Herbal First Aid

Big thanks to all those who made it out to our herbal first aid workshop in August, and even bigger thanks to our wonderful facilitator, community herbalist Ali Jopp! Ali took us through the basics of identifying herbal medicines in the wild, the healing benefits of different plants, how to experiment (and when not to experiment!) with different plant concoctions, and how to make tinctures, liniments and salves. It was an amazing afternoon, and we all left with some healing concoctions as well as a ton of new knowledge. Ali has generously let me reprint part of her amazing Herbal First Aid zine, so click through for more information and some wonderful recipes for herbal healing (all text is Ali’s, unless noted otherwise). 

Straining echinacea tincture to be decanted into bottles

TINCTURES:  A tincture is a liquid extract of a herb.  It’s useful because it takes up less shelf space than dried herbs, lasts longer and can be a more pleasurable way to enjoy the medicinal qualities of bitter or harsh tasting plants.  It is composed of 1) any plant your heart desires to make a tincture out of and 2) a menstruum.  Menstruum here means any liquid that can extract medicinal qualities from the plants you’re using, as well as preserving them.  The three commonly used are:  alcohol, glycerin or vinegar.  I prefer to use alcohol because it can draw out both water soluble and alcohol soluble constituents in plants.  I find using 80 proof vodka to be real nice, but you could use any alcohol like whiskey, gin, scotch.  If I was going to use vinegar, I’d use apple cider vinegar because it is the most nutritious and wholesome vinegar.  Glycerin is sweet, its lovely taste makes it more enjoyable for pets and kids.

LINIMENTS:  A liniment is made in the same way as a tincture, except that it’s intended for external use.  Liniments can be used for different purposes:  muscle aches, sprains, varicose veins, arthritis, washes to help quell poison oak, ivy or other rashes or as a difinfectant for wounds.  Different herbalists use different mestruums.  The most common are 70% rubbing alcohol (ironically, a higher percentage of rubbing alcohol will evaporate upon exposure to the air, making it less sanitary), or witch hazel.  Witch hazel extract, which can be bought at any drugstore, is itself an excellent astringent liniment that is used as a base to macerate other herbs.  Other herbalists I know use vinegar or equal parts olive oil and alcohol.  The liniment [we made at the workshop was] equal parts myrrh powder, echinacea, and oregon grape root, and one fourth part cayenne.

Oatstraw and peppermint infusion, image by debcll, used under Creative Commons license.

TEAS:  A tea is an extraction of a herb in boiling water.  There are two methods.  An infusion is when boiling water is poured over the herba and left to steep for 5-20 minutes, the same way you would make a cup of black or green tea.  This is most common when flowers, leaves and berries are being used.  When roots,  barks and mushrooms are the herbs of choice, it is best to extract the medicinal properties from the herbs in a decoction, which involves placing the plants in a potful of water, bringing it to a boil, then simmering, covered for 20-30 minutes.

Salve image by latisha, used under Creative Commons license

SALVES:  A salve is an external medicine that has all sorts of uses:  to speed wound healing, ease bug bites, moisturize skin and relieve pain.  It is made of infused herbal oils/fats and beeswax.  I’ve always used olive oil as my oil, but I think that it could be a more environmentally sound practice to use lard.  I haven’t tried my hand at it as of yet, but other herbalists have had great success.

How to make salves:  There are several methods to making an infused herbal oil, but my two favourites are solar infusion and double boiler.  For both:

1) Gather/Buy/Barter your herbs of choice.  I prefer using fresh herbs, but dry will do.  Cut ’em up as small as you can.

Calendula salve infusing in the sun. Image by terriem, used under Creative Commons license.

2)  Whether you’re using fresh or dried plants, you’ll want to pour enough olive oil to immerse the plant then add an inch or two more!  If you’re using the solar infusion method, at this point you will lightly cover the jar (that is, put a mason jar lid on, but don’t screw it down) and place it in a south facing, sunny, warm spot and let it infuse for at least two weeks.  Shake it once a day!  If you’re using the double boiler method, pour the plant and oil combo into a double boiler and let it infuse on low heat for 30-60 minutes.  Watch carefully to ensure it doesn’t deep fry!

3) Once the oil has infused for the desired length of time (2 weeks + for solar infusion, 30-60 minutes for double boiler), strain the mixture.  This is done by pouring the oil through a piece of cheesecloth placed over top of a strainer.  The whole process is quite similar to making a tincture, except that under not circumstances do you want to squeeze the cheesecloth to get out the last bits of oil.  This is because that will add extra water to the oil and then the salve you’ve lovingly composed will go moldy.  A book I once read suggested squeezing the remainders out into a separate container and using it within a few days as a luxurious moisturizer after a bath.  I like this idea an awful lot.

Workshop participants straining the plant-infused oil for the salve.

4) Put the infused oil into (or back into) the double boiler. Add
something between 1/4 cup to 1/3 cup of beeswax to each
cup of oil, depending on how hard or soft you want it. More
beeswax=harder, more oil=softer. Melt the beeswax into the
oil over low heat, once it has infused, put the beeswax onto a
cold surface or onto a plate and put it in the freezer for a few
minutes. Once it has solidified, test it to see if it’s the consistency
you’d like it to be.

5) Pour your salve into your container. Store in a cool, dark
place. It’s very helpful to immediately wipe out your double
boiler immediately with newspaper or rags and then wash
with soap and warm water. This is because beeswax will
otherwise dry quickly in the pot and will be more diffi cult to
clean up.


My all time three favourite herbs to cure a variety of ills are:
chamomile, ginger and peppermint.

Herb Resources in Town:

Devil’s Club Apothecary. Located in the back, left hand corner
of Camus Books in the Quadra Street Village. You can drop off
extra herbs you’ve got on hand/pick up what you will. Herbs
are free although donations are welcome. There are also herb
books to peruse.

People’s Apothecary. This is located behind the Vancouver Island
School of Art at 2549 Quadra Street. It’s a medicinal herb
garden and the plants are available for everyone to harvest.

Springridge Commons: This is in Fernwood, at the intersections
of Gladstone and Chambers. It’s primarily an edible food
garden but food is medicine! There are many kitchen herbs
being cultivated which have medicinal uses as well as some
of our common, wild herbal volunteers!

Simple Remedies. 1010 Cook St. This is a well stocked herb
shop, with hundreds of bulk herbs to buy, preformulated teas
and friendly staff .

Self Heal Herbs. 1106 Blanshard Street. There are a lot of herbs
here, including less popular ones that are hidden away and
need to be asked after.


2 responses to “Herbal First Aid

  1. I adore your pictures. Any picture of Calendula flowers in a jar always make me feel giddy! Great info, too!

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