Adventures in Herbal Remedy-Making

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One of my favorite parts of being an herbalist is the process of making remedies.  Of course, when one wild-crafts one must know the plants they are harvesting, whether or not they are at-risk or endangered, and if they are indeed the plants one thinks they are (vs toxic!)  See 7Song’s amazing PDF on responsible wild-crafting practices here, and of course check out United Plant Savers for their list of at-risk and endangered species.

I love going into the wild and collecting plant material for remedy making.  I love getting my hands dirty, smelling like the woods, and being in contact with the plants that make this type of work what it is truly about – deep connection.  From this deep connection comes healing, and an opportunity through the process of making herbal remedies to continue to harness and maintain the connection and healing from the plants.  Herbalism is so much more than “take this herb to help with this ailment.”  To me, herbalism is, “take this herb to help your body remember how to get better.”  When this remembrance occurs, the body is able to process what it has been avoiding, or unable to process, until that moment in time.  This is what herbalism does for me, for you it may be different!

A few weeks ago, I dug up a rather tenacious skunk cabbage root.  A series of pictures and botanical information from 7Song put skunk cabbage in my brain, and around the same time I ran across Sean Donahue’s lovely posts on skunk cabbage on his blog.  Needless to say, skunk cabbage was calling to me!  Down to the riverbed I go, hearing my husband say, “there’s nothing growing, are you sure you’re going to find what you are looking for?”  Lo and behold, skunk cabbage flowers were peeking up out of the cold ground!  I must mention, that I am using skunk cabbage roots and, really, they should be dug up in the fall or in the spring well before those flower heads poke through the ground (or at least before they start turning purple) when the plant’s energy is circulating in the root vs the flower.  I was not going to let several months pass me by, I just had to have skunk cabbage tincturing in my closet.  It was all I could think about for weeks leading up to harvesting this plant, and bordering on completely irrational thinking.  I am anticipating a weak tincture as a result of my poor harvest timing, but nevertheless looking forward to seeing what skunk cabbage has in store for me.

I plan on marking at least one spot for another skunk cabbage root, to harvest in the fall, as my chosen skunk cabbage did not want to come out of the ground very easily (that’s my first lesson in this adventure.)  The skunk cabbage was in the ground much deeper than I anticipated and really made me work to get it out.  I got mighty dirty, cold, wet and muck spattered.  My hands were very very cold, but for some reason it didn’t bother me the way cold normally does.  When the root yielded to my digging, I thanked it for coming out and carefully washed the roots in the stream, put the whole plant in the bag that I had with me – flower and all – and hiked back up the hill.  My husband did not understand why I did not want to dig up more roots, as there were plenty of skunk cabbages all around us.  One was enough, more would have been greedy for just one person’s medicine.

I let the root dry overnight, then washed and washed and washed the roots with a soft toothbrush to get as much muck off of them as possible.  I swear the roots expanded while I was washing and scrubbing them.  At this point, even with cold water for rinsing the roots, aided by a toothbrush for scrubbing out as much muck debris as possible, my hands began to heat up to the point of burning and then began itching from what must have been the oxalates.  I think the reason my hands did not get so horribly cold digging it out by the riverbed was because of these oxalates, which are neutralized through heating, drying and/or tincturing.  Second lesson learned: wear gloves when preparing raw skunk cabbage roots!

A little background on skunk cabbage, from Sean Donahue’s site, if you are so inclined.

I do not have pictures of the tincture in progress, the whole root/rhizome, being washed, cut up, in the jar, etc.  I’ll do another post in the future with a less messy tincturing plant!

When making tinctures from fresh root material, as I did with skunk cabbage, there are two ways to go about it: one is the folk method, and the other is a standardized measurement. (There is a third method: percolation, but I haven’t tried percolations yet and they are for powdered material.)  I went with the standardized measurement of 1:2 fresh in 50% alcohol, as per Michael Moore’s information.

Here are the steps, once you’ve gathered your material:

1.  Clean then chop up your root material very finely, or as finely as possible (sometimes it is easier to break up the material, let it soften for a couple of weeks int he menstruum and then puree in the blender.)
2.  Measure the material out by weight (I use grams, because I’m a nerd)
3.  Place the herb in a large jar
4.  Cover with the volume of alcohol needed.  In my case I had 250g exactly of root, so added 500mL of 50% alcohol to cover.  My jar was the exact size I needed as well – it was meant to be apparently!
5.  Seal the jar, then label it.
6.  Put it in a nice cool dark place, and shake it daily for the first couple of weeks.  Then, let it macerate for at least 6 weeks.  I have tinctures macerating that are over a year old, some I just wait until the time feels right and then I strain them.

My labels typically look something like this:

Sample Label

After the maceration period, you may strain your tincture and store it in a brown or blue glass bottle.

I strain/press through cheesecloth, and then re-filter the tincture with a fine mesh sieve if there are still plant bits in the tincture.  Modify the label so it has the “strained” date on it.  Some people put pertinent information on the bottle labels, such as energetics, Organs/organs affected, actions, etc.

I will post an update/new blog post on the efficacy of this particular tincture, and what it did for me, after it is ready in June/July.

Update 07/2014: it has been over a year since I first made this tincture, and I still haven’t tried it!  I look at the bottle every week, and still haven’t bucked up to actually try the tincture.  I suppose I’ll have to do that, as skunk cabbage tincture is said to only last a little over a year once tinctured.