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Herbalism

On this blog, herbalism embraces both magic and medicine, folklore and science. I love learning about both, and so I will write about both side by side. If you have any questions about my views, take a look at my about me page.

To me, nutrition and healthy cooking are part of herbalism. Food is medicine, and food should be clean and safe. Feeling healthy is feeling good, and a happy life with fewer worries may soon follow.  Therefore, there will be a lot of discussion of food and some of my favorite relevant recipes. Organic food grown in a sustainable manner is an important part of this dynamic to me. So, I will also discuss gardening and other sustainable lifestyle tips when I can.

So, a quick and dirty rundown on Herbalism 101.

  • Use fresh herbs when possible for full potency. If you use dry herbs, they are more potent if you buy them in whole form and then crush them yourself. This includes pepper. Get a pepper grinder, your pepper will be a lot more potent when ground from peppercorns (only use this one for pepper). If you dry your own herbs, hang them to dry and store them in whole form in jars. Crush before using.
  • Use when substituting fresh or dried herbs, one measure of dried herb is equal to two measures of fresh herb. (This is because the fresh herb has extra bulk from the water content in it.)
  • You can use an electric coffee grinder for dry seeds, woody herbs, and barks. Brush out leftover powder with a clean paintbrush or pastry brush. Don’t grind wet items in this, the fluid might get into the parts and cause rust or other damage. Wipe down a messy grinder with a barley damp cloth. Keep your coffee grinder and your herb grinder separate.
  • A mortar and pestle help to bruise or crush herbs before using in cooking or medicine. I dice the fresh herb first by rolling leaves into a tube and then slicing across the roll. There’s a word for this. I forget it and my google-fu seems broken on the subject. I use a marble mortar and pestle to bruise herbs in, and a larger rough stone set to crush barks, seeds, and grains. The larger one is also good for breadcrumbs. If you wish to make resins or inks out of non-food items, do not use the same mortar and pestle that you use for culinary or herbal purposes.
  • Use a lid when you simmer or steep, and knock the water that condensed from the lid back into the liquid. There are some essential oils in that water.
  • Herbs are the soft bits like leaves and flowers. I include fresh or frozen (not dried) zest in this category. If it is fresh or dried, if it is originally from the juicy part of the plant, it’s an herb. They tend to work best as infusions.
  • Spices are hard bits like seeds, dried zest, and bark. They tend to work best as a decoction. To combine the two, make a decoction with the hard bits, and when you remove it from the heat add the herbs and let steep as it cools. Filter everything out right before serving, or leave in. Actually my family enjoys eating the chewy bits of a lemon peel/fresh ginger root tea.
  • Some herbs have medicinal value that is absorbed by water, some herbs require oils or alcohol for any noticeable medicinal effect. If one method doesn’t work, try another preparation. Experience will show you what works best, reading the experiences of others will help as well.
  • Be careful giving seasoned treats to pets. Some spices and seasonings are harmful to pets, make sure you research that they are safe.

