Mission 8: Making Your Own Medicine – Simples
We have already touched on foraging and making wild teas as a ‘way into nature’. For this mission though, I would like you to undertake a quest to find and prepare a remedy for whatever ails you. Mainstream medicine is big business and our legislation gently but surely disempowers people from self-treatment, even for ‘simple’ remedies. With our supermarkets overflowing with pharmaceutical products its more convenient to buy a packet of Rennies, for example, than invest in some healing with a peppermint tea or essence.
Current legislation in the US for example, decrees that me suggesting to you that ‘a bowl of onion soup to cleanse your liver’ is actually illegal, because I am practising medicine without a license. So I have to put in a disclaimer here saying that ‘this section is here solely for the purpose of your entertainment and that any of the treatments, recipes and remedies herein are undertaken entirely at your own risk and should only be with the supervision of a medically qualified professional’.
Having got that off my chest, for this mission I would like you to identify a minor dis-ease or discomfort you have in your body or mind, and prepare for yourself a remedy from the wild. Once again it is essential to determine that you have correctly identified your chosen plant. Please don’t go eating any Hemlock or the like.
Treatments and remedies with herbs and foodstuffs take several forms. When you make your own, the construction of the cure becomes a part of the cure, a healing quest if you like. This ancient alchemy is known to many tribes, but we have lost it in an age of ready meals, fast food and microwaves.
Gathering the raw resources means knowing how to grow, harvest, treat and preserve berries, leaves, seeds, flowers, juices and so on, so for this mission – just keep it really simple unless you already know what you are doing. Remember there are poisonous plants out there too!
Apart from making meals that include consciously chosen healing elements, there are several forms of treatment used in herbalism, these are:
Essential oil Infusion
Lets look at some of these:
This is a pad of fabric that is soaked in an herbal liquid such as a decoction (herb or spice boiled in water). It is applied externally either hot or cold. Hot helps with aches and pains such as stiff muscles, or bruising. Cold compresses are used for headaches and fevers where the skin feels too hot.
Usually used to extract the beneficial qualities of barks, twigs, roots and seeds. Firstly crush up the material; a pestle and mortar is the classic tool for this. Then place it with the required amount of water in a stainless steel, glass or enamel saucepan and bring to the boil with a stir. Simmer it for up to an hour depending on the material used, reducing to about two-thirds. Strain and dilute to recipe. Its best to make this fresh but it will generally keep for about three days in a fridge.
Commercial oil extracts such as lavender use a complex distillation process it’s hard to copy at home, but some leaves, flowers and seeds will steep in oil, their flavour creeping out to be preserved. One such is Basil oil. Cram Basil leaves, all summer long, into a container of quality olive oil. In the winter – add the leaves to recipes, save the oil for use in salad dressings. It’s the taste of bottled summer!
This is simply a tea or ‘tisane’. Use whatever quantity of herb is specified and steep it in the correct amount of hot water in a warmed teapot or cafetiere. Try and avoid metal as this can taint the herb. Strain and serve the liquid with honey (and lemon) if appropriate.
This is an herb paste that is applied directly to the skin, sometimes on strips of material such as gauze. They have several uses such as drawing pus from the skin, helping boils to heal, reducing inflammation and extracting splinters. One such example is Plantain leaf. Horsefly bites can be quite nasty and itchy. A poultice of chewed-up Plantain leaf, placed on the bite seems to remove all of the irritation.
Herb / Powder
Often the best way to store leaves or flowers is to dry them. These can be stored as whole dried leaves, from Comfrey down to Thyme size, or powdered and used as elements in food. I recommend drying in the warmth (rather than light) wherever possible but in some circumstances careful oven drying will preserve the leaf’s qualities. Most usually drying of herbs is best done gently, with them drying in a warm-air stream.
Sugar is a most useful preservation aid. With jams, jellies and fruit syrups its possible to keep the essential ingredients in many useful plants on hand in your kitchen. Ideal for sore throats and cold remedies, winter hot toddies and wine mulls, these can keep for as long as six months.
Elderberry syrup and Rosehip are two of my favourites. Add sugar or honey to a decoction (or infusion) of the plant material and pour into sterilised glass bottles. Because fermentation can occur it is better to use a cork stopper than a screw top lid because the jar can explode!
If you have an excess of soft fruits such as wineberries or blackberries during the autumn – these can be made into weak syrups to store their essential flavours for winter treats or treatments, even the delicious ‘hot toddy’.
This is an alcohol extraction made by steeping the herbs, usually in Brandy or Vodka. It works with a whole range of aromatic herbs and can store for as long as three years in the right conditions. It can also be diluted in water for homeopathic amounts.
One of the tinctures I make annually is from the roots of the Valerian (officinalis) plant. It is harvested (at the appropriate planetary configuration if you like), then washed, chopped and dropped into vodka for a couple of weeks, with regular shakings. What a powerful relaxant!
This is a steam bath for the head specifically. Steeping herbs, oils, tinctures or whatever into very hot water allows the steam to carry some of the herbs into the body through the nose and mouth. You gain the maximum effect by placing a towel over your head and holding your face near the bowl.
