The Herbarium is the creation of a small, autonomous group of independent herbalists. We have come together in a spirit of cooperation, to share knowledge and resources, and to explore a different way of organising ourselves in this rapidly changing world.

We do not consent to the erosion, by regulation, of our common law freedoms and rights. We therefore oppose the current attempts to turn traditional western herbalists into the poor cousins of doctors, using herbal ‘products’ as if they were the poor cousins of drugs. Our focus in these times of transition is to rehearse our skills in preparation for energy descent, climate change, and the collapse of unsustainable bureaucracies and power structures.

The Herbarium is intended to form a repository of information and to hold a safe space for a free exchange of ideas. Access is open to the public as well as our fellow herbalists. This is in keeping with the Culpeper tradition – whenever the living tradition of herbal medicine finds itself beleaguered, we share our knowledge with the people at large, so that they can claim it as their own, use it for themselves and keep it alive and relevant.

We welcome comments that aim to make a positive contribution, and in particular invite others to submit articles, ideas and information for inclusion.

 

UPDATED: new recipes added

Syrups and other medicinal preparations that contain some form of sugar are popular with the public (because sweet things taste nice), but are less popular with practitioners, who hesitate to contribute to health problems such as dental decay, cardiovascular disease and late-onset diabetes by adding to a diet that may already be overburdened with refined carbohydrates. These two opposing forces have to be balanced – some of the benefits of syrups and the like will become apparent as we go on, suggesting that despite our concerns, a small range of sweet medicines, perhaps designed for very short-term therapeutic strategies anyway, are a worthy component of a comprehensive approach to prescribing.

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I was recently doing some routine housekeeping on my computer when I came across these two files from 13 and 12 years ago – and having copied them to the Herbarium team for interest, was asked to post them here, along with some explanatory notes.

During 2001 Michael McIntyre, Chair of the European Herbal Practitioner Association (EHPA), had fronted a series of regional meetings called the ‘EHPA Roadshow’ – to promote the notion of Statutory Self Regulation (SSR) to herbal practitioners, mostly members of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH). There were subsequent complaints to the NIMH Council that its members felt they were simply being lectured – there was no balance of arguments and little opportunity for open discussion. With some reticence, NIMH Council organised a meeting in London in December 2001 to address this problem. I say ‘reticence’ advisedly – the event was notified to NIMH members with only a few days notice, the date and venue but no time was given, and thankfully the attempts by ‘Michael and his team’ to stage-manage the proceedings were successfully countered. Subsequently NIMH disowned the event, declaring that it was not an ‘official’ NIMH meeting: both the audio-tape and the Hon. Gen. Sec’s written minutes went missing, and it was never reported to the NIMH membership. Therefore you will have to rely on my own recall of the occasion. About sixty practitioners and students attended: speaking for SSR were Michael McIntyre, Andrew Chevallier and Alison Denham (NIMH president) – in opposition, Christopher Hedley, Susan Allshorn, Susan Tosoni and myself. This took up most of the morning, the afternoon being devoted to an open discussion from the floor. 

I believe this was the only occasion that SSR (now simply SR) was ever properly debated, and it’s not surprising that the outcome embarrassed the EHPA (now EHTPA) as the majority of those attending held against regulation. Below is a transcript of my own submission to the meeting. What fascinated both myself and my peers was to see how little has changed in terms of argument or context in the ensuing years.

Stephen Church

***

‘First and foremost, I’m here to represent the interests of Carol’s & my patients – and they do not want us to be registered!

We live and work in the middle of what are officially the three worst Health Authorities in the country and most of our patients, (we calculate about 70%), have been injured, betrayed or simply abandoned by state-controlled medicine. Part of their choice in coming to see us is for the very reason that we are not controlled by the state.

They don’t want us to be hobbled by bureaucracy, they don’t want us to become more expensive, they don’t want any more tampering with our materia medica or our freedom to make medicines for them, they don’t want our good work to be meddled with in any respect – they just want us to be left alone to get on with treating them in the fashion they have come to love and trust.

So this is a human rights issue, relating to freedom of choice, and it’s a good and just choice, because like all our colleagues we do a great deal of good, but never any harm.

However, this principle of freedom of choice extends beyond our relationship with our patients. Herbal Medicine is the indigenous traditional healing system of the British Isles – the Folk Medicine, the medicine of the people. The National Institute of Medical Herbalists is not that tradition, nor even is professional herbal medicine at large – we’re just a part of it.

Herbal medicine happens on many other levels between ourselves and basic home self-help. Good professionals have always nurtured, supported and taught to all these other levels – but now we’re seemingly set on a course that will destroy much of the rest.

Seven years ago we stood hand in hand with our patients and the public to protest against legislation that would have removed a huge raft of herbal remedies from public access – and between us we won the day – in fact, my information is that we broke the British public’s lobbying record in doing so.

Now it seems that part of the SSR package is to nominate a great many herbs for “practitioner use only” – once again denying the public a freedom of choice. They will most certainly campaign again, but this time I’m expected to stand in opposition to them. That, I’m afraid, I cannot do.

We also have to consider the freedom of choice of future generations. I don’t know how long the Empire of the Capitalist West can sustain itself, but it’s already shown itself to be vulnerable and one day, (if we have learnt anything from history), fall it certainly will. Quite what use are we going to be then – if we have developed our own grinding bureaucracy, have all but merged with the orthodox model and become dependent on the phytopharmaceutical industry?