Safety

  • Only burn incense in well-ventilated areas. I’ve heard reports of people having brain damage from carbon monoxide poisoning from thick plumes of incense smoke, especially when using charcoal. I say again: only burn incense in well-ventilated areas.
  • If burning incense or performing a purging ceremony with a small contained fire, make sure you have a stable area that does not conduct heat or catch fire very well. Don’t use a metal tray on a cheap carpet, make sure all fabrics nearby are not highly flammable. I burn my charcoal incense on a small slab of granite that I picked up behind a shop that sold counter tops. I burn stick incense over soapstone. Sometimes I use a terracotta dish, the kind that goes under a houseplant, If I want to add stones nearby or set it on the floor to meditate.
  • If you are going to put something in your mouth in larger than normal quantities, know what it is that you are doing. In other words, if you suddenly want to add two teaspoons of cinnamon to your breakfast smoothie thinking it would be a good tonic, make sure that you KNOW it is safe to do that. Always read reputable sources, such as Web MD, for possible dangers and risks. You live in the age of information, take a minute to check more than one point of view. Medicinal levels of some herbs might not be a good idea if you like your liver, and if you are on medication or have a chronic condition, you may be about to make a serious mistake if you don’t check out what you are about to do. St. John’s Wort has a ton of such consequences, including causing birth control to stop working and potential death in some circumstances.
  • Just because something is natural does not mean it is safe. Belladonna, henbane, pennyroyal tea, pansies, cinnamon, nightshade, these are all herbs that can have damaging effects upon your body ranging from screwing up your liver to miscarriage, heart attack, and general permanent death. Some herbs contain toxins that won’t cause anything obvious, especially at first, but long-term use could result in irreversible damage. That’s a huge oops to make. Several table spices  be toxic if taken in larger than normal doses for more than a couple of days. Basil, sage, cinnamon, these all contain potential toxins. Parsley has a chemical that causes minerals to fall out of your blood stream and form deposits in your kidneys, in large amounts. So does spinach. However, that same chemical can help shed excess heavy minerals from your blood in a therapeutic way if your kidneys are strong and you don’t overdo it. A common approach is to stop using problem herbs for a few weeks, switching to a different herb and cleansing their body of the first herb. Then they switch again, maybe back to the first, maybe on to a new one. Personally I don’t do such rotational treatments, I’d rather avoid accumulating toxins and only use such herbs as a table spice.
  • But don’t be afraid. There is a line between caution and paranoia, between being informed and being taken in by propaganda. Some fear mongering health claims contain valid points, but they are exaggerated. For instance, phytic acid can cause wheat breads to pull minerals out of your body, but that is only an issue when bread is a part of your daily diet, and only if the rest of your diet is lacking adequate mineral intake. It may cause kidney stones, but only if you have kidney issues. If taken in moderation, phytic acid’s same properties make it cleansing, removing minerals that could potentially build up to toxic levels.  There are also methods to reduce phytic acid so you don’t have to be afraid of bread. Reading about herbs and health subjects also helps to keep your ability to get suckered by propaganda to a minimum.
  • And learn how to read a label. If you are looking at herbs for medicine, you may be suffering from complications to your general health by taking in too many toxins and not enough nutrients. A few toxins are fine, your body is designed to deal with that. However, make sure you aren’t eating things that would get in the way of your organs not being able to live up to their tasks.
  • Spot test for allergies before adding to a bath, poultice, compress, perfume, or any topical application. You don’t want to see what happens to a zit when you put something on and it turns out you are allergic, trust me. Man that took weeks to heal.
  • Know for sure that what you forage is exactly what you think it is. Research toxic look-alikes and know how to tell them apart. This may mean only foraging in a certain season, like when the plant is in flower, and leaving the plant alone the rest of the year. I try to learn one new wild plant a year, maybe up to two but no more, and everything I need to know about them before I ever touch the plant. In the meantime, I watch its growth patterns while I learn about it, this helps me to find it when I know more. This means my pool of knowledge is small, but safer when self-taught.
  • Read more than one source on all forageables and medicines, and use critical thinking on whether the source is credible (do they have a degree? What is their experience level?). Here for instance I have a decent experience level, but I have zero formal training and my experience is specialized to my family. I’ve read some supposedly credible looking sources say things that I know are not only wrong but dangerous (I hate it when wild food books don’t mention that the tannins in acorns are at toxic levels and have to be leached out with water or you risk kidney damage). So, even if your book or website seems great and all-knowing, still go ahead and read other sources too.

Preparations

Infusions: This is sometimes also called a tisane. Usually a tablespoon of dried herb or two to three tablespoons of fresh crushed herb are used for each cup of tea. More can be used if you need something stronger, but you will reach a point where the water just won’t hold anymore. For leaves and flowers, either soak the herb in boiling water that has been removed from the heat for 10 to 20 minutes, or until cool. Sometimes a stronger infusion can be made by turning the heat off and leaving the pot on the stove, covering with the lid while the herb steeps. If there are heat sensitive medicinal properties, pour boiling water over the herb in a mug instead. You can cover it with a small plate while it steeps to retain the heat longer. I use a little tea strainer that is more of an insert for my mug that came with a lid, I absolutely adore it and I use the lid to retain heat and essential oils even without the insert (if I’m using two teabags). If you buy a box of herbal tea and wish to use it medicinally, use two tea bags and steep 10 to 20 minutes, the recommended time on the box is for flavored water. When it is done steeping, knock the water from the lid or small plate back into the tea, there may be evaporated essential oils in it.

