Your burning herbal questions answered


What is the correct ratio of boomslang skin to basilisk venom again? (Just kidding…Hermione already knows.)

Well, maybe not your herbal questions…but someone’s.

I’ve now participated (as a student) in two webinars on herbal medicine offered through Learning Herbs. I recommend adding yourself to their email list, as they send out a lot of free recipes and offer these occasional free webinars.

Anyway, there are multiple Q&A sessions scheduled during the webinars, and I see the same kinds of questions being asked over and over. It occurred to me that maybe some readers of this blog might have similar questions. I know from years of teaching that for each person who puts their hand up to ask a question, there are probably 10 more who were wondering the same thing.

Most of the questions boiled down to the following categories:

  • Practicalities (what to use, when, how much, and so forth)
  • Substitutions (what can I use instead of __________?)
  • Random specific questions totally unrelated to the topic under discussion

I’ll address FAQs from the first category, because most people asking for substitutions had specific herbs and specific conditions in mind (what can a pregnant lady use instead of _________, what can someone allergic to nightshades use instead of _________, etc.). As always, I am not a doctor, and this information is not intended to diagnose or cure. You know the drill.

How many herbs can/should I use?

There seems to be a pervasive idea that if one herb is good, all the herbs are better. People want to make more and more elaborate formulations using every possible herb that might be good for treating something. As Rosalee de la Forêt (the herbalist hosting Learning Herbs’ webinars) pointed out, the more herbs you add to a blend, the less any one herb is contributing to the mix. In other words, if you use 10 herbs, each herb is only contributing at most 10% of the mixture’s medicinal properties. Sometimes that might be what you want. But most times you only need one or two herbs. Adding an herb can tweak a formulation–for example you might want to warm up a blend for a cold person, or add an herb that helps you assimilate nutrients better. But you don’t need ten herbs all tweaking in different ways. Remember, you’re making a medicine, not a witch’s brew. Or to put it another way, you don’t need a bazooka to hunt ducks.

Also, if you have to purchase any herbs, the more you add, the more it will raise the cost of your creation.  You can’t by herbs in teaspoon quantities–usually 4 oz will be the minimum quantity you can buy in bulk at an average price of $3-$5 (plus tax and shipping) for that amount. If you put ten herbs in your cough syrup, it could cost you $50 or more.

Another consideration: you’re using plants’ bodies to make your medicine. If you’re using a root, then the plant gave its life for that medicine. Don’t use more than you need.

Yet a further consideration: if the medicine doesn’t work, or causes some kind of reaction, it will be much easier to figure out why if the medicine is simple. Did they get a rash from elderberry syrup? Maybe they’re allergic to elderberries. Now imagine trying to figure that out with a 10-herb concoction.

The point here is more is not necessarily better. Use the right tool for the job.  Use what you need, no more. Don’t overcomplicate. Remember there is a long tradition of using simples (single-herb medicines) with great effectiveness.


What kind of alcohol/oil should I use for extraction?

People asked over and over again what kind of alcohol to use in making herbal tinctures or elixirs. The answer is self-evident when you consider the use of the final product and the purpose of alcohol in that product. In both a tincture and elixir, the purpose of the alcohol is to preserve; in a tincture, the alcohol is also a solvent that extracts the herb’s chemical constituents. Both tinctures and elixirs are for internal use.

Putting it all together, you can see that you need an alcohol which is (1) safe for consumption (so you don’t die), and (2) of a high proof (so it has less water and preserves the medicine longer–remember, water = contamination). There are many forms of alcohol which meet the criteria, including brandy, vodka, grain alcohol, pisco, whiskey, gin, bourbon, rum, vermouth, and cognac. Pick your poison.

It is possible to use a tincture (alcohol extract) in place of plain alcohol in an elixir (an elixir is a syrup with alcohol added), but I think here you have to ask yourself why you are wanting to use a tincture.  If it’s a necessary herb and you only have it in tincture form, then go for it. But this gets back to the question of how many herbs you really need in a formulation.

Similarly, people ask what kinds of oil to use in oil infusions. Oil infusions are usually used topically (but sometimes in cooking) so the considerations here are that the oil be safe to apply externally, and that they facilitate the absorption of the herbal medicine. Pretty much anything will work, but I would stay away from highly processed oils such as canola/rapeseed, corn, or “vegetable.” In the old days they used butter, lard, and tallow, so those are also options as long as you aren’t a vegetarian/vegan. Beyond this, it’s just a question of what you like on your skin. It’s different from person to person, and you can only learn this from experience.

How much alcohol/oil do I use?

The most important thing is that the herb be entirely covered by liquid. If it isn’t, it will be moist while exposed to air and it will mold. (Alcohol will inhibit the growth of bacteria and therefore prevent rotting, but mold can still grow.)

The folk traditional method is to fill a jar about halfway with the herb, and the rest of the way with liquid (this is called the menstruum), making sure the herb gets all saturated with the liquid, and covered by it. This gives you a ratio of approximately 1 part herb to 2 parts liquid (1:2). However, bear in mind that dried roots can absorb a LOT of liquid. With dried roots, aim for filling your jar about 1/4 full with roots and the remaining 3/4 with your menstruum.

