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Cookbook Herbalism
Basic Principles & Skills
Traditional Systems

DISCLAIMER: These pages are presented solely as a source of INFORMATION and ENTERTAINMENT and to provide stern warnings against use where appropriate. No claims are made for the efficacy of any herb nor for any historical herbal treatment. In no way can the information provided here take the place of the standard, legal, medical practice of any country. Additionally, some of these plants are extremely toxic and should be used only by licensed professionals who have the means to process them properly into appropriate pharmaceuticals. One final note: many plants were used for a wide range of illnesses in the past, but be aware that many of the historical uses have proven to be ineffective for the problems to which they were applied.

Read First Solvents How to Make It

Note: There are a few pieces of valuable information that don't easily fit into any category, so you will find them set aside as STK (something-to-know).


There are 5 basic systems of medicinal herbalism: Chinese, Ayurvedic (meaning Life & Knowledge) or Indian, Egyptian-Greco-Roman (the 1500 BC Egyptian Ebers papyrus is the oldest surviving medical text), Arab (first modern pharmacists), and Native American.

I like to include a sixth tradition because I believe it's been in existence long enough to qualify and has developed into a definite system, although it's still evolving....Western herbalism. It is in fact a combination of Native American and Egyptian-Greco-Roman which was brought to the Americas by the first European settlers. Like North America herself, this tradition is a stew of ideas brought together to serve the needs of the many peoples it serves. Into the picture has stepped new scientific techniques and tests which will further develop it as a separate system and tradition. In time I expect it will be known for its professionally produced and finished products rather than its kitchen based beginnings.

topSTK: PROOF = the proof number of beverage alcohol is double its percentage of alcohol/water ratio (ie. 100 proof alcohol is actually 50% alcohol and 50% water).

All herbs require some type of solvent to extract the compounds we need. The following list provides the name of the solvent and then those compounds which can be extracted using that particular one. In making herbal preparations, two solvents (water and alcohol) are commonly used together to obtain as much value from the plant material as possible.

Water Some alkaloids, gums (limited in action, but does soften), sugars, proteins/enzymes, vitamins (some), tannins, glycosides, saponins, bitter compounds,starch (that which is miscible), polysaccharides (in hot water), pectins
Vinegar Bitter compounds, glycosides, sugars, tannins
Aqueous ethanol
50-70% alcohol to water
Limited alkloids, bitter compounds, enzymes, glucosides, salts, sugar, some tannins, vitamins
Glycerin Bitter compounds, glucosides, dilute saponins, tannins
Absolute alcohol Some alkaloids, balsam, fats, volatile oils, resins sugars, some tannins, vitamins, waxes
Lipids (fats, oils) Camphors, volatile oils, fat soluble vitamins, wax (when heated)

Extraction Ranges
Unless you have access to pharmacoepias it is difficult to know what percentages to use when using an alcohol/water extraction method to make tinctures from fresh or dried plant materials. I've gleaned my files to create the following list. The percentage amount refers to the percentage of absolute alcohol in relation to water of the total solvent liquid (this is not the same as a proof percentage number).

