“How do I use herbs once I know which ones I want to try?”
The question was asked from one of our small group, most new to herbal remedies. She knew she wanted to use herbs for health, and we’d discussed which she might try. But she didn’t exactly know what to do with them.
The instructor pointed out a few of the most common ways. A few participants made suggestions or asked about methods they’d seen elsewhere. I started thinking about this post. How do you use those herbs? Especially if you’re not the type to trust what’s in the bottle at the health food store. Definitely if you’re growing your own herbs or foraging for helpful plants in the wild. Even if you’re familiar with herbal tea and essential oils, you might learn something new!
About This List
It’s not completely complete. Many of these items can be used to make other, more specific remedies. It’s also important to note that when you use herbs, not all plants can be used with every method. I’ll give you some ideas about the types of plants that are best used for each method, but everyone has to experiment with what works best for their needs.
Always know your plant matter before putting it in or on your body through any means. Do not take anything on this list as an instruction on dosing, safety, treating illness, or any other medical advice.
“Straight Up, Now” – Eat Your Herbs
It’s one of the very simplest ways to incorporate plants into your life. Just eat them. Make a sage and lemon pesto – apply liberally to your sandwich. Add parsley to your smoothie – after the first sip, the parsley flavor hides nicely behind berries or citrus. Add fresh herbs to salads, then add more to the dressing. Stop thinking of them as something to flavor a dish, and find recipes where they’re the star. Use caution, as some herbs do not lend themselves well to being overdone. Experiment and have fun!
Many green medicinal herbs translate just fine into cooking. Some woody roots, like turmeric and horseradish, may also make their way into the culinary culture. It is common to work with parsley, cilantro, rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, and mint, both raw and in cooked dishes. Don’t forget the cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg – they’re not just for fall!
The “White Rabbit” – Herbal Teas and Water Infusions
Herbal tea is the most common way to use herbs for health. It is easy and most of us have the necessary items readily available. Teas and water infusions are most usually made with fresh or dried leafy herbs and soft plant matter, though seeds, berries, or woody parts may be used. The use of hot but not boiling water allows vitamins and volatile compounds to transfer from the plant material to the water. Teas may leave less volatile compounds and minerals behind.
Most tea recipes use about 3 teaspoons of dried or three tablespoons of fresh herbs to one cup of water. The amounts vary based on your individual needs, and may go as high as 1/4 cup of dried herbs! Water is brought to a boil, then allowed to cool just until it stops bubbling. Pour the water over the plant material, and allow it to soak, or “steep”. Most recipes suggest steeping for 5-10 minutes, but some medicinal recipes suggest a day or more so additional compounds are extracted.
Teas and infusions have relatively short shelf lives, and should be made as needed or just a couple of days at a time. Alternately, individual portions may be frozen to extend their life to a few weeks, depending on the herb. Chamomile, peppermint, lavender, orange, and lemon balm are common herbs used in tea.
The “Doc Oc Option” – Decoctions
Use herbs to make a decoction with woody stems and/or berries and other plant parts that don’t give up their goodness well with a tea preparation. It is also used to extract more of the minerals and less volatile compounds, rather than vitamins and essences as in an infusion. Add plant matter to water, bring to a boil, and allow to simmer for long periods of time – sometimes many hours.
Decoction creates a concentrated liquid usually diluted with water before consuming. Use care when making a decoction with very powerful plants, such as cinnamon bark – follow directions, because too much of a good thing can be powerfully horrid or even harmful.
“Beat It” – Poultices
For immediate topical application, a poultice might just hit the spot, and it’s very easy. At its most basic, a poultice is a bit of smashed plant, with water added if necessary to make it into a paste. I make jewelweed poultice any time I’ve been working near poison ivy. Onion poultices have been used for generations to help resolve congestion and other illnesses. Some are applied directly to the skin, others should be used warm and the skin protected with a towel or thin shirt.
