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Medicine Making Mondays – Decoctions

Burdock flower, though the root is used for decoctions

Burdock flower, though the root is used for decoctions

Decoctions are simply simmering herbs to make a tea, rather than pouring water over plant matter. Decotions take a bit more time to make then infusions, but medicinal herbal teas of all sorts still remain the easiest way to take herbs; all that is required is steeping herbs in water, straining and drinking.

In my experience, most people project (and naturally so) a plethora of questions and details into the long-standing herbal tradition of making tea and end up feeling confused. I certainly did when I started out making teas. How long do I steep it? How much water or herbs are used? What’s the difference between using fresh or dried herbs? How do I strain it? How much tea should I make and drink? Hoe long before the tea goes bad?

I rarely measure the dried herbs (my personal preference) or the water, nor do I time my how long the herbs simmer. I just throw it all together, rarely if ever does the tea not turn out the way I want it. However, I wasn’t like this at first. I measured carefully and set a timer. Eventually, like learning how to cook, you learn to rely on your instincts. So don’t be afraid to be creative, and don’t think you need to have all the details sorted out before you engage with tea making.

The parts of herbs best used in a decoction are the harder portions of the plants; seeds, fruits, barks, roots, ect… Simmering these portions ensure that the medicinal properties are properly extracted, since the whole reason these parts are hard in the first place is to provide storage (fruits, tubers), structure (piths and barks) and protection (seeds).

Directions for making 4 cups of a decoction:

  • Place 5 cups of water in a sauce pan with a lid, turn on heat.
  • Add 3-4 rounded tablespoons of dried herbs to water (double for fresh).
  • Bring to a light boil then reduce to a low simmer for 20 minuets, covered.
  • Turn off heat and allow to cool on stove before straining and drinking.
  • Drink within 24 hours, refrigerate after 12 hours.

When it comes to deciding how much tea to drink, that may vary. Are you trying to have an effect on a chronic, long-standing condition, or taking a nutritive tonic? Drink a quart daily, six days a week. Are you using low-dose or strong botanicals like goldenseal, lobelia, wild indigo, blue flag or poke? Sip from an eight ounce cup through the day, as needed. In these cases, I don’t bother making teas as I prefer the lengthy storage properties of alcoholic tinctures.

Here are two of my favorite decoctions…

Immune Booster Root Tea

  • 1 part Echinacea purpurea root
  • 2 part Eleuthero root
  • 2 part Astragalus root slices
  • 1 part Shitaake mushrooms, sliced
  • 1/2 part Ginger
  • 1/4 part Cinnamon
  • 1/2 part Rose hips
  • 1 part Elder berries

Mix together, measuring parts by weight. Prepare as a decoction, and drink 4 cups through the day through cold and flu season, or any time your immune system needs a boost. This tea is rich tasting and slightly fruity and spicy. Safe for pregnant or nursing mothers.

A Basic Liver Tea

  • 2 parts burdock
  • 2 parts dandelion
  • 2 parts yellow dock
  • 2 parts sassafras
  • 1 part Oregon grape root
  • 1 part licorice
  • 1/2 part cinnamon
  • 1/2 part ginger
  • 1/2 part fennel seeds
  • 1/2 part orange peel

Combine the herbs, using weights as parts. Prepare as a decoction. This tea is a good tea to start with for a liver-based formulas. For example, one could add chaste tree (vitex), mitchella, black cohosh and/or wild yam for action on the endocrine system. Another possibility is adding medicinal mushrooms like reshi or shitake, echinacea, Panax genus members (Asian or American ginseng, eleuthero, spikenard) to help the immune system or serve as adpatogens.

The first five roots are interchangeable in some ways but have their distinct actions, so pick which ones that could serve you the best. The last four herbs (five plus licorice) are for digestion but more so for improving the flavor. Sarsparilla, birch, chai spices (black pepper, clove, anise, cardamom), fruits like rose hips, elderberries and hawthorn berries, and marshmallow can also round out the taste while adding medicinal actions on their own right.

Wild geranium or cranesbill root is used as an astringent

Wild geranium or cranesbill root is used as an astringent

The root of butterfly weed is used in lung formulas

The root of butterfly weed is used in lung formulas

Filed under: Herbalism


Tea-drinking, nature-loving acupuncturist, East Asian Medicine practitioner, herbalism and birth doula living in the Pacific Northwest.

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