The moonlight shines through the window in my kitchen as I carefully use a mortar and pestle to grind dried herbs for making tea. Candlelight softly illuminates the space, and I have my recipe book with me, ensuring that I record everything that I’m doing for future use. Magic is in the air; working in a sacred space at a sacred time on the Fall Equinox ensures that these medicines will be potent, effective, and magical. On the counter, I’ve already finished my fresh New England Aster flower tincture; this keeps my lungs in good health and helps me manage my chronic asthma without pharmaceuticals. A pot of olive oil is infusing with herbs is on the stove; I am getting ready to add beeswax and pour it off into small jars. This healing salve will be for friends and family as Yule gifts. The kitchen is bursting with good things and healing energy.
In last week’s post, we explored some different ways to interact with and harvest plants: an animistic worldview that recognizes and honors plant spirits, planting and harvesting by the signs, and preparing for harvest through offerings. In this week’s post, we’ll talk through different ways to preserve and prepare sacred plant medicine– so let’s get started!
An Herbal Sacred Grove
Before beginning your plant preparations, I would suggest setting up a sacred space (what we druids call a Sacred Grove). You can create a sacred space in which to prepare your sacred plant medicine. I offered details for one way of doing this in my earlier post on Hawthorn tincture creating. You could also do so using an existing grove ritual (from OBOD, AODA, etc) or by creating your own. I love to do this and I have found that it really adds to the magic and power of my plant preparations. For sacred plant crafting, I typically use a modified version of AODA’s solitary grove opening, including the Sphere of Protection. The Sphere of Protection is highly adaptable, drawing upon the four elements and the solar, telluric, and lunar currents (three realms of spirit). For plant medicine, I will use something like this (depending on the plants I’m working with at that time):
- East/Air – New England Aster
- South/Fire- Sassafras
- West/Water – Hawthorn
- North/Earth – Reishi Mushroom
- Spirit Below/Telluric Current – Comfrey
- Spirit Above/Solar Current – Goldenrod
- Spirit Within/Lunar Current – Reishi
So my opening might look something like this:
- Declare the intent of the ceremony
- Declare peace in the quarters (part of the druid tradition)
- Druid’s prayer / Druid’s prayer for peace (part of the druid tradition)
- Sphere of protection; sealing the space
- Offering to the spirits of the plants
Once the grove is open, I can begin my plant preparations, recognizing the sacredness and magic in this work.
If you plan on continuing to do sacred herbalism, I would suggest developing your own version of your sacred grove opening. It can be dedicated to certain plants or activities, be done in a special room at a special time, etc. The important thing is to make it matter for you!
Once you have harvested a plant, you should engage in what is known as “garbling.” Garbling has both mundane and magical qualities. On the mundane level, this basically means going though the plant material, cleaning it, removing bugs or soiled parts, and making sure you don’t have parts of other plants (like blades of grass) in there. As part of the garbling process, if you are drying your plants, you will want to remove any thick stems–this can prevent plants from drying thoroughly. On the magical level, this process lends your energy to the plants you’ve harvested. Feel their energy, attune with them, and do a bit of energy exchange with the plants you harvested.
Plants need to be very dry if they are to stay fresh and preserved over a period of time or if you are going to use them in an herbal preparation. One of my favorite tools is a portable herb air drying rack. Its a mesh column with tiers where you can lay many fresh herbs. If you hang this up in your house or porch, your herbs can be dried in a matter of days and not use any fossil fuels. Other options include an electric dehydrator (sometimes necessary in places or times of high humidity). If using a dehydrator, make sure you keep it on the lowest (herb) setting. Solar dehydrators (such as this design here) are another good option. The oven is not a good option for most plants for drying, particularly leaf and flower parts; the oven starts out about 100 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than you want for your plants and you will likely burn them. You can use the oven to “finish off” already mostly dry material, however.
If you feel your plants and they still feel soft or cool, they are likely not yet dried enough for proper storage. This is particularly a problem in high humidity areas. You might finish them off for 10 min in the oven at the lowest setting to make sure they are super dry. Then place them in a mason jar (which has an excellent lid that won’t allow any bugs, dust, etc, inside and place them in a cool, dark place.
