Herbal DIY: the tools of herbalism

Herbalist’s Tools

nettle beer
nettle beer

Treatments and remedies with foodstuffs take several forms and it is often in your interest to make your own. In this way the construction of the cure becomes a part of the cure. Like a healing journey, a ‘quest’ even. This is an ancient alchemy we have lost in an age of ready meals, fast food, microwaves and doctors.

One of my favourite ‘quests’ is to venture out onto the moors in the summer to find ‘eyebright’, a magical little plant for strengthening my computer-tired eyes.

Gathering the raw resources means knowing how to grow, harvest, treat and preserve berries, leaves, seeds, flowers, juices and so on.

As well as including them in our food and drink, there are several other forms of treatment used in applying them as treatments. In herbalism these are:

Compress                                Decoction

Essential oil                            Infusion

Poultice                                  Powder

Syrup                                     Tincture

Inhalant                                 Salve

What follows are brief descriptions of each:


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 of the liquid. Strain and dilute to recipe. Its best to make this fresh but it will generally keep for about three days in a fridge.


This is a pad of fabric that is soaked in an herbal liquid such as a decoction. 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.

Essential oil

samples of essential oil
examples of essential oil you can purchase

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 (or 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 I use often is a plantain poultice. This stops a horsefly bite from itching. Simply chew up a couple of leaves and put the green mess on the bite. Repeat as neccessary

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 natural drying 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 out of the sun.

Syrup base preserve

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!


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. I make a valerian tincture every year as a relaxant and it seems to be more effective than the store bought versions. [http://www.simonthescribe.com/2022/01/07/simons-simples-valerian-tincture/]


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.


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. Almond or fine coconut oils are good carriers for a salve.