Simple Medicine Making
As I walk this path in The Medicine Woman Tradition, I am grateful for the courage I found in myself to finally step with two feet and whole heart into this journey. I am in awe at the support, the love, and the sincere guidance Kiva, Loba, Wolf, Rhiannon and the Canyon have repeatedly given me. This past year has been one of great unfurling and and discovery, challenges and pain, and pure enthusiasm and confidence in which to continue this walk of life.
-Stacey, Medicine Woman student
Medicine making is a simple and ancient art that anyone can do. If you can cook soup or make coffee, then you can easily prepare simple salves, tinctures, infusions and other essential remedies. I like to keep things as basic as possible and build from there. I’ve included instructions for the most common preparations as I know them, often with myriad variations so that you can personalize them in whatever ways appropriate to the situation and individual. You’ll also find a few of my articles specifically offering guidance storing and purchasing medicinal herbs here.
Remembering that medicine making is something that our ancestors did as naturally as breathing or eating, can help keep us connected to our primal roots and deepen our relationship with the plants. It has been my experience that there is nothing so satisfying as blending herbs into a soothing tea for an ailing friend or passing on my special recipe for throat soothing pastilles to my little girl. Crafting these remedies — these tangible, taste-able prayers brings me into a timeless state where I remember that the healing we practice that is as old as the human species. Passed on from mother to daughter, grandfather to grandson, Medicine Woman to apprentice in a living lineage of love, connectedness and wholeness.
………………..- Kiva Rose
Table of Contents
An Introduction to Tinctures
To make a tincture, you need only a few ingredients: an herb, a menstruum and a container with airtight top. Optionally you might want a three beam scale and a glass measuring cup. Some herbalists like to have all kinds of fancy stuff, like beakers, industrial grinders and tiny funnels (very nice to have). I have a weird menagerie of tools that include a turkey baster, several different sized funnels and some chopsticks but I keep it pretty simple. Tincture presses can also be nice, but they are another subject for another post.
Processing the Plant
For fresh plants, just chop it up good first. For dry plants with leaf or flower matter, chopping is easy too. For roots, they usually come cut and sifted if you buy them commercially. If you harvest your own roots, you should remember to chop them up when they’re fresh if you know they’re going to get hard (like Redroot, which is herbal steel when dried). Some people insist that you must grind your dried herbs to coarse powder before tincturing to expose more surface area, but I don’t like ground up herbs much, and they get powdery stuff in your tincture that can be annoying to get out. It all depends on how precise you need/want to be. Being a folk herbalist, don’t see/fee much need to get too worried about it. My tinctures work as well or better than most commercial tinctures I’ve bought.
Simpler’s Method for Fresh Plant Tinctures
This is the easiest method and probably one of the most common for folk herbalists. Basically, you fill a jar with chopped fresh plant matter, then you cover it with alcohol of some kind (whiskey, rum, brandy, vodka etc depending on who you learned from and what part of the world/country you’re from). Cover it with an airtight lid, let sit for 2-6 weeks and then decant, reserving the liquid. It’s that easy.
Standard Method for Fresh and Dry Plant Tinctures
This method is a bit more exacting. You don’t have to do it this way, but it’s useful if you’re working with a new plant or one with delicate constituents that you want to be sure to extract. And if you happen to enjoy math, then it can be kind of fun too. I like playing with the scale, but I usually do an herb by the book one time and then approximate the next time.
Now, glance at a basic herbal. They will tell you that you will use a ratio of 1:2 for fresh plant tinctures and (usually) a ratio of 1:5 for a dry plant tincture. It’s generally accepted in Western herbal medicine that it is most ideal to use 95% alcohol for fresh plant tinctures and varying percentages (with an average of 50%-65%) for dry plant tinctures depending on the constituents in the plant and the kind of medicine you want to make.
So, what exactly do these ratios mean anyway? They are weight of herb to volume of menstruum. That means that if you are preparing a dry plant tincture with a 1:5 ratio, and you have 1 ounce (by weight) of dried herb, you’ll want five ounces (by volume, in your glass measuring cup) of menstruum (alcohol or alcohol/water). If you are preparing a fresh plant tincture at a 1:2 ratio and you have 5 ounces (by weight) of fresh herb then you will need 10 ounces (by volume) of mentruum.
