Medicines from Your Yard
This is the first of three articles. This article focuses on plants available in the summer for water infusions and oil infusions/salves. The next article will give instructions for tinctures and syrups for plants harvested in the fall. The final article will help you plan a small medicinal garden and suggest how to fill your medicine chest with homemade remedies.
Almost all herbs have properties that improve health. Eating a diet that is abundant in herbs and spices will contribute immeasurably to your health by strengthening your immune system and preventing disease. The herbs can also cure many conditions and have done so for thousands of years. Herbs work slowly and at the deepest levels for healing. There is something that is wonderfully empowering about growing, harvesting and preparing herbal remedies and tonics. When someone is ill or injured, it is very helpful to have remedies on hand to dispense. There is also great comfort knowing that homemade remedies made from herbs in your garden, spices from your cupboard or wild-crafted plants gathered close to home have very few side effects or contraindications. In this article and the next, several methods of preparation will be discussed and plants to look for this time of year will be pictured. Be very, very careful that you are 100% sure of the plant you are harvesting. Ask a knowledgeable person to verify the identity of any plant you have doubts about. The Cooperative Extension is a very good resource for this.
This article will discuss Water Infusions and Oil Infusions/Salves. The menstruum is the liquid that the plant material is soaked in to extract its medicinal components. Here water and oil will be used as the menstruum
Water Infusions and Decoctions
Many herbs can be prepared by soaking (maceration) a chopped or crushed, fresh or dry herb in hot or cold water. Most often the water is hot. Leaves and flowers are used for an infusion. Preheat a glass, porcelain or china container. Drain heating water and add herb and then boiling water. Let the infusion steep, covered and warm, for 20-30 minutes. Strain or filter and press out the marc (pulp/herb). The ratio of herb to water is 1:20 for dry and 3:20 for fresh by volume. Drink 2 or 3 cups a day. Make the infusion fresh daily. For a cold infusion, suspend dry herb in a bag at the top of the water overnight. Common herbs to make hot infusions are: chamomile (relaxation), mints (lemon balm or catmint for calming, peppermint or hyssop for colds or refreshment), clover blossom (blood purification) and elder flowers (immune booster and cold remedy). Making a hot water infusion of jewelweed and freezing it for fall and winter poison ivy is a good practice. Decoctions are made with roots, stems and seeds. The plant material is simmered 20-45 minutes. Strain and drink warm or cold.
In the summer, mints, hyssop and lemon balm are abundant. All these herbs can be gathered and hung to dry or even frozen for winter use. You simply use less of the dry herb, one third as much. Even thyme makes a wonderful antibiotic tea. Experiment with other culinary herbs like sage, oregano or basil. Holy basil or Tulsi is an adaptogen, keeping your systems running well, especially under stress. It makes an excellent hot water infusion or even a tea (steeped for only 5-10 minutes).
Oil Infusions and Salves
Oil can also be used to macerate herbs. The ratio of herb to oil should be 1:3 for fresh and 1:5 for dry. The oil can be olive, sesame, almond, etc. Crush or chop the herb finely. Place in a jar and cover with oil. Make sure all the plant material is below the surface of the oil. Place the jar in the sun for warmth. Shake daily for at least a week, but no more than four weeks. Filter the oil and press the marc. A coffee filter or cheesecloth works well for this. Allow the oil to sit undisturbed for a day or two. Make sure there is not a layer of water in the bottom of the jar. If there is, just decant the oil. This oil infusion can be stored in a cool, dark place for up to 2 years. If you choose to make a salve from the oil, measure the oil in ml. and weigh the wax in grams. The ratio of wax to oil should be 1:5. For example, 20 g. of wax to 100 ml. of oil. Put the oil and wax in a double boiler or pan in a pan of hot water. Carefully heat the oil until the wax melts, stirring occasionally. Pour the mixture into jars. Shaking the jars while they are hot (until cool) gives the salve a nice texture/consistency. This salve will last 3 years.
To make an all-purpose salve use any combination of the following:
Plantain – antiseptic, good for acne and eczema, itch of bug bites
Calendula blossoms – anti-inflammatory and antibacterial to treat cuts, old burns, abrasions, sunburn chapped skin, diaper rash or as a general cosmetic
Chamomile – soothing and anti-inflammatory
Comfrey – speeds healing of cuts, ulcerations, bruises, broken bones, pulled muscles and ligaments and sprains
Jewelweed – remedy for poison ivy (also can be used as a infusion/tea applied to rash)
Goldenseal – antibacterial and especially healing to mucous membranes
Cilantro – rashes and insect bites
Mallow – used for burns, wounds and swelling
Echinacea leaf – anti-microbial
The pictures below are from late July. Plants look different at every stage of their growth. Spot them in bloom and then visit them from time to time to really get to know their “habits”.
Plantain is a common weed and you will find it everywhere, especially in your lawn. It has two varieties, broad and narrow leaf. Either or both are the best plant for insect bites.
Calendula is cultivated, an annual, but need only be planted once because it self-seeds.
Comfrey is also cultivated, a perennial. If the root is used, it should be dried for a week or so. Chop it fine so that it will dry quickly (you won’t be able to cut it after it is dry).
Jewelweed is a common weed found in moist areas and at the edge of forests. It has either yellow or orange blossoms in August.
Goldenseal is an endangered woodland plant. If you find a patch in the wild, be careful to take only one leaf (each plant has two) and not the one with the bright red seed pod. If you garden, they grow easily in a shady spot.
Cilantro and also coriander (the seed of cilantro) are herbs readily available from your grocery store.
Mallow is a cultivated perennial, but can be found in the wild with patience. Marsh mallow and common mallow have similar properties.
Echinacea is also called purple cone flower. It is in full bloom now. The leaves and blossoms can both be used for the oil infusion.