In days long past, the kitchen witch was the herbalist of the town. He or she held true to a certain philosophy and preparedness around healing, using plants as the vehicle to cure. There was an element of magic generated by the witch’s relationship with plant allies, lending an illusion of the supernatural.
Truth be told, there is a magic about plant medicines. One doesn’t have to be a witch to access them. But it is important to realize there is a little kitchen witch in all of us. Here is my attempt to encourage that piece of us, so that we may prepare our kitchens, medicine cabinets and ourselves for the maladies that find their way to our doorstep.
Jars of herbs and boxes of teas fill the cabinets and shelves, little brown bottles sit in neat rows or cluttered bunches on the counter, and fresh roots await their fate in the fridge. Perhaps they will be boiled for tea, or grated and chopped into healing stews.
A kitchen apothecary is a magical and powerful place. The question for many is where to begin? The concept of a kitchen ready with remedies is not usual in this day and age, but it is attainable. In part one of this series, we will introduce some basic concepts of herbalism and take a tour of a kitchen stocked with medicines from the Earth. Part II will explore how to put those remedies to use in formulas for common acute illnesses.
Learning the basics of herbalism is important when assembling a plant medicine cabinet. It ensures greater efficacy, and the ability to make wiser choices for your friends and family. Here are a few things to consider.
1. Educate yourself on the general use of the plants you plan to purchase, grow or harvest.
2. Learn to prepare a water decoction of a root, flower or leaf for medicine. And don’t be afraid to make a tincture.
3. Know appropriate tincture dosages for a child or adult.
4. If you have a chronic health condition, or are on any medications, be sure to look up herb contraindications.
Many of these basics will be addressed is this series. If this is new territory for you, and even if it’s not, when in doubt ask questions of a trained professional.
Brief Description of Herbalism
In herbalism plants are used to address unrest and imbalance in the body, whether the disturbance be as acute like a cold or chronic like an autoimmune disease. Teas and tinctures are the main methods of use, but herbal tea baths and the burning of plant matter around a person also have therapeutic effects.
Tinctures are alcohol- or glycerin-soaked macerations of plant matter. They are made by taking a certain weight of plant, and submerging it in a certain measure of alcohol for 6-8 weeks. They can be fresh plant or dried plant macerations. The alcohol draws out the chemical constituents in the plants used for therapy. The plant matter, now called the mark, is then pressed out from the alcohol, leaving a lovely plant tincture.
When purchasing tinctures, I recommend alcoholic extracts to glycerin. They are more therapeutically effective. There is some question as to the potency of a glycerin tincture based on the fact that some chemical constituents in plants may not be glycerin soluble. I will add that if a glycerin tincture is made properly, it increases effectiveness. The process involves adding an alcoholic tincture to glycerin on low heat. The alcohol evaporates off, leaving the glycerin tincture. I recommend calling and asking companies their process before wasting your money and time on glycerin extracts.
If alcohol is an issue, put your recommended tincture dosage in a cup and add about a tablespoons worth of hot water. Most of the alcohol will evaporate off in about a minuet. The clients I have had with addiction issues and those with children have been fine with this.
Water Decoctions of Roots and Dried Herbs
Dried herbs are easy to use. A leaf or flower is measured, put into a tea bag or strainer, and hot water is poured over it. It is left to steep for 3-5 minuets before removing the plant. When preparing a large amount, I often do the steeping in a pot.
Roots, twigs and bark take longer should be done separately. The fresh root is prepared by washing and chopping. In the case of ginger or horseradish, the outer skin is stripped off. I then add it to a pot of room temperature water, and set it to boil. Dried root does not need to be processed in this way. Just measure, and add to the room temperature pot. Once boiling has occurred, turn to a simmer, and put a lid on it. Let simmer for 30 minuets, then strain. You can then combine the root with the leaf and flower decoction.