This is your basic herbal tea, but can be used to wash skin complaints, in a bath, as a base for lotions or cooking sauces. You are only limited by your imagination. Picture a mint chocolate cake actually made with mint tea instead of water. Sounds good to me. Besides being one of the most frequent medicinal preparations, this is also the basic “witches’ brew” and can be used as a potion.

Decoction: Also sometimes called a tisane. Place the spices in the pan while the water is still cool. Keep covered while heating and cooling. Slowly bring up the heat until it simmers. Let simmer about five minutes, then turn off the heat and let the pot slowly cool on the stove. Along with infusions, decoctions are not just used medicinally but can be used as a base for other preparations, potions, cooking, sauces and syrups, all that stuff.

Baths: Several methods exist for this. Add about a cup of each herb to a sachet made of a fine cloth that water can flow through easily (if no cheesecloth or muslin bags are available, try the toe of a nylon stocking). Place this in the bath and soak. Or, make an infusion or decoction and add that to the bath water. You can also try adding essential oils, but remember that they will float on water and will coat your skin when you slip into the tub. I vividly remember putting just a tad too much tea tree oil in a bath, it was not kind. Also, “slipping into the tub” with essential oils may indeed be a very slippery experience. You can also try adding the oils to salts and dissolving those in the tub, the salt may help to break up the volume of the oil so you add less to the water but still get a lovely scent and experience. I have lavender bath salts I made that I use this way.

Baths are good for skin conditions, try softening and emollient herbs for itchy skin conditions, anti-inflammatory herbs for irritated skin, and cleansing herbs to remove toxins. They can be used with stones and candles to prepare for meditation. They can also be a way to enjoy the aromatherapy benefits of the herb.

Don’t forget the possibility of a foot bath, throw in some Epsom salts on swollen feet, or throw in some aloe for dry feet. A wash is nothing more than a decoction or infusion wiped on with a rag (gently).

Oil infusion: This is a good way to extract essential oils, though they will be much milder than the pure extracts. Sometimes this is actually a good thing, essential oils usually have to be diluted before use, they tend to be too potent if not used in aromatherapy. To prevent heat from damaging medicinal properties, use a cold extract. Fill jar with herb, cover with extra virgin olive oil, stir daily.  If heat may help the oils extract without damaging medicinal properties (garlic works well like this by reputation) then try heating the oil on low in a skillet for a few minutes, until it shimmers just a bit before simmering. Sometimes you filter the herb out, sometimes you leave it in. If you are careful when you chop and bottle it in a clear bottle, it can class up your pantry. The oil can be used in creams or ointments, or in salad dressings. Homemade garlic oil would be something wonderful to keep on hand as a way to incorporate more benefits of garlic into your cooking, plus it’s all fancy and makes you feel like you’re showing off if you put it in a pretty bottle and drizzle it on things in front of company. Wear an apron. A pretty, pretty apron with your hair done up in a bow. Plastic pearls lets you claim irony, but we know you’re indulging your inner six year old playing house and dress up, don’t we?

Extract : When an herb’s medicinal properties are not dissolved in water or are sensitive to heat, try this method and see if you get better results than from a brew. Fill jar with herb and cover with at least 80 proof vodka or other drinkable alcohol, let sit for 6-8 weeks or longer. Stronger alcohols may be more effective in extracting the oils so don’t go below 80 proof. Strain through clean cheesecloth or a coffee filter. Some bases may be used symbolically, such as peach flavored brandy for a love potion base, or gin (flavored with juniper berries) for winter holidays and evergreen symbolism. This is pretty much the ghetto or homespun herbalism method of creating a tincture, something that can be added a teaspoon at a time to herbal teas, or perhaps used to make a syrup. This isn’t for party drinking, this is more like the start of making a cough syrup. If just one herb is used, this would be what is referred to as a “simple“. Simples may also refer to any remedy that uses just one herb (compound referring to more than one herb used).