Typically, drying directly in the sun is not a good idea. The sun destroys many of the volatile oils, which is where a lot of medicinal content is held in the plants. So air dry them, but never in direct sunlight. (This is also why you store plants in a cool, dark space–because sunlight is damaging to the longevity and potency of dried herbs and tinctures). You can use the sun’s energy for other kinds of preparations, however!
Specific Plant Preparations: Teas, Tinctures, Oils, and Salves
Healing Plant Tea (Infusion or Decoction)
If you are drying plants and storing them, you are already ready to make tea. Tea is best used for working on the internal systems of the body; the gut and GI system can hugely benefit from healing teas. For teas, I usually grind up my plant matter a bit further (in a mortar and pestle, or cut them up further with herb scissors). This is done so that the water has more spaces and opportunities to extract the plant matter. There are two kinds of herbal teas that you can make: infusions or decotions; the kind you make depends on the plant matter you are working with.
Infusions are created when boiling water is poured over plant matter and allowed to sit for 5-20 or so minutes (what we typically know as ‘tea’ using a tea bag). This method is best for leafy plant matter and flowers. When you make an infusion, make sure to cover the tea so that you are not losing the volatile essential oils through the steam (that’s often where the most concentrated medicine is). The longer you let the tea sit, the stronger it will be, and for medicinal teas, 10-15 minutes is a good amount of time. You can use tea strainers or purchase single use tea bags that can be sealed or tied. I prefer the metal tea strainers as I make a lot of tea and don’t want the tea bag paper to go to waste. Good plants for infusion teas include: mints, rosemary, lavender, monarda, lemon balm, chamomile, catnip, nettle, and more.
Decoctions are created when you boil your plant matter, with a lid, in the water, again for 10-20 minutes. These are best for roots, barks, nuts, and other tough woody plant matter as it takes more time to extract the medicine from roots and woody material. A hard boil of a plant would destroy leafy bits and flowers, so if you are combining woody bits or roots with flowers, add your flowers after you are done boiling and allow them to sit (again with the lid on) for 10 or so minutes before drinking your tea. Plants for decoction: sassafras root, wild cherry bark, echinacea root, yellow dock root, etc.
You can also add the energy of the sun and/or the moon to your tea:
Lunar tea: A great way to bring the energy of the moon. For infusions, pour boiling water over your plant material and allow it to sit in a jar with a lid in the moonlight. For decoctions, boil your plant matter and add to a mason jar with a lid. Let it sit overnight in the moonlight. Drink the next day and enjoy the energy of the moon.
Solar tea: Some days, the sun is hot enough to do its own infusion of leafy or flower plant material. Place your material in a large mason jar (I like to use the half-gallon mason jars) and sit it in the sun. If you want to make your tea stronger, consider putting your jar on a reflective surface (like in a big stainless steel bowl) to increase the heat. For decoctions, I like to soak my plant matter in advance in the sun (in a pot or jar) and then do the final boil.
Finally, you can make a ritual out of drinking your tea: perhaps it’s what you drink each morning when you rise, or each evening as you are getting ready for meditation. I like to make my tea and then walk out on our land here, communing with the plants both within the tea and without!
Healing Plant Tincture (Alcohol, Vinegar, and Glycerine)
Tinctures are potent extracts that turn the plant medicine into a more easily accessible form by the body, and are used for an extremely wide range of uses (daily strengthening, cleansing, supporting a healthy fever, gut issues, etc). Tincturing can be a fairly complex and involved process if you want it to be (I wrote about it in much greater depth on my herbalism blog), but we are going to use a simple folk method here. A tincture suspends healing plant matter in a menstra (in our case, alcohol, vinegar, or glycerine) which makes the medicinal properties more readily available and also preserves them for a period of time (for vinegar and glycerine, about a year; for high proof alcohol, indefinitely).
Alcohol tinctures. Your goal for most plant matter is to have at least 25% alcohol for preservation purposes. Start by chopping your fresh or dried plant matter finely. If you are using fresh plant matter, you will want to start with a higher proof alcohol (as the plants add some additional water). You can use a “neutral” spirit; vodka is a typical choice for most herbalists. An 80 proof vodka is 40% alcohol, so even if your plant material has a bit of water in it, you should still be above 25% alcohol when you are finished. Place your chopped plant matter into a jar, and weigh it down with a smooth, clean stone that you have scrubbed well in advance. You can do this without the stone, but the stone really helps keep all of the plant matter submerged, which prevents mold and other issues. Pour your alcohol over it and store in a cool, dark place for one moon cycle. Strain your material, and enjoy! Tinctures can be sweetened with honey or maple syrup to make them taste a bit better (or just take them in a glass of water).