Carol & I are truly blessed to have the resources to grow and make most of our own medicines, and through this we can give witness to the fact that you could all but cut our practice off from the outside world and our patients would hardly notice the difference. Herbal Medicine’s great and enduring strength is that it can function to a high degree of sophistication on spectacularly low technology. Of course, Carol & I are not the only custodians of this priceless knowledge and together we are all determined to protect it and keep it safe, come what may. Where your own personal choices regarding SSR are concerned, you’re going to have to decide which way to go – to remain part of this timeless tradition, or to try something dangerously different – surely it must be clear that you can’t do both.

I just used the term, “personal choice”, and advisedly.  Many of you may not have realised that although the Institute has been a key player in the move towards SSR, when it comes to registration each and every one of you will be applying to be registered personally. So where we put our hands up at Institute AGMs and the like, we may have some small influence on the process – but ultimately each of us has our own very private decision to make – do I want to be a state-controlled herbalist or not?  I believe that if the answer is not, then no harm will come to you, because our patients and the public will defend you – as indeed I believe your own professional body should, SSR or no SSR.

Short of a miracle – and that miracle will have to start happening here today – Carol & I will be leaving the Institute shortly – it would be hypocritical to remain part of an organisation that continues to act contrary to our own fundamental principles.

But of course we’re concerned for the fate of herbal medicine as a whole – and we’re convinced that what we have here is already a runaway train careering towards disaster. SSR is too expensive and herbal medicine is too humble and too diverse. We’re also ignoring the fact that herbalists are by nature people who choose freedom – we don’t like being organised. But if we turn aside from SSR at the eleventh hour, (or heaven forbid the thirteenth hour when our registration papers arrive and we don’t fill them in), then disaster it will be.

Meanwhile, right now, herbalists out there are suffering – they’re not doing well and their plight is in great part due to neglect of their real needs by their own professional body. We’re also pouring out graduates from the various universities to get the numbers up, but again, we’re doing precious little to help them gain a living either. Instead all we have is the fond hope that once we’re registered, doctors will find work for us. You must be joking!

I’d like to reiterate that the last four speakers [opposing SSR] have elected to speak more briefly than we were invited to so that this meeting can be something that we’ve never had since the term SSR was first heard – a consultation with you, the present and future membership of the Institute, to find out what you think about it all.

By all means ask questions, but don’t accept any politician’s answers. There is clearly great unrest, which I think arises from the sense that our political helm is not representing our interests to the state, but are instead representing the interests of the state to us. We want answers to questions, but if Michael and his team can’t provide them, perhaps it’s not too late for us to start providing answers ourselves.

So an even greater priority is for us to place a hand on the reins and express openly what we do and don’t want from SSR, what we are prepared to sacrifice, what must not be sacrificed at any cost, and what we hope to gain – which so far as I can make out, is too little to even consider. If you don’t take courage and grasp the nettle now, there may never be another opportunity.

Good luck to you all, and thank you for listening so patiently. Now it’s over to you.’

***

Despite the clear message of dissent voiced at this meeting, it was ruthlessly ignored, so a few months later in the spring of 2002, (and in the midst of a great deal of unpleasantness), Carol and I did indeed leave NIMH. However, to our surprise, the editor of ‘Herbal Thymes’ (NIMH’s own internal newsletter) accepted and published this article from us in the February edition: -

WHY YOU SHOULD SAY ‘NO’ TO SSR

Carol & I informed the Council of the Institute earlier this year that we would not be submitting to SSR and therefore must expect to leave the Institute shortly. We thought we were a voice in the wilderness when everybody else was in favour, or at least accepting of its inevitability. We’ve learnt a lot since then. We’ve found ourselves in surprisingly good company. If we’re used to being blanketed with motivational rhetoric from the Institute’s pro-SSR core then at least the present Council acknowledges the need for more information and a fair balance of opinion if we are all to be properly informed. In particular, we’ve found a culture of fear, based on the main political platform of SSR – that we must do or be done unto, and our only hope is to hide behind the skirts of the bullies. SSR is not inevitable. If there are enough people who really want it with their hearts, why should they not – but we can and must still insist on a safe haven for the tradition of herbal medicine. Clearly two heads cannot sit on the same shoulders. Here are some reasons why:-

What’s wrong with SSR?

Firstly, the ‘self regulation’ bit is just a smoke-screen – it’s ‘statutory’ that counts, and beware! Our understanding is that you will only be voting for a General Herbal Council to be set up – it will decide what it’s going to do later when we’ll have precious little influence. Herbalists will apparently not be in the majority on this Council, and the rest, the so-called ‘lay representation’ will be government appointees. So despite all the fine words, we’re looking at state registration & state control.

Why on earth should we choose to submit to state control at a time when the state concerned is so manifestly out of control?  Why should we become part of a process that one senior NHS worker referred to as ‘another example of re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?’  Why, instead of the dream of ‘free herbal medicine for all’ are we willing to accept punitive charges for the privilege of being registered?  It’s our patients who will inevitably foot the bill.

Read any newspaper these days for increasing evidence that state registered medicine is not a guarantee of safe & ethical practice – whilst the Institute’s own matchless record will be sacrificed. Moving ever-closer to the orthodox model may amuse allopaths & academics but will not improve our effectiveness in practice. The promises of more doctor referrals or jobs within the NHS are ridiculous – such is their disappointment in this respect that Osteopaths are de-registering in droves – and allopaths feel even less kindly disposed towards herbal medicine!

