This post is by my friend, Andrew Johnson, who is an herbalist, craftsman, father, and all around interesting person.
Throughout my herbal studies, I have come across countless methods of preparing herbal remedies (tinctures, decoctions and salves). Though there are some similarities and common do’s and don’ts, the methods vary quite widely. I have tried many of them and found the methods that work best for my purposes, but choosing a method or preparation can be very personal. Ranging from a sacred ritual, to carefree and circumstantial, to perfectly calculated and measured to the gram, to sparse and businesslike for maximum profit, to triple-steeped and jam-packed for maximum strength.
Many herbalists will give out the ingredients of their creations but giving out their method is like a security breach of trade secrets. As for myself, if a beginner asks me “how do I do this?” I often give a range of simple methods and say “whichever you are more comfortable with.” There are differences in strength with each method, but the method you want to use is dependent upon several personal factors:
Are you going to sell them? If so, you have to consider many different variables, the largest of which is the use of common allergens.
How long do you want it to keep? If you want any sort of shelf life, alcohol (vodka or Everclear) is a common additive. There are also certain plants that extend shelf life.
What tools are available to you? Jars, fine strainers, and small scales are must-have tools.
When will you want the preparation to be complete? Depending on the urgency for the required preparation you may not have the time for 80% of the methods.
What are you comfortable with? Many recovering alcoholics hate even the thought of alcohol based products, as do some pregnant women.
Regardless of the method, label everything a LOT and be VERY detailed.
Let us go over a few methods for preparing salves/creams/perfume-rubs:
Oil >> Olive oil is most common as it has a long shelf life and doesn’t clog the skin, though other oil can be used.
Wax >> pure or pharmaceutical-grade beeswax is best although some people also use paraffin wax or petroleum jelly. The common ratio for wax to oil is around 1:4 to 1:10, and some books I’v read even recommend 1:2. It really depends on how had you want it. 1:2 to 1:3 is good for lip balms and perfume rubs but are way too hard for salves. 1:6 to 1:8 is salve range, and anything 1:10 or above is an ointment (semi-liquid).
Herb >> The ratio of herb to oil also ranges widely, 1:5 to 1:8 is common though I’ve noted as little as 1:16, and as much as 1:1 (1:1 is rather difficult to pull off and usually requires multiple steeps). When we speak of herbal ratios we are talking about the total herb weight vs the volume of oil, so 1:8 would be one cup oil to one ounce herb. Powdered herb is not required but it makes the herbal oil much stronger.
Steep >> The are two categories of steeping. Heat or Time. The Heat method, in my opinion, is not as strong as Time, but it does extract some properties/ability from the plant (anywhere from 50 – 100%). Use a double boiler as to not burn the oil, and let sit in the heat for 2-48 hours (depending on the herb), stirring often and making sure the water doesn’t run out underneath.
Time>> The Time method is tried and true, but obviously takes time. Minimum steep is a week with the most common timeframe being 2 – 3 weeks. A select few steep for up to a year, but that’s rather excessive. A difference of opinion comes up when it comes to WHERE you steep it. Some swear by sun-steeping, gaining the advantages of both methods at once. Others say that the sunlight actually damages some of the chemicals, saying to place the jar in a pitch-black cabinet or closet for the duration of the steep.
I hope you have enjoyed this brief introduction to herbal preparation methods. If anyone wishes to see what Andrew can do, or find what kind of products he makes for sale, they can visit Giant Tree Apothecary on Etsy. There’s a whole section on herbal preparations. I really love his muscle salve, it works like nothing else I’ve ever tried. I’ve included a link if you click on the picture at the top of the blog. By the way, he makes really sweet leather books, purses, dice bags, and even some interesting jewelry too.