheep, which are typically raised far from pesticides.
Making lotions and creams (a cream is just lotion, but with less water) often involves some kind of solid fat along with the liquid oil. Most of the common fats added are cocoa butter, shea butter, mango butter, and other tropical nut butters that will be unavailable after a collapse cuts off shipments.
After much experimenting, I can report that my favorite substitute for these exotic nut butters is lard (fat from a pig). Lard produces a lotion that is creamy, emollient, and surprisingly non-greasy. I was also surprised that the final product does not smell like bacon. There is a smell, but it is mild, easily covered up by aromatic herbs, and no more odoriferous than unprocessed shea butter. I made some peppermint infused lard and turned it into the most luxurious peppermint foot cream I’ve ever used. All I could smell was the peppermint. I didn’t even need to add essential oils. If you do use essential oils, be stinting because essential oils can easily overpower the natural smell of a lotion.
Lard is ideal for a few other reasons. Pigs provide a lot of meat for their hanging weight, and at a low cost compared with cows. The lard can easily be rendered at home. It can be used to cook, season cast-iron pans, and, yes, make lotion—all as a by-product from one meat animal.
The basic process in making lotion or cream is to take an infused oil, a tisane, and an emulsifier, and bring them all to approximately the same temperature. I use a double boiler for this. I do not like heating herbs and oils any more than absolutely necessary. Optional ingredients include a solid fat and a hardener. Carefully blend or whisk together your ingredients, forming an emulsion. You can do it in a blender or by hand.
You have the choice of pouring the oil into the water, or the water into the oil. I have had better luck keeping my lotions together by pouring the oil into the water, in a trickle, either in a blender or using an immersion blender with a