After straining, you may add sweetener. Raw honey is my sweetener of choice. Both honey and alcohol are carriers of medicines to cells, thus improving absorption. A small amount is effective. Sweetener also acts as a preserve, but unless you are making a syrup, with tons of it, there will not be enough to do the job. For this reason, lightly sweetened water decoctions leftover should be stored in the fridge where they will keep for a few days. I put my excess in the freezer in mason jars.
Terminology and Classification of Plant Medicines
Herbs are classified and their uses are defined in a variety of ways. It helps us learn and follow an organized, efficient approach from which to practice herbalism. Here is a brief overview of a few ways herbalists take classification and application into account.
To classify a plant is to impart an appropriate basis for use. There are 3 general classes to consider in Western Herbalism.
1. Tonic or food herbs nourish and tone the body over time. Dandelion root and leaf, nettles, hawthorn, and raspberry leaf are a few that fall into this category. Tonics may also have stronger medicinal effect when used in formulas and in higher doses. But for the most part, they are used to nourish and set the body up for positive long term change.
2. Medicine herbs are used for acute illness and taken with care for a designated period of time, for they may cause imbalance when used inappropriately. Examples of herbs as medicines are ephedra, goldenseal, osha, valerian, and blue cohosh.
3. Poisons are plants that may be used in tiny doses, and only under the supervision of someone trained in their application. Poke root, pulsitilla, and mayapple are examples of this class of herbs.
The terminology used to describe a plants action on the body is based on structure and function, and the energetic properties of plants. An herbalist will recommend a plant by taking into account its effect on structure, and how it will improve function. For example, if you have a sore throat and it is hot, dry and raw, a plant that acts as a demulcent (soothes, cools and moistens mucus membranes) may help. Other terms used are astringent (to tone or tighten structure), anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic and diaphoretic (fever redcer).
I mentioned energetics. This is another way to describe an herbs action on the body. It is a complex and involved practice, but the basics can be used by anyone. The above example is useful here as well. The energetics of the plant needed are soothing and cooling, as opposed to drying or heating. I’m not going into this one too deeply, only grazing the surface enough to aid application and understanding.
The Materia Medica is a Latin term for “the body of collected knowledge about the therapeutic properties of any substance used for healing” (Wikipedia). Information found here defines the plants action on the body, story/history and the clinical application.
I love the study and practice of how herbs move energetically, chemically and via fluid transport, and can expound on them. But I will keep the descriptions of each plant below basic. For a richer understanding of each plant’s history and namesake, and more comprehensive description of use, refer to my recommended reading book list on my website, or check out past articles here.
With this list of plants we get a peek into the cupboard. Many old world healers use few plants, while others find it their calling to use 100. Numbers don’t matter, it’s what you do with what you have and know. While this is a short list, it is a flexible one, full of tonics and medicines for a multitude of woes. Feel free to add or subtract from it based on need and experience.
Barberry root (Berberis spp.): anti-bacterial; anti-fungal, effective for sore throats, thrush, urinary tract infections, sinus infections; a liver tonic which increases bile production thus improving digestion of fats. Normal dosage is 1 tsp. in 8 oz. water; 20-40 drops of tincture 2-4 times daily.
Burdock root (Arctium lappa): mild alterative, stimulates the function of the lymphatic/immune system, kidney, and liver; bitter digestive tonic that stimulates bile production; indicated for lymphatic swelling, chronic skin conditions, and to strengthen the respiratory tract; burdock helps the body recuperate post illness. Normal dosage is 1-2 teaspoons in 8 oz. water; 30-90 drops 2-4 times daily; use it fresh in soups (about 5 inches of root per pot).
Chamomile flowers (Chamomilla recutita): powerful anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic, sedative; fine remedy for teething pain, colic, carminative, head aches, cramps, irritability, and ulcers; I have also recommended the tea to be used as a topical wash for skin irritation and inflammation , as well as high blood pressure where anxiety is a primary cause. Normal dosage is 1 tablespoon in 8 oz. water; 30-90 drops 2-4 times daily.
