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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.
Medicinal fungi have vanished completely from mainstream UK Herbal Medicine during the past century or more. One can only guess at the reasons – they may not lend themselves to commercial cultivation, there are potentially hazardous consequences from misidentification, and the strong psychoactive effects of many common indigenous fungi may have associated them too strongly with witchcraft. The reasons for their return are simpler to identify – namely, the cross-influence of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) where fungi are not uncommon, the availability of comprehensive modern photographic field guides, the current popularity of ‘fungus forays’, and the pioneering work of a handful of modern herbalists, notably the great Christopher Hedley.
Medicinal fungi are worthy of interest as they can clearly be very useful: most have powerful trophorestorative effects to the immune system, especially in the context of cancer; some are additionally anti-microbial, or have tonic nervine properties, or benefit the cardiovascular system, for instance.
Having said all this, we are covering only one species here, and it’s timely to review Herbarium policy again: a discipline is imposed that nothing will be detailed unless it is based on personal experience, and ideally the consequence of several seasons of observation and adaptation. However, this protocol does not assume that the practitioner concerned must be one of the Herbarium editors, so we hope this section can soon expand.
Artist’s Bracket, Ganoderma applanatum – 1:3 25%, 3 – 4 weeks
The Artist’s Bracket is a tough and woody fungus, parasitic on the bark of mature deciduous trees, in particular beech, and occasionally on fallen hardwood trunks. Those found close to the ground in public places should be avoided as they are a favourite target for passing dogs. It’s large, (look for something the size of a dinner-plate!), and so firmly attached to the tree it’s best to take a club hammer and cold chisel out with you, (along with a field guide to fungi until you are confident with identification). It can be harvested most months of the year, but early Autumn is most likely to yield examples of good size that have not started to decay.
Ganoderma is one of the most difficult subjects to comminute – the easiest way is to chop it into strips with a hand axe or chisel and feed these into a garden shredder, passing it through two or three times. Otherwise settle down to a lot of painstaking work with a sharp cleaver or chisel, aiming at thin slivers. Give it a good long maceration. You may want to experiment with higher concentrations of alcohol (references can be found to tincturing other fungi with 45% or more), or you might like to try the ‘Combined Macerated & Decocted Extract’ described in the ‘Tinctures & Fluid Extracts’ section, as it should yield the broadest spectrum of active constituents this way.
Ganoderma applanatum is closely related to G. lucidum, the Reishi mushroom so highly prized in TCM and the subject of copious research. This is a relatively rarer find in the UK (where we call it the Lacquered Bracket), and is most likely to be found on exposed roots of deciduous trees. Although the Artist’s Bracket is not so well researched, it has almost identical uses, and given the poor quality of dried Reishi imported into the UK, can be considered superior for our purposes, particularly for support of the immune system. One may also find G.adspersum, (syn. australe), mostly near the base of deciduous trees and often identified by the copious ‘cocoa powder’ spore deposits on the trunk; or the rarer G. pfeifferi on Oak stumps. It seems that they are all very similar therapeutically, as is the Birch Polypor, Piptoporus betulinus.
Drop-dose Tinctures, ‘Minimaxes’ & Flower Essences
Herbal practice in the UK is mainly concentrated on use of the tincture, dosed by the spoonful. In the 20th century, a ‘standard’ tincture had a strength of 1:5 – in the 21st, the standard is rapidly approaching 1:2. We still use our capsules full of powdered herbs, but again, we are under pressure to use tablets & capsules of the new enhanced extracts manufactured by the phyto-pharmaceutical industry. This situation moves us towards viewing herbal remedies simply as products, and to assess the therapeutic potency of these products according to levels of drug-like pharmacological action they have on us, side-effects and all.
This is an unwanted departure from the terrain of traditional herbalists, who celebrate an intimate relationship with living plants, and go to great efforts to ‘capture the imponderables of life’. Although we have a good understanding of gross pharmacology we also develop a fine appreciation of the subtle energies of each plant (just as we do the subtle energies of our patients). The more we go on, the more we come to appreciate that subtle effects can often prove more healing than gross ones, and that these effects are not dependent on dose, but on the vitality of the herbal medicine.