Common Name Scientific Name Range
Alfalfa leafMedicago sativa 40-50%
Angelica rootA. pinnata70-75%
Arnica flowerArnica cordifolia50-70%
Aspen barkPopulus tremuloides50-60%
Barberry rootBerberis or Mahonia fremontil50-70%
Bayberry barkMyrica cerifera35-60%
Benzoin gumStyrax benzoin95%
BethrootTrillium pelatum60-70%
BetonyStachys officinalis35-50%
BistortPolygonum bistorta35-50%
Black Cohosh (root)Cimicifuga racemosa60-85%
Black walnut (hulls)Juglans nigra40-50%
BladderwrackFucus spp40-50%
Blessed ThistleCnicus benedictus45-60%
Blood rootSanguinaria canadensis55-70%
Blue Cohosh (root)Caulophyllum thalictroides40-70%
Blue flag (root)Iris versicolor65-90%
Blue Vervain (leaf and flower)Verbena hastata40-50%
Burdock (root)Arctium lappa40-50%; seed 60-70%
Broom (flowering tops)Cytisus scoparius40-65%
Buchu (leaf)Agathosma betulina and
A. crenulata
Calamus (root)Acorus calamus50-65%
Calendula (flower)Calendula officinalis50-80%
Cascara sagradaRhamnus purshiana20%
Catnip (leaf)Nepeta cataria50-60%
Cayenne fruitCapsicum frutescens80-95%
Chamomile (flower)Anthemis nobilis45-65%
ChaparrelLarrea divaricata70-75%
Chaste berryVitex agnus-castus40-60%
ChickweedStellaria media35-65%
CleaversGalium aparine30-65%
Collinsonia (rhizomes/roots)C. canadensis40-75%
Comfrey (leaf)Symphytum officinale50-65%; root 25-50%
Corn silkZea mays35-65%
Cramp barkViburnum opulus 50-60%
Dandelion (root)Taraxacum officinale35-65%
Devil's Claw (tubers)Harpagophytum procumbens50-75%
Dong quaiAngelica sinensis20-65%
Echinacea (root)E. angustifolia45-75%
Elder flowerSambucus canadensis35-65%
Elecampane rootInula helenium45-70%
EyebrightEuphrasia officinalis35-50%
False Unicorn root(Chamaelirium luteum)45-70%
Fennel (seed)Foeniculum vulgare60-70%
Feverfew (leaf/flower)Tanacetum parthenium50-75%
Figwort (leaf/flower)Scrophularia nodosa50-60%
Fringetree (bark)Chionanthus virginicus55-70%
GarlicAllium sativum65%
Gentian (root)Gentiana lutea35-60%
Ginkgo (leaf)G. biloba55-75%
Ginseng (root)Panax quinquefolium25-70%
GoldenrodSolidago canadensis45-65%
Goldenseal (root)Hydrastis canadensis50-65%
Gotu kola (herb)Centella asiatica25-60%
Grindelia (buds/flowers)G. camporum65-70%
Hawthorn (berry)Crataegus laevigata40-70%
Hops (strobile)Humulus lupulus50-75%
HorehoundMarrubium vulgare35-65%
HorseradishArmoracia rusticana40-55%
HorsetailEquisetum arvense35-65%
Hydrangea (root)Hydrangea arborescens30-50%
Hyssop (herb)Hyssopus officinalis35-60%
Juniper (berry)Juniperus communis60-75%
Kava kavaPiper methysticum60-75%
Licorice rootGlycyrrhiza glabra20-75%
Lobelia (herb)Lobelia inflata40-70%
Ma HuangEphedra spp20-65%
Maidenhair fernAdiantum capillus-veneris60%
MarshmallowAlthaea officinalis20-65%
Milk thistle (seed)Silybum marianum70-95%
Motherwort (herb)Leonorus cardiaca45-70%
MugwortArtemisia vulgaris40-50%
Mullein (flowers)Verbascum thapsus35-70%; leaf/root 50-60%
Myrrh (gum)Commiphora myrrha85-95%
Nettle (leaf)Urtica dioica35-50%
OatsAvena sativa40-65%
Oregon Grape rootMahonia aquifolium45-70%
Osha rootLigusticum porterii60-75%
PeriwinkleVinca minor35-50%
PassionflowerPassiflora incarnata40-65%
PeppermintMentha piperita45-60%
Pipsissewa (herb)Chimaphila umbellata35--60%
Plantain (leaf)Plantago major35-55%
Pleurisy (root)Asclepias tuberosa40-50%
Poke rootPhytolacca americana40-65%
Prickly ash (bark)Zanthoxylum americana55-70%
Propolisbee secretion derived from aspen and poplar65-95%
Pulsatilla (flowering plant)P. vulgaris70%
Red clover (flower)Trifolium pratense40-65%
Red raspberry (leaf)Rubus idaeus35-50%
Red root/New Jersey TeaCeanothus americanus35%
SageSalvia officinalis/ S. apiana50-75%
Saw Palmetto (berry)Serenoa repens50-80% (must include lipids)
Shepherd's purseCapsella bursa-pastoris40-65%
SkullcapScutellaria lateriflora45-65%
Spikenard (root)Aralia racemosa50-60%
SquawvineMitchella repens35-65%
St.Johnswort (leaf/flower)Hypericum perforatum55-65%
ToadflaxLinaria vulgaris50--65%
Turkey rhubarb (root)Rheum palmatum35-50%
Usnea (lichen)Usnea spp70-95%
Uva ursiArctostaphylos uva-ursi40-65%
Valerian (root)Valeriana officinalis50-65%
White Oak barkQuercus alba15-50%
White pinePinus album60%
White willow (bark)Salix alba35-50%
Wild Geranium (root)Geranium maculatum35-55%
Wild Ginger (root)Asarum canadense60-75%
Wild Indigo (root)Baptisia tinctoria50-65%
Wild yam rootDioscorea spp55-65%
Witch hazel (bark)Hammamelis virginiana40-65%
Yarrow (flower)Achillea millefolium35-65%
Yellow dock (root)Rumex crispus40-50%
Yucca (root)Yucca spp65%

