A few months ago we posted about our adventure in drying some of the herbs we have grown, read about it here (“Save the Harvest” September 17, 2018). More recently we have started making our own herbal teas using some of the herbs we dried as well as purchased herbs. An interest in herbal remedies, holistic medicine, eastern health/healing, and nutrition is not something new for Sarah but I (Scott) have only become interested more recently due to my experience with Lyme disease, but that is a story for another time.
I was suffering from some stomach upset during a recent mild illness and we put together a couple of blends of herbal teas to help settle things a bit. The basic ingredients of the first brew were mint, lemon balm, and ginger. A second mixture had fennel seed added to it as well. Both were tasty and I feel better now so success! Okay, that is not exactly how it works but there is something to the use of herbs prophylactically and/or as milder alternatives/adjuncts to more traditional medicines. With that in mind we are going to begin expanding our knowledge of herbs and we plan to continue blending and drinking our own herbal teas as part of that effort. As we learn, we will try to capture the information here so any others that have interest can also learn along with us and because it helps us remember what we learn.
First, and this is important, we are not doctors or herbalists and are providing everything here for informational purposes only. In general, herbs can be used safely but there are precautions and considerations particularly for people in certain situations to consider. You should do your own research and take appropriate precautions including consulting your doctor as appropriate for your personal situation. Pregnant and nursing women should generally be cautious about everything they ingest or come in contact with, so if you are pregnant or nursing be careful and talk to your doctor. Additionally, there can be interactions between herbs and traditional medications so if you are taking any traditional medications you should be open with your doctor about any herbals you are using. For example, I take turmeric on a daily basis for its anti-inflammatory properties and I need to let my doctor know this because there can be issues with turmeric taken in conjunction with either blood thinners or stomach acid reducing medications. Just be open and honest with your doctor and you should be fine. Finally, it is always prudent to be careful about what children ingest or apply. Some things that are fine for adults may have very different effects on children.
Now that we have that out of the way the first question that comes to mind is what are herbs? Herbs can be thought of as plants whose leaves, seeds, roots, flowers, etc. are used for their flavor, aroma, or medicinal and health enhancing properties. We might distinguish herbs from vegetables in that we typically are ingesting vegetables for their macro-nutrient properties even if they also provide some of the properties of an herb as well.
The next question that pops to mind is how are herbs used? There are many ways that herbs can be used depending on what you are trying to achieve or the properties of the herb. Some common applications we have encountered or used are:
- Essential Oils
- Salves and Balms
As time goes on we will try to learn more about what each of these is, how they are made, and when they might be used, but for now we are mostly going to be interested in infusions. According to Merriam-Webster.com to infuse is to “to steep in liquid (such as water) without boiling so as to extract the soluble constituents or principles.” So an herbal tea is a form of an infusion where we are trying to extract the “constituents” of the herbs and consume them along with the water used to extract them. Often in herbalism a distinction is made between teas and infusions based on the length of time the herbs are steeped in the water; infusions steep longer and therefore more of the herbal constituents are extracted and made available. Typically a tea is allowed to steep for some number of minutes while an infusion may sit for up to hours before use. Some parts of the plant lend themselves better to teas as the constituents are more readily extracted from them, these are parts like leaves and flowers. More woody and dense parts of the plant like roots and stems are more suited to longer steep times to extract their constituents and would be better suited for a longer infusion or maybe even a decoction. An infusion may be done with something other than water, typically oil, but we will put off any more in depth discussion of that for a later time.
Another question that comes to mind is how will I use the resulting tea? In our case we will be drinking the resulting herbal tea but an infusion is sometimes used topically as well.
Finally, the question of exactly how to make an herbal tea from loose herbs comes to mind. The basic steps are 1) boil water and remove from heat, 2) Place loose herbs (1tsp to 1Tbsp) in a strainer of some sort to contain it, 3) Pour the water over the herbs and allow to steep covered for 5-10 minutes, 4) Cool to taste and enjoy. The steep time will vary a bit depending on the contents of the tea. Covering the tea during the steep is critical because otherwise you are allowing the beneficial volatile oils to escape in the steam. With a cover on the container the steam will condense on the lid allowing more of the beneficial oils to to remain in the tea. Based on the research we have done on how to brew tea it would probably make sense to spend more time on this topic in the future because there are tons of opinions and lots of types of equipment out there.
There is much more information available than what we covered above and over time we will get to it but for now this seems like a reasonable bite sized bit to chew on for one day. We have begun to compile a list of further questions that we would like to answer in the future so we will get to work researching and all learn more together soon.