The Principle of Freedom

As in most parts of the world herbal medicine is the indigenous traditional healing system of the British Isles – the folk medicine, the medicine of the people. Over the centuries we’ve proved particularly good at resisting attempts to persecute, hamper and legislate herbal medicine because ordinary people will fight for their innate right to reach out and pluck a plant for their nourishment and healing – and to seek sources of supply and the advice of experts if needs be.

Herbal medicine is practised at a continuum of levels from the humblest home self-help to the headiest heights of professional practice. Good practitioners have always nurtured and supported these different levels – and yet an inevitable consequence of state control is that much of the middle ground will be lost. Isn’t it telling that the only ‘perk’ of SSR on offer to date is that there will be more practitioner-only herbal remedies!

The key issue is not to do with the profession, or the state, or even the general public, but our patients. Freedom of choice! A substantial proportion of our patients have been injured, betrayed or abandoned by state-controlled medicine (or for other reasons are simply mistrustful of it) and a powerful motive for seeking our help is that we are not state-controlled. Ultimately everything we have solemnly sworn to is for the benefit of our patients – are we to abandon or betray them ourselves?

What’s the alternative?

One of the curiosities is that traditional herbal medicine, real herbal medicine is in amazing good shape at the moment. With the growing availability of organics, the proliferation of small fresh-herb manufacturers and more in-house medicine making, we have herbal remedies of a quality unimaginable even a few years ago. We have been able to access global ideas and resources with ease and have been enriched by the experience. Our contact with other traditional healing systems and their (often oppressed) practitioners continues to grow, and we link these inextricably with the concepts of ethnobotany, ecology & conservation, for which we take increasing responsibility. Holism has progressed from theoretical re-invention to a well-practised and highly effective model in which intuitive techniques, the concepts of energetics and an insistence on the indivisibility of body/mind/spirit have become routine to our work. We are no longer frightened of magic. A folk tradition is not an antique artifact, it’s a living thing that adapts to and is sustained by the times it finds itself in. We and our patients have something to be proud of and we will not relinquish it gladly.

SSR was never inevitable – one of the prerequisites is that a “substantial majority” of us must be in favour (in Civil Service terms this usually means over 70%). That would be hard to achieve within the Institute, let alone amongst the other herbalist bodies. The question now is, having considered the full implications, will we turn aside from it in unity, or are we facing another of herbal medicine’s famous schisms?  Either way, we have nothing to fear – as always, our patients and the public will protect themselves by protecting us if needs be.

A final thought: of late the world has been dominated not by western democracy but by western capitalism – and now the world economy is teetering on the brink of quite a precipice. In the face of such uncertainty gaining a top-heavy official structure, moving towards the allopathic model and increasing our dependency on the phytopharmaceutical industry sounds like entirely the wrong direction. Being the last drop of oil on a machine belching blue smoke is not a place in history to be savoured. Instead we must re-affirm herbal medicine’s unique value as a cheap and effective medical therapy that can function to a high degree of sophistication on remarkably low technology and with very little call on external structures or resources. Was there ever a greater need for the custodians of this extraordinary knowledge to keep its flame burning bright?

That is our determination, as we hope it may be yours.

Stephen & Carol Church

***

 Looking back, some of the language has changed (professional bodies rather than professional associations, for instance), and there are a few technical differences between SSR and the current proposals for SR: but the main tenet of the principled objections could have been written yesterday. In point of fact, the current ‘big push’ to achieve state sanction dates back a further 10 years to 1991, and the arguments were just the same then.

All that the latest round of lobbying has achieved is an undertaking from the Department of Health that a new working group will be set up (a working party is the start of a process, not the end-game!) Meanwhile, copying the ‘herbalists exemption’ piecemeal from the 1968 Medicines Act to the new Human Medicines Regulations 2012 doesn’t give a signal that change is imminent. Do you see a pattern developing here? Any committee work, any new public consultations, will doubtless carry through past the next general election, when the whole thing will start from the bottom again, if anybody still has the stamina for it. Whatever fate befalls the EHTPA, NIMH will surely carry on – its own history of petitioning for official recognition is now in its 150th year. 

If the context and the arguments have changed so little, the micro-environment of herbal medicine has changed quite a lot. The failed experiment of the BSc courses has come and largely gone again. Those manufacturers who opted to invest in pharmaceutical-style processes have not profited from it, or at least not from the practitioner market. For the PAs, their members probably account for less hours of herbal practice in the UK than at any other time in post-industrial history: the recession is blamed, rather than acknowledging the huge mistakes made, or the neglect of the real needs of their members for an entire generation. But the worst thing of all is the current political gambit of the pro-SR lobby, declaring that herbal medicine is inherently dangerous (on the grounds that only highly trained BSc graduates, subject to rigorous state control, can be trusted to handle this hazardous medium). This affects all of us, and it may take decades to restore public confidence.

To end on a positive note, there are not huge numbers around of the custodians of traditional herbal practice to which I referred 12 years ago, but they are able, busy and resilient, and there is plenty of fresh blood joining in. Then there is another unanticipated change – to which the Herbarium has contributed but is only a small part – the sudden expansion of the ‘middle ground’, (what PA members would no doubt dismiss scornfully as ‘lay practitioners’). This is a wonderfully colourful and expansive environment, proliferating through a huge network of personal blogs and websites. Whilst PAs and their executives still bleat on about standards, conformity and control, the middle ground, I am quite convinced, will provide the motive force for traditional herbal medicine’s future, and it is there, I would respectfully suggest, that anybody who loves it as I do should turn their attention.      