Syrups: Make a strong decoction or infusion, using two or three times the amount of herb you would normally use. Strain, pour the tea back into the pot. For each cup of tea, add a cup and a half of sugar or twice that amount of honey. Heat gently and stir until the sugars dissolve, if you are using honey you need to use a double broiler to preserve enzymes. Pour into sterilized jars and store away from heat and light. Keep opened syrups in the refrigerator. If you like, you can help preserve your syrup with a dash of brandy. I wouldn’t recommend saving squeeze bottles to use, boiling water may cause toxins to leech or the plastic to melt, and bleach may cause the plastic to begin to degrade.

Vinegar : Fill jar with bruised or crushed herb and cover with apple cider or white vinegar. Shake daily for 2-3 weeks. Some recipes require covering the herb in liquid and no more liquid than that, other recipes may require simply one to two tablespoons per pint. The weaker recipes are usually found in cleaning fluids. This preparation can be used in food as medicine, as an ingredient for therapeutic salad dressings or even deserts. A mint vinegar with a bit of lemon zest and sweetener in unflavored gelatin makes a nice dessert to enhance digestion. Other gelatins can be made, be creative. As with teas, some combinations may surprise you in their flavor.

This preparation is also a great base for household cleaning spray. Personally I use a four thieves vinegar preparation (I will be sharing that next time I make it). Rosemary is common, it helps to combat the listeria virus. Garlic, lavender, lemon, and thyme are also common ingredients, a spray that uses several anti-bacterial herbs may be more broad spectrum in the bacteria it can combat. A bit of tea tree combats mold, lemon zest may help brighten counters. A few drops of essential oil or a couple of tablespoons of dried herb per pint of vinegar is a common strength. Usually this is diluted when put into the spray bottle, half vinegar and half water to one part vinegar, three parts water may be used. Spray on a counter that’s been wiped down to remove dirt, then let dry for at least twenty minutes to use.

My probiotic research will likely lead me to try making real vinegars with a mother culture, if so the finished vinegar should then be used to make the herbal vinegar, adding herbs too early in the fermenting process could interfere with the bacterial balance of the culture.

Essential Oils: You can make your own, if you wish to drop a couple of hundred on lab equipment (and safety glasses) and purchase or grow very large amounts of herb for a very small amount of product. Now, if you wish to get into Alchemy, this will simply be a step in your process. For the most part though, for the occasional use in medicine, aromatherapy, or magic, purchasing the oil is best. Don’t waste your time with synthetics unless you are looking at something uber expensive and the symbolism behind the thought of the thing may be enough (or if it’s something like ambergris in which case you can find substitutes easily enough, no whales should die so you can do a spell or make a perfume). Most synthetics are for air freshener, not much else. You could research each one and see if the synthetic is proving to have benefits upon the human body, but who has the time to do this for each oil?

Essential oils are extremely versatile. I have some lavender diluted with juice from my aloe on bug bites just at this moment, and I’m fighting off getting sick so I plan on inhaling some rosemary/lavender steam before bed. For a sinus steam treatment, pour boiling water into a bowl, cover your head with a towel (lift the towel so some air gets in an you can breathe comfortably, and drop in three to four drops of your essential oil treatment. Be careful, with some oils that first hit is a doozy and will punch you in the face. However, herbs that have been shown to benefit sinus infections tend to make up for it, soothing and decreasing inflamed tissues while they break up congestion and combat infection. I use rosemary, lavender, a very tiny amount of peppermint (it is WAY potent), a bit of bergamot, and a bit of tea tree oil in a blend, I then put three drops of the final blend in my steam bowl. For kids, leave the towel off and just have them put their face in the steam. Don’t try on really young kids, the steam is hot. My son started when he was about seven or eight.

I also have a blend of oils that I put into my aromatherapy diffuser on special days to enhance my upbeat mood. In my diffuser (the kind you put a tea candle in),  I tend to dilute the oils in a tablespoon of olive oil to make it easier to clean. Without that, the oil condenses to a sticky resin, and using water turns into a simmering mess.

Oils can also be worn on the body (dilute them with a mild oil such as vegetable or olive oil, or risk skin irritation), dabbed onto sachets or amulets, burned as incense on charcoal, used in inks, used to paint invisible symbols or runes on your walls and no visitors will be the wiser, and more (limited only by your imagination or the toxicity of your oil). Use some caution as these are heavily potent. Beware, blends can lead to a perfume habit. I indulge mine with an aromatherapy necklace; a little locket that contains a cotton pad that slowly diffuses my essential oil blend of the day.

