I think one of the most daunting things about transitioning from typical Western Medicine to more of an herbal based form of healthcare was not speaking the language. I have always been drawn to the images of herbs hung for drying, countless potions on shelves, and even the strange powders and poultices being ground in bowls. I knew these things held both magick and medicine but I was intimidated by my lack of knowledge. It turns out that the plants themselves were easy enough to understand. It was the terminology surrounding the preparations that were truly confusing. I don’t want you to be confused or intimidated when reading through the herbal guides so I’m compiling a list of the most frequent and basic preparations here.
The best part about many of these preparations is that they also serve as preservatives. If you are even the teensiest bit in tune with nature you know that it has cycles of life and death, growth and dormancy. That means the very plants we need may not be available when we need them. By preserving herbs in their dried form or in things such as tinctures or balms, we can keep a well stocked medicine chest ready for whatever comes our way.
One of the things to remember about herbal preparations, is that potency is almost impossible to gauge. It is affected not only by your preparation methods but my the growing conditions as well. For most applications, this isn’t super important because you’ll primarily have simple, safe plant allies in your apothecary. This becomes a concern when you start messing with more dangerous plants, which your studies should show with many precautions, or when you’re dealing with more severe diseases that require specific dosing – usually under the supervision of a medical professional.
Balms/Salves/Ointments: There are distinctions to these preparations depending on their consistency and volatile oil content. For simplicity’s sake, I use these terms pretty much interchangeably. They are all essentially just a blend of herbs, oils, herbal oils, wax, and/or essential oils. The main difference is that balms have a higher volatile (essential) oils than salves. Both have a fairly firm consistency. An ointment is the same thing with a mushier consistency. Since I think texture, much like taste, is a personal choice in almost everything, the terms get intermingled.
Capsules: This is probably the closest you’re going to get to pharmaceutical medicine. Literally, it is just a pill shaped vegetable or gelatin container that has been stuffed full of dried herbs. You swallow it just like a pill. No prep time. No taste. No fuss. You can purchase these pre-made or you can fairly inexpensively purchase equipment to make your own.
Chewables: This is kind of a catch all term for any preparation that is, well, chewable. Or suckable? That sounds terrible. These preparations include Electuaries, Gels, Lozenges, and Pastilles. Don’t let those terms intimidate you. They’re just a bunch of words that are essentially the same thing separated by consistency. Generally, the consistency and appropriate name will be given in any particular recipes. Just know that everything in this category is great for people that can’t swallow pills, for kids, and people who are otherwise opposed to things like tea.
Compress: Compresses can be warm or cold and are good for covering large areas of the body. Essentially you make an infusion of your desired herbs, strain them out, and then dip a cloth in the liquid. You can also add tinctured herbs to the liquid. Once the cloth is soaked, you wring it out and place it on the body.
This is also called a Fomentation. Linen bandages and other thin cloths work best for this application.
Creams: A cream is any hydrating herbal substance that is applied topically. Generally, it is an oil and water emulsion designed to not only treat the surface of the skin but to actually absorb beneath the surface.
Douches, Enemas, and Suppositories: These herbal preparations are intended to be administered either vaginally or rectally. While not the most common preparation in your home apothecary, they do have advantages in reaching specified local irritation. They are also easily absorbed and, in the case of severe gastric upset, may be the only available mode of administration. Douches and enemas are liquid applications while suppositories are solid applications made by combining herbal extract with a solid fat like cocoa butter. When inserted, the fat melts, soothing the mucus membranes and allowing the herbal properties to be absorbed into the bloodstream.
Honeys: This one is really self explanatory. An herbal infused honey combines the nurturing properties of honey with the added benefits of whichever herb you infuse it with. It has the added benefit of sweetening or masking otherwise unpalatable flavors. Mostly used internally, honey can also be applied externally to wounds such as burns.
Oils: Herbal oils are just oils (such as almond, avocado, and olive to name a few) that have been infused with the properties of herbs and then had the herbs strained out. The carrier oils often have beneficial properties of their own. This is very similar to the culinary application used for dressings. It can also used externally and is wonderful for things like ear drops.
