If you enjoy reading books about herbs and herbal remedies, you’ll soon notice that they all give widely varying instructions on how to harvest, dry, or prepare basic recipes. Once you start experimenting, you’ll develop a feel for what works based on your herbs, the equipment you use, and your personal preferences.
Of course, even if you grow your herbs organically, do not use them as a substitute for medical care when you are sick. That’s why I’ve included only remedies for relaxation and helping the symptoms of minor discomforts; even these can cause allergies in a small number of people. I’m glad that modern and herbal medicine seem to be merging, or at least paying more attention to each other in recent years: there is an increasing amount of literature about how to use herbs safely and how they interact with medicines, supplements and each other.
To make herbal tea, pour boiling water over about 1 tablespoon of fresh or 2 teaspoons of dried herbs per 6 oz of water. Allow the tea to steep for 5 to 10 minutes in a covered teapot or stainless steel pot. Strain and serve with lemon or honey if desired. For flavor that requires no sweetening, I often blend in leaves of lemon verbena, cinnamon basil, or anise hyssop. When the weather is damp and I feel a cold coming on, I prepare hot lemonade instead of boiling water and add my favorite herbs and spices such as ginger, cinnamon or clove.
Since teas on the weak side often produce quite noticeable effects, there’s no need to make an extra strong brew. Overdosing on even the most benign herbs can be harmful, so it’s a good idea to limit your intake of herbal tea to 2 or 3 cups per day. If you’re pregnant, nursing, on medication or have any serious illness, ask your doctor before drinking any herbal teas.
Here are some time tested herbal teas:
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Thyme and Mint: To help relieve congestion during a cold
Sage and Hyssop: To soothe sore throats
Hollyhock Flowers: To coat the throat for laryngitis or dry coughs
Lemon Balm: To calm the nerves when you can’t sleep
Chamomile: To relax body and mind, or help with indigestion
Fennel Seed: This is a folk remedy to increase mothers’ milk. I’m not sure whether it was the fennel or the hot liquid in the tea that helped, but I found it to be quite warming and invigorating while I was nursing my daughter.
Treat your entire body to the same herbs you enjoy in tea by taking an herbal bath. Nothing quite calms the spirit like sitting in a soothing pineapple-scented chamomile bath, for example. The following two methods for preparing herbal baths both work well.
Method 1: This method is particularly good for fresh herbs. First, make an extra-strong tea by pouring 4 cups of boiling water over 1 1/4 cups of fresh herbs. Steep the tea with the lid on for 20 minutes. Strain the herbs through a fine strainer (lined with cheesecloth for very fine herbs such as chamomile flowers) and pour it into the bathtub. Test the temperature before you climb in--the water shouldn’t be much hotter than your body temperature, because a too-hot bath is dehydrating and slows your circulation. Soak in your bath for 15-20 minutes.
Method 2: This method, which works surprisingly well, is best for gifts, for wintertime when no fresh herbs are available, or when you want to jump in the tub right away! Make herbal bath teabags by packing 1 1/4 cup of dried herbs into a piece of muslin or cut-off foot of a clean nylon stocking. Tie the bundle closed with a string long enough to hang it from your faucet while the tub fills. Let the bag steep for a few minutes, then climb in and squeeze out the bag several times to release more herbal essences. Try this with freshly dried lavender buds for a blue-green colored perfumed bath that is truly luxuriant!
Herbal Massage Oils
Making the most potent herbal massage oils requires patience—a virtue I do not possess! If you have time, simply fill a jar with dried herbs, fill to the top with olive oil, and let the mixture infuse in the sun for 2 weeks. Strain the herbs out, add more herbs, and let sit for another 2 weeks. In the following recipe, which yields a milder, but usable oil in a much shorter time, dried herbs are heated with oil in a double boiler over low heat for 2 to 5 hours.
Herbal infused oils sometimes get moldy due to moisture in the herbs or containers. For this reason, it’s best for beginners to use dried rather than fresh herbs, and avoid taking oils internally. Make sure your bottles and lids are dry before filling them, and label your bottles to remind yourself when the oil was made. I usually make small batches that get used before spoilage occurs.
This recipe is for rosemary massage oil, which is great for relieving gardeners’ tired muscles. Feel free to use another herb such as marjoram, or a combination, such as chamomile/calendula.
2 cups dried rosemary leaves
2 and 1/4 cups olive oil
2 Vitamin E gel capsules
Heat herbs and oil in a double boiler over low heat for 2 to 5 hours. Set the timer every half hour and check to make sure that there is enough water in the bottom of the double boiler and that the oil isn’t getting too hot—the object is only to warm, but not cook or fry the herbs! The longer you let it warm, the more the oil will smell like rosemary rather than like olive oil. The oil will not noticeably change color, as it does with some other herbs.
Turn off the heat, and pour the oil through a strainer lined with cheesecloth into a completely dry, sterile, dark glass bottle – squeeze the cheesecloth to release all the oil. (Funnel it into a completely dry sterile dark glass bottle and a) Add the liquid from the 2 Vitamin E capsules (a natural preservative). Cover and close the lid tightly when the oil has cooled completely. Store in a cool dry place away from sunlight.
A jar of homemade calendula salve to soothe chapped hands makes a wonderful gift for both male and female gardening friends! My recipe calls for twice as much beeswax as most do because I prefer a firmer, less oily product. Other herbs often found in salves include comfrey, plantain, lemon balm and rose petals. You can also add 2 to 3 drops of essential oil for fragrance at the end .
1 cup dried calendula petals
1 cup olive oil
2 Vitamin E capsules
½ cup chopped beeswax
Note: I used a sheet of beeswax that a friend who rolls candles gave me; it’s very easy to break apart. Herb stores and some natural food stores sell grated beeswax. Beeswax is flammable so use caution that it doesn’t spill onto your heating element!
Make an infused calendula oil with the calendula, olive oil and Vitamin E by heating the calendula and oil in a double boiler over low heat for 2 to 3 hours. Remove from heat and add liquid from Vitamin E capsules. Melt the beeswax: use a double boiler. (I used an uncovered glass espresso carafe with a handle in a wider, low saucepan of water, which worked well, too.) Bring the water to a boil – the beeswax turns liquid in several minutes. Add the calendula oil. Remove from heat and add 2 to 3 drops of essential oil if desired – the mild calendula-honey fragrance doesn’t need improvement, but you might enjoy scenting your salve with lavender or rose. Fill the liquid into small, dry, sterile glass jars and seal when cool and hardened.
For further reading:
Complete Guide to Safe Herbs, by Chris D. Meletis and the editors of Natural Health Magazine, DK, 2002 (discusses safety and hazards of many commonly used herbs)
Herbal Remedy Gardens: 38 Plans for your Health and Well-Being, by Dorie Byers, Storey Books, 1999 (recipes, tips and small herb garden plans)
Park’s Success with Herbs, by Gertrude B. Foster and Rosemary F. Louden, Geo. W. Park Seed Co., Inc., 1980 (excellent growing, harvesting and drying information)
Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal: A Guide to Living Life with Energy, Health and Vitality, by Rosemary Gladstar, Storey Books, 2001 (recipes and inspiration from an experienced herbalist)