topSTK: Tincture can be used directly on skin.

How to Make It

Bolus: (Used to draw out toxins and reduce cysts and tumors in vagina or rectum) Mix powdered herbs together and add a tbsp of the herbs to a small amount of melted cocoa butter to form a pie-dough consistency. Roll the mass to form the bolus. Refrigerate to solidify the cocoa butter and then allow to reach room temp before using.

Castor Oil Pack: (Used for deep tissue and organ healing, major infection, congestion and old hard-to-heal injuries) 6 oz Castor oil, wool flannel cloth (or equivalent), plastic sheet, electric heating pad or hot water bottle, large bath towel. Fold cloth to a measurement of about a foot square so that there are about 4 layers of fabric. Lay the cloth on the plastic sheet and pour the warmed castor oil onto it so that it is thoroughly saturated but not dripping. Apply to the area to be treated and then cover with the plastic. Place the hot water bottle or heating pad (on medium heat setting) on top of the plastic. Heating pad can be turned up to high if desired for maximum healing benefits, but be careful that this can be tolerated by sensitive skins. Leave in place for 1 to 8 hours. When finished clean the skin with a solution of 1 tsp baking soda in 1 pint of cool water. Cloth can be stored in plastic bag in the refrigerator for the next use.

Decoction: (Used when volatile oils are not required from the plant material as these are boiled away in the process).

GENERAL: 1 oz of herb to 1 pint water; bring water to a rolling boil, then add herbs and cover; reduce heat; let mixture simmer for 20 to 30 min over low heat.

DOUBLE DECOCTION: (Based on 3 cups of water reduced to 2 cups). After making the first decoction using 3 cups water reduced to 2 cups, drain off the liquid and reserve; add two more cups of water to the original herbs and simmer down to 1 cup; add the 1 cup to the first 2 cups for a total of 3 cups.
Another Way: 1 oz plant material to 2-1/2 cups water (makes 1 pint); soak herbs in water for 10 min then boil and simmer 10 to 15 min; leave to soak another 10 min; keep covered throughout the process; strain, cool and use.

LEVELS OF DECOCTIONS: First decoction: contains more volatile constitutents. Double decoction: each further decoction brings out other biochemical constitutents with the minerals being the last to be obtained.

Extract, Cold percolation: The purpose of a cold extract is to release the most volatile ingredieint while withdrawing only small amounts of the bitter principles and mineral salts. Soft plant parts such as leaves and flowers are often cold extracted. A standard preparation is 2 tbsp per 1 cup of water. In cold percolation the liquid is slowly dripped through the powdered herbs at a measured rate. Laboratory equipment consisting of a glass cone with a hole at the tip is employed commercially, but a home version can be made using a glass, cone-shaped bottle (wine vinegar, wine or bottled water come in this shape) that has a plastic cap. Remove the bottom of the bottle with a glass cutter (smooth edges with sand paper) and sterilize the bottle.

