My first experiments with herbal medicine involved the process of making tea. This is one of the oldest and least complex methods of imbibing the medicinal compounds of plants with water as the solvent. In all plant based medicine making there must be some means of breaking into the plant cell wall in order to extract and derive the valuable nutrients and healing constituents therein. These compounds must not only be extracted, but also held in some form of menstruum, such as water.
Herbal teas are simple, inexpensive and yet can be a powerful component to holistic health and healing as the mere action involved in the process is one that can bring a shift in awareness to self-care, calm focus and reflection. Just taking the time to boil water, steep and drink tea can be meditative, nurturing and is in stark contrast to allopathic methods where we swallow a pill and continue with our daily busyness. Making tea was a method used by all of our ancestors in all cultures on Earth and is still a common practice everywhere bringing not only simple pleasure and enjoyment, but cups and cups of healing.
A menstruum , by definition, is basically a solvent that extracts and preserves plant constituents. Water is considered the universal solvent although it has its limitations in that it does not preserve for more than a few days and it only extracts the water-soluble compounds leaving many of them in the plant. That is not to devalue the healing potential of tea as it does dissolve many vitamins, minerals, volatile substances and nutrients. Water is also inexpensive and easily accessible, although not always unpolluted. Please, try to avoid water that comes from plastic bottles or tap water that is heavily laden with chemicals such as chlorine and fluoride. Fresh spring water or well water is best.
There are three common ways to make water-based preparations; teas, infusions and decoctions. All three of these are sometimes referred to as teas, but each are prepared slightly differently. A classical formula for making tea is to boil water, pour over 1 to 3 teaspoons of dried herbs and steep for 15-20 minutes. Herbs can also be used fresh, but use twice as much because they are not as concentrated (that is assuming your herbs have been dried and stored well). Teas are gentle, mild remedies that must be taking throughout the day for acute symptoms or over weeks for long-term constitutional treatment. They can be thought of as an addition to healthy lifestyle and nutrition thus used as a tonic and preventative.
Below are measurement guidelines suggested by my dear friend and teacher the late Jean Argus founder of Jeans Greens:
- 1 teaspoon of dried herb per cup of water or 2 teaspoons of fresh
- 4 to 6 teaspoons of dried herb per quart or half a cup of fresh
These are, again, just guidelines to use as a basis for measuring. Make sure to always use your intuition and senses when determining how much to use. Sometimes I’ll use 2 or 3 teaspoons of dried herb to one cup of water depending on how strong I want it, how the herbs smell and how vibrant they look. Once you’ve measured your tea, pour boiling water over it and allow steeping for 5-15 minutes. It is important to make sure to use boiling water to ensure optimum extraction. This method provides a relatively weak solution and is recommended for mild conditions, relaxation and as a long term tonic. To treat a chronic or acute health condition several cups of tea should be drunk throughout the day. I use teas , for example, to treat fevers giving a few spoonfuls to a half a cup several times a day until the fever is down. Some herbs to think about here are lavender, catnip, and lemon balm. I used to make my daughter a bottle of catnip tea every night before bed to help her sleep and alleviate colic. I have found mullein tea to be an excellent expectorant and decongestant although, I usually add other herbs such as thyme, and wild cherry bark. To treat a cough I would take 3 to 4 cups per day.
Infusions and decoctions make a significantly stronger and more therapeutic solution that can provide more immediate results and healing. They are more concentrated and therefore more effective. An infusion is made from the aerial parts of the plant meaning the leaves, flowers, and sometimes stem. Fresh or dried is fine, but use twice as much fresh. I usually make a quart at a time and drink it throughout the day. I often make my infusions at night before bed placing herb s in a glass canning jar. Using the measurements from above, fill jar with boiling water, cover and then steep overnight. I wake up, strain through cheese cloth and put the whole jar in the refrigerator. I will warm one cup at a time throughout the day on the stove being careful not to let it get to hot and especially not to boil or simmer.
A decoction is made from the roots, bark and seeds of plants and must be simmered because the constituents of these parts are not as easy to extract. To make a decoction, use the same measurement as you would for a tea or infusion and place both the water and herbs in a pan (make sure it’s stainless steel or enamel) and cover so as not to allow vitamins and volatile oils to escape. Bring to a simmer and cook until you have half the liquid you started with (keep in mind how much you need to drink when making your initial measurement). Now you can strain out the herbs and store liquid in frig. If you would like it to last longer you may add a little alcohol such as brandy or vodka. Also you can make a syrup by adding honey or sugar.
There are two other methods that I use with less frequency, but both can be fun and effective. One is a solar infusion or Sun tea where I will place several spoonfuls or tea bags in a glass jar, cover with water and place in direct sunlight for several hours, strain and serve. Sometimes I cool in the refrigerator or add ice. Next is a lunar infusion or Moon tea where herbs are placed in an open glass bowl and steeped outside in the moonlight. Wake and enjoy!
Brewing herbal teas is an age old and time-honored tradition that can be enjoyed throughout our days and years. Teas are not only healing to body, but also to the spirit and offer us an opportunity to fully taste and experience individual plants or to make our own combinations. Have fun experimenting with different formulas and enjoy the results!