I wrote about the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on honey bees in my article on beekeeping in 2009, see 7. Articles (f) Beekeeping.     Now in 2013 neonicotinoid pesticides are in the news and an EU ban on the 3 most toxic will come into force in December, and will last for 2 years.  This is a start.  Neonicotinoids should never have been approved for use.  Regulation (EC) No.1107/2009 Annexe II Criteria for approval p.43 states that “A plant protection product should not be persistent in the environment”.  The persitance criterion is fulfilled where the half-life in soil is less than 120 days.  Neonicotinoids are very persistent, clothianidin (produced by Bayer in 2003, when their patent protection for imidacloprid expired) has a half-life of over 500 days (in some cases persisting for over 3 years):  it is also toxic to earthworms, ants and collembola (springtails), and can build up in the soil year on year affecting (and expressed in) any following crop or wildflower.  They are soluble in water which means that water sources can be contaminated by field run-offs or overspray, potentially devastating aquatic life.  Many different products are produced including seed dressings, foliar sprays, soil drenches, turf applications, home and garden uses, and veterinary products (i.e.  pet’s flea treatment).

Bayer reportedly made US $830 million for sales of imidacloprid and US$267 million for clothianidin in 2010.  In the UK cropland treated with neonicotinoids went from 0.65% in 1994 to 30% in 2010    (3 million acres).

It is argued that there is no proof that bee colonies have been badly affected by neonicotinoids:  this is not true.  North Dakota beekeepers took Bayer to court in 1995 when rapeseed crops were sprayed with imidacloprid and they lost their colonies of bees.  The US has colony collapse disorder (CCD) and a study funded by Harvard Centre for the Environment in 2010 found that when  16 colonies of bees were exposed to low levels of imidacloprid, 15 died out within 23 weeks with identical characteristics to CCD*.   France lost one-third of its commercial honeybees in 1999 following widespread use of imidacloprid as a seed dressing for sunflowers.  In Germany 8 different seed treatments containing neonicotinoids were banned for use on sweet corn following honey bee deaths (11,000 colonies).  Similar die-offs have been reported in Italy, Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Greece, Belgium, Argentina, Australia, Canada, Japan, China and India.  Japanese ecologists are pressing for a ban.

Many independent studies have found that neonicotinoids affect the nervous system of bees, disrupting foraging, orientation and causing premature death.  Guttation drops (like sweat on the leaves) on treated sweet corn plants will kill thirsty bees within minutes.  No-one has been able to test the effects on developing bees fed contaminated pollen but it is thought that the bees immune systems are compromised, causing increased susceptibility to diseases – and increased levels of the gut pathogen nosema are seen.

In Italy neonicotinoid maize seed treatment was banned in 2008, since then bee populations have been recovering.   The monitoring network APENET reported bee deaths in maize growing areas were reduced to zero during the growing period and winter losses declined from 37.5% to 15% in 2010-11.  APENET has also found that farmers’ untreated maize crops did not suffer reduced yield and productivity was high.  They concluded that banning neonicotinoids on maize greatly reduced bee mortality and by rotating crops pests were kept under control and yields maintained.

Although a 2-year ban is due from this December we should not become complacent.  Britain did not vote for this ban, we abstained.  Two years is not enough given the long lasting contamination of the soil.  Unfortunately politicians seem to be influenced by corporate interests rather than the public or the environment.  The public can make a difference checking ingredients and refusing to buy products containing neonicotinoids (i.e. in garden pesticides and spot-on flea treatments).  There is evidence of adverse health effects on mammals.  Gestational exposure in rats to a single dose of imidacloprid “produced significant neurobehavioral deficits and pathological alterations in their offspring”.    Treated maize is fed to cows and they provide us with milk and meat.

The plight of honeybees has caught the public imagination partly because they are such good pollinators of our food crops.  All other pollinating insects are suffering too and so are birds, bats and amphibians.  You might want to watch an American video “Vanishing of the Bees” online at www.vanishingbees.co.uk

*In Situ Replication of Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder, by C. Lu, K. Warchol and R. Callahan, Bulletin of Insectology, June 2012.

For the names of all the different neonicotinoid pesticides see Wikipedia online.

Sally Viney

Seasonal Pestos

by Louise Gorham

What a brilliant way to get out and use the first of the Spring Bounty. I made the Ramsons pesto and shared it with my one year old daughter who ate hers with gusto and then tried to elbow me aside to pinch the rest of mine.

All measurements are rough estimates – use them as a starting point and adjust them to your own taste.

Ramsons Pesto

100g ramson (Allium ursinum) leaves, washed (3 large handfuls)

10g fresh basil leaves

1 handful roasted pine or pistachio nuts

Juice of ½ lemon (up to 1 lemon depending on your taste)

3 cloves garlic, crushed

50g grana padana (or any hard cheese) grated

2-4 tbspn good olive oil

Salt and pepper

Put everything into a food processor (or use a bowl and a hand blender), you could also use a pestle and mortar if you have all evening. Blitz, blend or pound away. Taste and adjust salt, pepper, lemon juice or anything else that needs adjusting.

Nettle Pesto

2 large (gloved) handfuls of fresh nettle tops, washed (probably about 70g)

1 small handful fresh basil leaves

1 handful roasted pine or pistachio nuts

Juice of ½ lemon (up to 1 lemon depending on your taste)

1-2 cloves garlic, crushed

30-50g grana padana (or any hard cheese) grated

2-4 tbspn good olive oil

Salt and pepper

Get a large pan of water on the go and when it’s boiling add the nettles. Put the lid on and simmer for 2 minutes. Drain and then run them under some cold water to stop the cooking process (you don’t want them too mushy). Add everything to the blender, blitz, taste, adjust seasoning.