Producing the optimum quality from the living plant is in part the function of the body of knowledge conveyed regarding plant condition, harvesting times and techniques, comminution & production processes, and so on. However, one of the biggest single influences on absolute quality is intention. This is a concept alien to western material science but is dignified both by common observation and also the new science, quantum physics. When a herbalist has personally shared a plant’s journey from seedling to full bloom, perhaps many times over, has taken it from harvest to dispensing shelf in an aware and aspirational fashion, and has shared the wish with the patient for a healing union between herb and human, only then can the full potential of plant healing be realised. This is not to say that, for instance, a grower/producer or another practitioner might not play an integral part in this chain of events, but it will rely on a relationship intimate and healthy enough to ‘pass the baton’ intact.
Infusions & Decoctions
Infusions and decoctions are simple methods of extracting the active constituents of herbs into hot water – infusions by pouring freshly boiled water onto light, aerial herbs and decoctions by simmering denser herbal materials. Short of nibbling the fresh herb, infusions and decoctions are the simplest forms of herbal preparation, and undoubtedly the oldest, probably trailing behind the discovery of fire by no more than a week or two!
They count amongst the few forms of medicine where the main pharmaceutical procedure is customarily performed by the individual at home – this being both their strength and their weakness. Compared to ready-to-use medicines, they are clearly inconvenient. However they are inexpensive, and there are many therapeutic strategies best served by them. Making this routine effort for the sake of one’s own health is therapeutic in its own right – a nurturing, reflective, connective, positive ritual. A herb tea as a customary ‘cuppa’ has a different psychological impact to taking a more obvious medicine such as a pill or a tincture for any duration.
One can and should take every opportunity to make infusions and decoctions from fresh herbs – although this presents practical limitations to the practitioner in terms of providing a regular fresh supply to patients (unless they happen to have them in their own gardens or hedgerows – it’s always worth enquiring). Inevitably dried herbs will be used in the main. The drying of herbs has for time immemorial been the most common method of preserving herbal remedies for future use, making it possible to employ them for twelve months of the year.
It seems appropriate in this section to dispense with the usual botanical names of herbs and to use common names throughout.
Infusions, tisanes, or simply herb teas, they are one and the same. An infusion is the liquid preparation produced by steeping one or more herbs in hot water for a brief period of time, which is then strained, discarding the spent herb(s).
Infusions may be consumed piping hot or allowing to cool, but the latter should not be confused with cold Infusions, prepared in cold water, to be discussed later. In orthodox pharmacy, infusions may also include preparations that are subsequently preserved, but this will not be covered here.
Ordinary tea and cafetiere coffee are examples of herbal infusions. The herbal tea bags available in supermarkets and health shops are popular for their convenience and should be supported as part of a healthy lifestyle. However, they seldom contain top-grade plant material and can be expected to have no more than a mild therapeutic action (and in many cases none at all).
Infusions are often dismissed as being ‘weaker’ than tinctures and the like. This is not so. A standard 5ml dose of tincture is usually derived from 1 – 3g of herb, compared to 5 – 8g in an infusion. Even allowing for less efficient extraction, infusions still win the day. A 500mg capsule of dried herb, despite very efficient absorption, is clearly weaker still.
There are a number of circumstances in which infusions will prove the preparation of choice. A hot infusion is the ideal medium for promoting a therapeutic sweat. This often combines with another major advantage, of conveying volatile constituents rapidly to the tissues, especially the respiratory mucosa. Arguments abound as to whether infusions make better diuretics, or simply appear to be so due to the associated water intake. There is also a definite advantage to applying an alterative (‘blood-cleansing’) strategy in infusion form, where the image of ‘flushing out the system’ holds good in practice. It may seem illogical, but infusions taken hot are essentially cooling. This will be most obvious in the case of diaphoretics (which encourage sweating), but generally in energetic terms infusions (and decoctions) are favoured where a cooling effect is sought.
A choice must be made between infusing and decocting (see under). The guiding principle is that an infusion is suitable for leafy and other light herbs where extraction will be rapid, or where volatile constituents would be lost by lengthy exposure to heat. Decoctions are more suitable for roots, barks, and dense materials, or where constituents are stable to heat.
Infusions may incorporate as many as five or six different herbs, in proportions reflecting their relative potency and the balance of therapeutic activity required.
For medicinal use, herb teas are usually dispensed loose either as simples or in combination. Self-fill teabags are available but add expense whilst proving only marginally more convenient.