Echinacea root, flower and herb (Echinacea pupurea or angustifolia): a lymphatic herb that stimulates the body’s innate ability to fight off acute illness by increasing white blood cell count, and killer T-cells ; strengthens healthy cell integrity and increases macrophage count (immune cells located in the liver and lymphatic system) that help the body deal with waste produced by the body’s fight against illness, effective anti-bacterial internally and externally; used internally and externally for snake bites or other poisonous insect bites, fevers, toothaches. Take 30-60 drops for general acute illness, take 60 drops every 15 minutes for poisonous bites, and apply to wound as well.
Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis): excellent remedy for colds, flu, bronchial infections; due to anti-inflammatory and anti-histamine action of the flavonoids, reduces allergic symptoms and sinus irritation; excellent for the eyes as well; Normal dosage is 1 tablespoon in 8 oz. water; 60-90 drops.
Ginger rhizome (Zingiber officinale): stimulates blood flow, warming and stimulating expectorant, diaphoretic, anti-viral action, improves digestion, and great for nausea, anti-inflammatory appropriate for headaches and joint pain, increases secretion of bile and stimulates the conversion of cholesterol into bile acids thus aiding emulsification of fats, improves circulation. Normal dosage is 1-2 tablespoons of fresh root in 8 oz. of water; 20-30 drops.
Lemon balm herb and flower (Melisa officinalis): anti-viral (effective against herpes/shingles/chicken pox virus), nervine tonic and sedative, useful for mild hypertension and hyperthyroidism where symptoms are aggravated by anxiety, diaphoretic, stomach and headaches; Kid friendly! Normal dosage is 1-2 teaspoons in 8 oz. water; 30-90 drops tincture.
Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra): tonifies adrenal glands, expectorant, antiviral, demulcent (soothes mucus membranes) and anti-inflammatory; acute illness of lungs, stomach and bowel respond well to licorice. Normal dosage is 1-3 teaspoons in 8 oz of water; 20-30 drops tincture.
Marshmallow root (Althea officinalis): powerful demulcent for very dry coughsit works quickly; anti-inflammatory; mild anti-spasmodic, great for croup, where a dry and irritated larynx and throat is the underlying cause of the inflammation, inflammation of bladder, stomach and small intestines; soothes urinary tract when infection is present. Normal dosage is 1-2 teaspoons in 8 oz. water; some say steep it after heating for 1 hour; only takes about 4 oz at a time; in some cases less.
Peppermint leaf and flower (Mentha piperita): carminative used for gas, nausea and stomachaches, headaches; I have also found it useful for colds and allergies with minor wet coughs and runny noses in a pinch. Normal dosage is 1 teaspoon per 8 oz. cup of water.
Plantain leaf (Plantago major): anti-spasmodic, demulcent, speeds healing of mucus membranes inside and out and is anti-inflammatory. I use it for dry and wet coughs, intestinal distress, topically for bug bites. Normal dosage is 1-2 teaspoons in 8 oz. of water; 20-40 drops of tincture.
Raspberry leaf (Rubus idaeus): uterine tonic, anti-inflammatory, astringent, and one of my favorite teas for diarrhea. We have also made a new discovery about raspberry leaf in our family. My youngest daughter was stung by a hornet in the mouth. It was difficult to treat due to the location, and she was very upset and could not calm down. A tea bag of raspberry leaf tea soaked in lukewarm water brought the swelling down in minutes. Normal dosage is 1 teaspoon in 8 oz. of water, 20-30 drops of tincture.
Red Root (Ceanothus americanus): drying expectorant and astringent appropriate for sore throats; reduces swelling in the lymphatic system; excellent support for mastitis, mononucleosis, tonsillitis and strep infections; restores balance to the immune system by increasing lymphatic circulation and reducing inflammation; Normal dosage is 1 tsp 8 oz water; 10-40 drops of tincture.