Pea Pesto

Not strictly seasonal but still fresh, green and tasty. This is really good with pasta and can be made in less time than it takes the pasta to cook.

300g garden peas (fresh or frozen)

2 cloves chopped garlic

A small handful of grated hard cheese

A small handful of fresh parsley/basil/mint depending on your taste

Salt and pepper

Boil the peas for about 2 minutes. Drain, reserving some cooking water, and put into a food processor. Fry the garlic for a few minutes, add to the peas. Add everything else plus 10-20mls cooking water. Blitz. Adjust seasoning & more cooking water if needed.

All of the above pestos can be frozen, and need to be kept in the fridge & eaten within a week.

Coming soon – Hip and Haw Ketchup…

There used to be an impressive list of different gums from which gels could be made (although they weren’t called gels then), many with their own medicinal qualities. Some, like Gum Arabic, Gum Tragacanth or Guar gum are still available but, as in the past, are used for internal preparations such as mucilages, suspensions, emulsions etc. In modern times there are gel-forming substances that are cheap enough and easy enough to use to consider them as the base for external preparations, in much the same fashion as creams or ointments. There is an advantage in that they can be produced without the need for heat – making it possible to produce an external application very quickly on the spot. There may also be, for instance, delicate tinctures, infused oils or essential oils to incorporate that will not be damaged or dissipated in the same way as a hot process.

 

CARBOMER

Carbomer is a synthetic polymer commonly supplied as a ready-mixed gel. It is mostly used in orthodox pharmacy as a base for eye medicaments. Whilst not a natural substance, it has the same advantages as the paraffins – it is not absorbed by the skin, inhibits bacterial growth and is hypoallergenic. No problems have been encountered in use – it has been popular for some time now with aromatherapists.

Carbomer gel is usually purchased as ‘Base Gel’ – or most herbalists prefer to buy ‘Base Aloe Gel’, in which Aloe juice (itself technically speaking a gel, just to confuse you!) has been incorporated in the aqueous fraction.

The joy of using Base Aloe Gel is that it will absorb unbelievable quantities of aqueous and oleaginous constituents simply by stirring them together (no heat required). As an experiment, the limits lie somewhere around 1 part gel, 2 parts water & I part oil – in other words, it will potentially take up 3 times its own volume and still form a stable gel. Extraordinary! Considering the ease and lack of equipment required, this is an invaluable tool in the dispensary, as you can produce an external preparation for a patient on the spot in just a minute or two once you’ve got the hang of it.

Base Aloe Gel is essentially cooling and anti-inflammatory, but the overall effect will depend on added constituents. The gel can be used on its own for anything (like burns or prickly heat) you’d just want to put the cooling, healing virtues of Aloe vera on, or you can add only aqueous constituents like tinctures or honey. However, it’s best to add at least a little vegetable (or herbal) oil if you want to spread the gel over any significant area – otherwise the end result can be a little lumpy on application, and will often dry out to quite a hard, shiny surface. The gel will also happily take up essential oils too, which should be restricted to a maximum 5%.

It’s easiest made up by placing all the added constituents in the bottom of an ointment jar, topping up with the gel, and stirring (e.g. with a glass stirring rod) until it’s all thoroughly mixed. Note that initially the whole thing can turn into a runny liquid, but persevere, and it will stiffen up again as you keep stirring. Note that you can’t add solids such as beeswax or cocoa butter – they would have to be melted first, and this is a cold preparation. Things you can add apart from the obvious tinctures and oils are honey (especially Manuka honey), Neem oil, Cider vinegar, powdered herbs – the possibilities are endless.

There’s not much point in giving a general formula as this is an almost infinitely adaptable medium, but for illustration, here are a couple of useful examples: –

Antifungal Gel

For athlete’s foot, ringworm, etc.

Base Aloe Gel

45

g
Tr Thuja occidentalis

5

ml
VO Castor oil

10

ml
EO Tea Tree

10

gutte
EO Patchouli

3

gutte

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For several years I have been involved with a group of herbalists providing herbal first aid and acute medicine services at some of the summer festivals, including Glastonbury and The Big Green Gathering. The group was started by friend and experienced herbalist Dedj Leibbrandt and operates out of a converted caravan. A geodesic dome and a large tent combine to provide a consultation and treatment/observation area, a chill out and rest area where patients and the public can drink a selection of herb tea blends (we usually concoct various combinations on the spur of the moment!) and a catering area where we are all fed and watered after a hard day’s work. The caravan’s well stocked dispensary has a comprehensive selection of herbal tinctures (some of which are pre-formulated mixes), some dried herbs, essential oils, infused oils and creams. We also carry a selection of wound dressings, latex gloves, Mefix tape for securing dressings, bottles for dispensing the herbs into, and various other bits and pieces which come in handy.

Herbal first aid and acute medicine are an entirely different ball game to working in a clinic, where the vast majority of the patients have chronic, long standing illnesses. With herbal first aid, you get to deal with all those gory and gruesome things like wounds, burns and abscesses that you don’t tend to see in clinics! But once you get your head around the difference in therapeutic approach, herbal first aid is quite easy – what you see is what you treat. If someone has burnt themselves, for instance, you don’t need to know years of background to their complaint, minute details of their diet, or their family history. Once some basic information has been collected, all you do is treat the burn.