The old herbalists’ approach of an ounce per pint per day, (roughly 30g per 500ml) divided into three or four equal doses, still holds good, if one accepts that this is effectively a maximum dose, often unnecessary and inevitably very strongly flavoured. The weight of herb is the only critical measurement – there is no reason why the volume of water should not be increased if this makes the result more palatable. This formula also assumed that the day’s supply would be prepared in the morning, and some or all would be taken cold, which is convenient but not always therapeutically appropriate.
Where a fresh hot brew is preferred at defined intervals, consider between one and four teaspoons per cup, depending on both the potency of the herb(s) employed, and whether they are fairly dense, e.g. Fennel seeds, or light, e.g. Marigold petals. It’s usually acceptable to ‘adjust to taste’ within sensible limits. Whenever there’s an opportunity to employ fresh herbs, one can instead talk in terms of a leaf, a sprig or a handful.
Modern domestic preference is for mugs rather than cups, containing about 250ml compared to a cup’s humble 150ml – but as already observed, the volume of water in which the herbs are infused really doesn’t matter.
Dried herbs should be comminuted for use as teas (most commercial cut-and-dried herbs are). Needless to say, every care should be taken to ensure that the plant materials used are of high quality, have been stored carefully and remain within an acceptable shelf life. Where two or more herbs are to be infused, they should be mixed very thoroughly before proceeding further. Fresh herbs may need to be chopped or lightly bruised to aid extraction.
A measured amount of the fresh or dried herb(s) is placed in a clean teapot, and freshly boiled water poured over. The volume of water should slightly exceed that required in the final result to allow for absorption by the herb. The tea is allowed to stand for 2 – 5 minutes and then strained. The length of time will relate to the density of the herbs and their active constituents – as a general principle, unless a high tannin content is actually desired, too long an infusion will ‘stew’ the tea. The result may be taken hot or cold according to requirements.
Infusion cups, cafetieres, or any other suitable vessel with a close-fitting lid may also be employed, with the usual proviso that they are made from inert materials such as glass, china or stainless steel. It’s slightly less effective but still viable to simply infuse the herbs in a mug of water and strain it off into another mug. However, the Rolls Royce of the infusion world is the vacuum flask, (‘Thermos’), treated exactly as if it were a teapot, but being stoppered as soon as the boiling water has been poured on. This will result in infusion at a much higher temperature, volatile constituents are retained better, and the infusion time is reduced to a minute or two. One can also use a vacuum flask to store an infusion after it has been strained, in order to make a hot herb tea available later in the day.
As infusions are for many a first introduction to making herbal medicines, one or two examples are offered:-
Yarrow, Elderflower and Peppermint tea
Mix the three dried herbs in equal quantities. Use 2-3 teaspoons per mug, taken piping hot up to 5 times a day.
This famous mixture, re-invented in many cultures and used all over the world, is the great standby for head colds. Add Eyebright if catarrh is copious, or Thyme if the infection tries to drop to the chest.
Tea of Happiness
Mix 2 parts each Chamomile, Limeflowers & Vervain, 1 part each Lavender & Peppermint. Use 2-4 teaspoons per mug, taken as a hot drink as required.
A famous and much-loved recipe originating in Provence, Tea of Happiness can be used freely during the day for ‘free floating anxiety’ or during periods of excessive stress. It’s most popular use, perhaps demanding the higher dose, is as a safe but effective ‘nightcap’, promoting a restful sleep.
Spring Cure Tea
Mix Agrimony, Cleavers, Elderflowers & Nettles in equal parts. If some or all of these are available fresh, all the better. Infuse 30-50g in 1 litre water, allowing to cool. Divide into 4-5 doses a day, taken cold, the last not too close to bedtime as the effect is quite diuretic.
There’s a long tradition for taking cleansing herbs during the spring to clear out winter toxins, and employing some of the robust & nutritive ‘blood-cleansing’ herbs that arrive in the same season. The herbs (and there are others that you might choose) should be taken for a fortnight at the same time as a partial fast, concentrated on fruit and fresh vegetables, along with all opportunities that can be taken for communing with nature, spiritual cleansing and personal renewal.
No list of herbs, let alone how to make them into medicines, can ever be complete. This one focuses on two things. Firstly, it relates entirely to making tinctures from fresh herbs, (otherwise known as ‘specific’ tinctures) – as observed elsewhere, this a far more efficient way of converting herbs from the garden (or local foraging) into preserved medicines than drying them first. Secondly, a discipline is imposed that nothing will be detailed unless it is based on personal experience, and ideally the consequence of several seasons of observation and adaptation.
