A few weeks ago, students at the Community Teaching Garden got an introductory lesson in herbalism. Herbalism is the age-old practice of using herbs and herbal products to support health. Since humans evolved using the plants they found in nature to help them remain healthy, many people view plant-based medicine as less harsh and more holistic than Western medicine practices. Herbalism also fosters a deeper connection to the natural world and offers people a means of somewhat self-sufficient care since many of the plants used in herbal medicine can be grown in your own backyard.
While there are many herbs that are safe for self-prescription, it is important to recognize that herbs, like drugs, have active compounds. Some can interact with medicines or negatively affect pre-existing conditions, so in many cases it is better to talk to a trained herbalist before taking a new herbal product.
Denise taught students the uses of four herbs—burdock root, comfry, tulsi, and plantain—all of which are considered mild enough to be used without concern. Students learned how to concentrate and preserve these herbs for later use by creating tinctures and infusions.
A tincture is an extract made by soaking an herb in alcohol. The method we used is known as the “simplers” method, in which vodka or brandy (40-50% alcohol) is simply poured over the herb mixture. The other method, generally used by those who have more experience with herbs, involves mixing pure grain alcohol with water to create an ideal alcohol percentage for the tincture of a given herb.
Burdock root comes from a large plant that looks similar to rhubarb. It is a biennial, meaning that it has a two-year life cycle. The first year, the plant develops a large, thick root and only a small grouping of leaves, while the second year it produces a great deal of foliage but less root. Since the root is the part of the plant used in herbal medicine, burdock is generally harvested during its first year when the root is largest.
Burdock root, which is eaten as a vegetable in Japan, is used in herbalism as a digestive aid. A mild bitter, burdock stimulates the production of digestive juices such as stomach acid and bile, allowing the body to better digest and absorb food. It is also high in inulin, a fiber that helps promote healthy gut bacteria (that you have already kick-started if you’ve been eating your sauerkraut from last week like the good gardeners that you are!).
To make a tincture of burdock root simple wash and dice the harvested stems. Pack them in a sealable jar and cover them with either plain vodka or brandy so that the alcohol covers the burdock by at least half an inch. Store the jar in a cool, dark place and shake it once or twice a day to help release the compounds from the root. The tincture will take on a cloudy appearance because of the inulin. After about 6 weeks strain the mixture through cheesecloth into a jar to remove the chunks of root. The liquid can then be stored in a cool, dark place. A spoonful of burdock root tincture can be taken before meals to improve digestion or used in combination with other herbs prescribed by an herbalist.
Tulsi, which is also called “holy basil” since it is a relative of culinary basil, is a multi-purpose herb that has gained popularity in recent years. It is used in traditional Indian medicine, called Ayurveda, for a variety of conditions but is most well known for its use as an adaptogen. Adaptogens are compounds that help the body respond to stressors, helping the body reduce anxiety and promoting well-being.
Tulsi can be used in a variety of forms ranging from powders to teas to tinctures. To make a tincture out of Tulsi simply chop up the fresh herb and pack it into a sealable jar. Cover the herb by at least half an inch with either plain vodka or brandy. Seal the jar and store it in a cool dark place, shacking once or twice daily. Strain through cheesecloth after about six weeks and store the tincture in a cool dark place. Half a teaspoon to a teaspoon of the tincture can be taking two to three times a day to help the body adapt to stress.
Infusions are made by steeping an herb in oil to draw out the desired compounds in the herb. Typically, infusions are made with either olive oil or an aromatic oil such as almond oil. Vegetable, canola, and soybean oil are not suggested for making tinctures. When making infusions you generally dry the herbs beforehand, otherwise the moisture can cause mold to grow while the herb is steeping.
Comfrey is used in herbal medicine to aid in the healing of sprains, strains, and bruises. Active compounds in comfrey promote skin regeneration which helps the body heal itself. However, the active compounds are strong enough that they are not recommended for open wounds because they have been found to cause skin to heal too quickly at the surface of a wound, disrupting the body’s normal, bottom-up repair and increasing the risk of infection.
In the past, comfrey was taken orally as a cure for stomach upset. However, research has found that comfrey has high levels of a substance that is toxic to the liver, and can cause serious liver damage. Oral comfrey products have been ban in the US and a number of other countries. Topical ointments are safe in moderation (a week or two at a time is fine), but the toxins can be absorbed by the skin so it is best to avoid prolonged use, and care should be taken with children and pregnant or nursing women to avoid possible liver damage.
To make an infusion of comfrey simply dry the herb and crush it into a sealable jar. Pour oil over the comfrey, covering it by about half an inch. Put the lid on the jar, shake, and set in the sun for a few days. The heat of the sun helps the active compounds from the herb seep into the oil while insuring that the temperature does not get hot enough to cause damage to the oil. Once the oil has sat for a few days strain it through cheesecloth into a jar and place in a cool, dark spot. If you want to create a salve simply heat the oil gently on the stove and add beeswax, a little at a time, to the oil. To test the consistency of the salve put a small spoonful of the mixture in the refrigerator or freezer for a minute or so. Keep adding beeswax until the mixture has reached the desired consistency. You can rub either the oil or salve on sprains and bruises to help your body recover more quickly.
Plantain is a very common weed that can be found in most grassy areas. It has compounds that help reduce pain and swelling from insect bites and bee stings. It can also be used in cooking as a spinach substitute and is a good source of vitamins. In the summer, you can easily make a poultice by crushing up the fresh leaves to put on bites. However, in the winter, when fresh plantain is not readily available, a infusion or salve can come in handy. To make an infusion or salve out of plantain just follow the same procedure as was explained for comfrey.
***With all of these herbs, make sure you are harvesting them from a safe area. If you are not sure whether or not an area has been sprayed with pesticides or fertilizer, it is best to avoid picking herbs there. In Burlington and other areas with old houses you should also be cautious about using herbs from lawns that have not had the soil tested for lead since lead-based paint can contaminate plants.***