METHOD: Moisten the herbs with some of the liquid and make them evenly damp. Place the plastic cap loosely on the bottle and place with the cap end down into the mouth of a large jug (large canning jars work well). Place a coffee filter inside the bottle and mold it to fit (dampen it if it fights you). Make sure the herbs stay loose and don't get packed down while you place them into the bottle. Cover the open end of the bottle with some plastic wrap. Allow this to sit for 4 to 6 hours while the herbs become totally moistened by their dampening. Then add some of the liquid (usually alcohol/water) until the herbs are saturated and the liquid above them is clear. As soon as the liquid begins to seep from the bottle cap, remove the bottle and screw the cap on tightly. Replace the bottle and cover the open end again and allow this to sit for 24 hours. Then begin the percolation process by unscrewing the cap part way until the liquid is dripping out at the rate of 1 drop every 3 seconds (this takes a bit of fiddling around with the cap, but practice will make you an expert on the drip rate of bottle caps). Gradually add more solvent as the bottle empties. Continue until you have collected all the liquid that your recipe calls for.

Extract, Fresh: First find the water content of your fresh plant specimen. Weigh 2 oz of the fresh herb and then dry it using the microwave or a dehydrator. Weigh the now dried specimen. Figure the percentage of weight lost in the drying to find the percentage of water contained in the fresh herb. Count this percentage as water when figuring the water/alcohol solvent ratio in the first oz of finished product. All remaining ounces can be figured at the usual 50/50 water/alcohol rate. (A more fully detailed explanation of this can be found in the instructions on How To Make Extracts.

Extract, Witch Hazel: 2-1/2 cups distilled water and enough witch hazel bark that can be thoroughly submerged by the water in the pan. Bring to boil; cover and simmer for 30 min; strain and use to make witch hazel water.

Ghee (clarified butter): (Useful in treating chronic inflammatory conditions.) Heat 1 lb of raw, unsalted butter on medium heat until white saturated fats condense and separate out from the pure unsaturated oil (this is the ghee).

Infusion: The same as making a tea, but steeped longer. Usually 10 minutes.

Juice, Herb: When attempting to obtain juice from dry herbs, soak in twice their weight of water for 24 hours and then press out the fluid. Lotion: The same as making a cream, only use more water.

Lotion, Quick: Mix 2 parts herb water with one part vegetable glycerine or combine herbal infusion with glycerin.

topSTK: Do NOT store any plant material in oil since botulism can occur under these conditions.

Oil, Herb: Infuse powdered herbs in warm olive oil in double boiler for several hours. Strain through muslin and keep straining till all bits of plant material are strained out of the oil.

Oils, Medicated: Ayurvededic method: 1 part herb to 16 parts water and 4 parts of oil (ie. 1 oz herb, 2 cups water, 1/2 cup oil); decoct until all the water is evaporated then strain OR decoct the herb in water alone, then strain and add the oil and continue with the decoction until only the oil remains.

WITH volatile oils (mint, camphor, rose, etc): Steep the dried and powdered herbs directly in the oil and let the mixture stand for 1 or 2 days before straining.

FRESH oils: Crush and mash the whole herb (ie. grated ginger, garlic, onions, etc) and allow to stand overnight in oil; squeeze through muslin to strain.

Oil, St.Johnswort: Pick flowers when they are just opened and crush in a tsp of olive oil. Cover with more oil, mix well and put in a glass container in the sun or a warm place for 3 to 6 weeks. The oil will be bright red. Press mixture through a cloth to filter all the oil and let this stand. Water in the liquid will settle on the bottom so decant oil from the top. Store oil in a well-sealed dark container.

Ointment, Quick: (Also see Salves) Add 1/2 to 1 tsp of tincture to each ounce of commercial skin lotion.