For newcomers to medicine making, the ‘Specific Tincture’ files are companions to ‘Making Herbal Medicines – Tinctures & Fluid Extracts’, which should be referred to for detail regarding methods and techniques. Making tinctures from fresh herbs is disarmingly easy – anyone can do it, and perhaps everybody should. However, there is never a universally ‘right’ way to do things – just the right way for you. Once you’ve got the hang of it, you are encouraged to work out you own adaptations and refinements, and apply the general principles to other herbs you have come to know and love which have not been listed.
Before proceeding, the approaches recommended vary considerably from mainstream manufacturing techniques. This is because large manufacturers are conditioned to conformity and standardisation – in fairness, their customers would often prefer to receive the same thing every time they order. This is not without problems as herbs, being a natural phenomenon, will always vary according to source and season. When legislation demands stringent standardisation, inevitably this is only possible at the expense of quality. By contrast, when we are making our own medicines for our own use, we can instead aim always for the highest possible quality – and soon settle down to the recognition that manufacturers can seldom if ever match our own efforts. There will always be small variations in quality from harvest to harvest, but if we have got to know our herbs intimately by growing and/or gathering them ourselves, by using organoleptic (sensory) assessment at every stage, and by tasting every sample before it goes on our dispensing shelves, we can adapt to these variations at the point of formulating our prescriptions. Herbalists who work in this way are usually amongst the most successful because they have such fine medicines at their disposal, and such an intimate understanding of them.
One also needs to be fully aware that growing and producing one’s own medicines is very hard work! However rewarding for both practitioner and patient, there are only so many hours in the day, so the recommended techniques do not demand painstakingly accurate measurements, specialised equipment or laboratory standards of cleanliness. Students and graduates of science-rich BSc courses are often taken aback by the ‘bish-bash-bosh’ approach to medicine making when it’s demonstrated to them, but soon learn to trust that it is nonetheless highly effective, safe, and necessarily labour-saving.
In the title bar for each herb you will find a formula:-
First appears the weight:volume ratio – for each kilo of herb (the ‘marc’), the number of litres of diluted alcohol (the menstruum). With the exception of ‘Schedule III’ herbs, this should be used as a rough guide only. The strongest possible recommendation is that you use only enough menstruum to cover the marc – this will vary not only according to the nature of the herb itself, but how finely you comminute it. It’s usually possible to achieve a 1:2 ratio (and in some cases even 1:1) if you go to the trouble of comminution in stages, finishing with food processing. But you may prefer to settle in the main for 1:3, easily achieved by passing through a good garden shredder or by manual secateuring or chopping. However, if you use the ‘just enough menstruum to cover’ approach you will clearly expect to achieve intermediate results, and ultimately may no longer feel the need to make this measurement at all.
There follows the recommended alcohol percentage, typically 25% or 45%. This does not need to vary if you are using the ‘enough to cover’ method unless 25% alcohol is recommended and you are trying to achieve a higher wt:vol ratio with a very watery or mucilaginous subject – in such a case it may be prudent to increase the alcohol content to 30%. Note that the alcohol percentages quoted relate to the menstruum at the start of maceration, not the final result. It’s not uncommon to find with fresh-herb tinctures that from a starting point of, for instance, 25% alcohol, it has dropped to as little as 18% in the end result – no matter, as only 17% is required to preserve it safely for a long shelf life.
Lastly is listed a recommended maceration time. This is the first time that such has appeared in any text on tincture making. Other references simply suggest an across-the-board 10-14 days. Whether or not this is really acceptable when making standard (dried herb) tinctures is open to question, but it certainly isn’t in the case of specific tinctures. Extremes are Lemon Balm, usually ready after a mere 4 hours, whilst the roots of Bistort may require a massive 6 weeks. Again, these are intended only as a guide, as both growing conditions and comminution methods will vary. There’s no substitute for observation and experience.
Detailed in the main text (under each listed herb) are:-
When to harvest: The suggested timing can never be more than approximate as it will vary in different parts of the country, different growing conditions, and the weather in any given year. The most important consideration is that, weather and time permitting, you harvest in optimum condition (e.g. in the case of aerial herbs, in full flower).
