Herbalism for Beginners: Water-Based Preparations
There are tons of ways to extract all the good stuff from your plants. Common solvents include water, vinegar, alcohol, and glycerin. While alcohol-based tinctures are what most people think of when they think of folk medicine, water-based extractions (or herbal teas) are the easiest and most common way to make herbal preparations. Chances are, you’ve likely brewed yourself a cup of herbal tea without thinking of this simple preparation as plant medicine. Herbal teas are mild extractions that allow us to become familiar with the taste, smell, and effects of the plants we use. Incorporating herbal teas into your personal wellness rituals is an amazing way to discover which plants align with your personal preferences for taste and smell, as well as which plants work best with your body’s needs.
The three types of water based extractions are tisanes, infusions, and decoctions. While all three of these preparations are technically “herbal teas”, each preparation varies in strength and some methods are better suited for extracting vitamins and minerals from particular plant material than others. In this post, I’ll be providing step by step instructions on how to make each preparation, as well as a list of plant materials that are best suited for each method.
Tisanes are your standard cup of herbal tea. Hardly anyone refers to herbal teas as tisanes in real life, but you will find in deepening your study of herbalism that herbal teas are often referred to as tisanes to distinguish herbal teas from true caffeinated teas made with traditional tea leaves. I’ve decided to refer to herbal teas as tisanes here so that it isn’t confusing if you run into the term again in another context. Tisanes are great, quick preparations for herbs you want to ingest regularly. Since this is the least concentrated herbal preparation, you’ll find that it’s much easier to manipulate the flavor of your tea than with a more highly concentrated preparation. Tisanes can also be useful for helping more bitter herb extractions go down a bit easier.
- Gather one teaspoon of dry plant material for every eight ounces of water you use.
- Place loose herbs in a cup, or place them in a tea bag and place the bag inside the cup.
- Pour hot water over the herbs and allow them to steep for at least 3-5 minutes before straining (or removing your tea bag) and drinking.
Best Herbs for Tisanes:
In my experience, just about any medicinal plant can be used to make a cup of tea successfully. The most flavorful tisanes can be made with aromatic plants like lemon balm, peppermint, lavender, chamomile, lemon verbena, and holy basil.
Tip: If using fresh plant material, be sure to double the amount of plant material used. Unlike dried plant material, fresh plant material still contains water, so it is important to double the amount of plant material used so that your preparation isn’t diluted when the water in the plant cells are released.
Infusions are essentially long-brewed tisanes that can be prepared hot or cold. Allowing your plant material to steep for a longer period of time results in a more highly concentrated tea. If you are looking to draw out more nutrients from your plant, but don’t quite have the time to make a tincture, infusions may be a good alternative.
Hot Infusion Preparation:
- Gather one tablespoon of dry plant material per eight ounces of water used. I use a 32 ounce mason jar for infusions, but any heat resistant, airtight container will work fine for these.
- Bring water to a boil and then pour hot water over your plant material.
- Close the airtight container and allow the infusion to steep for 2-8 hours.
Tip: You can add up to three ounces of plant material per cup of water to hot infusions. Play around with the measurements to see what ratio is most enjoyable or effective for you.
Best Herbs for Hot Infusions:
Plant material that does not contain mucilage (become slippery when added to hot water) is best for hot infusions. A few common plants that make great hot infusions are chamomile, mullein, nettles, dandelion, elder flowers, and yarrow.
Cold Infusion Preparation:
- Gather one ounce of plant material per 32 ounces of cold water.
- Pour cold water in an airtight container
- Add plant material to the cold water.
- Close the airtight container and allow your plant material to steep for eight to ten hours.
Tip: Use distilled or purified water when making cold infusions, since the impurities found in tap water are not boiled out when making cold preparations.
Best herbs for Cold Infusions:
Plant materials that are mucilaginous (slimy when added to hot water) are best suited for cold infusions. There are also some harder materials like barks and roots that are easier to extract nutrients from using cold water. A few common plant materials best suited for cold infusions are: marshmallow root, burdock root, feverfew, slippery elm, mugwort, cramp bark, & fenugreek.
Decoctions are made by simmering plant material in water to extract the nutrients from the plant. Decoctions are ideal for hard plant parts like barks, roots, berries, and seeds, as they are typically more dense and take a bit more work to extract nutrients when using water. Since this preparation uses boiling water throughout the process, it doesn’t take quite as long as infusions but they are comparable in potency. If you have ever made a batch of elderberry syrup, you are likely familiar with this process. Decoctions are amazing medicinal teas, and are also used as a base for making syrups.
- Gather one tablespoon of plant material per cup of water.
- Add water and plant material to a pot at the same time. Cover your pot once you have added plant material.
- Bring water to a boil, and then reduce heat to simmer for 15-30 minutes, or until liquid has reduced by half (time will vary depending on how much water you use, and the type of plant you use.)
- Once cool, strain liquid into an airtight container and use immediately. Refrigerate for up to 48 hours.
Tip: I suggest completely using ALL water-based preparations within 48 hours to prevent bacterial growth & to ensure the potency of your preparation. Don’t let all of your hard work go to waste!
Best Herbs for Decoctions:
Again, the best plant material to use for decoctions are hard plant parts that require a bit of extra work to lure the nutrients out. If you use delicate plant parts in decoctions, you will likely overheat them and cook all of the nutrients out. You simply do not need this level of heat to extract the nutrients from most plants. A few common plants that are ideal for this preparation include: edler berries, cinnamon bark, dried ginger root, coriander seed, rose hips & turmeric root.
Learning how to make water-based extractions is the first step to making medicine at home. I hope you've found this guide helpful, and that you feel confident in making your own medicinal teas. In the next post, we'll be taking a look at glycerin-based extractions and how they can be best utilized in your home apothecary. Until then, happy tea time! :)
These quick guides from Michael Moore are totally free and provide complete lists of which plants are best for different herbal preparations. I referenced these to create lists of common plants for you guys, but if you ever need to match a plant with a water-based preparation, this is a great resource!
Standard (Hot) Infusions: http://www.swsbm.com/ManualsMM/StdInfus.txt
Cold Infusions: http://www.swsbm.com/ManualsMM/CldInfus.txt
Information about mucilagnous herbs: https://thenaturopathicherbalist.com/plant-constituents/mucilage/