Paste, Herb:
Fresh herbs: Grind and mash.
DRY herbs: Add a little water and work into a paste; may be taken as is or mixed with honey or oil. If using oil, keep refrigerated; if honey, will keep without refrigeration.

Non-petroleum Jelly: 1 oz beeswax, 1/2 cup baby or mineral oil or sweet almond or olive oil; melt together in the top of a double boiler. Pour out into suitable container and allow to set up.

Pills: Decoct herbs down to a paste at the bottom of the pan; scrape decoction off the bottom of the pan and roll into pellets (make tiny pills for easier utilization); set out on a clean paper container to dry.
Alternate method: Mix a little water, syrup or honey with the powdered herbs and roll into pellet of desired size.
(Tip: The herbs in the pill are more effectively utilized if taken with warm water.)

Poultice, Basic Clay: (Clay is used to draw out toxins and foreign subtances, to heal burns and to repair damaged tissues.) 1 lb green clay and some distilled water. Mix clay with enough water to make a thick paste; spread paste onto the center of a soft cloth which measures about 6 to 8 inches square and has about 4 layers of thickness. Apply directly to the area with the clay side against the skin and press it down a bit so it sticks to the skin. Cover with a dry cloth and leave in place until the clay pulls away on its own.

Powders/Capsules: Herbs can be powdered in a coffee mill. If you'll be be doing much work with herbs, you should have one especially for powdering herbs. A standard size 00 capsule will hold about 200-250 mg of powder with the standard dose being 2 to 3 capsules taken 2 or 3 times a day. To fill the capsule with the powdered herb, place the powder in a saucer and separate the two halves of the capsule. Slide the 2 halves together through the powder. Fit the halves together and store in a dark glass jar in a dark place out of direct heat.

STK Preserving Flowers: If you are unable to process your flowers (ie. elder, rose) immediately, you can either pack them (don't crush) into wide-mouthed canning jars and then pour glycerine over the flowers until they're covered. Cap the jar. Or you can pack them in 1/3 of their weight of salt. This method is usually employed when preserving flowers to use in fresh sachets or potpourris.

Salves & Ointments Place about 1/2" of water in the bottom of an electric skillet to protect its finish. Add herbs and oil to a pyrex bowl or top of double boiler and place in center of skillet. Fiddle with control of skillet until oil measures a steady 95 F on a cooking thermometer. Allow to simmer gently at this heat for about 12 hours or until the herbs look "used up". Strain herbs out of the oil and return oil to a clean bowl or double boiler pan and set back in the skillet; raise heat to 150° F and add grated beeswax. Allow beeswax to melt, stirring well. Test by dropping a small amount on a saucer and when desired texture is reached pour into wide-mouth jar suitable for ointment/salve.
Also: Boil herbs in water until sufficiently extracted; strain; add oil to the decoction and continue to simmer till all the water evaporates; add sufficient beeswax until desired consistency is reached (melt about 2 oz of wax to 5 oz of oil); to preserve you can add 1 drop tincture of benzoin per each ounce of mixture or 1 drop grapefruit seed extract per ounce of mixture.
And Again: Beeswax, oil, fats, vaseline can be combined with herbs or tinctures. Place 2 oz of dried herbs into a pint of oil then heat gently for 1 hour; strain and cool for an ointment. For a salve add 1 oz beeswax or vaseline then stir well as it thickens and store in a jar. Store in refrigerator or preserve with tincture of benzoin or grapefruit seed extract (1 drop per oz of mixture for both)
And Once More: Grind dried herbs to powder and cover with olive oil; steep for 2 weeks shaking gently daily; strain through muslin (at this stage it is a liniment/ointment); add beeswax to thicken (now it's a salve). Store in refrigerator or preserve with tincture of benzoin or grapefruit seed extact.

