Basic Herbalism 101

(Excerpt from "EarthBound: Pagan Homesteading" by Raven Kaldera)

I started getting into alternative medicine largely because I was poor and angry at the price of doctorís visits and medicine. Somehow the whole thing seemed rigged to me - I was all right with paying for someoneís services, but the costs were so high, and there seemed nowhere to go. At the time, I didnít have health insurance, nor could I afford to buy any. I finally decided that the only way to get through was to learn as much as I could about my health, and diagnose my own problems, and create my own remedies.

So I started to learn about medicinal herbs, because that seemed like the easiest and most natural form of alternative medicine. Besides, I already had a herb garden with cooking flavors like lemon balm and sage and thyme; what were a few more plants? To my delight, I discovered that many of my old culinary favorites were also medicinal, and that many other medicinals were found growing wild, like cinquefoil and shepherdís purse. Soon I had my friends donating me old jars to hold my collection of 'weeds', as some of them referred to my new hobby.

I started out with teas, because that was the easiest thing to do. Armed with my herbal books, I created infusions (the correct term for a very strong tea), which are fairly easy; you steep herbs in hot water until itís dark and the either take it straight or dilute it with water, juice, or a neutral tasty tea. Slowly, bit by bit, I learned to dose myself. I say learned because it is something we modern people have to learn; we are used to doctors telling us exactly how much of something to take. Being a thoroughly skeptical type in many ways, I often badgered the doctors for more details than they were willing or able to give - 'Why one pill every eight hours? Wouldnít it provide a steadier dose at half a pill every four hours?' With herbal infusions and tinctures, I could start with a small amount, see how it worked, and up the dose slowly and carefully until it achieved its purpose, started giving me trouble, or clearly was not going to do the trick.

This process of observation-dosage is key to taking control of your own health. You have to be the exact opposite of a hypochondriac - as objective as possible about your own health and symptoms, without being invested in any one remedy doing the trick. This requires a level of being-in-your-body that many modern people cannot handle, or are simply not used to, another symptom of how we are separated from our bodies, as well as from the Earth. There is a reason why Earth represents Body, and the other way around also. In order to cut ourselves off from the slow degradation of the Body we live on, we have to cut ourselves off from the bodies we live in, which exacerbates our treatment of Her, and so on in a vicious cycle.

This means that sometimes the cure-all that someone else swears by is just not going to do it for you. Maybe you have an allergy, or a sensitivity, or just arenít responding to it; if thatís the case, donít let anyone talk you into thinking that thereís something wrong with you, or that it really will help you if you keep doing it for a long time. Check with your body and see what it feels about what youíre putting into it; learn to listen for its cues. The symptoms you have are a language which we are not taught to decipher; learn what you can.

Sometimes, unfortunately, your body may have a condition severe enough that what it needs is not something you can give it with alternative medicine. This is not something to feel guilty over; if youíve exhausted all the options, go to the doctor. If itís a mechanical problem, definitely go to the doctor; donít let something go until itís done real damage. I happen to have a genetic disorder that I was born with; it is written into my DNA. I tried to self-medicate it for years, and only ended up sick for decades, with two hospitalizations. There was no herb that would fix it, and I did try everything. However, twelve hours after my first shot of the medicine I will be taking regularly for the rest of my life to ward off a slow and painful death, I began to improve for the first time. Now Iíve been well, really well, for years; in fact I finally know what it feels like to be well more than sick. Well, that is, as long as I get my meds. It was embarrassing - the herbalist who couldnít heal himself.

I had to learn to let go of the 'shame' of having to resort to modern medicine, especially in the face of a lot of fellow alternative healers who gently or not-so-gently suggested that I was 'copping out' by resorting to modern medicine; that if Iíd just looked a little harder or eaten the right things or tried their pet cure-all, I probably wouldnít need to bother with it. I suppose they were trying to be helpful, but in fact it was quite the opposite. I resent this attitude among healers, especially when confronted with severe, chronic illnesses that are the result of genetic disorders or deficiencies rather than acquired problems. I suppose that congenital problems frighten every healer, including doctors; the idea of being 'born wrong' seems so huge, so unfixable, that many healers prefer not to believe it at all.

That said, when I get a cold, I donít go to the doctor. I break out vitamins (and vitamin-rich foods, especially C), garlic, echinacea, and other remedies. When I get a mysterious illness, I go to get a diagnosis, so that I can decide whether or not I want to use his remedy or one of mine. (Doctors are better than me at diagnosing weird acquired things sometimes, especially if itís some bug that theyíve seen twenty times this week, and you foolishly thought it was unique to you rather than being passed on by the cashier whose whole family has it.) I save money by doing things this way, and I can get a better handle on my health care, and empower myself.

