It is important to know how to preserve various herbs in a way that will help them last longer, be more effective when used, as well as more potent than many similar products acquired in a store.
There are a few techniques for preparation and preservation of herbs, such as drying and various methods for preparing extractions like infusions, decoctions and tinctures. Extractions are processes where the soluble herb constituents are separated from inert fibrous matter. This can help produce a product that has only the medicinal components that are desired, allows there to be a consistently known strength, and results in an herbal preparation that is easy to take and absorb.
CAUTION SHOULD BE USED WHEN PREGNANT OR BREAST FEEDING, AND BEFORE GIVING TO CHILDREN. DISCONTINUE USE IF ALLERGIC REACTIONS OCCUR AND CONTACT YOUR MEDICAL PROVIDER. FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY. THIS INFORMATION HAS NOT BEEN EVALUATED BY THE FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION. THIS INFORMATION IS NOT INTENDED TO DIAGNOSE, TREAT, CURE, OR PREVENT ANY DISEASE. PLEASE CONSULT YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER.
Drying fresh herbs is a great way to preserve their potency, and extend the amount of time they are available for use. Herbs should be harvested when they are visibly in a state of good health, and are at their peak growth, relative to the plant part that you will be selecting for preservation. Leaves can be gathered anytime the leaves look healthy and fully developed. When the flowers are fully formed, you can harvest them. Also, they should be gathered prior to their change of color following pollination. At any time, you can gather twigs and bark, but during winter is not recommended for many woody plants, because the plant is dormant and the nutrient flow is halted within the plant. Similarly, you can harvest the root of many plants at any time, but it is best to do so between the fall and spring, as at this time the root contains much of its sugars and nutrients. If the plant is a bi-annual, it is best to harvest the roots during the plant’s first fall or second spring.
Once the herbs are harvested it is good to hang them upside down in a dry, well-ventilated area. It is fine if the area is somewhat warm or cool like a basement, but it is not advisable for the area to be hot. The amount of time that is needed for drying will vary depending on the plant type and part. The plants should be checked once a week to see how they are doing, and to make sure no molds are forming; if that is the case, those plants should be discarded. Once the plants are dry it is good to store them in an airtight container, preferably glass, and mark the container with a label indicating the type of herb and the date. Drying herbs in this way should keep their colors true to the fresh plant, allow for them to maintain their fragrance and flavor, and allow them to keep until next year’s harvest.
What are infusions?
Infusions are water-based preparations. The process is brought about through steeping the leaves, flowers, berries, and other non-woody plant parts in hot or cold water, and will only be most effective with those water based constituents within the plants. Infusions can also be made with milk (or coconut milk if one is a vegan) so that the effects of an infusion are carried out with medicinal constituents that are fat-soluble.
How to make infusions
This is similar to what is done when making a cup or a pot of tea, and is appropriate for herbal matter that is soft and can be easily torn or crushed with the fingers. Seeds with volatile oils should be slightly bruised to help release the volatile oils from the cells. If an infusion of bark, root, seeds, or resin is to be made, it is helpful to first powder the herbal matter so as to break down some of the cell walls and facilitate the extraction process. Where it is common to pour boiling water over the herbs in this process, it is best if the water is just below the boiling point. For most infusions there is a specific listing for how much water and how much herb, as well as how much time, will be used. Some herbs contain volatile oils, therefore when preparing an infusion with these they should be steeped in a covered container with a tight fitting lid so the volatile oils do not escape out into the air. The water used in the infusion should be from a pure source. The herb is often sliced or bruised. Usually there is an indication if a fresh or dry herb is preferred. If a dried herb is to be used it is important that it has been stored in cool, dry conditions and ideally still looks and smells like the herb in its fresh condition. However, because the dried herbs will be reduced in size, the fresh herbs will often compensate three parts fresh herb for the amount of recommended dried herb. In general an infusion is made by pouring 1 cup of near boiling water over 1 teaspoon of herb and letting it sit in a covered container for 10-15 minutes. When the infusion is ready, strain the liquid and enjoy. Because of the risk of the desirable herbal constituents to some degree decomposing, it is recommended that the infusions be consumed within 12 hours.
Making cold infusions is a slightly different technique that can be useful for those herbs that have volatile oils, or are in some way damaged through contact with heat. By infusing an herb in water that is room temperature (this is what is meant by cold), the process takes considerably longer to prepare and can result in different compounds being released or components being released in different proportions, which result in the same herb have differing effects whether prepared through a hot or a cold infusion. This process usually takes between 6 and 12 hours and works well in a well-sealed glass or earthenware container. When the infusion is ready, strain the liquid and enjoy.