It’s easy to get confused by this in the beginning, and think they mean something like filling your jar a fifth of the way up with herb and filling it all the way up with alcohol/water. I’ve seen/heard that quite often, and remember being confused by it myself when I was younger.
Another issue is mass of plant to weight of plant. Some herbs are rather bulky and fluffy and very very light. Trying to smush enough herb into the jar to get the proper ratio can be mind boggling and sometimes impossible. If that happens, you have two basic choices: learn to percolate or just get over it. I’m not really excited about the math of percolation, so I usually smush as much as I can in and then just see how it works out. So far so good, and haven’t made an inert or uselessly weak tincture yet.
Step by Step
So, here’s a step by step tincture. You have some dried Yerba Mansa root and you want to make a tincture. This is what you can do:
1) Weigh the Yerba Mansa and discover you have about two ounces.
2) Look up or mentally note that dried Yerba Mansa makes a good tincture at a 1:5 ration and 60% alcohol.
3) Measure out ten ounces of menstruum (60% alcohol and 40% water) in a measuring cup.
4) Place plant matter (you can bang it around in a mortar and pestle too if you think it needs to be broken down more) in suitably sized jar (you want to avoid have much air space in the bottle when everything’s in).
5) Pour alcohol over plant matter.
6) Seal jar with airtight lid.
7) Store in cool, dark place for two to six weeks. I have variously decanted an herb at three weeks and once, two years later. Both tinctures worked well.
8 ) Being a dried plant, shake once every day or so. Fresh plants when tinctured with a high percentage of alcohol do not need to be shaken, they will simply be automatically deprive of all of their liquid bits by the alcohol.
9) At the end of the designated time, decant (and squeeze squeeze squeeze all the tincture out of the plants) and reserve the liquid.
10) Store in an airtight container in a dark, cool place. Don’t open unless you need to as air exposure seems to speed up breakdown time. And don’t forget the LABEL, where you want to include what the plant is, usually both botanical and common names when you’re first starting out so you’re not confused later on because you only used some obscure folk name found in a book and now you don’t know what it is. You’ll also want ration, alcohol percentage, date you began the tincture, and perhaps date/location of harvesting. If you didn’t harvest it yourself, then the name of the place/date you bought it.
So there you have it, a fully functional and very useful tincture. There are further variables of course, like if you’re using an herb with lots of tannins you might want to add some (usually 10%) glycerine to the menstruum in order to enhance extraction and avoid precipitations of said tannins. Or you could also add an herbal honey for flavor and medicinal value and so on. There’s also various exceptions for the standard ratios like doing a fresh plant tincture of Lobelia at 1:4 instead of 1:2.
I love medicine making, and I value simplicity and straight-forwardness a great deal, so I keep my medicines basic for the most part. I only tincture one plant at a time (with rare exceptions), I don’t use percolation (there’s nothing wrong with it of course, I just haven’t gone there) and I’m not real concerned about things like fluid extracts or other super concentrated forms of medicine. I like herbal baths, simple tinctures, teas, decoctions, honeys, vinegars, oils/salves, nourishing infusions and FOOD as medicine. For me, good medicine is about integration and our individual journey towards wholeness. Healing should happen on every level and in every aspect of our lives. It’s not relegated to just a dropperful of tincture in the morning or a couple of capsules with lunch, it’s in every motion and word. Our intent to heal -to be well and whole- is most effective when it permeates each and every moment.
Notes on Alcohol for the Beginning Herbalist
There’s this little herbal misunderstanding that has become a pet peeve of mine. Some people seem to think that grain alcohol (also known under the brand-name of Everclear) is somehow evil or unsuitable for medicine because of how strong (evidently this is equivalent to harsh). But really, it’s only as strong as you make/need it.
So, that cheap vodka you buy. It’s usually either 40% or 50% alcohol and the rest (60% or 50%) is water. That makes it Everclear with with a bunch of water added. Expensive water, eh? You can sometimes buy high quality vodka from potatoes or some source besides grain but it’s a pretty penny in most places.