Poultice: Often confused with compresses, a poultice uses the actual plant matter in application rather than an infusion. Poultices are basically just fresh or dried herbs mashed up into a paste. Typically, they are warmed, applied directly to the skin, and covered with a cloth to hold them in place. Of course I have also been known to simply chew up herbs like plantain and apply directly to the skin in the case of bug bites. Talk about a simple poultice!
Powders: Powders are just dried herbs that have been ground down to a fine substance. They can be added to other substances of the same texture, like clay or talc powder, but in its purest form a powder is simply any substance that has been ground super finely.
Rinse or Wash: Rinses and washes are just infusions that have cooled.
Spray: Herbal sprays are great for external applications (think bug spray) or for hard to reach applications like sore throats. They can be made from essential oils or herbal infusions.
Steam: Steams are great for things like congestion. You pour boiling water over the herbs so that their desired properties evaporate and can be inhaled. There are many ways to achieve breathing in those wonderful properties but my favorite is the shower. Steams can be made with fresh and dried herbs as well as essential oils.
Syrups: Very similar to honeys, and often employing honey within them, syrups are thick sweet liquids with herbal extracts added. Herbal syrups are great for kids and anyone else that dislikes strong teas or medicines.
Tea: This includes both decoctions and infusions. Which method you use depends upon the herb itself and what your desired outcome is. A decoction is best for roots, bark, and seeds that require constant heat to give up their properties and don’t contain a lot of essential oils that would be lost with heat.
An infusion is closer to our typical cup of tea. Basically, you’re just pouring over boiling water and letting the herb steep for a determined amount of time. Of course, longer infusions may be necessary to draw out medicinal properties.
Tinctures and Glycerites: A tincture is just an extract that uses alcohol to pull out the medicinal properties of the plant. You want to use an alcohol that is between 40-50% alcohol by volume (80-100 proof) so that it pulls out both the alcohol and the water soluable properties. I do not recommend using any alcohol higher than 50% by volume. Alcohol is preferable for making tinctures because it is such an excellent solvent and because it does not require a preservative. Alcohol tinctures will last indefinitely and are consumed orally. A glycerite is similar to a tincture except that it uses glycerine rather than alcohol as the solvent. It is not quite as effective at pulling out the medicinal properties, and it won’t last nearly as long, but it is good for alcoholics or anyone that prefers their medication without alcohol. There are long standing arguments for and against giving tinctures to children. My personal viewpoint is that since tinctures are generally dosed in drops, the actual amount of alcohol consumed is negligent.
Vinegars: Herbal vinegars are just an infusion of herbs into vinegar. Vinegar is a good choice because it has its own natural preservative properties. Not as long lasting as alcohol, but fairly good none the less. They are great for medicinal and culinary purposes. If you add honey to your herbal vinegar it becomes an oxymel.
Wines: I debated even including this one on the list because at first glance, it seems so self explanatory.
But them I realized that I probably should because someone might ask, “Are the herbs infused before or after the wine making process?” The answer is both. It depends on the herb. At any rate, herbal wines are fun but not my go to remedy.
There you have it. No longer a foreign language, just a list of simple herbal preparations that you can use to stock your home apothecary. Don’t forget to subscribe for notifications as we continue our herbal explorations and get down to the actual business of making remedies.
You can also begin learning about individual herbs and their properties by Digging Deeper.
Or purchase quality ingredients from the Apothecary to start your own concoctions.
Disclaimer: Please note that I am a not medical professional and everything written here is a product of my own research. Don’t take any advice given here over that of a trained doctor. If you ingest any herbs, always make sure that you’re 100% sure that they’re safe. If you’re pregnant or giving to a child, always consult a doctor before ingesting herbs and plant you aren’t familiar with. Magickal instruction and spells are for personal entertainment purposes only. The desired result/outcome cannot be guaranteed as a result of using any magickal item, and should not be used as a replacement for medical/professional assistance.