In this chapter, Iím not going to cover every form of alternative medicine known to man. Thatís because some of them, while being perfectly valid in their own ways, are expensive and difficult to come by; possibly more expensive than a trip to the doctor, and you canít grow them yourself. Because part of taking control of your own health is financial, and part of being a homesteader is doing for yourself from scratch, Iím going to talk about those things that you can do for yourself. There are plenty of books in any health food store to discuss commercial alternatives.

Self-sufficiency in health starts with little things. First, thereís the practical medicinal aspect of growing your own first aid kit. Anyone can go to the local drugstore and buy things like Band-Aids, antiseptic, and sunburn cream. You can also, if you want to spend the money, go to the health food store and hunt up organic products to fill your first aid kit, but one of the joys of self-sufficiency is being able to make almost anything you need yourself. We still use sterile bandages, scissors, and tweezers in our camping first aid kit, but we also carry any number of home remedies - and we find that, time and time again, these are the things our friends and compatriots ask for when they get a scratch or bite. Now that they know we have them, that is.

No household should be without a portable first aid kit, and no one should go more than an easy hour away from civilization without one. To build your own, start with a large sturdy box that won't fall open and has many well-organized compartments. We suggest a tough plastic toolbox or, even better, a fishing tackle box. Remember if it gets tossed into the car fifty times a summer, stepped on by your kids, dropped, and has a cooler balanced on top of it in your trunk, it needs to be strong enough to last. Clean and disinfect it thoroughly, even if it's new.

There are many things we make ourselves for our first aid kit: tinctures, salves, ointments, etc. You can grow many of the herbs yourself; the variety will depend on your climate and if you have a greenhouse. Tinctures are the easiest to make. Use the highest proof alcohol possible; remember, you're measuring out the amount in mere drops, so taste isn't as big a deal. (We were given a bottle of forty-year-old expensive Scotch as a wedding present, and the donor was mortified and dismayed to learn that we turned it into echinacea tincture. It kept us from colds for three years, though!) Shred, chop or grate the herbal substance into a jar and fill with alcohol until the plant matter is covered. If it floats or sticks up, come back in an hour and push it down with a pestle or other masher. Then let it sit in a dark place (our broken dishwasher is filled with tincture bottles) for one turn of the moon. Strain through cheesecloth and pour into jars.

If you don't like to consume alcohol - which I don't; it bothers my stomach - and you worry about taking tinctures internally, boil some water (or tea) and put the drops directly into it while boiling. The alcohol will evaporate off and the active ingredients will remain. We make the following tinctures regularly for our home medicine chest, and put some into tiny bottles for the first aid kit.

1. Antiseptic tincture. Technically any tincture is antiseptic due to the high alcohol content, but we've worked out this one as being especially healing. Tincture the following together: Goldenseal root (Hydrastis canadensis, which grows only in the forest, so you may want to try growing some if you have northern deciduous woods on your property) OR Goldthread, its northwoodsy cousin, Thyme (Thymus vulgaris, classic culinary herb which contains thymol, a potent antiseptic), Hawthorn Berry (Crataegus oxycantha or monogyna - a hawthorn is a good tree to have on your property) and Shepherd's Purse (Capsella bursis-pastoris, a weed that you can find anywhere, the best stauncher of bleeding I have ever seen). Safe to drop on open wounds.

2. Nerve tincture, taken internally for panic or insomnia. Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis), Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) and Passion Flower (Passiflora Incarnata, which I jokingly refer to as "passive flower" and which must be greenhoused in cold climates like ours).

3. Immune System Booster tincture. Purple Coneflower root (Echinacea angustifolia), St John's Wort (Hypericum Perforatum), Goldenseal or Goldthread as above, and Garlic (Allium Sativum).

4. Migraine tincture. If no one in your family has this scourge, you won't need this, but it has all but saved my wife. Recurring migraine is an inherited condition caused by inflamed nerves inside the skull. Tincture Feverfew (Chrysanthemum Parthenium, a pretty garden plant) with Ginkgo leaves (Ginkgo Biloba). This is not a treatment, but a permanent prophylactic; take it daily every morning and it will dramatically decrease the incidence of migraine.

5. Menstrual cramp tincture. Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), Blue Cohosh (Caulophylum thalictroides), Cramp Bark (Viburnum opulus), and Blue Vervain (Verbena Hastata). If there is excessive bleeding, add Shepherdís Purse.

To find tiny bottles to store small amounts of tincture, you can pick them up at the drugstore, clean out liqueur "nip" bottles, or get empty Renshenfenwenjiang (Chinese royal jelly) bottles from friends who are health food nuts.