So, you could buy yourself some Everclear (if it’s legal in your state) or you could buy organic grain or grape alcohol from Alchemical Solutions and have it shipped to you. It’s 95% alcohol.
Now, to make a fresh plant tincture I prefer a high alcohol percentage. I’ve used every kind of percentage from 40% on up, and I have to say that in most cases, I far prefer a higher percentage (from 75%-95%) because it tastes more like the plant and takes a very low dosage for effective medicine, and seems to preserve better. Now let’s be clear, your fresh plant tincture WON’T be 95% alcohol because the fresh plant itself contains water (how much depends on the plant of course), so it’s not quite like taking a dropperful of Everclear or something. Some plants have tons of water in them (think of juicy plants like Plantain or Wild Mint). And hey, if you want to only use 50% alcohol for your tincture, well then hell, just use half water and half grain alcohol.
For dry plant tinctures, you’ll rarely use 95% alcohol but it makes it really easy to calculate the exact percentage that you do need. So if you need 45% alcohol for your dried Ashwagandha, why then just add enough water to the alcohol to make that (again, appr. half and half, I personally usually just eyeball it). If you want to know some good recommendations for the various percentages of different dry plant tinctures, head over to Michael Moore’s site and download his free Materia Medica. I won’t get into the math of tinctures here, I just want to dispel the evil Everclear myth and show useful it really is. Otherwise you’re forever stuck with 40% tinctures, which is ok for many herbs, but when you have lots of aromatics or resins, it’s really less than ideal and is fairly evident upon tasting or using the medicine.
You don’t have to get all uptight and scientific about measurement, just approximate and you’ll usually do fine. Practice and experience will make it much easier. And yes, the people at the liquor store or bar will think you’re an alcoholic. And if you tell them you’re making medicine with it, they’ll just nod knowingly and roll their eyes at each other over your head. Eventually though, you’ll be in there selling THEM little bottles of tincture because they can’t get rid of last winter’s lung grunge. Poetic justice, I say.
Fresh or dried herb
Some lard (any good rendered animal fat will work)
Let’s assume you’re using a nice fresh green herb, like Mugwort (or Beebalm or Roses or Grape leaves). Harvest your plant, being sure to thank it for sharing its medicine and life with you. Chop it up coarsely. Fill your jar loosely with fresh plant.
Now, lard is fairly solid at room temperature, so you’ll need to get it slightly warm to make it liquid. When it’s nice and fluid, cover your plant with lard, filling the jar to very near the top. Poke the plant and lard mix with a chopstick or butter knife to get the air bubbles out. Put the lid on.
You could just leave the jar to cold infuse, but I like the results of a warm infusion better so I store my jar in a warm place. My favorite place is in the woodstove warmer but any consistently warm area in the house should be fine. The idea is for the jar to get very warm to the touch but you should still be able to pick it up without burning yourself. I let mine steep (warm method) for about three weeks, but six weeks if using the cold infusion method. When the lard is done infusing, strain it (you may have to get it warm again for this) and bottle it.
Another, more traditional approach is to put the lard in a pan on low heat, then add the herbs. Stir frequently, and cover when not stirring if working with an aromatic plant. Let the plant gently cook for anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour depending on the plant. When the lard turns color and takes on the aroma of the plant and the plant matter is somewhat crispy (but not burned) it’s all ready. Strain, pour into jar, let cool. All done. Depending on what plant you used, it could also be used as a condiment (Beebalm lard is yummy!)
There you go. A traditional, incredibly effective medicine made in the same way that our ancestors on nearly every continent and every tribe crafted their medicine. Yeah, you could weigh things and create perfect proportions, but you’ll learn more if you eyeball it. Besides, it all depends on the plants you’re working with and who you’re making it for. Adapt, evolve and have fun!
Pantry Medicine: A Simple Poultice for Swelling
I really like to use simple, downhome remedies whenever possible, preferably made up of weeds and food. Here’s great poultice for swelling and inflammation can be rigged up with common items from your pantry and weeds from your yard. It can also be easily customized to individual needs.
1 Cabbage leaf
1 small Potato
Cooling, anti-inflammatory weed (like Plantain, Mugwort, Sweet Clover, Chickweed, Alder leaves etc.)