There follows details of initial preparation (pruning, stripping, uprooting, etc.) and finally comminution methods. Do take the opportunity to do as much of this outdoors as possible – a good garden shredder will make light work of an otherwise time-consuming process, equally becoming handy with a pair of good-quality secateurs will save hours of mess and tedium indoors with knife and chopping-board. There is the added advantage that the shredded or secateured herb can be delivered straight into the volatile-proof plastic bucket in which subsequent maceration is to take place. Throughout you will also find a variety of cultural notes, tips and supporting information we hope you will find helpful.
Finally, although this is a workbook on the making of specific tinctures, there are many circumstances when we may want to use our fresh herbs to make other forms of preparation such as syrups, oils or creams (or, despite it all, to dry them). If this is the case, the information on harvesting and preparation will still prove serviceable.
‘Schedule III’ Herbs
‘Schedule III’ is a list of herbs for internal medication appearing in the 1968 Medicines Act, (and later revisions) that restricts their use by law to herbal practitioners. For this reason, information in the section that follows is not for the use of the public or any individuals other than practising herbalists and other qualifying health professionals.
After due consideration, it has been included for the benefit of the many recently qualified practitioners who, as part of a modern trend, have been taught too little about them and in some cases discouraged by their tutors, perhaps themselves unversed in their use and over-anxious about their ‘toxic’ label.
It should be reflected that during the greater part of the century of complete safety that we herbalists are so proud of, Schedule III herbs were used routinely and safely (and for many of us, still are). A further reflection is on one of the basic tenets of medicine – that anything that can do you good can also do you harm – and usually what makes the difference is the dose. There is no more reason to tag these strong herbs as ‘toxic’ than anything else; all that is required is the recognition that they need to be administered in small doses, for which the Medicines Act provides sensible limitations. Incorporating Schedule III herbs appropriately into your prescribing will improve the efficiency of your treatments, and will often make the difference as to whether you can realistically address very active pathologies at all.
It needs to be accentuated that most ‘poisonings’ from herbs arise from accidental ingestion – the spectre of a visiting infant sampling the strangely alluring berries of Deadly Nightshade at the back of your herb garden is not a happy prospect – so site with care and be vigilant. By the same token, be aware that in making medicines from Schedule III herbs, you are handling them in sufficient bulk for absorption through the skin and/or inhalation to add up to an uncomfortable experience. So, at all stages wear gloves, work outdoors or in good ventilation, keep it all at arms-length, and clean up methodically afterwards.
Although it’s perfectly possible to make, say, a 1:2 tincture of any Schedule III herb, what will be quoted here are the much weaker and (usually) official formulations, (BP, BPC or BHP) to which are appended a dosage range up to the all-important maximum dose. In all cases these have been ’rounded down’ both to suit modern prescribing practice and also to add a further safety margin. (In point of fact it is seldom necessary to use anything like the legal dosage limit). The maximum dose quoted is the maximum volume of the tincture as per the stated formula that can be taken per week (e.g. in a mixture), from which you can also calculate the maximum single dose, (divide by 21), or the maximum daily intake, (divide by 7).
The idea of making Schedule III tinctures from fresh herbs may raise some eyebrows, but with little cause. Experience dictates that these, like the vast majority of specific tinctures, prove both more gentle and more positive – one can be further reassured that the active constituents (mostly alkaloids) will be present in lower concentrations in fresh compared to dried material, so working from a basis of dried-herb formulae will provide an extra safety-margin.
Not all Schedule III herbs can be grown successfully in the UK – so we confine ourselves to those that can, or at least have achieved successfully ourselves. As this is a manual of internal herbal medicine we also pass over those herbs (covered elsewhere in the Medicines Act) that are restricted to external application only.
Celandine, Greater, Chelidonium majus – 1:5 45%. 2-3 weeks
Dosage: 10-40ml per week
Take the whole aerial herb from clean growth and in full flower, any time during the summer. The priority is to wait until a hot, dry spell, when a deep yellow-orange latex can be observed oozing freely from a cut stem. Don’t worry if some seed heads have already formed. Wear gloves as the fresh latex stains the skin and can cause some erosion. Comminute coarsely by shredding or secateuring into 4-5cm sections.
This varies from the original official formula that recommended a 1:10 ratio, along with a massive maximum dose of 420ml per week. It’s hard to divine either why such a weak product would have seemed fitting, or why a herbalist would ever prescribe such a huge volume of tincture. So, we’re going out on a limb and recommending a 1:5 formulation – and although the official maximum dose would be 210ml per week, it seems absurd that more than 40ml per week would ever suggest itself. Chelidonium tincture made from the dried herb seldom has a shelf life of more than 6 months – the specific tincture has the advantage of lasting through twelve months with careful storage.
