Oh, the many ways to make tea!
Cold infusions are steeping plant matter in non-boiled water. The water need not be cold in temperature to make a cold infusion, it can be anywhere from lukewarm from the tap to icy cold spring water.
Directions for making a cold infusion:
- To make 2 cups, put 3 heaping tablespoons of dried herb to a large tea strainer/infuser or muslin pouch.
- Add water to a pint jar, then suspend the herb in the pouch or infuser in the water.
- Let sit overnight. squeeze or press the marc (the herb in the infuser or bag) into the tea to strain.
- Drink and enjoy!
Why do we make cold infusions, you may wonder. If hot water aids in extracting the medicinal qualities from herbs, then wouldn’t steeping herbs in cold or room temperature water hinder the extraction of important chemical constituents? Not necessarily. Richo Cech explains;
“Some herbs, like marshmallow and blessed thistle, lend their active principles better to cold water than to hot. This is usually due to the presence of mucilage or bitter principles that are denatured, to a certain extent, by boiling water” (68).
Here is a list from James Green of herbs that can be extracted well in a cold infusion (110). You may notice they all have either bitter properties or are mucilaginous:
- Burdock root
- Comfrey root
- Uva Ursi
- Slippery elm
- Blessed thistle (Cech, 68)
There are a few surprises for me on this list. I have never thought to cold infuse cleavers, crampbark or uva ursi, but now that I think of it these are all bitter and cooling. The herbs that I cold infuse the most are marshmallow, chamomile, and comfrey. Before I knew about cold infusing I prepared marshmallow as a regular decoction (it’s a root, so it should be decocted, right?) every time I made it. After hearing that marshmallow should be cold infused, I tried it and noticed a significant difference. The room temperature finished product was much smoother and mucilaginous, making it even more adept to aid the digestive tract or dry throat and respiratory system. I also think it tasted a bit sweeter.
A note about slippery elm while I’m at it: this is an herb that I use mostly as powdered. Mix slippery elm powder into a finished tea to add a moistening and soothing quality. This kind of qualifies as a cold infusion, except you don’t strain the powdered herb out of the finished product, it is mixed in (best mixed by transferring the tea to a jar with a tight-fitting lid and shaking it well). I don’t measure, rather I start with a half teaspoon and work my way up to a tablespoon if I am particularly dry. The longer you leave the slippery elm in your tea, the thicker and more mucilaginous it becomes. When I am going into the hospital with a doula client, I always add an extra-large pinch or two of slippery elm to a quart of marshmallow tea to counteract the extreme dryness of the institutional forced air heating, and I bring a little jar of honey, bee pollen and slippery elm paste to suck on for a dry throat and lungs. Works like a charm every time. Read more about slippery elm and other herbs for dry environments at The Medicine Woman’s Roots.
Cech, Richo. Making Plant Medicine.
Green, James. The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook.
Learning about herbalism is great and all, but what use it is if you don’t know how to prepare herbs into easy-to-use medicine?! In attempt to make herbalism more accessible, Dandelion Revolution is featuring Medicine Making Mondays, to highlight the plethora of ways to engage with making medicine.
Let us start with good old fashioned tea. Herbal teas are my *favorite* ways to use herbs. Drinking teas can tell us about the actions and healing nature of herbs because a tea directly engages our senses. With teas you get to see the color, enjoy the aroma, and taste the flavor of the herbs, whether used individually as simples or combined in formula. There are a few different ways to prepare herbal medicine into teas; namely:
- Infusion – Steeping herbs in boiled water. Often used for leaves, flowers, stems, soft seeds or fruits (calendula blossoms, oat straw, fennel seeds, rose hips, linden flowers and bracts, ect…)
- Decoction – Simmering herbs in water for any length of time. Used for some seeds and fruits, barks and roots (dandelion root, oak bark, hawthorn berries, ect…)
- Cold infusion – Steeping herbs in non-boiled water. Sometimes used to extract mucilage-rich herbs (marshmallow, plantain, ect…)
- Lunar/sun tea – Steeping herbs in water while in contact with the moon’s light or sun’s rays. These preparations are used when the particular energy/activation of the the sun or moon is desired (mugwort tea steeped under the full moon for ritual purposes, nettle tea tea steeped each night in a windowsill to connect with the cyclical nature of the moon), or to take advantage of natures’ energy (using heat of the sun to brew peppermint tea rather than heating water)
Today we will talk about infusions. What makes a medicinal “infusion” any different than steeping a tea bag in boiling water? A “beverage” tea is brewed for taste, and is very different (both chemically and physically) then a medicinal tea. Basically, a medicinal tea takes advantage of water as a solvent in extracting medicinally active chemicals (alkaloids, bitter principles, saponins, ect.), macronutrients (carbohydrates, starches, ect.) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, bioflavonoids, ect.). Some people are surprised that a cup of tea can contain medicinal and nutritional components. 4 cups of medicinal nettle tea contains: calcium (2900mg), magnesium (860mg), phosphorus (447mg), potassium (1750mg), and zinc (4.7mg); vitamins A, B, C, D, E, K; protein (10% of total) (Healing Wise, Susun Weed). Speaking of Susun Weed, check out her video about making nettle infusion.
