One of most basic yet nourishing ways to use herbs is in the form of tea! The easiest form to administer herbs is as old as the plants themselves, in part because we can make tea with little equipment, skill/knowledge or fuss. But also because this form of herb usage fits perfectly with our use of Tonic herbs because it allows for the full expression of gentle, health building nourishment. It can also be used for many acute issues as well so we will see that it is very versatile! I would encourage you to get some of your favorite herbs and gather up a tea kettle, strainer, big ole mug and maybe a pot of honey or fresh lemon to top it all off!
Of course, as with everything, the more we know the better our success. With that in mind let’s go over some things you should know to practice this art like a skilled herbalist. What I share here is not necessarily in any particular order so please read all the way to the end of this article to get the full picture.
There are two basic types of ‘teas’ we make. All the herbs you can use as tea will either need to be made into an ‘infusion’ or a ‘decoction’. Let me try to explain the difference; infusions are made as most of us are familiar with. We bring our tea water just barely to the point of boiling and then remove it from heat. Using any form of strainer we measure about 1 teaspoon herbs per 8 ounces or so of hot water. Of course if you are using fresh herbs rather then dried then you may need to increase the amount from 1 teaspoon to about 1 tablespoon. For infusions, we are using the flowering tops, leaves and otherwise more fragile parts of the plants.
There are advantages to both fresh or dried, fresh herbs that contain a lot of volatile oils in them won’t need the same amount as those that don’t because they will be quite strong. Otherwise dried will be stronger because it is easier to pack the same amount of herb into a tea ball once it is dried. The other benefit of dried is that it is easier to pull the medicine value from them because they are pretty fragile once dried and the water can penetrate better. So keep these factors into account when choosing your herbs. Personally I use all my herbs fresh while the growing season allows me to and harvest plenty of plant matter to dry to use after the plant is done for the season. And of course this gets a little complicated because you will need to know what part of each plant you want for the effect you are after, i.e. flowering tops, leaves, roots, etc. You also need to have an herb garden to supply what will surely be a growing desire to partake in your new passion of tea drinking! So for the most part you will at least for starters be using dried herbs.
So back to our process, I love to use a French press for this step but you can use a simple tea ball or muslin tea bag or any strainer you prefer. Pour your hot water over the herbs and place a lid over the water. Allow to sit for at least 10 minutes and up to 30 minutes to allow for the water to pull all the properties from the herbs. After this, strain your herbs out, add any extras to your drink (honey fits nicely here) and drink up! Don’t forget to compost your herbs into your garden soil to maximize their use or feed them to the chickens as I do.
There is a place for a cold infusion, depending on how you plan to use your ‘tea’ and which plants you are using. Some plants lend well to this method such as Marshmallow which really should never be heated. Others should not be allowed to sit for this long because they contain Tannins in high amounts. You will know if you made this mistake because they become very bitter to taste. A few examples I can think of are our mints, esp. Spearmint and Peppermint.To make a cold infusion you use the same ratios of plants to water and you follow the same process except that you will use good, pure water that has not been heated and you will allow the infusion to sit for at least 8 hours if not more. You can place your infusion in a warm place during this time but no heat is required. This is the basic concept of ‘sun tea’ and during the summer we use this method a lot. There are some herbs that are more effective when used cool or unheated so this is a great method for those. I once lived across the street from an elderly woman who immigrated here from communist Germany, if you ever entered her kitchen you would find no less then a half dozen of these wonderful infusions in the process of this ‘cold infusion’ method. There are folks who are taking this art to a new level using the skills of fermentation too, there is really no end to the possibilities.
The other form of tea making is called a ‘decoction’. It is done a little differently because for these drinks we are using herbs in the form of roots, barks, seeds and medicinal mushrooms as such parts of herbs are much more solid and therefore require more to break down in our water. To make a decoction, you can use the same measurements but you will need to make a larger amount each time. What I mean is this; we will be simmering our mixture for a long time, at least one hour so it is easier to keep things from cooking dry if we make this in about 1 quart amounts. Add the roots, bark, or whatever your herb choice is with your water in a sauce pan that has a tight lid. Bring the mixture to a rolling boil and then immediately reduce heat to a low/very low setting and continue to cook for the minimum amount of time. I have collected a few lead-free small size crock pots that work wonderfully for decoctions. Once the water has been brought to a boil, I quickly pour everything into the crock pot and place on the low setting. Using this method I can cook my decoctions for as long as I want without having to baby sit the stovetop. Once you are done with the cooking time of your requirement, strain the plants out and use as you would any other herb tea.
So now that we have the process down, let’s talk about how, why we would use these mixtures. Of course the first option is to sip them as you would any other tea or beverage but do so with the knowledge that this ‘tea’ has the special ability to heal or build health, or any number of effects depending on the herbs you used. Infusions and decoctions are also used often as an addition to bath water, especially for young children, elderly or others that may not be able to ingest enough to be helpful. Localized baths (sitz) are very useful to soak a particular area of the body such as the perineum of a new mother, foot baths, etc. Our skin is able to absorb great amounts of nourishment and be a great way to help in certain situations. We can also use the skin and the tea to make a compress and this is an excellent form to administer safe herbs to infants or injuries. While we are mentioning infants, let’s just be clear, not many herbs are safe to give directly to them, the safest way to allow an infant to partake in herbs is for the mommy to ingest them and provide them to baby in the form of breast milk. These wonderful teas can also be used as mouth washes, eye washes, wound washes, steam baths (inhalation) for respiratory issues and so on and on. A skilled herbalist may choose to use an herbal tea even as an enema for a very ill person, this can prove to be life-saving in an emergency situation where no medical help is available but I don’t recommend it for routine care as it does pose some dangers.
In closing let me encourage you to pull out a few tonic, nourishing herbs and begin to enjoy the pleasure and health of this wonderful form of herbalism. In most cases a proper dose of ‘herbal tea’ for healing or health building would be 3 cups a day for an average size adult. From this you can see that you will be entering a journey into slower, more concentrated form of living then most of us are used to. I invite you to take that road as it leads to some really wonderful places, rarely has anyone been disappointed in the adventure of quality living you are about to sip your way into!