Aerial Herbs A-L
‘Aerial herb’ indicates the parts of a herb that grow above ground – from which the majority of indigenous herbal medicines are derived. In many cases you will find texts that conflict in their recommendations for either the leaf, or alternatively the whole aerial herb (complete with stems). Commercial suppliers have a preference for the latter (and will often supply the whole aerial herb even when described as leaf). There are also modern recommendations to use only the flowering tops, or more commonly to harvest leaves and flowering tops together, discarding the stems.
Harvesting & Preparation
In commerce there are purely pragmatic reasons to harvest just before the herb comes into flower. For small-scale production it’s usually recommended instead to harvest in full flower, partly as this usually yields the best quality in terms of biochemistry, and partly because flowering is the point at which the herb is likely to prove most manifestly energetic.
Most herbs are herbaceous (they die back in autumn and grow up again from dormant roots in the spring). In the main, these are harvested as the whole aerial herb from clean growth. Basal growth is likely to suffer from soil-splash, may have been blemished by soil-dwelling organisms, but in particular often exhibits ‘yellowed-off’ leaves, due to overshading by upper growth, particularly where herbs are growing tightly spaced. When you cut a herbaceous herb in this fashion, it’s recommended to ‘tidy up’ later by pruning back nearer to ground level, otherwise you may find dead stems intruding into a later harvest. Given that you are also putting the plant to unaccustomed extra effort, it’s advisable to treat it to a liquid feed at this point.
Non-herbaceous herbs such as Sage, Rosemary & White Horehound produce woody growth – harvest only the soft growth from the previous year, and leave about a third of it behind for good measure, otherwise the cut stems may die back or the whole plant may be killed. Trees and shrubs are usually more tolerant of pruning.
Whether herbaceous or not, there are only a very few examples (e.g. Thuja and Raspberry leaf) where the herbal material is stripped directly from the plant. The more normal procedure is to cut off the stems or branches, take them away to a convenient work station, and there complete any necessary stripping as part of the comminution process. When (as is common) only the leaves and flowering tops are needed, there is a trick to grasping the stems one at a time just below the upper soft growth, and stripping firmly downwards with the other hand to remove the leaves, then plucking off the soft (flowering) tip, in one smooth action.
Generally further comminution, if required at all, is easy in the case of aerial herbs as they usually present quite soft and un-resistant material. Take the opportunity to complete as much as possible whilst still outdoors, by bunching the material between the fists and twisting off small plugs, or by snipping bunches into short sections with secateurs. Alternatively, the use of a cog-drive garden shredder will really come into it’s own here, making short work of comminution, with the advantage that it both chops and crushes leafy material. Only where very fine comminution is required will you have to withdraw to the kitchen for final food-processing or vigorous work on the chopping board.
Agrimony, Agrimonia eupatoria – 1:3 25%, 7-10 days
The whole aerial herb from clean growth is gathered in summer, early in flowering, (Agrimony repeat-flowers, and it’s best to harvest before seeds have set from the earliest flowers). If this is done, new growth will form and it’s usually possible to get two ‘cuts’ from Agrimony in a good summer. The stems are quite fibrous so are best secateured to 3-4 cm sections, or shredded.
Alecost, Tanacetum balsamita – 1:3 45%, 10-14 days
The leaves of Alecost, or Costmary, can be gathered at any time during summer as soon as they have matured to a blueish tinge. Two or even three harvests are possible. It’s best to pluck the leaves by hand one by one, avoiding any that are blemished, of which there’s likely to be many, particularly if growth has become crowded. Flowering tops when present can also be incorporated. Little or no comminution is required. It’s recommended to prune out any fibrous flower stems at the end of the season.
It’s a sign of the tunnel vision of ‘scientific’ herbal medicine that the close relative, Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), has attracted so much attention as a remedy for migraines, whilst Alecost, almost completely unresearched, is far more likely to achieve a cure – and is unsurpassed for treating hormonal headaches.
Artichoke, Cynara scolymus – 1:3 25%, 10-14 days
The leaves of the Globe Artichoke can be harvested at any time in the summer, but if you also prize the huge flower-bud itself as a vegetable it’s best to take the leaves just before the globe(s) start to open, for fear of arresting development. Snip the leaves off near to the stem, taking no more than half of them if you want this to remain a robust perennial. The leaves are soft and easy to comminute coarsely.