Salves are made with plant matter, water, and oily fats mixed together. They go through the skin and carry the active ingredients with them. Make a decoction of the herbs (that's herbalist for heating them gently in water for an hour). Then, in the top of a double boiler, heat 1 part decoction to 2 parts oily fats; either emulsifying ointment, which you can get at the drugstore, or a mixture of 2 parts sunflower oil (which you can grow and press at home) to 1 part beeswax (which you can get at home if you keep bees). Stir until creamy and then fill jars. You can add tincture of benzoin (another store ingredient) to make it keep; otherwise make fresh every year. Salves as follows:

5. Fresh petals of Calendula (Calendula officinalis) is a soothing healer for eczema, inflammation, rashes, sunburn. Calendula is a cheery little plant, also known as pot marigold.

6. Chickweed (Stellaria media) draws out splinters and the poison from insect bites.

7. Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) will heal strains, sprains, bruises and arthritis. Do not use on open wounds.

8. Jewelweed (Impatiens biflora, a weed from the wild) is your best bet to stop the torment of poison ivy quickly. The easiest jewelweed remedy is to puree the whole above-ground plant until it is a green goop, and then freeze it in ice cube trays. When in need, just pull a cube out and rub it on the affected area. Jewelweed does not do well when heated, so just mix it into softened beeswax straight up, perhaps with a little Vitamin E. We call this 'Green Goo' and itís great for all kinds of skin trouble, although it must be refrigerated over the long term.

Ointments are different from salves in that they have no water in them and they don't go through the skin; instead they form a protective barrier on top of it, keeping germs out. You can either use petroleum jelly (which will last forever) or, if you want to do it yourself, use a clean, well-strained clarified animal fat (we use duck fat) or vegetable shortening, and be prepared to replace it every six months. Melt the stuff in a double boiler and add your plant matter; heat gently for two hours, strain, and pour into jars. We make the following two ointments:

9. Aloe Vera ointment. A fresh aloe plant should be growing in every household, but you can't take it camping with you. Open each spike with a knife and scrape out the clear goo. This is the absolute best burn remedy there is; also good for diaper rash. If a burn has broken skin, use antiseptic first.

10. Homemade Vicks. This is made with essential oils which you have to buy. Use 10 drops eucalyptus oil and 15 drops peppermint oil per 1 cup of oily stuff. If you want to try a milder version and have access to eucalyptus leaves, you can try making a very strong, concentrated tea of mint and eucalyptus, and mix it with the grease.

For tiny jars to store salves and ointments, nothing works like cleaning out old screw-top makeup jars. They come from pillbox size to nearly 2 oz.

We also make the following random remedies:

11: Ginger honey for carsickness. Heat a pound of honey and stew chopped ginger root (Zingiber officinalis) for half an hour. Strain out the root bits and bring small doses of the honey along. A spoonful will relieve nausea, and even our picky ten-year-old likes it. If youíd prefer a more liquid form, use a strong Jamaican ginger beer and brew with honey; let sit to cool and bottle.

12. Kid sleepy tea. Chamomile (Chamamaelum nobile) and Spearmint (Mentha spicata). Fold individual amounts into coffee filters or teabags; steep and give to overexcited kids.

13. Cold/allergy tea. For when it strikes suddenly while you're on vacation! Mix Ephedra nevadensis, also called Mormon Tea, with Elderflowers (Sambucus nigra, another good tree to grow on your property) and any flavor of Mint. Bag in individual doses and steep in hot water when needed. Make sure you breathe in the steam.

14. Homemade Cough Drops. These are a big favorite. Recipe at the end of the chapter.

15. Powdered myrrh is also an excellent antiseptic, good for applying to a wound that must remain dry. Fill a small empty makeup container with a screw-top lid and bring along.

16. Antiseptic soap. If you make your own soap, from animal fat and lye, you can drop the antiseptic tincture in while it's hot enough to evaporate the alcohol. If that's too much work, grate a bar of plain castile soap into a saucepan. Heat it until melted and then add in a small amount of boiling water in which you've evaporated 30 drops of the antiseptic tincture. Throw in a tablespoon of powdered myrrh, mix well, mold into small balls and let it cool back into soap again.

17. Evening Primrose capsules are available from the health food store, or you can buy 00 capsules and heat about a pound of fresh petals (which is an awful lot to grow) in 2 cups of sunflower oil in a double boiler for about three hours, strain, and put into gelcaps with an eye dropper. This is a good cure for hangovers. No, really! And don't assume that no one around you is ever going to need it. One of the wonderful things about being the "one with the first aid kit" is the great sense of doing good you get from helping out the guy at the next-door campsite, or the next-door hotel room, or the next-door neighbor. If we don't help each other, what hope is there?