Milk can also be used when making a cold infusion as the oily nature of milk allows for oil soluble constituents to be extracted from the herbs. While this can be an effective method for making infusions, it is not recommended if an individual has sensitivities or allergies to milk.
What are decoctions?
Decoctions are water-based preparations. The process is brought about through gently simmering the herbs. With this method more tough plant matter can be processed such as roots, bark and seeds.
How to make decoctions
The herbal matter used in making decoctions is often somewhat hard, so an initial cutting of the herbal material into small pieces can help the effectiveness of the process. The general guide for preparing a decoction is to cook the herbs ‘slow and low’; the temperature of the water should be hot enough to simmer, but not so hot that there is a rolling boil. The heat allows for the medicinal constituents to release from the plant material; but if the water is too hot then the plant may come apart and be added to what is consumed, or some of the medicinal components may themselves be decomposed by the heat, rendering them no longer effective in the desired way. For most decoctions there is a specific listing for how much water, how much herb and how much time will be used. Where this process can be time consuming, the patience put into carefully making a decoction can be well rewarded with a very beneficial therapeutic outcome. In decoctions, with the extraction of more of the herbal constituents, their taste may be more intense than those of infusions, and because medicine is only effective if you consume it, these decoctions may be diluted slighted so as to make them more palatable. In general the quantity of the decoction will be around 1 ounce (30g.) of herb to 1 pint of water (1L). The decoction should ideally be made in a glass or earthenware container, or if metal, one which is enameled. If there is a desire to make a combination with woody and delicate herbs it is best to make a decoction and a separate infusion, and then combine the two upon completion. Decoctions are best consumed within 24 hours of their making.
What are tinctures?
These are also often referred to as alcohol-water preparations. Tinctures represent a medicine making process wherein herbs are soaked in alcohol to extract medicinal constituents. Most constituents within the herb, be they water soluble or alcohol soluble, will dissolve in these extracts. The resulting tinctures have a more concentrated quantity of desirable medicinal constituents and thus a much smaller quantity of tinctures is taken than that of decoctions or infusion. Also because alcohol is itself a preservative, the tinctures have a considerable shelf life especially when compared to an infusion or a decoction that should usually be consumed the same day they are made.
Similar to how there can be cold infusions made with milk instead of water, tinctures can be made with vinegar instead of alcohol. Vinegar, like alcohol, acts like a solvent allowing for the extraction of the medicinal constituents of the herbs. Vinegar is also a preservative, which allows for the tincture to have an extended shelf life.
How to make Tincture
The preparation of tinctures has varied over time with the two basic approaches being those used by formal formularies and those created through traditional folk methods. If the formularies or materia medica are being consulted they will often specify both the ration of the herb to alcohol being used as well as the concentration of the alcohol that is used in the preparation. Again this can vary depending on the cited source and can range between 1 part herb to between 3 and 10 parts alcohol, with the alcohol concentration ranging anywhere between 30% and 90% (60 and 180 proof). Also, the quantity of alcohol will vary depending on if the herb being used is fresh or if it is dried, as the additional water concentration of the fresh herbs will result in more water within the tincture and therein a lessened concentration of alcohol. The general rule to go by (which is the folk method) is to place the herb into a jar and cover it with alcohol of at least 30%. A relatively tasteless alcohol is recommended like vodka. However some people prefer brandy as it gives the medicine a less medicine like taste. In either method the herb and the alcohol will be placed in a tight sealing container and left for about two weeks (more time is fine), remembering to shake the container daily. After two weeks the container should be opened and the tincture poured through a strainer lined with muslin,with the herb being fully wrung out.The resulting liquid should be placed in a dark colored bottle with a tight fitting lid in a place that is relatively cool and out of direct sunlight. When the product is finished its alcohol concentration can be tested with an alcohol hydrometer. It needs to be above 20% for it to remain preserved, and is not a problem if it is nearly 90%. As these preparations are being taken for their medicinal constituents, the alcohol is not needed, and it can be worked off when the tinctures are consumed. Because alcohol evaporates at a low temperature, adding drops of a tincture to hot water will quickly evaporate off the alcohol, leavingjust the medicinal constituents.
In a way similar to how folk tinctures are made, the vinegar tincture can be made through placing the herb into the container and covering the herb with vinegar. Allow the mixture to set for at least two weeks, remembering to shake daily. Then pour out the tincture through a strainer lined with muslin, and keep in a well-sealed container out of the sun.