It is useful to steep your medicinal tea in a large container such as a pint or quart canning jar (Mason jar) with a lid, rather than steeping 3 or 4 individual cups through the day. Speaking of, the dosage of your medicinal tea will vary, from 1 to 4 cups per day.
Flavor your teas in any way you choose. You can add a teaspoon of peppermint, fennel, orange peel, a pinch of stevia, a tasty tea bag to your steeping tea, or add honey, molasses, a lemon slice, fruit juice. Medicinal teas don’t have to taste “like medicine”! They should be earthy and natural; even the bitterest herb can be improved with the addition of tasty herbs.
Directions to make 4 cups of an herbal infusion:
- Boil 4 cups of water.
- Measure 3-4 heaping tablespoons of dried herbs and place in the bottom of a quart jar.
- Cover herbs with boiling water, cover promptly to contain the volatile oils that may be evaporated.
- Steep for 4 hours, strain and drink. This can be warmed in a sauce pan or placed in the fridge to your taste. To maintain quality, do not let sit un-refrigerated for more than 12 hours. Drink within 24 hours.
I get a lot of questions about straining the the tea, specifically if you can use tea balls, spoons or baskets. Of the three, I use tea baskets when I am making tea in an 8 or 16 ounce cup, but most always I prefer to have the herbs “float” around in the water it is steeping in, then pour it through a strainer it when it is ready to drink. Tea spoons and balls are simply too small to hold enough tea for an medicinal infusion. One easy way to steep tea is to use a french press: let it steep, press the plunger down and fill your cup.
Another question I get about infusions is about when and why would you choose to make an infusion rather than take a tincture. Herbal medicinal teas are used around the world and throughout time as the most reliable, effective and quickest way to medicine (up until the introduction of alcoholic extractions). Basically, herbal teas can and should be used in most situations. Situations where I do not use teas include:
- Using unpleasant tasting herbs, although they can be combined with yummy herbs to make a tea palatable.
- When combining herbs that should be infused with herbs that should be decocted. For example, yellow dock root and burdock root in a formula with red clover flowers and violet leaf would be better taken as a tincture.
- If you are taking a few different formulas that would be overwhelming to prepare all of them as teas. Let’s say you take daily a nettle infusion, skin formula, digestive support, and an iron tonic; it would be a bit time-consuming to make all of those preparations as teas.
- For some acute symptoms it is easier to take tinctures then to brew tea, especially when you only need a little bit (like 5 drops of goldenseal tincture under the tongue for an infection).
The form of herbal medicine one employs is a matter of personal preference, first and foremost. If someone is new to herbal medicine or views herbs like drugs but natural will often take capsules, pills or standardized extracts. As an herbalist, sometimes you have to meet the person halfway, perhaps to supply them with capsules when you originally recommended a tea.
Even herbalists can get into a rut. We don’t see little bottles of vinegar extractions lining shelves at health food/herb stores, so we generally don’t make them at home, either. Vinegar, being made from and still containing plant matter, naturally decomposes over time. Vinegar tinctures last about 2 years, while alcohol preparations last almost indefinitely. As James Green reiterates, when we are making herbs at home, we generally do so in small batches so there is no particular reason we should not employ vinegar tinctures on a more regular basis.
For years, vinegar was the official menstrum in mainstream pharmacy. Then in the early 1900′s it was replaced by ethyl alcohol. At that time, medicine was quite heroic, and using the strongest, biggest and baddest (because they were sometimes toxic) medicines and treatments was the norm. It was all but goodbye to food-based menstrums like vinegar, alcohol, honey and sugar, and oils as medical knowledge was becoming possessed by the “official” medical community.
Green reminds us that when herbal medicine experienced a resurgence in the 1960′s – 1970′s, the budding herbalists took on where the 1920′s pharmacopoeia left off; that is with using strong alcohol extractions rather than using food-based menstrums. Not to say that alcoholic tinctures are a bad thing; just that herbalists may have overlooked viable options.