If necessary, you can even chew some plants to make a poultice. Plantain grows as a weed in much of the US, and if you’re caught with a bug bite or skin condition, it makes a great remedy! Just chew a few leaves and apply the new poultice to the affected area. Just be very aware before using this method – not all plants that are safe for topical use are also safe for putting in your mouth!
“Jagged Little Pill” – Capsules
Dried herbs and plants lend themselves well to being stuffed into a capsule. It helps if you have a capsule machine, but it isn’t necessary. If you’re having trouble learning to use herbs in food or tea, capsules can be a great way to get what you need. Just be careful with oils and liquids – capsules are created to dissolve, and will dissolve in your medicine cabinet if filled with the wrong thing. If you need to pre-make capsules with an oil or liquids, keep them in your freezer to boost the chances they’ll stay intact.
Empty capsules are available online in many places. Mountain Rose Herbs is a reputable herbal supplier, or you can check for empty capsules on Amazon. You may also be able to get them through a local herbalist, midwife, or natural foods store. Never use emptied capsules from prescription drugs for this purpose – it’s just too dangerous!
“Thyme in a Bottle” – Alcohol Tinctures
Almost any herb or plant maybe made into a tincture, from delicate flowers to bark and roots. Tinctures capture the essential oils, flavors, and volatile compounds from the plant, many of the healing components.
To make a tincture, simply put plant matter into a vessel. As in, find a jar that suits the amount of plant matter you have, and shove the stuff inside. Add high-proof alcohol (80-proof or higher) to the bottle until the plant matter has been completely covered. Let the jar sit in a cool dark place – not the fridge, but a cabinet or closet – for one week, shaking it daily if you remember. Then continue to allow it to sit for at least one month and up to two months before straining out the depleted plant material.
Assuming you’ve used an edible plant, you can now use this tincture to flavor food, enhance beverages, or for healing. Tincture can be used for wellness in many ways, from two drops under the tongue for some very strong preparations, or a few droppers full per day. Work with a knowledgeable herbalist if you have specific concerns about your well-being.
“Bill W.’s Preferred” – Glycerites
Those who shun alcohol for one reason or another frequently turn to glycerine for extracting herbs in a way that is similar to making a tincture. A glycerite won’t have all the components found in a tincture, but may contain additional compounds as a bonus. Though the alcohol in a small serving of a tincture may not be of concern to most folks, some people just prefer glycerites. Others choose glycerites because of their status as a recovering alcoholic, religious beliefs, severe liver or kidney disease, or because they’re making preparations for young children. Do what fills your teacup, Jack!
This recipe for Rose Glycerite from Julie at Queen of the Meadow can be easily adapted to the plant of your choice!
“An Offer I Can Infuse” – Herb-Infused Oils
Infused oils have been in use for centuries! There are several methods for making infused oils, but they all center around adding plant matter to a base oil and allowing it to steep. This process infuses many of the plant’s essential oils, and some other components, into the base oil. You can make infused oils easily at home. Base oils might be olive oil, sweet almond oil, coconut oil, or a host of others. Depending on your chosen method, you may heat the base oil or leave it at room temperature while the herbs steep.
Use herbs to infuse oil for food, but take care with some plants, such as garlic, which may harbor bacteria that thrive in the oil. Most herbs require less concern. Think salad dressing made with thyme-infused olive oil – yummy! Plant-infused oils can also be used for direct topical applications, or added to lotions, balms, and salves.
“Steam Me Up, Scotty” – Essential Oils
Not really oils in the traditional sense, these are the volatile compounds of plants containing their “essence”, or the volatile compounds that generally create scent. Historically used for perfumes and aromatherapy via inhalation, modern proponents of essential oils may also use them topically or internally as deemed appropriate. True essential oils are traditionally steam-distilled, though other types of extractions may sometimes be classified as “essential oils”.