One can also use the globe itself as medicine (chop it finely and use the same formula as the leaf), or incorporate it with the leaf, as you prefer. The Globe Artichoke should not be confused with the Jerusalem Artichoke, Helianthus tuberosa, used as a root vegetable and entirely unrelated.
Aerial herbs M-Z
This being the second part of an otherwise rather long file, newcomers may find it useful to look at the introductory paragraphs of ‘Aerial Herbs ‘A-L’.
Marigold herb, Calendula officinalis – 1:3 30%, 10-14 days
The Pot Marigold, often known simply as ‘Calendula’, is most valued for it’s resin-rich flowers. However, a gentler tincture of the whole herb is often useful and is specific for the treatment of glandular fever and post-viral effort syndrome. The whole aerial herb is collected in flower – (this can be done conveniently from mid-summer when sufficient of the flowers have already been gathered – the plant is not likely to recover from cutting. Beware of mildew if you leave it too late). Coarse comminution is sufficient, perhaps by ‘twisting plugs’ manually.
See also in the ‘Flowers’ section.
Marshmallow leaf, Althaea officinalis – 1:3 25%, 10-14 days
Marshmallow is in flower late in the summer. Normally the leaves and flowering tops are used – stripping the leaves down, plucking off the flowering tops, and discarding the stems. The necessary fine comminution is easy. A 1:2 tincture is possible but increase the alcohol to 30%. If supplies are short, it’s acceptable to incorporate the top half of the stem or thereabouts.
The indigenous ‘true’ mallows, Malva sylvestris, M. moschata, M. pusilla & M. neglecta can all be used, prepared in the same fashion and with near-identical uses. See also in both the ‘Flowers’ and ‘Roots’ sections.
Meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria – 1:3 25%, 2-3 weeks
Meadowsweet is harvested in full flower in mid-summer – hold off until the flowers have developed the strong and distinctive smell of salicylates. Use the aerial herb including the stems, but cut about a third of the way up as the lower stems are of little value and too tough to comminute easily. Run through a shredder or secateur into 3-4cm sections.
Meadowseet is sometimes confused with Dropwort, Filipendula vulgaris, which prefers a very dry as opposed to damp habitat – although it is has been used in medicine the indications are different and it lacks the powerful salicylate content for which Meadowsweet is prized.
Motherwort, Leonurus cardiaca – 1:3 25%, 10-14 days
The leaves and flowering tops are harvested in full flower, often as early as June, which will allow for a second cut in late summer. Strip the leaves downwards off the stem and pluck off the flowering tops. Beware if you’re working with well-developed plants, this cuddly-looking plant has a surprise for you – viciously spiny calyxes. The lower leaves have a habit of yellowing off so pick through carefully. Coarse comminution will suffice.
Mouse-ear Hawkweed, Hieracium pilosella – 1:3 25%, 10-14 days
Harvest the whole aerial plant in full flower any time during the summer. Choose your moment carefully as the leaves are usually no more than a tight little rosette sitting on the ground, so take when reasonably clear of soil-splash. Don’t worry if occasional root fibres remain attached. Little or no comminution will be required.
Mouse-ear is a classic example of an indigenous herb that has fallen into disuse simply because it doesn’t dry well. A tincture of the fresh herb is an extraordinarily useful pulmonary remedy with a marked bronchodilatory action.
Roots represent both the most difficult category to harvest, and the most rewarding, as the yield is usually high.
The gardener’s generic terms of roots and crowns are employed throughout. Botanically we should more often be talking about rhizomes, tubers, stolons etc, but as these lend little to understanding harvesting processes, they have been ignored.
To minimise the need to clean soil off roots, choose a dry day, ideally 3-4 days after rain, when the soil is neither moist and sticky nor hard and dry. Taking roots successfully from clay soil can prove near-impossible unless under cultivation, where generous amounts of compost can be incorporated under and around the plant(s) to aid subsequent lifting. Whatever the case, fork carefully round each plant and ease it up in a patient and methodical fashion, otherwise most of the smaller roots will be left stuck in the soil.
