Making your own herbal medicine may seem daunting at first if you’re new to it. Medicine tends to seen as the domain of specialists — and for a good reason, as this year’s events attest.
I’m not formally trained as an herbalist. I’m a gardener, a cook, and a maker, and my herbal medicine making has evolved pretty organically as a result of learning to use plants. Many simple medicine-making practices have become a part of my routine — making herbal teas, putting chewed-up yarrow leaves on wounds to stop bleeding, or resorting to elderberry, honey, thyme and garlic to keep the winter colds away. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert.
But my point is that there’s a lot that you can do with a basic skillset. Most garden plants with medicinal properties — familiar plants like chamomile, red clover, yarrow, mint, or garlic — are absolutely safe and hard to go wrong with. Just find a reliable, go-to resource that you consult before making or taking herbal medicines.
I’ve had Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide pulled out from the bookshelf all summer long. Whenever I’ve noticed something ready to harvest in the garden, I’ve checked out what she has to say about that particular plant, and tried to find a time to process it into a tincture, a tea, or a salve. Other books I use regularly are Herbal Healing for Women (also by Rosemary Gladstar) and Richo Cech’s Making Plant Medicine.
Crafting herbal medicines is a great activity to do with kids. This summer, my six-year-old has accompanied me to harvest blossoms and leaves into a colander, fill up the dehydrator, or put herbs to infuse in oil, vinegar or brandy on the windowsill. I call it our “witch magic” and that’s enough to get her fully engaged in the process.
Because making tinctures, vinegars, and oils feels a little bit like being witches or alchemists: we’re mixing potions with fresh herbs and leaves and, after a few weeks of those jewel-toned jars steeping on a sunny windowsill, the solvents inside have become potent with the plants’ power. It’s like magic: transforming one thing into another. Who doesn’t love that?
Below are five safe and simple remedies using common garden plants.
Calendula is an all-purpose healing plant for various skin problems, such as cuts and rashes. In a family that’s into gardening and adventures, we get cuts and scrapes a lot! I’ve made calendula salve before, but Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs also has a recipe for a luxurious moisturizer that uses calendula flowers, olive oil, beeswax, and lavender essential oil. Whipping up oils, beeswax and essential oil in a blender until it thickens and becomes opaque is one of those alchemist moments that both kids and grownups love.
Making tea out of herbs is a simple process of harvesting leaves, steeping them in hot water, straining, and enjoying. I use herbal teas primarily for their mental health benefits: they help to soothe anxiety and stress (not that any of us have any reason to soothe those this year!).
Good tea herbs with calming, anxiety-reducing properties are chamomile, tulsi (holy basil), lemon balm, anise hyssop, spearmint, and lavender.
I love using thyme in cooking, but it’s also traditionally valued as a cold and cough remedy. Just pop a few of its fresh leaves onto your tongue and you’ll see why: it has an almost menthol-like freshness to it.
Honey makes a great base for a thyme syrup, since it not only extracts the healing properties of thyme, but also has beneficial enzymes of its own. Thyme honey is the simplest natural remedy to make: gently warm honey to 100 F, add it to a jar half full of fresh thyme leaves and flowers, and keep the jar in a warm place for a couple of weeks to steep. You can take it straight or mixed in herbal tea, where it adds its own healing properties to the tea.
Elderberry cold syrup
Elderberry syrup is a potent natural remedy for sore throats and other cold and flu symptoms. The berries of the elder tree (Sambucus) have anti-viral, immune-boosting properties and are high in vitamins A, B, and C. The syrup is really easy to make and it’s one of the best-tasting herbal syrups out there. You can use either fresh or dried elderberries. Simmered in water with ginger and cloves and steeped in honey, they turn into a luxuriously deep-red and sweet-tasting remedy. You can either take this syrup preventatively to ward off the cold or, if the sniffles and the cough already got you, to speed recovery.
Here are a few different recipes for elderberry syrup:
- Ashley English’ Elderberry and Honey Syrup on Design*Sponge
- Wellness Mama: How to Make Elderberry Syrup for Flu Prevention
- Holistic Squid elderberry syrup recipe
Tinctures — concentrated liquid extracts of herbs — are one step up in the herbal medicine making game, though still easy to make. They take a few weeks to steep, and you also want to take care in choosing the proper solvent. The most potent tinctures use 80 to 100 proof alcohol like vodka or brandy; for children or adults who don’t want to use alcohol, you can use vegetable glycerin or apple cider vinegar instead. The amount taken daily is very small, 1 to 2 teaspoons per day. That’s a dropperful, taken straight or mixed into a water or a beverage.
(Sometime I wonder if I make tinctures just because all those little bottles look so darn cute in my herbal home apothecary…)
Basic instructions for making tinctures:
Chop the herbs fine and put them in a clean glass jar. Pour in either 80 to 100 proof alcohol, vinegar, or vegetable glycerin, enough to cover the herbs by a couple of inches. Put the jar in a sunny spot and let soak for 4-6 weeks, shaking daily. Strain and store in a clean bottle or jar. Take as directed either by the dropperful or diluted in tea or water. A tincture will keep for 1 year if you used vinegar, 2-3 years in case of glycerin, and several years with alcohol.
Good beginner’s herbs to make tinctures with: echinacea, cinnamon, tulsi, yarrrow, St. John’s wort, dandelion, burdock, and valerian.