What is herbal medicine? In general, an herb is a flower, shrub, tree, or even seaweed that has been cultivated or harvested for use in culinary or medicinal applications. Long before herbs were the backbone of a multimillion-dollar-a-year industry in the United States, they were the simple, unassuming yet essential mainstay of health for most of the world’s population. They didn’t paste labels on themselves or package themselves in fancy containers. Instead, herbs simply grew and healed. Countless families learned how to use herbs from their parents and grandparents, and they later passed this same knowledge down to their children.
This heritage has blessed us today with an understanding of hundreds of safe, readily available healing herbs. While a handful of these have gone on to shine as stars in complicated pharmaceutical formulas and secure approval by several countries’ governments, most herbs are content to be considered backyard weeds. And these little weeds can be our best resource for getting and staying healthy! So much of our plant heritage teaches us to use what is plentiful, grows nearby, and is proven safe. Such are herbs—either garden grown or “wildcrafted.”
Wildcrafted means plants that are identified growing in their natural habitat and then harvested on the spot for use in herbal medicines. The art of identifying and wildcrafting herbs was nearly lost during the industrial era—and certainly rejected during the space age—but, thankfully, it is making a comeback. People are more and more interested in learning what the heck those green plants are that they see growing in the meadows, fields, and woodlands around them and, even more, what the heck they can do with those plants. They’re useful? Yes!
Harvesting your own plants, whether they are grown in a greenhouse or garden or wildcrafted from a nearby field, is a very satisfying endeavor and one I happily commend if you want to make your own medicines or even cook in your kitchen. Getting familiar with oregano, lemon balm, and sage from the garden, or yarrow, elder, and red clover from the field, is well worth the effort and will reward you with many delicious and nutritious meals and remedies.
Of the many reasons you’ll find satisfaction in this process (including being in the fresh air, learning a new skill, and heightening your awareness of the natural world), surely the most enticing is the fact that making natural herbal remedies will take you down the path toward safe, easy, and healthy self-sufficiency. You need not be dependent on the pharmaceutical industry or the medical establishment—although balance is very healthy; I, for one, am grateful for the benefits that modern medicine offers for emergency care, diagnosis, and the treatment of trauma, broken bones, and intense bacterial and viral infections. However, I value the centuries of healing gained from herbal medicine for treating common or chronic disorders of the mind and body, generally without dangerous complications, side effects, or addictions.
USING FRESH HERBS
When making medicines (with the exception of infusions, powders, and suppositories), fresh herbs are almost always preferable to dried. Fresh herbs still retain a certain “green living energy” that the body can use to heal, and they possess much of the essential oil content that can be lost during drying.
Fresh herbs can be prepared and used in simple ways; water-based methods include teas and infusions (though dried herbs work best here), decoctions, syrups, compresses, poultices, and hydrosols. These have a short shelf life and should be used quickly, sometimes within minutes of making the remedy. Fresh herbs are choice ingredients in tinctures, including those with alcohol, glycerin, and vinegar bases, which have a longer shelf life than water-based preparations and are portable. Fresh herbs are also better than dried for making oils and salves, though they should be slightly wilted before using. (Details on all of these types of remedies are described in chapter 4: Medicine-Making Methods.)
I prefer fresh herbs because I harvest many plants myself, and the freshest plant is the most potent plant energetically. By all means, enjoy fresh plants frequently—inhale, touch, and nibble. Establishing relationships with fresh, live plants is invaluable and, in my opinion, the first step toward any healing.
USING DRIED HERBS
Dried plants offer certain benefits as well: they can be purchased from other locations around the world, giving us the fantastic opportunity to experience a wide range of botanical remedies and experiment with healing methods from different cultures. Dried plants work best in powders and capsules, since they can be ground and mixed with arrowroot for body powder or measured into gelatin capsules for “pill-like” remedies. They are also preferable in infusions.
Dried plants, since they have released their water content, require less liquid in recipes than fresh plants do. When substituting dried plant material for fresh, follow this guideline:
Fresh plants: full measure in recipe
Dried plants: one-third measure in recipe
In other words, if a recipe calls for 3 teaspoons of fresh herbs, you may substitute 1 teaspoon of dried herbs.
I have found several methods to dry freshly harvested herbs, depending on the climate and weather conditions.
In damp or cold climates, spread the herbs in a single layer on a wire rack or baking sheet. Place them in an electric, gas, or solar oven on very low heat of about 100º F for several hours until crisp. Store them in a ziplock bag or (even better) a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid.
In dry or warm climates, spread the herbs in a single layer on a large screen. I’ve had great luck with old door-size screens. Balance the screen on top of two sawhorses or similar supports in the shade, and let the herbs dry until they are crisp. Store them as already described.
I’ve also successfully dried many stems, stalks, leafy greens (such as sage and mint), and flowers by hanging them in bunches from the rafters in a breezy attic. The warmth and circulating air dries them, while the darkness keeps the colors vibrant. If you wish to collect the seeds from your dried herbs, bunch the herbs together with string and hang them upside down inside a large paper bag. They will dry and release their seeds into the bag, so you can collect them easily.