Suppositories: The best shape for these is a torpedo-shaped cyclinder about 2" in length and with the center bulging and the ends tapered. 1 oz powdered gelatin, 1 oz vegetable glycerin, 1 oz distilled water. Place the water in the top of a double boiler and then add the glycerin using a whisk to combine. Stir in the gelatin and set the pan over its lower pan and heat over a medium heat until it becomes clear. Pour into a shallow glass pan and allow to set. Keep refrigerated and covered air-tight to keep from drying out. This can be used as a quick base when remelted and combined with herbs and then shaped by using aluminum foil as a mold.
Also: You will need 1 tbsp gelatin, 4 tbsp water, 1-1/2 tbsp glycerin (you can also use a decoction or infusion of herbs or even a tincture rather than the water by itself). Soak the gelatin in the water and then gently heat in a double boiler. Add the glycerin and continue to heat in the top of the double boiler over low heat until you have the consistency you desire. The more water that evaporates, the firmer the consistency. Aluminum foil can be used to shape a mold or you can purchase molds. Pour the warm liquid into the molds and allow to harden. Store in their molds in the refrigerator.
And again: 3 oz cocoa butter, 1 oz powdered herb; simmer herb and cocoa butter in the top of a double boiler until well combined and liquid in form. Pour out into a foil mold.

Syrup: 2 lbs sugar, 1 pint water. Dissolve sugar in water over low heat. Raise the temp to the boiling point and strain the solution while it is hot. Add enough extra water through the strainer to make the syrup measure 2-1/2 pints.
Or: Dissolve 3 lbs of brown sugar in a pint of boiling water and boil until thick. Add any herbs you wish to this to make an herbal syrup.
Or: Pour 1-1/4 cups of boiling water onto 3 oz of crushed herbs and leave to get cold. Srain the infusion and then heat until it is warm and then add 1/2 cup of sugar. When the sugar has dissolved, bring the mixture to a boil and gently simmer until it is a syrup consistency. Allow to cool a bit before bottling.
Or: 2 cups infusion or decoction, 2 cups sugar or honey; warm the infusion or decoction and then add the honey or sugar and stir until the sugar is melted or the honey is welll incorporated. Allow the mixture to cool and pour it into a dark glass bottle. Seal with a cork stopper (not a screw cap...syrups can ferment and cause bottles to explode so the cork is the best seal).

Syrups, Medicated: From jelly: To make a jelly into a medicated syrup, add 2-1/2 pints of vodka for each pint of jelly.

Tea, Medicinal: 30 drops of extract (about 1/2 dropperful) = 1 cup of tea when placed in hot water.

Tea, Concentrate: A strong tea made with 1 tbsp of herb per cup of water. Freeze the tea in ice cube trays and then place a cube in a glass of water for tea.

topSTK: A rule of thumb for making tinctures using dried herbs is a 1 to 8 ratio (ie. 1 oz powdered herbs to 8 oz of 100 proof vodka)

Tincture: Combine 1 to 4 oz of powdered or crushed herb with 8 to 12 oz of 100 proof alcohol (vodka can be obtained cheaply and works well); shake thoroughly and allow to stand in a warm place for 2 weeks; shake daily; strain and bottle in a dark container such as a dark brown dropper bottle. Take 1 to 30 drops according to the herb used.

STK: A drop of tincture is equal to 1 tsp of herb juice.

Tincture, Vinegar: To make tinctures with vinegar use 1 oz herb to 5 oz of vinegar for a standard tincture.

Waters, Herb: (quick method) Add a few drops of essential oil to 1 cup of distilled water.

topSTK: PREGNANCY (all herbs and their essential oils should be avoided unless under the supervision of a medical professional): the list is not all inclusive, but some specific herbs to avoid are: Balsam pear, barberry root bark, black cohosh, cascara sagrada, chervil, Chinese angelica, coltsfoot, comfrey, dong quai, feverfew, ginseng, goldenseal, juniper berries, ma huang, mayapple, mountain mint, mugwort, pennyroyal, pokeroot, rue, senna, southernwood, tansy, thuja, wormwood, yarrow.

©1998 by Ernestina Parziale, CH