Dried herbs, perhaps couinterintuitively, are more potent than fresh. A ratio of 1:5 is sufficient with dried herbs, but unless standardization is important to you, it is not necessary to precisely measure the quantities. If standardization is important to you, I recommend having a look at Jim McDonald’s instructions for tincture-making.

fresh v dried herbs

Fresh vs. dried herbs?

The golden rule is that fresh herbs have more water content, and water allows contamination. If you are extracting in high-proof alcohol, this is not usually an issue because the tiny amount of water in the plant will not overwhelm a high-proof liquor. But you know the old saying, oil and water don’t mix–and accordingly, for oil extraction you generally want to use dried herbs. Some herbs don’t really dry well–like dandelion–and should just be allowed to wilt a bit before adding to the oil. You can infuse fresh plant material into oil, you just need to be extra careful. I never put a lid on an oil infusion with fresh herbs–I rubberband a piece of cheesecloth or paper towel over the mouth of the jar so that moisture can escape. If the oil smells rancid or you see mold, chuck it.

How long will dried herbs last?

You just have to wait and see. The answer depends on many factors, including humidity level, temperature, exposure to light, how airtight the container is, and the quality of the plant (freshness, water content, etc.). It should look, smell, and taste fresh. If it should be aromatic and it smells or tastes bland, then it is spent.

You can extend their life by keeping them in the dark, or in dark containers, and keeping them in low humidity.

How much do I take?

This is another question whose answer is “it depends.” First it depends on whether the issue is long- or short-term. If you’re taking elderberry syrup for a cold, you take high doses for a short time (say 3 cups over 24-48 hours). If you’re taking dandelion bitters for general digestive and liver support, you’ll take only one dropperful before meals, more-or-less forever. Second, it depends on your own body–in general if you’re taking a tincture long-term, start with 30 drops (generally one dropperful) three times a day, and increase little by little. If you get to a point where you have any kind of adverse reaction or just feel like you can’t stand any more, then back off the dose a little. If you pay attention to your body and you’re familiar with its signals, you will be able to tell when it wants more and when it doesn’t want any more.

Beyond this, you need to know how safe the herb is. Almost anything, including water, can have adverse effects at very high doses (but it does take very high doses). So do your research, use common sense, consult an experienced herbalist, and listen to your body.

How do I make an herbal tea?

Many people seem to think there is some special recipe for each herb you might want to make a tea with, but it’s actually very simple. Plant + hot water is the name of the game. But there are two types of plant + hot water preparations that correspond to what we could call “tea” in common parlance. The first is an infusion. To make an infusion, bring water to a boil and turn off the heat. Let it cool just until the water is no longer roiling and pour it onto leaves/flowers/berries/roots/bark in another container. This is how true tea is prepared, by the way*. Tea is just an infusion of Camellia sinensis leaves.


The second is a decoction. Put the plant material into a pan with the water, bring to a boil, lower heat, and allow to simmer.

Exact quantities and infusing/simmering time will vary according to the plant and plant part being used. You’ll find lots of info by Googling. Usually a decoction is used for a plant material that is tougher, such as roots or bark, while an infusion is used with more delicate parts or where the medicinal constituents or flavor might be destroyed by too much heat. A “nourishing infusion” is an infusion that is usually allowed to steep for a long time, for example overnight.

General principles

Do your research. Then do more research. When in doubt, consult a pro. Did you know that if you sign up for HerbMentor ($9.95 per month, with a  14-day trial for $1) you can take online courses, read monographs by a variety of herbalists, learn basic botany, and even submit case studies and get feedback from pros?

(I don’t get any promotional consideration from Learning Herbs or HerbMentor, by the way. I just like what they are offering.)

And there are so many blogs by talented herbalists. I will be the loudest voice shouting not to believe everything you read on the internet, but there are voices you can trust giving away tons of info and inspiration and even recipes for free.

And of course there are hundreds of wonderful books. I only wish I could afford to buy them all right now. If you haven’t yet tried making herbal medicines on your own, I really like The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual by James Green. It gives you how-to instructions that don’t assume prior knowledge or experience and shows how to make many different medicines.

Do your experiments. The best way to learn is to do it yourself (with the failures being more instructive than the successes, I might add). Some things can only be learned from trial and error.

I hope I’ve answered some of your questions, and if not, please feel free to ask in comments!


*English people are very particular about how their tea is made. As I was taught (by actual English people), the proper method is to place 1 tsp loose tea per person, plus “one for the pot,” in a teapot (or if needs absolutely must, 1 tea bag per person plus one for the pot). The teapot, incidentally, should never be washed, but only rinsed, because the patina (tea residue) improves the flavor. Pour just-boiled water over the leaves and allow to steep about 10 minutes. I was taught to put my milk in first, then pour in the tea, and according to Sarah Lyall’s The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British, English people would know from this that my friends are middle-class. Upper-class English people, apparently, do it the other way and refer to the rest of us as “MIF” for “milk in first.” But according to The Guardian, I’ve been doing it right. Now, pass the biscuits please.


3 thoughts on “Your burning herbal questions answered

  1. Pingback: Customize your chai for medicinal benefits | Worts & All

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