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Oleaginous constituents

These are effectively oils, (vegetable or mineral), or other substances that will freely mix with oils, such as waxes, fats, greases, and volatile oils. When they are mixed with aqueous constituents to form an emulsion, they are known collectively as the oleaginous phase (or oily phase). However, when we are discussing creams and the like we often talk about ‘oil’ as a sort of shorthand to include all the oleaginous constituents present.

Aqueous constituents

This refers to water or anything that is dissolved in water or can mix with it – there’s quite a list, including infusions & decoctions, alcohol and ethanolic extracts such as tinctures, vinegars, glycerine, and honey. When making an emulsion such as a cream, these are known collectively as the aqueous phase. Once again, we may be lazy and just refer to the whole lot as ‘water’.

Emulsifiers

Emulsifiers (aka emulgents or emulsifying agents) must be present in creams and other emulsions in order for a stable mixture of oleaginous and aqueous constituents to be formed. Strictly speaking oil and water never actually mix together – the effect of emulsification is to cause, for instance, the oily ‘phase’ to break down into very tiny droplets that are held in suspension in the aqueous phase, (or it could be the other way round). Very ‘runny’ emulsions are usually temporary in nature (as observed when dairy cream separates from milk) but they will recombine when shaken together. In the case of a cream, some of the constituents (usually the oily ones) will set hard at room temperature, forming a stable, semi-solid product. Emulsifiers occur naturally, albeit often in very small quantities, in useful substances such as beeswax and unsaturated vegetable oils. However, much greater versatility is possible if you use a commercial emulsifying agent such as Emulsifying Wax BP, or it’s more natural predecessor, Lanette Wax.

Formulation of creams is primarily about bringing therapeutic substances in contact with the skin, but one also has to weigh up other factors: -

  • Very oily creams will tend to be occlusive, tenacious and moisturising. Conversely very watery creams will tend to be drying, well absorbed, and are soon gone.
  • It’s often advantageous to include constituents that help to make a cream more ‘sticky’, so it will spread over and adhere to the skin better. Alas, the oh-so-useful lanoline is a thing of the past, but we still have things like glycerine and soft paraffin to perform this role.
  • Because creams contain water, they are vulnerable to infection. It helps if the product and its container start their working lives sterile – but in use, exposure to the air and microbes transferred from fingers will soon cause a cream to go off… unless a preservative is used. Including essential oils for this purpose is often disappointing – they’re mostly tucked away in the oily phase, so they have very little preservative effect on the water-based constituents. Further, in order to achieve an adequate preservative (antimicrobial) effect the essential oil content of your cream would need to be at least 4%. At this level it will probably affect the emulsifying properties of the cream, and will almost certainly irritate the skin. So usually it’s necessary to use a commercial preservative if you want your creams to last more than a week or two.

 

WATER IN OIL CREAMS

The first sort of cream to attempt, water in oil creams are useful to practice and perfect as they are made from such simple ingredients. The two stage process is important, keeping the aqueous and oleaginous phases separate until the latter is fully dissolved and they both have the same temperature – this makes it easier for the emulsifier to do its work.

Basic Cold Cream

Water in oil creams are often referred to as Cold Creams (a historic term from the days when the only comparison was ointments – creams feel more cooling on application).  Although they are seldom found in modern cosmetics, they are useful therapeutically. They are indeed more cooling and less greasy than an ointment and are more easily spread over the skin, useful for dry areas such as elbows, feet, hands, knees and legs. Because they leave a good occlusive barrier behind, they can be useful for conditions like nappy rash and haemorrhoids.

Beeswax pellets

5 – 10

g
VO Vegetable oil

60

ml
Water or infusion

40

ml
EO Essential oils

10-20

gutte

This is a general formula to make 100g. Try this to start with until you’ve got the knack, after which you may want to make larger quantities for convenience. Variations to consider are: -

  • You can substitute one of the ‘butters’ (Coconut, Cocoa or Shea) for some or all of the beeswax.
  • Vegetable oils might be plain Sunflower or Olive oils (cold-pressed will work best) or an infused oil such as Marigold or Comfrey.
  • The water could be an infusion… perhaps of the same herb as the infused oil.
  • Essential oils can be chosen to compliment the therapeutic activity of the cream. If in doubt, use Lavender!

As an example, you might use Marigold (Calendula officinalis) infused oil, an infusion of Marigold flowers, and Tea Tree essential oil).

First make a good, strong infusion of your chosen herb, filter it, and return the infusion to the pan, (or just warm up some plain water if you prefer). Whilst doing this, melt the beeswax in a double boiler or porringer, then stir in the infused oil until it’s all melted. Adjust the temperature to 70°C (using a thermometer). Warm the infusion again until it also reaches 70°C. Remove both from the heat and pour the infusion in a slow, steady stream into the melted beeswax/oil mix, whisking furiously all the time. Keep whisking as it cools down to make sure the water stays finely dispersed in the oil. When it starts to thicken, stir in your chosen essential oils, transfer to a jar and seal when fully cooled. This simple cold cream has no preservatives – keep it in the fridge, but still expect it might go off within 3 months.

You may get away without using a thermometer – 70°C is close to the point at which beeswax will melt, whilst in an aqueous infusion 70°C is a comfortable ‘sipping’ temperature. The important things is that both phases should be close to the same temperature, otherwise things will probably go wrong.