Appropriate tinctures (optional)
So, first grate up the potato so that you have a nice 1/2-1 inch thick covering for the injured area. Then get the weed and chop or mash it up before blending it with the potato. By the way, if you don’t have a potato, you could always use grated cabbage instead.
If you want the added horsepower of more herbs in a concentrated form, you can mix some powdered herb in or add a few squirts of a tincture in. So if you had a sprained ankle and wanted to take the swelling down and relieve inflammation while not reducing mobility (in the way that ice can) then you could use fresh Mugwort as your weed component of the poultice then add Goldenrod and Peach tinctures for added cooling power. It all just depends on what you need, and also whether the skin is broken. If the skin IS broken, you’ll likely not want the tinctures (stings like hell, but might be appropriate in some cases) and will prefer a great proportion of mashed fresh plant matter.
Next, you pile the potato/herb mix onto the affected area and gently mold it to the flesh. Then take a piece of cabbage or even a whole cabbage leaf if the area is large enough, and place it over the potato mush, ideally making sure the cabbage leaf extends beyond the borders of the potato/herbs. It can be left as is, covered in gauze and taped down, or you can just apply the tape directly to the cabbage and strap it on there. Be sure not to apply the tape too tightly.
In most cases, the poultice can be changed every 6-8 hours, but if there is serious inflammation or the poultice starts to feel hot then I like to change it more frequently, often every 1-3 hours for the first day and then adapt from there.
If you have pets, they may want to eat your poultice which I don’t recommend at all. In fact, I strongly suggest keeping it out of the reach of small children and animals, depending on just what you put in there. Also, be sure to compost the poultice when you’re done. After all, you wouldn’t want anyone to mistake it for dinner.
Note: for children who won’t leave the poultice alone, a simple poultice of cooked mashed potatoes (hold the salt and butter) can be folded up in some muslin or a muslin bag and applied that way. Chopped or mashed fresh herb can be added once the potatoes have been cooked and then the mix sealed in muslin or cheesecloth. The plain mashed potatoes are useful for the two year old that tries to eat everything you place on his/her body. Whether you use the poultice warm or cool mostly depends on what you’re treating.
Elderberry Sparkle: A Beginner’s Guide to Lacto-Fermented Herbal Brews
I do a lot of brewing here. This is in part to compensate for the lack of refrigeration at the center but also just because I love the process of fermentation. I make homemade wines and ales of all kinds, but want to start here with a basic primer for Lacto-Fermented Herbal Brews because they’re easy, quick and you and your children can drink them to your heart’s content. The herbal sparkles are fizzy and tongue-tingly, and depending on the culture you use, they can also have a bit of a sour bite to them. Very yummy, and a great alternative to most commercial beverages out there.
Make a quart of herbal infusion. Yarrow, Elderberry or Chamomile are all good starting points. Let it infuse for several hours then strain.
Add a couple tablespoons of sugar or honey
Pour about 1/2-1 cup of whey into the bottom of a clean quart jar.
Add infusion to jar until close to the neck of the jar.
Add two or three slices of fresh ginger (optional, but helps with the fermenting process)
Cover loosely (you can use a canning lid, just don’t screw it on all the way).
Let sit for two-three days (depending on warm the spot was and what you’re fermenting).
Store remainder in a cool dark place, in an airtight jar once you’re sure the fermentation process is done (you can put a balloon around the jar mouth overnight, and if it inflates it’s still fermenting.
It really couldn’t be simpler or tastier. You can get your whey from plain yogurt (by separating the solids from the liquid, the liquid is your whey) although I prefer the whey from piima. In a couple days, your brew will be sparkly, fizzy and delicious. With yogurt whey based brews, they’ll easily last for more than a month with refrigeration, but will get progressively sourer. I’m not sure what happens with piima because I drink it too fast to find out. I like these brews as a quick ferment for instant gratification. If I want longer lasting brews, I make wine or ale.
