For Beginners Only

How to make Herbal Preparations

            The best vessels and utensils to use for making herbal preparations are those made of heat-proof glass, Corningware®, enamel, or nonleaded earthenware.  Metallic containers should never be used since when they are heated, some of the metal's properties are imparted to the herbs,  altering the composition of the herbal mixture.  Some combinations are potentially poisonous, especially when aluminum cookware is used.  Likewise, tap water or chlorinated water is not recommended. Use purified or distilled water rather than bottled water, unless you know the source of the water in the bottle.  Spring water may taste terrific, but may contain unknown harmful minerals--like arsenic.  Here in southern California, some deep wells in Orange County were found to contain carcinogens.


         The first thing to be cleared up is the difference between an herbal tea and an infusion.  A tea, to the lay person, conjures up images of prepackaged, individually wrapped tea bags.  And while the herb itself may have medicinal properties, the tiny amount in each bag is not likely to have any medicinal effect.  One notable exception is a commercial tea bag which contains Ephedra, the plant genus from which ephedrine is isolated and extracted.  Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are major components in over-the- counter antihistamines and are powerful cardiac stimulants and vaso- constrictors.  Two lawsuits against the tea company were filed when hypertensive patients suffered strokes after drinking the tea.

            At any rate, prepackaged tea bags are termed "beverages."  In contrast, infusions generally use herbs in much higher amounts--1/2 to 1 cup dried herb to two cups boiled water.  The mixture is usually covered and steeped for considerably longer--10 to 30 minutes as opposed to a tea bag, which is steeped from 3 to 5 minutes.

            An infusion is used when it is necessary to preserve the volatile, or essential, oils of a plant.  Volatile oils are responsible for the strong odor of plants and contain active constituents (for example, mint contains the volatile oil menthol).  Volatile oils evaporate quickly in the presence of heat and air.  Boiling water is poured over the herbs (usually the soft plant parts--leaves, flowers, and stems). The container is then covered and the infusion allowed to steep from 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the strength or density of the herb. Other factors, such as the particular volatility of the oil, may also come into play.

            Valerian root provides an excellent example of an exception to the general rule of "infusions from soft parts."  Valerian root contains volatile oils and therefore requires preparation from an infusion, rather than decoction (see below) so that its medicinal properties are not lost.


       It is the hard parts of the plant that are normally decocted--the roots, bark, nut shells, twigs, seeds, and thick leaves.  Because the hard parts are denser than leaves and flowers, a higher temperature is necessary in order to extract the active properties. So decoctions are simmered or boiled.  A mixture of two cups dried herb to two cups water is simmered 1- to 30 minutes, or until half the liquid volume has evaporated.


            A poultice is a pulpy mass applied directly to the skin.  The fresh herb is bruised or chopped and heated, applied to the skin and kept in place with a hot (104º to 110º F for best results), moist cloth until cool, then removed.  Or dried herbs can be ground and mixed into a thick paste with a hot, mashed potato or other vegetable, or flour and water, or bread and milk, or any medium that will act as a temporary adhesive.  If mustard or another irritant is used put a layer of cloth between the skin and poultice to keep the skin from blistering.  Poultices are used to draw foreign objects, pus, or other impurities out of the skin, or to soothe, or draw blood away from one area by irritating the surface of another.  The same principle is used for stopping headaches by putting one's hands into hot water to draw blood away from the head.

Oils and Ointments

            The best oils to use for a bases are olive and sesame, since they resist rancidity.  Heat 2 to 4 cups herb, or herbs, in two cups oil over very low heat for an hour or more.  Do not boil or you will burn the herbs.  Strain through a cloth--old T-shirts are great for this.  I often put the herbs into a covered container and put it in my unheated oven for a day or two.  The pilot generates enough heat to extract the herbs' properties.  If you use perishable oils like almond or canola, add one drop of benzoin tincture per cup of oil as a preservative.  You can buy benzoin tincture at drug stores.

            To turn the strained oil into an ointment or salve add 1 to 1 1/2 cups grated beeswax and stir over low heat until melted.  Beeswax turns black on contact with metal, so always use nonmetallic utensils.  Pour into wide-mouth jars or lip balm containers.  Roots such as alkanet can provide pink to red coloring for lip balms, if desired.  The salve should keep for about two years.  You can buy unbleached wax, which is difficult to find in craft- and fabric stores, from a beekeeper.

Herbal Baths

            Herbal baths can be used in place of infusions or decoctions.  The healing properties of the herb are absorbed by the body via the skin.  Conversely, pain or odor can be alleviated by soaking in a hot tub.  Try this after eating raw onions!  To make an herbal bath, infuse 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cups dried herbs in a quart of water.  Strain, and add it to your bath water.  Here are some suggestions:

Sage relieves pain so is useful for arthritis and sore muscles.
Catnip is calming and good for insomnia.  Try it before bedtime.
Lavender flowers are both calming and stimulating, depending on your body's needs.
Bay leaves, especially California bay, is analgesic--especially good for arthritis, rheumatism, and
Parsley contains apiol and chlorophyll, which eliminate bad breath.