Ways to Use Herbs

Definitions of the Ways to Use Herbs

There are many accepted ways to use herbs. You will occasionally find references to a tea, an infusion, a decoction, or a tisane…. are they the same or different? How are they dissimilar? This small piece will hopefully add to your understanding of the differing terms and allow you to make wise choices in how you utilize the herbs.

Bolus – The administration of a single, large dose of herbal medicine through a form that will melt in the rectum or vagina. (much like a suppository)

Compress – In a compress an infusion or decoction is made first and a piece of clean cloth or gauze is soaked in the resultant liquid. The cloth or gauze is applied to the affected area. When using a compress, use it as hot as can be tolerated, you can cover the compress with plastic wrap, to keep it hot longer, and change it when it cools off.

Decoction – An infusion that has been reduced to one/half of its original volume by slow steam release. Not brought to a boil, the decoction is taken to the point of steam release and the heat is then reduced very low to continue the steam process. Decoction is handy for those herbals which taste bad or bitter, requiring only one quarter the dose. Decoctions are strong and can be kept longer if gin or vodka is added. 

When you’re dealing with roots, bark, seeds or hard dense pieces of herbs a decoction is usually the better choice. Pieces should be small.

Electuaries – A medical paste composed of powdered herbs in a sweetener like syrup, honey, or jam to mask the taste. Intended for oral consumption

Elixir – An Elixir is a tincture that has food grade glycerin added. This makes it a sweet treat with medicinal qualities.

Extracts – These usually require a still and are difficult and expensive to try to do at home. There are a wide variety of extracts on the market, check your local health food store.

Fomentation – A substance used as a warm moist medicinal compress or poultice often to relieve pain and inflammation

Glycerite – Glycerites are herbal remedies made by extracting the medicinal properties of herbs with vegetable glycerin rather than using alcohol as a solvent. They are effective, pleasant-tasting and suitable for administering to children and those who are alcohol-intolerant.

Infusion – a tea made from the flowers, leaves or roots of an herb, with a longer steeping time than a general tea. The water is boiled fully, the cup or pot is heated and the herbs and water are covered during the steep to prevent steam escaping.  The standard measure is one teaspoon of dried herbs, two of fresh, to one cup of boiled water. Covered steeping time is generally up to ten minutes for flowers, twenty minutes for leaves and up to four hours for the root.

Most appropriate for stems, leaves, and flowers you can infuse bark, roots, and seeds, but seeds should be bruised (use a mortar and pestle for this) and bark and roots should be powdered first.

If you wish to make larger quantities at one time, be sure to refrigerate after brewing, herbal infusions are usually so rich that bacteria can multiply and thrive very quickly. Even a refrigerated infusion shouldn’t be kept more than 2 days.

Incense – Burning of dried herbs and/or flowers, either with flame or by smoldering on a hot rock or charcoal briquette. Widely used in worship as well as to kill smells and discourage the spread of illness.

Inhalations – Inhalations have been used for centuries, it conveys the therapeutic essences of the plants through hot, moist air through the nose and into the lungs. A simple form can be used with hot, steaming water, a few drops of essential oil and a tea towel over the head while inhaling the steam (be careful of burns if the steam is too hot). It can be used for treatment of many respiratory disorders and emotional states.

Liniment – A medicinal liquid that is rubbed into the skin to relieve muscular stiffness and pain

Lozenges – A small aromatic or medicated candy often used to sooth sore throat or lessen cough

Macerates – Cold infusion of plants with high mucilage content

Ointment – are when an extract or some other form of the herb is added to a salve and then applied to the affected area.

Oxymels – Is a liquid medicaion consisting of the powdered herb, vinegar, and honey

Poultice-For a poultice you would use the plant material itself. For poultices, you can use fresh or dried herbs. Fresh herbs can be bruised and applied directly to the skin. If the skin is particularly sensitive, the poultice can be placed between layers of gauze. When using dried herbs they must be moistened first. Make a paste by adding hot water or apple cider vinegar to the dried plant material. Keep the poultice warm as for a compress. You may want to cover the skin with a thin layer of oil as this protects the skin and may make removing the poultice easier.

Salve – An herbal decoction blended with a beeswax and olive oil base, reduced, and placed in jars. These are semi-solid and are usually used externally, applied to the skin. For use on burns, chapped skin, scrapes and other skin irritations, depending on the herb used.
Steam – Is when herbs are added to water. Then the water is heated to steam, and inhaled. Often used to open nasal passages in severe colds, croup, etc. Use steam for skin problems like acne and as an inhalant for bronchial problems like sunusitis and laryngitis

Suppository – A drug delivery system that is inserted into the rectum (rectal suppository), vagina (vaginal suppository), where is dissolves

Syrup – An infusion or decoction, which is then mixed into a sugar base, using brown sugar, molasses, honey, or corn syrup. (Caution – children under three should not ingest honey) Syrups are used in cases of sore throat, upset stomach in children, etc.

Tea – A tea never boils the plant matter, only steeps it, and only to taste. Place the plant matter in a pot, pour boiling water over it and allow to sit until desired strength is reached

Tincture – A strong infusion or decoction prepared in an alcohol base (vodka, brandy or gin) and are much more stable for storage and long life. Most times, alcohol makes a stronger tincture than water, glycerin, or vinegar.

Tisanes – Hot water extracts of herbs, a fancy word really meaning a tea!

Vinegars – Prepared the same way as a tincture, but using vinegar to extract the plant essence

Wine – An Herbal Wine is when wine is used to macerate the herb

NOTE: Any use that heats the herb causes some volatile oils to be lost and cell wall destruction, if those factors are not desired it is recommended by many to use tinctures instead of teas, infusions or decoctions.

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