Steam inhalants work well with some bronchial problems and can help to loosen a constricted chest. They are also used to steam impurities from the skin by making it sweat. Safety awareness is important with these steam baths. Show example – eg in a promo video
I am including salve here as it is a most useful way to treat the body through unbroken skin. Essentially the active constituents are extracted, for example cayenne pepper steeped in oil for a period of time, then mixed with beeswax as a carrier agent. There are several ways to approach salve making based on the extraction process and the desired effect.
An example might be to mix coconut oil, marigold & a couple of drops of Thuja essential oil as a skin treatment salve.
Making a tincture means basically that the qualities of the plant are stored in alcohol, rather than for immediate use as in a tea or ‘tisane’. It is a great way to add herbs into a diet. Tinctures gave us the basis for ‘cocktails’ today. You can see all sorts of flavoured gins and vodkas on the market. It is much more fun to make and enjoy your own, plus you can see first-hand what goes into them.
Below for example, is a Valerian tincture recipe. In the language of love the gift of Valerian means: ‘merit in disguise’ – and this is certainly a wild plant with merit. Valerian is a little known but extremely powerful herb that I find indispensable in the kitchen pharmacy.
Valerian once had a reputation for its mystic power of disturbing the sexual desires and maidens would carry a small piece about their person in the hope that the smell might attract a lover. When you smell the roots of this herb you will realise that ‘bathing’ was somewhat of an issue back then as the smell is reminiscent of chocolate mixed with poo. Historically, it has been found as an ingredient in love spells and to bring fighting couples back together, even stopping fights between males.
I have had Valerian in the garden for years now. I move it around to make sure there is a supply every year. I look forward to the smell of the flowers in the Spring. The roots however smell less pleasant than the flowers – without the chocolate scent. I certainly wouldn’t find myself attracted to the maiden with a piece of the root round her neck – I would probably offer her a bath. There is something a bit ‘musky’ about the aroma of the root of this plant, which intensifies as it dries. Its sale was restricted for some time in the USA due to the use of the root in stink bomb mixtures made by New York gangsters.
The main compounds in Valerian are: valepotriates, valerenic acid and valeronone – which have the sedative effect. Valepotriates bind to benzodiazepine receptor sites in the brain – a mechanism similar to drugs like Valium, although Valerian works quite differently. The herb seems to be more beneficial to the nervous system, and does not cause dependence or tolerance. Gamma-aminobutyric acid is also present, which can have the effect of blocking the transmission of signals in the brain – hence its reputation as an herb to calm over-excitability. Also found are: acetic acid, ascorbic acid, beta-ionone, calcium, caffeic acid, magnesium, manganese and quercitin amongst others.
It is used in herbalism as an hypnotic, anti-spasmodic, hypotensive and carminative. That is to reduce tension and anxiety, hysteria or over-excitability. As anti-spasmodic it aids colic or cramps and helps with pain associated with tension. Unfortunately frequent or prolonged use may lead to the symptoms of poisoning, so it’s best for occasional use only. It should not be used with any medical drugs that have a sedative effect. About 5% of people experience the effects of Valerian as a stimulant, so, as with all herbs new to your system – start with small amounts to find your tolerance levels and unexpected reactions.
I can certainly vouch for its relaxing qualities as someone who gets muscular discomfort in the shoulders and eye-strain from computing. It works for both. Traditionally I purchased it in a vegetable extract form but the product in the shop seems to have been weakened through legislation too much to be of use. I now make my own extract in the form of a tincture.
Tinctures are easy to make and very effective so I suggest you start making your own, (until the authorities try to make that illegal). Firstly, don’t get confused between Red Shank Valerian, a common seaside plant and Fragrant Valerian, which has the medicinal qualities.
Valerian leaves emerge in early April, full of spring energy but traditionally Valerian is harvested in August after the flowers have died down. I harvested enough root for two small jars of tincture, shook the soil off and brought it inside. The soil was quite dry which limited the amount of mud sticking to the roots. I used old mustard jars, cleaned sterilised and dried in the sun. I am using vodka as a solvent here, but have used rum also. I suspect brandy would work well with the musky odour of the root, but whatever you use – its not a great taste!
Separate out the roots from the stems and leaves, which can go in the compost bin. Give them a wash in the sink and shake out the roots to lose most of the water. Then chop the roots up and give them a bit of a bruising with a rolling pin.
Put the roots into the jars, short of the top, then top off with the alcohol. I didn’t have quite enough vodka so added a bit of water also. Seal the jars and leave them somewhere, out of sunlight, so that you can give them an occasional shake every day for about two weeks. You can then macerate the mix or rack off the liquid into a tincture jar.
As with all herbal medicines, don’t overuse a Valerian or other tincture because overuse or prolonged use of this herb can cause the symptoms of poisoning. I take about a teaspoon full mixed with water.
What ails you? I suggest you use the internet to explore some alternative or herbal cures for a simple ailment, be it a wart, a cold, a sore place, dry skin or whatever. Then go in search of a cure you have harvested from nature.
Lead onto herbal first aid