Once lifted, large root balls need to be divided before further cleaning (the traditional tool for doing this is a hand axe). Crumble and pick off large chunks of soil by hand, at the same time removing any rotted or damaged roots, and any aerial growth that remains attached. If the soil is sufficiently friable it can then simply be hosed off on the lawn. Otherwise trim the roots into manageable sections and wash them in a bowl of tepid water, scrubbing as little as possible. Do this one piece at a time – most roots immersed in warm water will both leach their constituents and absorb water at an alarming rate. Drain briefly – a little remaining surface moisture should not delay tincturing. In particular, whatever cleaning method is used, don’t be over-fastidious. A little earth will do no harm during maceration and will be filtered out when the tincture is pressed, or any fine particles can be decanted off after standing for an hour or two.
Harvesting the roots of perennial herbs doesn’t necessarily mean sudden death for the plant. By sparing the crown with two or three young roots still attached and replanting, the herb will live to see another day.
Most roots come from herbaceous herbs, i.e. perennials the aerial growth of which dies back and withers in the autumn – after which the roots are ready to harvest. They do continue gaining bulk underground during the winter, and recommendations are often found to harvest in early spring just before new top growth begins. However, there are pitfalls to this approach. If the wilted top growth disappears, as is often the case, it may be hard to find the roots or to lift them accurately, particularly in the wild. Also, in a typically wet British winter, roots and particularly crowns may rot to some extent.
Some roots belong to herbs that are also used for aerial parts, causing an anxiety that taking one part will be to the detriment of the other. In point of fact pruning off top growth usually stimulates root growth, (everybody wins!), the only proviso being that any plant expected to work so hard for its living should be particularly well nourished.
All roots can be comminuted satisfactorily in a garden shredder (ideally one of the ‘quiet’ cog drive models), although it may be necessary first to reduce the roots to small enough sections with a hand axe or secateurs. Alternatively, use secateurs, a large kitchen knife or a cleaver to chop the roots. Soft roots can often be sliced diagonally into thin slivers, tougher ones may have to be whittled into coarse shavings. Roots are always dense enough to achieve a 1:3 tincture, and some will need no further preparation to go for something stronger. In some cases you may have to finish by blitzing in a food processor to achieve 1:2 or stronger.
Angelica root, Angelica archangelica – 1:2 45%, 14 days
Angelica is strictly speaking a short-lived perennial – to all intents and purposes treated as a biennial. Seeds must be sown as soon as ripened in July/August, and the root is harvested in the autumn of the following year before the top growth dies back significantly. The roots are usually surprisingly large for such a short growing season, especially in rich soil, and are soft and fleshy, therefore easy to comminute by any of the recommended methods.
The semi-ripe seeds are occasionally used, as are the leaves, with slightly different indications to the root. The basal stems are the source of Candied Angelica for which many recipes for home preparation can be found. All parts of the Wild Angelica, A. sylvestris can be used, with its own list of indications. The Chinese Angelica, A. sinensis, (Dong quai) has not been grown successfully in the UK.
Seeds & Berries
Only a few indigenous seeds and berries are used for tincture-making, but they form a therapeutically indispensable resource, generally being highly nutritive. Angelica and Lovage are usually used for their roots, but the seeds are usefully carminative and may be harvested in all respects the same as Fennel seed.
Celery seed, Apium graveolens – 1:2 60%, 14 days
The seeds of the wild celery are collected in late summer of the plant’s second year, just before they start to brown off. The whole umbel is removed and as much of the stalks as possible stripped off and discarded.
Should you find a cultivated celery running to seed, allow the seed heads to mature and prepare the same as Wild Celery. The result may be slightly inferior but still well worth having.
Chillie Peppers, Capsicum frutescens – 1:2 60%, 3 weeks
Chillies are easily grown in a greenhouse, polytunnel or even a warm sunny border provided they have been raised from seed under heat early in spring. A plant or two will yield a surprisingly good harvest. Handle with care at all stages, perhaps wearing gloves. Wait until the peppers are fully ripe (i.e. a deep, even red) and comminute the whole pepper including seeds finely, ideally in a food processor. Handle with care! If ripening is uneven, add to waiting menstruum in batches.
Capsicum minimum is quoted in nearly all herbal texts, but if it ever existed, you’ll never find it in a seed catalogue! No matter, C. frutescens, C. annuum in any number of cultivars abound in vegetable seed catalogues – simply choose a good red variety that scores high on the Scoville scale or the catalogue’s own ‘heat’ scale. Some compromise may be needed as the hottest chillies may take longer to grow and ripen than you are able to accommodate.