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Ointments contain no aqueous constituents whatsoever, hence require no emulsifying agents or preservatives. Oily constituents can sometimes be mixed together cold if they’re all sufficiently soft to work together with a pallet knife on a glass plate, marble slab (or just your worktop if it’s clean enough), but more commonly gentle heat will be required to form a mixture with hard waxes such as beeswax.

An old-fashioned word for ointment is ‘unguent’, from which comes the adjective, ‘unctuous’. So next time you come across somebody you think is a bit oily…

Before making an ointment, consider first if it’s the right medium for the therapeutic strategy you have in mind. Ointments are very moisturising so, for instance, would be ideal for applying to the dry plaques of psoriasis, but a disaster applied to a weeping eczema. Ointments can also be excellent for wounds and rough or broken skin, as they will provide an occlusive layer preventing secondary infection. Ointments are also common choices as lip balms, for bruises, to soothe aching muscles, to help improve varicose veins, and shrink piles.

Ointments should keep for well over 6 months – as there is no water there isn’t anything for fungi (or most bacteria) to grow on. For this reason it’s rare to add a preservative to an ointment. Most ointments will still eventually go rancid. Although rancidification can be caused or accelerated by bacterial infection, it is more commonly the result of oxidation of fatty acids into aldehydes, ketones, etc. Impurities, fluctuating temperatures and time contribute to this. Either way, once an ointment starts to smell ‘off’ it’s time to throw it away. Un-opened jars will keep for much longer… and it also helps if the ointment isn’t dug out of the jar with dirty fingers.

A Simple Ointment

The very simplest ointment uses only two ingredients – an infused oil, and beeswax, simply melted together. As often as not this is the first product any aspiring herbalist makes. These ointments can be produced from homemade infused oils detailed in the previous section. The combination of St John’s Wort & Marigold oils (‘HyperCal’) is famous as a healing salve. Add Comfrey to make the popular ‘Traffic Lights’ oil (red, amber, green…) which should be able to heal practically anything.

Infused oils(s) of choice

85

ml
Yellow Beeswax

15

g

Solid beeswax is hard to cut up into the required weight and may also take a long time to melt: fortunately it can be purchased commercially in small pellets that solve both of these problems. Also avoid white beeswax, which will contain traces of bleaching agent.

Melt the beeswax in a double boiler or porringer. Once it has dissolved, pour in the infused herbal oil(s) and keep on the heat, stirring until the whole is fully mixed and melted – when it will appear smooth and clear. Pour immediately into jar(s). Wait until fully cool before putting on lid(s), and label.

This recipe will make a hard-ish ointment. However as with all things herbal there are no absolute rules; it will depend on your chosen vegetable oil, the herb you have infused into it, and the quality of the beeswax. To test the consistency you can dip the end of a cold teaspoon into the oil: if it sets too hard, add more oil (5ml at a time); if it’s too runny add more beeswax (1g at a time).

You can also add essential oils to the ointment. Stir them in just as the ointment starts to stiffen and become opaque (any later and the ointment will no longer be pourable). However, it will still be quite hot so some of the volatile oils will evaporate when added. To counter this, add more essential oils than would usually be needed: 2-4ml should be about right for the formula above.

Psoriasis Ointment

This is a variation on the formula given above – except the therapeutic actions of vegetable oils themselves are used, a little soft paraffin (‘vaseline’) is incorporated to make the result stickier, and there’s the added properties of the essential oils.

Beeswax

150

g
Soft paraffin

100

g
VO Castor

550

ml
VO Neem

150

ml
VO Evening Primrose

50

ml
EO Lavender

5

ml
EO Yarrow, Juniper aa

2.5

ml

Melt the beeswax and soft paraffin together in a double boiler or porringer, then stir in the vegetable oils in the order given. (The Neem oil may be solid – if so, weigh out 150 g). When everything is fully melted, remove from the heat and stir until the mixture starts to cloud again. Stir in the essential oils, pour into jar(s) and seal when cool.

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INFUSED OILS

Having a good stock of infused (or ‘macerated’) herbal oils is more or less essential. Often they can be used on their own, perhaps with an essential oil or two added. Infused oils can be made from dried herbs, but always try to take the opportunity to use fresh herbs – cheaper and so much better. Never underestimate the value of a good herbal oil on the skin – there’s often no need to do anything more complicated. However, they’re also commonly combined in more complex external preparations such as ointments and creams.

It’s a common question to ask what vegetable oil to use for making infused oils. In essence we require three major things from a fixed oil: that it’s stable enough to be heated without degrading too much; that it’s light enough to spread well; and it’s not too smelly or otherwise unpleasant to use. Olive oil is particularly stable and can stand moderate heating, is nourishing, cooling in temperament and has good spreading qualities (but can cause the user to smell like salad dressing!) Where your chosen herb is particularly delicate, such as lemon balm, or where you want to show off the colour, such as Marigold, Sunflower oil is light, stable & cheap. Always use organic oils, as pesticides tend to be fat-soluble. If you want to use cold-pressed oils, take into account they can be expensive, some of their benefits can be lost on heating, and they are more likely to invite infection. On the other hand, they will be absorbed better and if used later to incorporate into creams will emulsify better. The choice is yours!

To infuse herbs, they will need to be comminuted in the same fashion as for making tinctures – this is largely a matter of common sense. Petals, flowers, seeds and small leaves may be infused whole. Larger leaves, stems, etc. should be chopped fairly coarsely – a fine mulch will not mix well enough with the oil to infuse properly, and will increase the chances of the whole thing going rancid. For the same reason, never pack in the herbal material tightly – let it find its own space.