In general the more sugar you add, the fizzier the drink and the longer it takes to ferment. With lacto-fermented brews I find you really don’t need that much to make a tasty, sparkly drink. There is some alcohol content happening here, but it’s very low
What herbal infusion you choose depends on your taste. Yarrow is bitter and pungent, providing a slightly mind altering edge while Elderberry is blood nourishing, tart and a beautiful shade of purple. You get all the benefits of a normal herbal infusion plus the extra benefits of fermentation and friendly bacteria for your belly. Who can complain?
As with most traditional foods, there’s lots of room for improvisation with these brews. Endless combinations of herbs, sweeteners and ways of fermenting await you. Be creative, and don’t forget to have fun.
Herbal Honeys and Pastes with Recipes
It’s become fairly common knowledge even among the scientific establishment that honey makes a superior burn and wound dressing. It’s especially good at preventing and resolving infection, even with antibiotic resistant infections. It also excels at keeping inflammation to a manageable level and seems to help the regeneration of new tissue.
The next obvious step is to use herbal honeys for wound and burn dressings! If raw honey is already an amazing treatment then adding the further healing properties of herbs can only improve the mix, right?
So here’s a basic recipe for an herbal honey and some ideas for herbs to use especially for wound and burn dressings. You can, of course, eat the honey as well in order to integrate healing into the body, and because they taste good.
Fresh Herb Infused Honey
1 glass jar with lid
enough raw, preferably local, honey to fill the jar
enough fresh plant matter to fill the jar (less for roots, more for flowers)
a chopstick or stick
Fill the jar, more or less, with roughly chopped (or smushed, for berries) plant matter. Then, drench the plants with slightly warmed (enough to be pourable) honey until almost full. Stir with stick or chopstick until thoroughly mixed. Then poke at the mixture to release any remaining air bubbles. Top off with more honey.
Let sit for a few to six weeks in a warm place or until the honey takes on the taste and fragrance of the herb. If the herb you used is not terribly palatable, then strain it off and preserve the honey. Otherwise, I like to keep the herb in the honey to nibble on, use in food, etc. If you live in a humid, moldy climate you may want to either keep the jar in the fridge or add some (as you like, any amount will help preserve it) brandy or rum to the mix. I’ve never had a problem with my honeys going off, but some people do with fresh plants.
Dried Herb Infused Honey
1 glass jar with lid
enough raw, preferably local, honey to fill the jar
enough dried plant matter to fill the jar about a third of the way (less for roots, more for flowers)
a chopstick or stick
If you have tough roots or woody plant matter to deal with you may want grind it up a bit to expose more cellular surface to the honey. For flowers or leaves just break down with you hands or a mortar and pestle to a fairly regular cut sifted kind of texture. Place herbs in jar, cover with honey, stir and poke as above. Top off with more honey and let sit, finish just as above. See, easy.
Honey Paste Variation: If you use a finely ground herb to mix with the honey you can just stir it together and make a lovely honey paste, then you don’t want to strain at all, but keep the plant in the honey. You may also want to use a higher proportion of herb to honey in this case, at it will thicken with time. You can then make little honey balls called pastilles and roll them in some herbal powder (licorice is popular) and let them dry for a few days. They make excellent cough drops and slow release herbal pills. Or you can just keep it as a paste to apply directly, eat directly or add to tea. This preserves the herb indefinitely and is an excellent vehicle for the whole plant. Fragrant roots such as Ginger, Osha, Sweet Flag, Echinacea etc all do very well this way. Dried berries are also great this way.
Favorite Herbal Honeys
Rose petal Honey – It tastes AMAZING, it’s cooling and relaxing. Externally, it’s amazing for burns and infections of all kinds
Bee Balm Flower Honey – Mmm, spicy, sweet, invigorating and relaxing. Another great anti-infective and burn soother. Great internally for coughs, sore throats and lung stuff. And basically anything else that Bee Balm is normally good for.
Ginger Root Honey – Warming, stimulating and especially good for old wounds that refuse to heal.
Elderberry Honey – An old favorite! Great for immune modulation and energy as expected but also great externally for nearly any kind of wound or burn.
Rosehip Honey – This, and any other berry honey, makes an excellent tonic to build the blood and gently restore the nutritive balance of the body. Great for deficiency caused anemia and weakness.
Sage Honey – Extra nice for sore throats and lung stuff. Also very useful active infections.