Essential oils have many uses. There are applications ranging from inahlation to homemade cleaning products, with topical and internal uses to boot! While many herbalists prefer to use the whole plant, or the therapeutic part in whole, essential oils do contain many of a plant’s healing compounds.
“Hippie Days are Here Again” – Plant or Flower Essences
Maybe the most “woo” of all the ways to use herbs, flower essences are most frequently used to promote spiritual and emotional healing. This may be in addition to other herbs used during physical need, to help provide stamina or peace. Some homeopathic practitioners use flower essences for physical healing as well.
Flower essences do not contain any components or compounds from the plant itself. Instead, water and alcohol preserve the vibrational energy of the plant. It is the plants’ energies that are desired, rather than the chemical components of the herb. I have enjoyed making and using flower and plant essences, but it does not escape me that some of my healing may come from belief, or from the process of creating and using them.
“Light My Fire” – Burning Herbs
You’re probably familiar with the idea of burning plants for spiritual cleansing. Native Americans use white sage in their rituals, and many segments of the Christian faith use Frankincense. Some use burning herbs in the space they occupy, while others choose to burn the plants first, then allow the space to air out before returning.
Aside from the possible spiritual and emotional changes that come from inhaling the smoke from certain herbs, this method may help purify our space and the air! As in, kill germs and bacteria. Modern scientific studies are few and far between, but there do seem to be some benefits. Commonly-burned herbs include sage, rosemary, and oregano.
Burn herbs in a vessel made of metal, clay, or shell, depending on the tradition you follow. Any heat-resistant vessel will do if you’re not following any tradition. Herbs may be fresh or dried, depending on your needs. Sometimes, herbs are rolled into a “smudge stick”, commonly used to clear spaces of negative energy. You can also use herbs by burning carefully over a candle, tossing them in to a bonfire or ritual fire, and my instructor’s stated personal favorite, the next suggestion.
“Roll Yer Own” – Smoking Herbs
Yup. Highly recommended, even. No, not just marijuana, though you do what works for you assuming you’re willing to accept responsibility under current law. You can smoke a wide variety of herbs, but do check trusted resources for safety. In general, if you can ingest it, you can smoke it, but you know how rules go. As soon as you’re sure it applies and you don’t check, you’ll be wrong and sad. Woods and woody parts, stems, roots, and berries do not generally translate well to rolling or stuffing into a pipe.
Yes, there is some inherent danger to smoking any substance. Your lungs work best when they’re clean. But not all herbs contain cancer-causing components similar to those in tobacco. They don’t all contain tar, addictive compounds, or mind-altering constituents. We all make judgments when it comes to risk versus benefit in whatever medicine or method we choose. Smoking herbs can be a lower-risk high-benefit option for some people.
“Splish Splash” – Use Herbs for Herbal Baths
Basically, a giant herbal tea in which you soak and heal. Particularly useful when treating cold and flu-like symptoms, or for sore muscles. First, a hot bath is good for both of those things already. When you add herbs like peppermint, wintergreen, or eucalyptus, you can really help things along! Or infuse lavender, rose, or lemon balm for a relaxing experience.
“Sour Grapes” – Infused Vinegars
Infused vinegars use herbs to flavor any vinegar you choose, extracting helpful compounds along the way. Medicinal infused vinegars often use unfiltered, unpasteurized, apple cider vinegar. To keep things raw, simply add herbs to vinegar and allow them to infuse for a week or longer. For a quicker option, heat the vinegar to boiling, pour over herbs, and steep overnight. If you wish to steep for more time, you may want to put your vinegar in the fridge. Strain out the plant matter for compost (or use in a roast or soup). Try infused vinegar in salad dressings, quick pickles, and anywhere else you might use vinegar. Citrus-infused vinegar makes a good household cleaner. You can even drink it in a refreshing beverage called a shrub!
Almost any edible plant translates to an infused vinegar. You can try different edible flowers, flavorful barks, and woody roots. Mix and match to create your own blends that use herbs for health and gifting!