Whatever method you use, you will need to filter the oil before bottling. First pass through a kitchen sieve, then either through a paper coffee filter, or place a ball of cotton wool not too tightly at the base of the cone of a suitably large funnel for the oil to seep through (start by pouring gently, otherwise the cotton wool will simply float to the top). Either method can easily block with debris after a while, so you may need to use a fresh filter paper or wodge of cotton wool from time to time.

There is always a potential for herbal oils to go rancid or ‘off’, particularly if you’re using fresh herbs – the oil has become infected, either whilst it’s being infused, or later during storage. Here are some tips:-

  • When using bulky fresh herbs, allow them to wilt in a warm place for 2-12 hours to reduce the water content before proceeding. (But be careful with aromatic herbs that you don’t loose too many volatiles this way).
  • When using the sun infusion method, it will help to place a teaspoon or two of salt at the bottom of the jar, which will absorb any settling water.
  • The final product should be clear – if it’s cloudy, there’s water in it, so heat gently to evaporate it off.
  • If you’re worried, heating the final product (made by whatever method) to 70°C for 20 minutes will effectively sterilise it.
  • Check your oils in stock often. If any water globules or debris settle at the bottom, decant the oil off from it before it’s too late. If the oil develops an ‘off’ smell, discard it and learn from experience.

Sun Infusion Method

Steeping herbal oils in the sunshine is a wonderful and magical process – the classic product, and also the most unproblematical, is the famous St John’s Wort Red Oil. Partially fill a large glass jar (an old confectioner’s sweet jar is ideal) with organic olive oil, or sunflower oil if you prefer. Pick fresh St John’s Wort tops in full flower, complete with a few distal leaves, and drop them in – don’t pack too tight, let them find their own space, and do make sure the herb is fully covered by the oil. Shake or tap the jar to remove any trapped air bubbles. If you don’t have much of a supply of the herb, there’s no reason why it can’t be topped up until full over a period of a few days. Screw on the lid and leave the jar on a sunny windowsill (or just out in the garden – why not!) for at least two weeks until your green olive oil and yellow flowers have produced an amazing blood-red oil. Strain, filter and bottle. For a more concentrate result, you can simply strain the oil and return it to the jar, adding a second batch of fresh flowering tops to steep in the sun again, before proceeding to the filtration stage.

The sun infusion method is only used for fresh herbs, and is then only suitable for very light material with a low water content – it’s commonly also used for Mullein flowers, Lemon Balm leaves, and Pot Marigold petals (whole Marigold flower heads must be wilted first to avoid problems).

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Making & using external preparations is all part of what attracts us to herbal medicine in the first place: you can make them yourself from simple ingredients; there are almost limitless creative combinations to be discovered & made; they visibly work; the process is alchemical. Making things like ointments and creams at home is one of the most satisfying ways to spend an afternoon. All you really need to get started is a heatproof bowl, a pot of hot water, some basic ingredients & some jars. You can always add to your materials and equipment later.

But first, a few definitions: -

  • Aqueous: describes water itself and also all constituents that can be mixed with or dissolved in water, e.g. herbal infusions & decoctions, floral waters (such as rose water), tinctures & fluid extracts, vinegars, syrups, glycerine & glycerites, vinegar and honey.
  • Oleaginous: describes oils and all constituents that are soluble in oil, e.g. Fixed oils, infused oils, essential oils, paraffins (soft or liquid), fats, greases, waxes & resins.
  • Ointment: (or salve): a semi-solid non-aqueous preparation; in other words, contains only oleaginous (‘oily’) constituents.
  • Paste: an ointment (or sometimes a cream) that incorporates finely powdered herb(s).
  • Emulsion: a mixture of oleaginous & aqueous (oil-based & water-based) ingredients.
  • Emulsifier (or emulgent – what a brilliant word): an agent that makes it possible to form a stable mixture of oils and water, e.g. borax, beeswax, soap, lanolin, some gums, and egg. Proprietary emulsifying agents such as Lanette Wax & Emulsifying Wax BP are also available – less natural but more efficient.
  • Phase: when making emulsions, one refers to the oleaginous phase (all the oily constituents mixed together) and the aqueous phase (all the water-soluble constituents mixed together). When they have been combined (in the presence of an emulsifier), you will either have caused the aqueous phase to be suspended in tiny droplets surrounded by oil, or the oleaginous phase to be suspended in tiny globules surrounded by water.
  • Cream: the most popular form of emulsion, usually containing oil globules suspended in water (o/w) but sometimes water droplets suspended in oil (w/o).
  • Vegetable oil: (sometimes called a ‘fixed’ oil).  Extracted from a nut, seed or other plant source. Popular examples are Sunflower, Olive and Sweet Almond oils. The best quality is cold pressed, cheaper forms are extracted with solvents (often after an initial cold pressing). Fixed oils are not to be confused with essential oils!
  • Infused oil (or macerated oil): a vegetable oil in which fresh or dried herbs have been infused. This may be a hot or cold process.
  • Essential oil: volatile oils from aromatic plants, usually extracted by distillation but occasionally by pressing (e.g. citrus fruit peel) or by dissolving into fats & then separating (‘absolutes’). Not to be confused with vegetable oils!

We will in due course be detailing liniments, plasters, compresses, poultices, pessaries, suppositories, ears drops, herbal baths, washes and more – but will give appropriate definitions as we go.

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