Happy Girl Honey (inspired by Ananda)
1 part Goldenrod flowers, 1 part Lemon Balm and 1 part Ginger – A nice, tasty mood lifting winter survival honey.
Elder Mother Honey
2 Part Elderberry, 1 Part Elderflowers, 1 Part Rosehips, 1/2 Part Osha & 1/4 Part Ginger or Sweet Flag
Great for viruses and immune stuff, especially bugs that settle in the lungs and never want to leave. It’s great even without the Osha. I really like this with at least some portion of rum or brandy.
Winter Root Honey
1 Part Osha, 1 Part Sweet Root, 1 Part Wild Ginger & 1 Part Monarda Flowers
An adaptation of a Michael Moore suggestion. Strong, hot and sweat inducing.
Honey Paste Recipes
Bear Medicine Honey Paste
3 Part Elderberry, 1 Part Rosehips, 1/2 Part Osha, 1/2 Part Ginger & 1/4 part Lemon or Orange Peel
Make it nice and thick and suck on a little chunk when you start getting a scratchy throat in the Winter.
Briar Rose Deluxe Honey Paste
2 Parts Rose petals, 1 Part Rose hip, 1/4 Part Orange Peel, 1/4 Part Ginger
Nice on the sore throats, is nearly as good just made with powdered Rose petals and honey. You can spice it up more with Cardamon if you like.
Wise Woman Style Infusions
I find infusions to be a really useful and simple way to get a lot of plant matter and energy, as well as a lot of vitamins and minerals into a person on a consistent basis. I studied with Susun Weed so I’m quite influenced by her lovely nourishing philosophy.
These kinds of infusions are best made with super nutritive food-like herbs. Herbs that might fit into this category include Oatstraw, Nettles, Violet, Borage, Comfrey (depending on your state of mind about PLAs), Red Clover, Raspberry leaf, Rose leaf, Rose petals, Mallow, Mullein, Elderflower, Elderberry, Hawthorn leaf/flower, Linden flowers, Alfalfa, Peach leaf and so on and so forth. Dandelion root can also be made this way but I do prefer a decoction for woody bits and roots.
1 Quart jar with lid
1 oz of dried plant material (about a cup of leafy material like Nettles, more for light flowers like Red Clover and less for heavy roots and barks)
Place plant matter in jar, fill jar with just boiled water, cover with airtight lid. Let steep 4-8 hours, preferably overnight. Strain out plant matter and reserve liquid (you can give the plant matter to your garden or compost). The rest of the process is really determined by personal taste. Some people like infusions warmed up, some like them cold. Some like them with a bit of honey, some don’t.
Also, Susun teaches us to use jut one plant a time when making infusions especially at first so we know what we’re reacting to if we have a reaction. I tend to start with one plant, work with it for a while, then keep it as the primary influence while adding some balancing or harmonizing plants.
For instance, here in the hot dry SW, I almost always add a bit of moistening Mallow leaf to my Nettle infusions. Another example is my current favorite adrenal blend made primarily of Nettles and Borage with pinches of Mallow and Rose.
A note of caution: Some of these plants, like Nettles, can be a bit bowel loosening at first. Especially in a quart dose. So start with a pint or less, and drink it throughout the day instead of in one fell swoop (better for assimilation anyhow). Pay attention to how your body responds and act accordingly (if some plant gives you a splitting headache or an itchy rash, stop drinking it).
Simple Guidelines for Purchasing Herbs
Let me begin by saying that I recommend gathering your own herbs if at all possible, in part because this is the only way to really ensure the quality and treatment of the plants is truly optimal. And do realize, that pretty much wherever you are, you have the ability to collect some of your own food and medicine. Any child can learn to recognize a few basic (but very important) herbs, and so can you! Perhaps most important, is that this is one of the best ways to form a lasting and powerful relationship with the plants
However, I know that many of you have neither the time, expertise, land, energy or even desire to realistically harvest the bulk of your herbs. So here’s some of my experience-based understandings to help you knowledgeably purchase your medicinal herbs. Over the years, I’ve seen that many herbs will behave in their expected way even if not of the premium organic, small farm variety. I’ve also noticed that some plants simply MUST be harvested very carefully from a healthy environment in order for them to work well (if at all). With a few of these herbs it’s totally clear that they just don’t work, as in the Skullcap is completely inert. In other cases, they seem to work, kind of, of they work well in some ways but the breadth and depth of their effect has been lost somewhere in the industrial process, (Ashwagandha is especially prone to this).
