The simplest way to begin making herbal medicine is to dry herbs and use them in teas or decoctions (the latter are very much like teas, except they use more heat to draw out the medicinal properties of tougher plant materials, such as roots). Another easy method of making traditional plant medicine is to create a salve - a sort of medicinal lotion. This post will show you how to make a plantain salve, but the steps are the same no matter what herb or combination of herbs you choose to use.
First, Why Plantain?
When most people think of plantain, they think of bananas, but in the world of herbs, plantain refers to a common weed found growing in the cracks of city sidewalks, in suburban lawns, and in rural locations. There are two types of plantain in North America: Plantago major, which has broad leaves:
Recently, I decided I needed a plantain salve in my life because I was being eaten alive by mosquitoes and spiders. I know from past experience that crushing a plantain leaf and applying it to bites and stings works amazingly well at removing discomfort and pain, all while encouraging healing. But it's not always convenient to hold a wad of leaves against the skin. A salve is easier to apply, quick to grab off the shelf, and doesn't require that a plantain plant growing nearby.
|Gathering broadleaf plantain leaves.|
To ensure the salve doesn't become moldy, it's important to dry the herb before moving on to step two. Sometimes you can get away with just partially drying the herb. I recommend this sometimes in my book The Ultimate Dandelion Medicine Book, for example. But for beginners, or when dealing with an especially wet herb, I highly recommend drying the plant thoroughly.
It's possible to air dry herbs, but to get true medicinal value from them, it's vital they hang upside down (in a small bundle secured by a rubber band or string) in a dark, cool location. Drying them in the sun or in a hot location results in discolored herbs that have lost much of their medicinal properties and flavor.
Drying herbs in a good electric dehydrator is easier and, if done correctly, probably retains more of the herb's medicinal properties. You don't need a dehydrator that costs hundreds of dollars, either. I love my Nesco American Harvest, even after a decade of use. It's never let me down and does the job just as well as an expensive machine. But whatever dehydrator you use, it should have a temperature controller that goes as low as 95 degrees F.
1. Lay the herb (in this case, plantain leaves) on the trays of the dehydrator. They will dry more quickly if they are in a single layer, not touching, but it's okay to just spread them thinly on the trays. (By the way, you can always buy more trays for your Nesco, to increase capacity.)
|Dried plantain leaves.|
2. Set the temperature to 95 degrees F. (This temperature ensures relatively quick drying while also ensuring the herb's medicinal properties and flavor are not compromised.) Don't pay attention to people or articles that tell you dehydration will be finished in a certain prescribed amount of time. There are way too many variables (including the humidity in your house) to say how long the process will take. The herb is done when there is zero trace of moisture when you break a leaf, flower, stem, or root. To speed drying time, always rotate the trays of the dehydrator, even if the manufacturer says you don't have to. For more dehydrating tips, click here.
3. If you won't be going on to part 2 ("Creating the Oil") right away, allow the herb to cool to room temperature, then store in an airtight glass jar in a cool, dark location. Be sure to mark the jar with the name of the herb and the date.
You may stop the medicine-making process here and drink the dried herb as a tea or decoction. Some herbs can also be rehydrated and used in a poultice (a wet mixture applied to the skin), though it's better to use fresh herbs for that application.
Part Two: Creating the Oil
1. Fill a quart-sized glass jar with the dried herb, crushing or chopping it first to help release its medicinal properties. Really stuff the jar full, all the way to the first screw band on the jar.
2. Pour oil over the herb. Most herbalists agree the best choice is olive oil; although some people use coconut or other oils, these are more likely to mold. If you won't be making a salve, but instead will be consuming the oil (obviously only using an herb that's safe to consume), you'll also want to make sure to use a good-quality, natural oil and not a highly processed, unhealthy oil.
|Plantain leaves covered in olive oil.|
You may also speed up the process by either simmering the oil and herb mixture over low heat for 30 minutes - 1 hour (using a non-reactive pan), or by heating the mixture in a crock pot set to LOW for 1 - 72 hours. Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature.
4. Strain the infused oil using a fine sieve or a strainer lined in a double layer of cheesecloth. Compost or otherwise discard the herb.
If you won't be moving on to part three ("Making the Salve" right away, store the oil in an airtight glass jar in a cool, dark location. Be sure to mark the jar with the type of herb and the date.
If desired, you may stop at the oil-making stage and use the oil topically - or for culinary purposes, as long as the herb is safe to eat. (Plantain is safe to consume.)
Part Three: Making the Salve
For every 1 cup of infused oil, you will need:
1/4 cup of beeswax pastilles* (If you prefer, you may instead use grated beeswax.)
Containers for the finished salve (I used these 1 oz. cans, but 4 oz. canning jars work, too.)
2. Pour the beeswax pastilles into the jar or double broiler. Now pour the infused oil over the beeswax.
3. Turn the heat to low and gradually warm the water. Stir the contents of the jar or double broiler occasionally, keeping a close eye out for when the beeswax suddenly melts. When this happens, immediately remove the canning jar or double broiler from the stove and turn off the heat.
|Stirring the mixture of beeswax and oil.|
|Preparing to pour the beeswax mixture into salve containers.|
|Allowing the salve to coo|
|The finished salve.|
|Always mark the finished salve with a name and date.|
To Use the Salve
Using clean fingers, apply externally to the affected area. In the case of the plantain salve, apply to bug bites, stings, or minor abrasions.
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