An Introduction to Herbalism

The following article appeared in the introductory issue of Natural Herbal Living Magazine. It presents a lot of the material in reference to rosemary, because we originally expected it to be part of an issue focused on rosemary.

An Introduction to Herbalism

Nina Katz

Herbalism provides a way for people to begin taking greater control over their health. Herbs are readily available, often growing in your backyard, or a public park, or as weeds that a nearby organic farmer is happy to let you take. As you learn about their use, you can find ways to nourish your health, prevent health problems before they arise, and treat health conditions yourself without having to consult a professional. The more you learn about the herbs the more situations you can handle on your own. Even a beginner can learn to make the basic preparations of herbalism, infusions, decoctions, and tinctures.

To make an infusion, one steeps the plant parts in water, most often hot water, and then strains and squeezes the plant material so as to get the last, often the strongest, part of the liquid out. An infusion extracts the flavor, aroma, and water-soluble nutritional and medicinal constituents into the water. Infusions may be either long or short.

To prepare a rosemary as a short infusion, measure about a teaspoon of dried rosemary or about two tablespoons of fresh rosemary into a cup, pour on water that has just boiled but had a couple of minutes to cool off, cover, and let the infusion steep for 10-20 minutes. Try it once steeped 10 minutes, once 20, and once 30 minutes, and notice the differences in flavor and effect; what elements come out only with extra time? After the steeping time is up, strain, and then squeeze the remaining plant material, called the marc. Feel free to add honey.

For a long infusion, take a quart-sized, glass canning jar and put in a gigantic heaping handful, or about a cup of herb, or one ounce of dried herb. Stinging nettle is a popular herb for making long infusions, because it is very gentle, safe for all except the few with specific allergies to it, and offers the nutritional benefits of a multi-mineral, multi-vitamin, protein supplement in a form that is easier for the body to absorb than any mineral or vitamin pill. Red clover is another popular choice. Boil water, let it cool for a couple of minutes, and fill the jar, but fill it very slowly so that the glass doesn’t crack from the heat. Cover it with its lid and let it vacuum seal. Now let the infusion steep for at least 3 hours; overnight is ideal.

When the steeping time is up, strain, squeeze the marc, and taste. Give yourself a chance to get used to the flavor. Nettles taste very green and chlorophyllic; red clover tastes a little bit bitter and drying, because of the high tannin content. Feel free to add honey to taste, or to reheat and add some spearmint. With refrigeration, the infusion should keep for up to 48 hours, but the fresher, the better.

In general, one infuses leaves, flowers, thin or pliant stems, and soft seeds. If they are highly nutritional, then long infusion is usually the better choice. If they are more medicinal and not very nutritional, then short infusion works better.

For barks, roots, rhizomes (horizontal stems running just below ground-level and connecting different plants), twigs, nuts, and hard seeds, decoction is a better choice because it is more effective at breaking down the harder components so as to extract the medicinal and/or nutritional components of the plant matter.

Place the hard plant matter into a steel, cast iron, ceramic, or glass cooking vessel. Pour in cold water and bring it to a hard boil. If the plant materials contain essential oils, then it is important to cover your pot while you decoct your herbs; if they do not, then it is not necessary. Turn the heat down and let it simmer for 20-30 minutes. Then strain, add honey if desired, and drink.

Because rosemary stems are woody, like twigs, you may want to try making a rosemary decoction and comparing its flavor and effects to the short infusion of Rosemary. Do you have a clear preference? Are there times and circumstances where you might prefer one or the other? Why?

This article is reprinted from the introductory issue of Natural Herbal Living Magazine.