Sage leaf (Salvia officinalis): astringent, anti-bacterial, diaphoretic, anti-inflammatory, digestive distress, colds and flu; excellent remedy for sore throats, and post nasal drip; has the ability to dry up mucus membranes, including milk in a weaning mom (it works if you take enough). Normal dosage is 1-2 teaspoons in 8 oz. of water; 30-40 drops of tincture.
Schisandra berry (Schisandra chinensis): tonic that supports the lungs, kidney, liver, heart and adrenals; strengthens adrenals and endocrine system; normalizes immune and nervous system function, increases kidney and lung function, and protects the liver; has been found an effective treatment for Hepatitis C in Japan, and is now considered an all over body tonic for the prevention of H1N1. Normal dosage is 1 teaspoon of berries in 8 oz. cup of water, steep 1 hour; 20-60 drops of tincture.
Skullcap leaf (Scutellaria lateriflora): tonic to rebalance the nervous system, used for a spastic cough when the nerve is part of the problem, and there is not enough response to muscular anti-spasmodics such as wild cherry bark; in fact, I have seen a chronic cough cease when all else has failed; use it in combination with other anti-spasmodic; supportive therapy for tremors and ticks in Parkinson’s, mild Tourette’s, and restless leg. 1 teaspoon per 8 oz. cup of water; 30-60 drops of tincture
Thyme leaf (Thymus vulgaris): anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, carminative, damp coughs, colds and flu, digestive complications associated with viral or bacterial infections, mild expectorant; support for lung congestion, colds and flu. Normal dosage is 2 teaspoons in 8 oz. water; 20-40 drops of tincture.
Usnea (Usnea barbata): powerful anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, effective against staph and strep infections, bronchitis, and pneumonia; antispasmodic in intestinal tract and respiratory tract; I have even used it successfully internally on childhood eczema, and internally for viral and bacterial skin infections. Normal dosage is 30-40 drops of tincture.
Wild Cherry Bark (Prunus, spp.): Bronchial antispasmodic (works to decrease frequency of the cough); effective with chest colds, bronchitis, pneumonia, pertussis, and croup; also effective for spasms of the diaphragm, which is one of the muscles of the respiratory tract. Normal dosage is 2 teaspoons of bark in 8 oz. cold water steeped 8 hours; 30-40 drops of tincture.
Yarrow flower (Achillea millefolium): anti-inflammatory for bladder and bowel, anti-diarrheal, for excessive bleeding internally and externally, diaphoretic, excellent remedy for sore throat, and runny wet colds and flues. Yarrow is one of my favorite fever reducers. Normal dosage is 1-2 teaspoons in 8 oz steep 30 minutes; 30-60 drops of tincture.
From the mystic, to the witch, to the clinician, the magic and art of healing with plants is age old. Times have changed since the old village witch cured ailments with her plants. And in some ways, this article may seem far from magical, as I took a lot of time describing a clinical foundation for use. But the magic is there, for the core of plant medicines is the plants.
In herbalism, we develop a relationship with the plants, and become knowledgeable on history and clinical application. From here the instinct that is art and magic thrives.
I hope this article series will shed some light and give encouragement to those curious about the medicines in their own backyards. In part II, I will cover applications of plant medicines for acute illnesses, and basic formulation.
Past articles here to consider for support: Aromatherapy: Another Approach to Cold and Flu, The Portable and Natural First Aid Kit, and Herbs for Acute Respiratory Illness.
Kathy Eich has over 14 years experience working with people and plants. She has studied with various shamanic healers, and incorporates clinical and spiritual plant work with shamanic healing techniques. She is former co-owner and founder of Weeds of Eden Herb Store and Clinic in Louisville, KY. Her last teaching post was head of the Herb and Aromatherapy Department at the New Mexico College of Natural Healing. She currently resides with her family in Madison, WI. Messages can be sent through her web site at redrootmountain.com.