Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Do-it-Yourself Herbal Winter Medicines

We're preparing for the coming winter months - preserving the last foods, picking our nearly ripe tomatoes in anticipation of first frost this weekend, and processing our medicinal herbs into immune boosting winter health tonics.

On Saturday I led the annual "herbal winter remedies" workshop here at Little City Farm. During the workshop we talked about the basics of making your own tinctures, tonics, bitters, syrups and lozenges - and then made an immune tonic tincture, bottled a rosehip tincture, sipped herbal immune-boosting cups of chai (see recipe below), and created a sage-horehound cough syrup.  In the days leading up to the workshop, I was surprised and pleased to notice my 3-year old preparing her own "tinctures" of herbal leaves and roots picked from the garden "steeping" with water in wee glass bottles in her little play kitchen.  I love when I can pass on valuable life skills simply by example.

Making Herbal Winter Medicines:

It's important to start with top quality herbs, fresh if possible (so now is the last of the season to do so), or dried will also do.  Tincturing is a great way to preserve the medicinal qualities of herbs for a very long time, making powerful potent medicine, and often extracting constituents of the plant that water will not.  Tinctures are extracts made with food grade alcohol, usually 80-100 proof alcohol like vodka or brandy, where the herbs are steeped for 4-6 weeks.   Tincturing works well for extracting medicinal qualities of herbal roots and berries, such as the deep immune system/winter health herbs like elderberry, echinacea, goldenseal and astragalus.  Once strained and bottled, tinctures will last several years if kept in a cool, dry, dark location.

Herbal syrups, on the other hand, start with a very strong tea (i.e. herbal extracts made with water such as strong infusions or decoctions), then are cooked slowly for a long time with honey to thicken into a syrup consistency.  The honey acts as a preservative, but a little alcohol can also be added to help prolong the shelf life.  Cough medicines are often made in a syrup form, such as our favourite sage-horehound syrup for healing sore throats.

There is so much more to say, but for now, here are a few recipes:

Elderberry Tincture (following method also good for tincturing other herbs)
(highly beneficial for colds, cough, flu, bronchitis, sinus infection, virus, etc)
1) Chop herbs finely, or crush in blender.  Use fresh berries where possible.  High quality dried berries will work well too.
2) Place berries into clean, dry jar.  Pour in enough alcohol (vodka or brandy) to cover the berries, and continue pouring until liquid covers by 2-3 inches.  The berries need to be completely submerged.  Cover with tight-fitting lid.
3) Place jar in warm location (e.g. sunny window) and let herbs and liquid soak (macerate) for 4-6 weeks.  The longer the better.  Shake jar every day to make sure herbs are blending with alcohol.
4) Strain out berries, using a muslin cloth or jelly bag, or a large stainless steel strainer.  Reserve liquid, which is now a potent tincture.
5) Bottle and label.  Store out of reach from children, in a cool, dark location where the tincture will keep almost indefinitely.
6) Useage guidelines: one measure is to give 1 drop tincture for every 2 lbs body weight. 

Immune Boosting Herbal Chai
(serve hot as a strong tea, with warm milk/rice milk and honey)
Ingredients - mix to your own taste - dried nutmeg, allspice, cloves, cinnamon bark, star anise, black peppercorn, ginger root, echinacea root, astragalus root (only a pinch) dried rosehips, marshmallow root, chamomile, fennel seeds, plus spearmint and lemongrass (for flavour).

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