Glycerine tinctures (glycerites). Glycerites have a shelf life about a year, and often taste a lot better than alcoholic preparations. They are also very good for children or people who cannot have alcohol (such as those in recovery). Purchase some vegetable glycerine (in the USA, if you find “USP Glycyerine” the USP stands for the United States Pharmacopeia, which means it is a pure and standard formula). Water the glycerine down by 50% and add your plant matter, usually dried (or water it down less if you are using fresh). Give it all a good shake and let it sit for one moon cycle (but not more), shaking it at least once a day. Strain and enjoy.
Vinegar tinctures. Vinegars are best for food-based material that you want to build into your cooking and consumption regularly and can be a great addition to an herbal medicine cabinet. For example, my father needed to have regular hawthorn in his diet and he enjoyed eating vinegar and oil on his salad, so I prepared him a hawthorn-infused apple cider vinegar that he could use each day with his meal. Vinegar tinctures are made similar to the others–start with a high quality vinegar, preferably organic. Chop up your plant matter finely and add it to your jar. Let the plants infuse in the jar for one moon cycle, strain, and enjoy. One more common vingear based preparation you may have heard of is “Fire Cider“; it is a vinegar-based tincture of ginger, onions, garlic, horseradish, and herbs that is used for healing purposes.
Some Plants for tincturing: Monarda (bee balm, antimicrobial), Nettle (anti-histamine, adrenal support), Goldenrod (anti-histamine, anti-inflammatory), Culinary Herbs (rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano – good for the vinegar infusion), Chickweed, Wild Yam.
Healing Plant Infused Oil
Infused oils are topically used primarily for wounds/stings/bug bites, for joint/muscle issues, or for varicose veins and other skin issues. Herbalists have a multitude of ways to make an infused plant oil, and I will share two of the most simple ways. Start by thoroughly drying your plant matter (see instructions above) and chopping it finely; if you are in a hurry, at least “wilt” your plant material for 12 or so hours by letting it sit on the counter before using it. Choose a good quality oil, I most often use organic olive oil as it is readily available. Coconut oil is another good choice, but only if you will be keeping it in a temperature controlled environment due to its low melt point. Otherwise, at some point, your infused oil may be solid or liquid (and this is even more important if you plan on making it into salve).
Pour the oil over the plant matter, making sure the plant matter is thoroughly saturated. Leave in a sunny window or on the porch on warm days for one week, then drain and store in a cool, dark place for use.
Alternatively, you can use a double boiler on a low setting and infuse the oil for 12-24 hours. Ensure the oil doesn’t get too hot–if your plant leaves turn brown and crispy, you likely made it too warm and boiled away the medicine. Thoroughly strain your oil with a small strainer or cheesecloth, and store in a cool, dark place for further use.
Make sure your oil is completely strained; small bits of plant matter can make it spoil much faster. Also make sure there are no water bubbles in it; they will appear on the bottom and look like little clear or brownish bubbles. These will also make the infused oil spoil much, much faster.
To make a salve from infused oil, begin by placing your strained oil into a double boiler and heating it up. Add approximately 3 tbsp of beeswax (shaved or grated finely) per cup of infused oil. As the oil heats up, the beeswax will melt. You can add less beeswax for a more liquid salve or more beeswax for a harder salve.
To test the consistency of your salve, place a spoon in the freezer and then pull it out and put a few drops of your salve on the spoon to see its consistency. When you are happy with the consistency, you can add any additional essential oils (in small quantities; I like to add sweet orange or rosemary oil to make it smell nice). Pour your salves into small jars or tins. Let them cool and then label appropriately.
Plants that work well for salve (in any combination): Plantain (skin healing, drawing), Calendula (skin healing), Comfrey (wound closing), St. John’s Wort (inflammation), Ground Ivy (skin healing, drawing), Chickweed (skin healing), Goldenrod (inflammation).
The world of plant medicine and herbalism represents a lifetime of study–but the best way to learn is to start doing it! Next week, in our final post in this series, we talk about making herbal flower/leaf essences and working deeply with the spirit of plants. Blessings!