Incense: As fun to come up with blends as perfume is. Throw some herbs on charcoal and go at it. There are books on the subject that have lengthy discussions over the debate of whether or not to use self-igniting charcoal, or if you should mold your own cones and use salt peter in them or some other method for making them combustible, but I’m afraid that I personally do not take the details that seriously. Besides, most of the time I just smudge some sage. Incense has less medicinal value than an aromatherapy diffuser does, but can be used to decrease stress and lift the spirits. It’s naturally a part of many religions and is a very spiritual experience. In my practice, I consume herbs for internal change and place them in my environment for external change. Incense is the balancing point (as is aromatherapy), being in the air makes it external, but I consume it as I breathe and make myself one with my environment.

Ointments: Used in both magic an medicine, this is a fat that is solid at room temperature (usually lard or vegetable shortening ) that has herbs dissolved or suspended in it. Sometimes wax based ointments with oils whipped in or the like may be used, but the basic concept is that water is not used and it shall form a barrier on the skin. This is used for skin conditions, normal cosmetics that are handmade (like making your own lip balm or lotion), spiritual armor, or anointing with an energy.

Poultice: A moist paste made from the crushed plant material. If using dried plant material, soak the herbs for a while in warm water. Smooth this paste over the problem area, if there are bits in the plant that may irritate the skin (such as tiny hairs on the stem or woody stems that may have splinters), place a thin cloth between the material and the skin. Usually these are kept in place with a bit of saran wrap over them. I’ve used baking soda plasters (similar to a poultice but with a thickener in it), and I tell you keep an eye on that saran wrap. Stuff can work its way around the plastic and you can make a mess. The best way to use either a poultice or a plaster is to get off of your feet and read a book or watch tv for twenty minutes or more while the herb soaks in well. Going on about your business with saran wrap on your arm will not cut it unless you want to clean up a mess that may spread from room to room.

Potions: Infusions, decoctions, and tinctures may all be considered “potions” for magical use. What would distinguish an herbal preparation as a potion would be the magical intent. This may involve enchanting the ingredients and finished product, using meditation and symbolism to enhance the natural qualities of the ingredients and infuse with intent. For instance, cinnamon stimulates the circulation as well as sexuality. You may wish to bring one of these properties to the forefront, finding and magnifying that quality. Smell, feel, and taste (when appropriate) the ingredients, seeking what you need to enhance. When you find it, make it grow by directing energy through sound, visualization, and feel. Continue this through the mixing of the preparation. If it is to steep, spend a few minutes each day encouraging those qualities to grow. When the preparation is used, feel the enhanced energies going toward their goal.

Sometimes this use is enchanting an item for greater medicinal effectiveness, or to give it psychological qualities (a self-love potion is one of my favorite treatments for depression). Sometimes they are worn as perfume to either affect the mind (enchanted to boost aromatherapy) or to attract/repel certain influences (draw luck/banish bad luck). Generally internal use is for internal change, and external use is for external change. Aromatherapy (perfume and incense) may be considered both, as it is an external scent that is drawn into the body. Potions may be used in cooking or drunk as a beverage (if non-toxic) and then “digested”, feel the energy becoming a part of you as it is consumed.

All herbal preparations may be made more effective in this manner.

Compress: A cloth soaked in an infusion or decoction and then laid on the affected area. Compresses can be iced for swollen tissue to decrease inflammation, or cooled to warm (not hot) temperatures to increase blood flow to the area allowing the oils from the treatment to soak into the skin. Compresses might sometimes contain the herb still, such as a teabag or a mesh bag that had contained loose herbs during the steeping process.

Sachets: Used in natural homes, magic and aromatherapy, a small bag or piece of cloth contains the herb or mixture. This can be hung in the home, worn, carried, or placed on or under objects that you wish to effect (for instance, slipping an herbal sleep sachet under your pillow or mattress). Sachets filled with bug repelling herbs are placed in drawers (cedar drawers help ward bugs as well), sachets to freshen laundry can be thrown in the dryer, and peppermint teabags (or other sachets) can be placed in the kitchen to ward away mice.

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