“Something’s Not Rotten” – Use Herbs in Fermentations
Drinks like kombucha and kvass lend themselves directly to use with herbs. Just choose carefully and know how to use them in the flavoring step, unless otherwise instructed – some herbs may interfere with the fermentation process by killing off the bacteria or yeasts that make it possible! Some other fermentations, such as pickles or kimchee, also include healing herbs in the recipes.
Fermentations are fantastic, because they will contain both the healthful herbs and probiotics to help you on your healing journey. Whatever your food tastes, there’s probably a fermentation that will work for you! Start with this great list of fermented foods to expand your horizons.
“Waiting to Inhale” – Herbal Steams
Steams are just slightly different from baths, in that rather than soaking in the water, you immerse yourself in the steam created by simmering plants in water. Basically, boil water in a pot, add herbs (or essential oils), and inhale the steam. This is commonly used for congestion, but has a wide variety of uses. This works by releasing the volatile compounds in the plant, and allowing them to rise with the steam. Some practitioners use herbs for steaming other areas of the body as well, for purposes of aiding reproduction or relieving a minor infection.
Many different herbs are used in herbal steams. Most popular are probably eucalyptus, peppermint, and lemon, as used to relieve allergies or congestion due to colds and flu. Use herbs from green to woody or from floral to earthy! Some herbs may require lots of time in the water before giving up their beneficial compound. Use the instructions for teas or decoctions, and make steam from the resulting liquid when this is the case.
“Page 394” – Lotions, Potions, Balms, and Salves
Add the essential oil of your choice straight to a bottle of pre-made lotion you prefer. Use infused oils to create your own balms and salves for minor injuries. Calendula cream is popular, but chamomile, frankincense, and patchouli are all great for skin, and tend to smell great, too. It’s really up to you – once you decide what herbs you want to use.
When making a lotion, you could also use an infusion or decoction in the water step. Don’t forget to infuse your butters, like shea and cocoa to add nutrients where you’re able!
“Splish Splash” – Soap
Soaps are made with fats and oils, as in the above potions. Infuse those fats with herbs, and you maintain many of the healing components from the original plant. Soaps are especially useful when cleaning sensitive or broken skin, or after exposure to a poisonous plant like poison ivy. Not ingested poisonous plants, friends. You cannot wash away ingested poison – go the the ER!
Soaps made with jewelweed are commonly used after exposure to poison ivy. Jewelweed contains a specific chemical that helps neutralize the “poison” part of poison ivy. Jewelweed is effective on its own, but when you combine it with soap, you are better able to wash away those irritating oils. Soaps made with chamomile or lavender can be calming to dry skin, and calendula nourishes many skin types.
Use herbs whole in soaps by adding them to the molds prior to adding the soap to cure or cool. Whole herbs work well in both cold-process and melt-and-pour soaps. Don’t forget about essential oils when making soaps, too! A few drops of essential oil just before you’re ready to pour is a great way to use herbs in soap.
“Stayin’ Alive” – Live Plants
Grow herbs in or around your home, and reap many rewards! First, you’ll have the plants to use in the methods listed above. Second, the process of planting, nurturing, and harvesting plants can be a soothing part of your day. It’s almost meditative to spend time with the plants. You’ll also get the benefits of smelling or touching that plant. Just brushing up against lemon balm, rosemary, or other highly medicinal plants, can leave the plant’s essential oils on your hands or clothing. They might not penetrate skin well without a carrier oil, but you’ll get the same benefit from smelling your hands as you would from buying a bottle of essential oil and a diffuser.
You don’t have to be an expert gardener to grow your own medicinal plants. Luckily, culinary herbs can be some of the easiest plants to grow, especially indoors! Try your hand at the above listed herbs, or work with patchouli, sage, or even roses for your needs.
What About You?
Did you learn new ways to use herbs for healing? Do you use a method not described here? Let us know!