Herbal medicine has come a long way in recent times, becoming more widely accepted and respected. Science has played an important role in this growth as it has validated many traditional beliefs, but herbalism is also an art. It belongs in the realm of creativity and intuition as well as analytical thinking and is ideally a holistic and sensory experience, nourishing us on all levels. Following are some suggestions and recipes that are easy to follow and can serve as an introduction to an older style of herbal medicine.
When I began studying herbal medicine I left my first seminar deflated. It seemed my ideas were romantic and had no place in modern times. I thought, for example, that herbal medicine would involve contact with herbs, yet throughout my formal education I only had contact with bottles and jars.
It wasn’t until I apprenticed with a folk herbalist several years later that I was finally taught a more hands-on approach to herbal medicine. I was taught to identify medicinal plants in the bush and fields and to cultivate, harvest and make my own medicines from herbs. This complemented my former education well.
There is a saying that ‘herbs are the medicine of the people’ – but in Australia this is hardly the case. Old folk remedies that were once common knowledge are now known by few people. While serious and complicated health issues should be treated by a professional, some herbs can be taken regularly by lay people to nourish themselves, treat minor problems and help prevent major illness.
Following are some suggestions and recipes that are easy to follow and can serve as an introduction to an older style of herbal medicine.
This is a herbal vinegar with a real bite. It’s particularly useful for sore throats and, if taken regularly from the onset, it will often ward off a cold. It’s also good for digestion and circulation. Suggested dosage is one teaspoon every hour.
½ cup chopped onion
½ cup chopped parsley
½ cup chopped garlic
¼ cup grated ginger
1/8 cup powdered cayenne pepper (or to taste)
Honey to taste
Apple cider vinegar (enough to cover all ingredients by 2-3cm)
Pack all the vegetables, herbs and honey into a glass jar and cover with the vinegar. Seal and agitate daily for two weeks. Then strain out the vegetables and herbs and bottle the remaining liquid.
Comfrey is banned for internal use in Australia, as it is deemed toxic. While this issue is controversial, the external use of comfrey is considered safe and very beneficial. Comfrey speeds up and assists the healing process in burns, strains, sprains, bruises and even broken bones. It is not antiseptic, however; so if a wound has any sign of infection, treat this first with tea tree oil or calendula cream, or the wound will be healed with the infection under the skin.
The following salve is very simple to make and can be slathered on freely.
Add about 30g of dried comfrey leaf and the same weight of dried comfrey root to two cups of olive oil. Both the leaf and root should be ground up as finely as possible. It can be made with either the root or leaf, as they have similar properties, but it is ideal to use both.
Leave in a fairly warm place for at least two weeks, shaking well each day. Then strain, squeezing out as much oil as possible through a cotton cloth. (I’ve used handkerchiefs when I’ve nothing else on hand.) Discard the plant material.
To each cup of oil remaining, add around 30g of grated beeswax and heat it gently until the beeswax melts. Grate a little more than you think you will need so you can adjust if necessary; also have a jug of boiling hot water handy to pour over utensils as soon as you’ve finished or the beeswax is very difficult to get off.
To test for hardness, dip a teaspoon into the oil and beeswax mixture, cool it in the refrigerator for a minute, and then check if it is the consistency you want. If it is too soft add a little more wax, if it’s too hard, add a little extra oil. Pour into jars before it sets. Small dark glass jars are ideal; they are available in some pharmacies and health food stores. After it cools, label it with the ingredients and the date.
To make up a jar of nourishing tea, mix equal parts of the following dried herbs:
Peppermint or spearmint
To make the tea, use one heaped teaspoon of mixed herbs for each cup of boiling water and steep for five to ten minutes.
This tea is nutrient-rich and is helpful to those who are stressed, anaemic, run down or recovering from illness. Nettles and oat straw both provide a wide range of vitamins and minerals and are particularly rich in calcium and iron. The nettles are a general tonic to the whole body, while oats strengthen the nervous system (omit if gluten intolerant).
Rosehips are well known for their very high vitamin C content but they are also a good source of calcium, zinc and vitamin A. Peppermint is used here primarily for flavour, though it is a further source of vitamin C. Most commercial tea bags of rose hips are mixed with hibiscus which enhances the colour and dominates the taste. Rosehips taste nice on their own but do not have a strong flavour
A fomentation is simply a clean cloth that has been soaked in a warm herbal infusion or decoction then applied to an area of the body. A compress is the same thing although it usually refers to a cloth soaked in a cold infusion.
To stimulate blood circulation, warm cold stiff joints or reduce internal inflammation, grate a little fresh ginger root (say up to 100g) on a fine grater. Infuse it in two cups of boiling water for 10-15 minutes. Strain, then dip a large cotton cloth in the warm infusion, fold it and lay it on the affected part – as hot as you can tolerate comfortably. Cover with a dry towel and put a hot water bottle over that. If the area being treated can’t accommodate the hot water bottle, have a second fomentation ready to replace the first as it cools down.
St John’s wort oil
It is best to make herb oils with dried herbs to prevent bacteria growing in the water which is released from fresh plant material. However certain herbs, such as St John’s wort, are more effective when made from fresh.
St John’s wort oil is for external use on bruises, unbroken burns, nerve pain and varicose veins.
Cut the tops from St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) – the majority of the plant material should be flowers. Cut them finely and fill a jar almost to the top, and then cover with olive oil. Infuse the herb in the oil for at least two weeks (a month is better) in a warm place, shaking it every day. It will become a beautiful red colour. Because this oil is made from fresh material, you will need to check the mixture every day and wipe away any condensation that forms inside the jar.
Finally strain the mixture through a clean cotton cloth, squeezing out as much oil as possible. Let the oil sit overnight and then decant the oil off the top with a basting brush, leaving behind the water residue and sediment. It is best to keep the oil in a dark bottle, labelled with the date and ingredients. If a clear bottle is all you can find, be sure to keep the oil in a dark cupboard.
Herbal medicine has come a long way in recent times, becoming more widely accepted and respected. Science has played an important role in this growth as it has validated many traditional beliefs, but herbalism is also an art. It belongs in the realm of creativity and intuition as well as analytical thinking and is ideally a holistic and sensory experience, nourishing us on all levels.
Marion Steinmetz is a freelance writer with a varied and quite unique background in herbal medicine. She studied clinical herbal medicine for three years, apprenticed with a folk herbalist and has taken courses in herbs for home healing, wild-crafting and medicine making. She has also taught herbal workshops and is a published author.
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