Herbal medicine is the medicine of the people. It is simple, safe, effective, and free. Our ancestors used - and our neighbors around the world still use - plant medicines for healing and health maintenance. It's easy. You can do it too, and you don't need a degree or any special training. Ancient memories arise in you when you begin to use herbal medicine - memories which keep you safe and fill you with delight. These lessons are designed to nourish and activate your inner herbalist so you can be your own herbal expert.
In our first session we learned how to "listen" to the messages of plants' tastes. In session two we learned about simples and how to make effective water-based herbal remedies. The third session helped us distinguish safe nourishing and tonifying herbs from the more dangerous stimulating and sedating herbs. Our fourth session focused on poisons in herbs and entered the herbal pharmacy to herbal tinctures, which we collected into an Herbal Medicine Chest. Our fifth session found us still in the pharmacy, learning how to make and use herbal vinegars for strong bones and healthy hearts.
In this, our sixth session, we remain in the herbal pharmacy and turn our attention to herbs in fat bases. We'll explore fresh infused oils, ointments, salves, and lip balms, essential oils, and even herbal pestos.
Herbal Oils: Infused vs Essential
I make and use many infused herbal oils. I use little or no essential oils. Why?
Infused herbal oils use a small amount of plant material; essential oils require tons of plant material. Infused herbal oils are safe to use internally or externally; essential oils are poisonous internally and problematic externally. Infused herbal oils are good for the skin; essential oils can cause rashes, burns, and other skin reactions. Infused oils are used full strength; essential oils are diluted before use. Infused herbal oils have subtle scents; essential oils have powerful scents.
The scent of an essential oil can kill gut flora just like antibiotics do, according to Paul Bergner, director of the clinical studies program at the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies. He told me that breathing the oils puts them into the blood stream very quickly and can be a major disturber of intestinal health and contributor to poor immune functioning.
Massage therapists are embracing Natural Scent Therapies such as growing live aromatic plants in their treatment rooms and using pillows of dried aromatic herbs instead of essential oils. Their skin and their immune systems are thanking them for the switch.
Making Infused Herbal Oils
To make an infused herbal oil you will need the following supplies:
- Fresh plant material
- Scissors or a knife
- A clean dry jar with a tight lid
- Some olive oil
- A label and pen
- A small bowl
Harvest your plant material in the heat of the day, after the sun has dried the dew. It is best to wait at least 36 hours after the last rain before harvesting plants for infused oils. Wet plant materials will make moldy oils. To prevent this, some people dry their herbs and then put them in oil. I find this gives an inferior quality product in most cases.
Coarsely chop the roots, leaves, or flowers of your chosen plant. Fill your jar completely full of the chopped plant material. Add olive oil until the jar is completely full. (Patience and a chopstick are useful tools at this point.)
Tightly lid the jar. Label it. Put it in a small bowl (to collect seepage and over-runs). Your infused oil is ready to use in six weeks.
Fresh Plants That I Use to Make Infused Oils
- Arnica flowers (Arnica montana)
- Burdock seeds (Arctium lappa)
- Calendula flowers (Calendula off.)
- Comfrey leaves or roots (Symphytum uplandica)
- Dandelion flowers (Taraxacum off.)
- Plantain leaves (Plantago majus)
- Poke roots (Phytolacca americana)
- Spruce needles
- St. Joan's wort flowers (Hypericum perforatum)
- Yarrow blossoms (Achillea millefolium)
- Yellow dock roots (Rumex crispus)
Using your infused herbal oils
I use my infused herbal oils to heal and ease the pain of wounds, bruises, scrapes, sprains, burns, rashes, sore muscles, insect bites, and aching joints. I make my infused oils into ointments, salves, and lip balms. I use my infused oils in rituals, to anoint. I use my infused oils after bathing, to moisturize. I use my infused oils as stunning salad dressings. I use my infused oils as sexual lubricants. I use my infused oils to nourish my scalp and hair.