More non-alcoholic medicine-making appeals to me on many levels, least of not for the fact that grain alcohol is not widely available (I have to drive to Wisconsin to get it, as it is not sold in Minnesota) and is more costly than even the most expensive bottle of apple cider vinegar. Many households have vinegar on hand anyways, so it’s truly medicine from the pantry.
Back to vinegar. Look on the bottle of Bragg’s apple cider vinegar, and you will find a paragraph of vinegars’ health benefits and history of use. It has been along for, well, as long as anyone can remember. It was used by Hippocrates, Galen, and steeped in uses by common people though the ages. Green sums up vinegar’s benefits (179):
- Pure vinegar is non-toxic and can be tolerated by everyone, young and old
- It is a digestive tonic, helps regulates the acid/alkaline balance
- High in minerals (dilute or add honey to make it go down smoother for daily use)
- Non-alcoholic, for those who want/need a break from traditional tinctures
Medicinally, vinegar is warming but still has an refridgerant effect as it evaporates off the skin, quells thirst and promotes saliva. Green says it has a quality that “alleviates restlessness”, as well as “promotes secretions of the kidneys and respiratory mucous membranes” (181). Topically, vinegar is antiseptic and astringent so use for deodorant, to relieve inflammation, itching, allergic rashes and sunburn. Rosemary Gladstar once joked that her grandfather said her grandmother smelled like a salad dressing from slathering olive oil on her skin and using vinegar hair rinses. Indeed, it is cleansing, toning and conditioning to the skin and hair.
Vinegar combines with other herbs that augment the medicinal attributes it already has. Add to it expectorant herbs, or astringents for internal or external use. A bit of cayenne makes vinegar a wonderful liniment for aches and pains. Where vinegar really shines as a menstrum is for extracting alkaloids, which water and alcohol do not do as well. When alkaloid-containing herbs (lobelia, goldenseal, bloodroot, black walnut are a few) are macerated in vinegar, the acetic acid from the vinegar causes an alkaloid salt to be formed, making it readily available (179).
Although I have tried oxymels, I figured it was high time to make one for my household. Oxymels are a mixture of vinegar and honey, combining sweet and sour to create an invigorating and balanced blend. The simplest type of oxymels is by stirring a tablespoon of vinegar in a tablespoon of honey, then diluted in a cup of warm water. This simple remedy is known to balance the acid-alkaline balance in the body and is employed as a daily tonic. Here is the oxymel that I made, from I recipe I wrote down from a 2006 lecture:
- 1 onion, chopped
- 16 0z apple cider vinegar
- 2 T thyme
- 2 T fennel seeds
- 2 T anise seeds
- 2 T oregano
- 2 cups honey
Bring all but the honey to a boil, then simmer covered for 20 minutes. Let cool slightly, strain and press herbs, and add honey while it is still warm. When would one take this oxymel? You guessed it: cold and flu season, especially for chest colds of all kinds. I added the anise to assist the herbs in expectoration; it’s one of my favorites for thinning and bringing up congesting phlegm.
There are endless varieties of oxymels, so add in herbs that suit your individual needs. The above recipe could replace onions with garlic for extra anti-microbial action, or an addition of black peppercorns and mustard seeds for more warming actions (as vinegar is cooling, see ). James Green says that the basic ratio of vinegar to honey is roughly 1:3, or 1 cup vinegar to 3/4 pounds honey, although I have had some with equal parts honey to vinegar and they seemed to work just fine. Perhaps the larger amount of honey serves for added preservation.
Lobelia oxymel – from Dr. William Cook for dry, irritable coughs, lung congestion
- dried lobelia herb
- apple cider vinegar
Place lobelia (preferably dried) in a jar and cover with apple cider vinegar and steep for 2 weeks. Strain, mix with honey in the proportion of ¾ pound honey to 1 cup vinegar. Place in a water bath, until the mixture is like thin molasses, bottle and refrigerate (246). As you can see, there are no set measurements for materials, so adjust quantities to your needs. Dose as needed for coughs.
Jam’s Green’s Poison Oak Lotion
- 1 part mugwort
- 1 part horsetail
- apple cider vinegar
Make a strong decoction of 1 part mugwort and 1 part horsetail. To 2 parts of this liquid, add 1 part apple cider vinegar. Add 1 tablespoon salt per cup, bottle, label, and store in the fridge. Apply externally often (184).