Herbal Medicine Chest
By: Amy Grisak
Natural Medicine for Whatever ails you
Long before there was Walgreens or CVS there was herbal medicine to help soothe what ails you. In reality, many European countries still rely on plant medicine as an integral part of their health care.
Years ago I was in the backcountry in Alberta filming caribou and recording sound for a National Geographic program, and one of the other guests at the cabins came down with a nasty cold. Since I believe in being prepared for nearly anything coming down the pike, I offered her a selection from my medication stash ranging from Nyquil to Echinacea. She took both, yet was very shocked that I had Echinacea. Being from Germany, she said if she went to the pharmacist at home that’s exactly what they’d prescribe.
Although I’m not a purist – if I hurt I won’t hesitate to grab a few ibuprofen – I plan to increase my herbal medicine cabinet. I would much rather help my body fend off diseases, as well as allow the system to work through them, than to just cover up the symptoms. And since there are times when snow prevents us from making it into town, I feel better having a few options on hand. This is the time to prepare.
Learning what to make and what to have is the tough part. I’m blessed to know several fantastic herbalists who teach classes and are happy to answer questions. I also frequently attend “webinars” and other herbal classes to add to my knowledge base. Although I’ve been interested in medicinal (and culinary) herbs for decades, I know I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are mind-boggling options, so what I’m doing is narrowing it down to what we deal with the most.
Part of the plan is growing what we need. As a family with young children, we can expect colds and maybe the flu; plus tummy troubles and coughs. A few herbs for bumps and bruises is awfully helpful, too.
Here are some other herbs I either have in the garden or plan to plant this year:
Echinacea – This is a well-known herb (also called coneflower) used to fight the cold and generally boost the immune system. Most use the herb in either a tincture or decoction. What’s nice is it’s also a very pretty plant, and the beneficial pollinators love it.
Astralagus – This one is right up there with Echinacea on being a stellar herb to boost the immunity. It also has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties. The root is used for conditions such as diabetes, colds, flu, heart disease and possibly the side effects from chemotherapy.
Licorice – When I had a sore throat as a kid I always chewed on licorice root. My aunt had a little gift and herb shop called Catnip Corner, and she gave me several “sticks” of it to keep handy. It works great, and is super sweet. I like to have licorice root around to make a decoction or tincture for the same reasons.
Chamomile – This is the go-to herb for belly aches. It also has calming properties so I use it in my tea to drink in the evenings. We simply make a tea out of it, and add honey to make it taste even better.
Wood Betony – My herb lady friend recommended this one, and I started an extra plant to give to her. It’s in the mint family, and from what I understand is very good for stress and headaches. It’s also good in a poultice for wounds. Right now I have it growing in the ground in the greenhouse to protect it from our nasty windy and erratic weather, but hopefully once it is established I’ll be able to move it out in the new herb garden.
Calendula – This is a lovely little annual flower that reseeds readily. The blossoms are edible (and are great in muffins), plus they’re fantastic to soothe your skin. If you have a rash, you can make a compress to alleviate the problem, or make a salve to keep it on hand to use regularly. It’s mild enough to use on children.
Feverfew – Along with wood betony, feverfew is known for its help in relieving headaches, as well, because it dilates the blood vessels. It’s good to take in teas or tinctures.
Elecampane – Elecampane is a member of the sunflower and ragweed family that can grow 5-feet tall. It’s good to relieve congestion, as well as stimulate the digestive system.
Horehound – I grew horehound growing up, but my siblings were never impressed with the “candy” I made from it. It takes a lot of sugar (or honey) to make this stuff palatable because it’s very bitter, but it’s excellent for coughs.
Valerian – Valerian is renowned for its sedative properties. The flower smells absolutely heavenly, but the root, which is the part used, has a fragrance more like dirty socks. It’s nasty, but it works well in a decoction or tincture to relax at the end of the day.
Marshmallow – This is on my list for plants to acquire since it’s a well-known mucilage that coats the throat or stomach. It’s a good anti-inflammatory.
Comfrey – I want to plant this underneath my fruit trees to help break up the soil, as well as pull up minerals from the soil. The thought is the comfrey brings calcium and other minerals with its deep tap root, then when I cut the leaves and allow them to compost on the soil around the fruit trees it makes the nutrients available to the tree. Comfrey, which is also called bone knit, is very good for external wounds, but should not be taken internally because it is toxic to the liver. It shouldn’t be used on open wounds, but is a valuable resource to mitigate inflammation in muscles or joints. One way to use it is to make a poultice. Mash up the leaves and allow them to soak i
n hot water for a few minutes. Carefully remove them from the water and gently squeeze out the excess liquid before placing them in a clean towel and wrapping it on the affected area. If you have a sprained ankle, this is the herb to use.
How to use Herbal Medicine
The next question many people have is how to use the herbs they might have on hand. Since there are several options, I can understand the confusion. Probably the easiest way to go is to make a tea. To create a simple infusion, boil a quart of water and add a handful (yes, I’m very precise) of herbs to it. Set a lid on the top, and allow it to steep for at least 10 minutes. It’s perfectly fine if it goes longer. Strain the herbs and drink it throughout the day. Teas are good for leaves and flowers that don’t need a strong method to extract their beneficial properties.
When you’re using roots or bark, you’ll want to go with a decoction. Take your herb (it can be fresh or dried) and add an ounce (which, truthfully, is close to a handful) of the plant to a quart of water in a pot. Bring this to a boil. Just as it starts to boil, turn it down, put a lid on it, and allow it to simmer on the lowest setting for nearly an hour. Once it’s finished allow it to set and cool down for a couple of hours before you remove the lid. Afterwards it’s cool strain the herbs out in order to drink it without picking pieces out of your teeth. You can keep a decoction for a day in the fridge, but it’s really best used right away.
Tinctures are another way to extract and keep the goodness of the herbs. The most common method is using alcohol to pull the oils out of the herbs and preserving them. For a tincture a quart jar is probably the easiest container to use. You’ll want 4 ounces of an herb (I always use dried although fresh can be used) and add enough alcohol (such as vodka or brandy) to cover it about a quarter of an inch. Shake it up and put it in a dark place. Remember to shake it every day or so for at least a month. My herb friend recommends 8 weeks. Then simply strain and bottle. The standard dose for a tincture is typically 30 drops three times per day, but talk to a trusted herbalist for variations.
Little by little my herbal medicine cabinet will expand. I’m learning more all the time, and have a sense of satisfaction being able to turn to the garden to keep my family healthy.