First of all, just completely avoid all plant matter that is some indeterminate shade of yellow-brown and has that distinct musty smell. Reject any herb that does not still look very much like it did while alive, it should still be vibrant and inspirited. If you’re buying from an herb store, it’s really preferable that the proprietor of the shop know where the herbs came from, when they were harvested and purchased and ~gasp~ something about the nature of the herb itself (something besides the newest drivel from alt. health glossies).
It truly is best in almost every case to buy locally from a small grower or wildcrafter. It may take some footwork to find them, but they’re more common that you might think. In fact, it took me years to figure out their was an organic lavender farm a mere 1.5 hours from me, but you can imagine how excited (ecstatic) I was when I found out. I’ve made a habit of slowly tracking down all of the people in my region who grow herbs I want but can’t grow/find for whatever reason. So there’s a woman in the village who grows Calendula for me, and another with Basil, and then a sweet lady who brings me Elderberries from the mountains just over the border in Arizona. It’s ever so satisfying to work with plants from your own bioregion and to be able to cultivate a relationship with the grower/harvester in person.
If you are buying your herbs online then you need to be extra careful, and very choosy. The easiest way of out of this is to buy from small, reputable farmers and wildcrafters with an ethical, prayerful approach to their work and who will ship to your area. This way you can talk to the actual humans that grew, talked to, and picked the medicine you will be working with. Once upon a time it was a monumental task to find these mythical beings, much less purchase affordable herbs from them. It’s a different world these days, and there are many great small farms and independent wildcrafters that are both accessable and affordable. I have compiled a small list found below of those I have worked directly with or that have been recommended by other practicing herbalists.
If you must buy your herbs from a large warehouse that gets its herbs from global sources, be sure to check that they do not irradiate their herbs and that they carefully test all of their stock for harmful chemicals and other undesirable substances. They will hopefully carry certified organic (for whatever its worth) and be working directly with the harvesters/growers of the herbs. This rules out pretty much all the herbs that come in those shiny foil packages. In fact, this eliminates most of what is carried in the majority of health food stores and many herb shops. And don’t let the hype and floral decor on their websites sway you either, you’re buying herbs not ads, after all 😉
Don’t be afraid to complain or return herbs to suppliers if they’re less than satisfactory, or to urge your local shopkeeper to carry better stock. Polite pressure for higher quality can make a difference in the long run. On the other hand, be sure to let providers of fresh, fragrant, wonderful herbs know how much you appreciate them and how important they are to you. A little appreciation goes a long way in helping these wonderful folks feel how needed they are!
Keep in mind that not all herbs survive being dried and shipped around the world very well, no matter how nicely they’re treated. Some plants simply need to be used fresh or gathered locally. They’re living beings and can be quite delicate. Especially sensitive (to time, heat, etc) individuals include Skullcap, Passionflower, Lemon Balm, Basil, Ashwagandha, Red Clover, Raspberry leaf (don’t know why, but the leaf of commerce is generally awful) and Yarrow, among others. Some super tough plants include Chamomile, Rose (something I wouldn’t expect, but is generally true), Elderberry, Sage (usually), Thyme, Sumach and Elm. It’s all variable according to climate, treatment and sunlight exposure of course, but this has been my experience.
Whatever way and whoever you decide to get your herbs from, make sure the magic is intact. You know, the faery sparkles that live in happy plants. Yes, it sounds very silly, but really, any of us who have been using herbs for a while realize that the medicine works best when the spirit of the plant is present and alive. It’s the essential component to how our body’s connect with and learn from these ancient allies.