I apply my infused herbal oils directly to the body. I rarely take infused herbal oils as internal medicines although it would be safe to do so. I use my infused oils to make salves, ointments, and lip balms.
Making salves, ointments and lip balms
When herbs are infused into animal fat, they form a natural salve, without need of thickening. But herbs infused into oils are drippy and leaky and messy. They need a little beeswax melted into them to make them solid. The more beeswax added, the firmer the oil will be. A little beeswax will make a soft salve. A medium amount will make a firm ointment. And a lot will make a stiff lip balm.
- Pour one or more ounces of infused herbal oil into a saucepan or double boiler.
- Grate several ounces of beeswax.
- Put a small fire under your oil.
- When it is slightly warm, add one tablespoon (more or less) of grated beeswax.
- Stir, preferably with your finger, until the beeswax melts.
- Test the firmness by dropping a drop on a china plate. It will solidify instantly.
- Too soft? Add more beeswax, a little at a time.
- Too hard? Add more infused oil (if possible) or plain oil.
- Pour your finished salve or ointment into wide-mouthed jar.
- Pour lip balms into little pots or twist tubes.
The simplest pesto is green leaves pounded with salt and garlic. I don't put cheese or nuts into my pestos when I make them, as these ingredients spoil rapidly.
I use a mini-size food prep machine for the "pounding". A blender will work too, but watch that you don't burn out the motor.
The oil in a pesto both preserves the antioxidant vitamins in the fresh green herbs and also softens the cell walls so minerals become more available. With the added health-benefits of garlic, herbal pestos are great medicine as well as superb eating.
Basic Herbal Pesto
Stays good for up to two years in a cool refrigerator; up to five years in the freezer.
- Start with half a cup of extra virgin olive oil.
- Add 2-4 coarsely chopped cloves of garlic.
- Add a good sprinkle of sea salt.
- Add a large handful of prepared herb leaves and blend.
- Continue adding leaves and oil as needed. Perhaps more garlic and salt? Blend.
- When all is blended to a fare thee well, pack your pesto into a skinny jar.
- Leave some space between the pesto and the top of the jar and fill this with olive oil.
- Cap, label, and refrigerate.
Green Herbs for Pesto
- Catnip (Nepeta cataria)
- Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
- Garlic mustard (Alliaria officinalis)
- Sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella)
- Violet (Viola species)
- Yellow dock (Rumex crispus)
Make three or more infused herbal oils from different plant parts, such as leaves, roots, and flowering tops. (See list for suggestions of plants to use.)
Make several infused oils from the same plant at the same time using at least three different kinds of oils and animal fats, including ghee. Label carefully. After six weeks, decant and compare.
Make a salve, ointment, or lip balm. Beeswax is sold at farmer's markets, health food stores, and craft shops.
Treat at least three injuries with an herbal oil or ointment that you have made. Record your observations. Plantain, yarrow, calendula, or comfrey are good choices for this experiment.
Make an herbal pesto. (See list for suggestions.)
- Buy a small bottle of essential oil. Also buy the plant the oil is made from. Lavender and mint are good choices for this experiment. Smell the plant, then smell the essential oil. How do you feel afterwards? Taste the plant, then taste a drop of the essential oil? What do you perceive? Put a drop of the essential oil on your skin; rub the plant vigorously on your skin. Are there differences?
- Extra credit: Make an infused oil of the same plant and repeat this experiment using your infused oil in addition to the essential oil and the plant.
- Use organic animal fat to make an herbal preparation. Keep the fat barely warm - in the sun or by a pilot light - until it is infused. No need to add beeswax. The fat will solidify at room temperature.
Read about the production of essential oils.
How is a hydrosol different from an essential oil?
Can you make a hydrosol? (Jeanne Rose is a good resource on this.)
In our next sessions we will learn how to make herbal honeys and syrups, how to apply the three traditions of healing, and how to take charge of our own health care with the six steps of healing.