Recommended Small Bulk Herb Providers that Ship in N. America
Zack Woods Herb Farm
Heartsong Farm Healing Herbs
From the Forest
Shining Mountain Herbs
Elk Mountain Herbs
Medium to Large Herb Suppliers
Notes on Keeping Track of your Medicines
I’ve learned this one from hard experience, over and over again. I’ve more than once picked up a jar of neutral green tincture and discovered it had no label. So I open it and sniff, also neutral green (thank goodness so many plants have distinctive tastes and smells). Uh oh. The next step is tasting, which is great unless you’re not sure whether you have the jar of Plantain or the jar of Datura leaves. Dammit.
Sometimes this has happened because I failed to put a label on the jar, especially in the very beginning when I only had a half a dozen tinctures and could recognize each by the jar they were in. Sometimes the label fell off or got wet or had incomplete information, like the one that said “Skullcap, Fl. Tops, 75% alcohol, 6-30.” Great, June thirtieth of what YEAR, though? Oils have a different kind of problem in that if their labels get oily, say goodbye to all that detailed info you wrote down, and you’re left with a one pint jar of dark green oil that smells like olive oil and some random green plant. Sigh.
Over the years, I’ve slowly corrected the label issue and have come to the conclusion that the more information the better in most cases. I also think more tape is better when fastening the label to the jar, so I always put clear packing tape over every label so that they’re less likely to disappear on me. I also prefer to write down these particular facts on the actual label of the tincture (or oil etc):
Botanical Name (in cases where I can’t completely key it out, I’ll put Scutellaria spp. or Artemisia spp.)
Date Made – I prefer the exact date, and often the time, but even just the season and year will be helpful later. If it’s a dried plant preparation then also the date of harvest or purchase
Where harvested (if you bought it, just put down what you know, but if you harvested it, be specific, as you might want more someday, or if it doesn’t work out well, you might want to avoid that particular spot).
Weather and Conditions Harvested in – really important for picky, changeable plants like St John’s Wort or certain kinds of Sage. You’ll want to mention if there’s a drought or if it’s an unusually wet year etc. You can avoid writing this over and over if you make up a Master Inventory List (see below).
Percentage of alcohol: No, not the end percentage in the tincture, but percentage you USED. It’s too insane mathematically to bother with the former method. So, if you used Everclear, just put 100% (or 95% if you have a deep need for exactness). If you used brandy, write 40% (probably). And if you made a custom water/alcohol blend, then write down the percentage.
Proportion of plant to menstruum – You know, 1:2 for fresh plants, 1:5 for dried plants (usually). Plant matter by weight, menstruum by volume.
Fresh plant or Dried plant – Usually evident from the proportion, but ~assume nothing~, write it down.
If you’re a plant fanatic (like me), you probably harvest and process lots of plants every year and are slowly filling every available space in your house (and garage and shed and doghouse) with herbs and herbal preparations. No matter how big you think your brain is, you’ll never be able to hold onto all that information (I tried, and failed). So, that’s what you need a Master Inventory List for. Every year or season, depending on the volume of herbs you work with, start a sheet dedicated to the plants you harvest and process. You will want to include:
The weather conditions of that year.
Primary places you harvested from and notes about any unusual happenings in that area.
Plants harvested (which species and what parts)
Any notable changes about the health or amount of each particular stand of plants. It’s especially important to monitor the health of the plants you gather if you’re wildcrafting. If you primarily wildcraft I recommend using a field journal as described in From Earth to Herbalist by Greg Tilford or something similar. I have my own method for that, and I’ll post a sample at a later time.
Appr. how much harvested of each plant.
Then you make a tincture list and oil list and and dried plant list and so on, make sure you write the date and year on every piece of paper in case the records get separated. You write down the amount (2 gallons of Beebalm tincture, 1 quart Elderflower tincture etc), and the location of storage (bedroom closet, 3rd shelf up, on the left). And every time you use some or move it, write it down. This will save you from tearing the entire house apart looking for the last two ounces of Passionflower tincture that you really NEED RIGHT NOW (that you’ve somehow forgotten that you gave to a client three months ago). You also write down any notes on the life span of that preparation or plant so that you can keep an eye on what needs to be used up or checked on.
This kind of written organization will also force you to organize your plants better, and encourage you to move them from the plastic bags they were purchased in, into nice glass jars or similar. Things are much less likely to go bad this way, or get lost. And you’re less likely to lose your mind over that Passionflower tincture. Happiness all around.