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Don’t know what happened to December, it just seemed to disappear. But I see in November I’ve made the cardinal blogging sin – saying I will post about something and then not doing it. Ooops.
There’s so much going on in nature at the moment, it’s hard to know what the essence of this month’s moon is, so I’ve gone with the obvious – it’s the first full moon after the summer solstice. The best weather is still to come in the later summer (Feb usually), but people are intent on holidaying now. Personally I find this time of year increasingly stressful and have decided that from now on I’m not going to try and get anything done to a time schedule from mid Dec to mid Jan (when everything seems to be either hyped up crazy or just shut down). Maybe it needs to be the chill out moon, or the hiatus moon.
There is a dilemma here – I have this idea that we’re meant to be having a break, but in terms of the natural world it’s a very busy time. Lots of harvesting from the wild to be done and the garden needs attention. If we were to be taking our cues from the land we’d give up the idea of a big celebration at high summer and do it in the middle of winter instead.
So in the spirit of easing stressful times here are two of my favourite herbs for helping me relax: St John’s wort and lavender. I made lavender oil today, and hope to get some vinegar put up this week too. I use the oil for massage anytime I am sore or stressed and need a bit of TCL. The vinegar I put on salads, but if lavender is too much like a toiletry for you to have in the kitchen it makes a wonderfully scented hair rinse (dilute first). You can read more about lavender medicine by New Mexico herbalist Kiva Rose.
I also made some SJW tincture this week and hope to do oil too. SJW (Hypericum perforatum) is popularly seen as an anti-depressant (and it can be very helpful for helping people with some kinds of depression), but the herb is used widely including as a liver support, menopausal support and as a nervine. I’ve used it mostly as a nervine - it helps heal pain especially the sharp, shooting kind (including shingles and neuralgia) and for easing sore muscles – but it’s also a good herb to help manage stressful times. It seems to both strengthen the nervous system and help it to relax.
SJW started flowering a month ago (which was early) and is peaking now. It will flower for another month I’d say, so plenty of time for harvesting, although I find the best medicine comes from the earlier flowers. Here’s a medium sized plant in flower and bud, with last year’s old seedhead in my hand.
Infused herbal oils are lovely. Often you get subtle but distinct scents to them, and they can be used for medicine and/or cosmetics.
Here’s how I made arnica oil yesterday.
Prepare your jar first. You want it clean and very dry. I wash a bunch of jars and then put them in the oven on a low temp for half an hour to get all moisture out of them. Moisture and oil and plant material usually equates to mould. Let the jar cool before making oil as hot glass and plant material also equals moisture which equals mould.
Pick the herb. Pick on a dry day where there has been no rain at all for at least 24 hours. Pick later in the day if there has been dew. Plants have some moisture in them, but moisture on the outside invariably leads to mould in the oil.
Chop the herb. Not entirely essential, depending on the herb, but I like to because it opens the plant to the oil, and because you get more plant into the jar therefore the oil is a bit stronger. I usually chop roughly, occasionally I chop finely or use a blender.
Fill the jar twice. Once with the herb, and then again with oil. I use olive oil because it is very stable and it’s good for the skin. Once the oil is in, use a chop stick or something to poke the plant to get as much air out as possible.
Cap and label. Put a lid on to keep out bugs. And label jar with date, plant and plant part, place of harvest, and type of oil.
Check the next day. Open it up to have a look, add more oil (usually the level has dropped because air has surfaced). The plant material must be cover in oil (or it will go mouldy).
Infuse 6 weeks. In a cool place out of direct sun (heat equals mould). That’s the length of time I was taught and I like it. The long time allows the plant to be extracted into the oil. Keep an eye on it, wiping any moisture from inside the lid and topping up oil as necessary.
Decant. I strain through a sieve, and then squeeze out in a cloth to get as much oil out of the plant as possible. You can let the decanted oil sit in a jar for a few days to see if any water settles on the bottom and then pour the oil off into a clean, dry bottle. Dark glass will keep the oil longer. Store in a cool, dark place.
Use and enjoy!
Menstruum is an old word meaning solvent, and in herbal circles it refers to the substance (usually liquid) you use to extract certain properties from herbs, thus making a medicine.
The two menstruums most people are familiar with are water, and spirit alcohol (tinctures and extracts you buy in a health food shop are made with alcohol). But you can also make medicines with vinegar, honey, or oil/fat. Here’s an overview, and I’ll do separate posts in more detail on each menstruum.
Water: used for making teas, infusions, or decoctions for internal use, and compresses or foments for external use. They are used as is or as the base for further medicine making. The terms are used interchangeably and contradictorily by herbalists, so it pays to check what any individual actually means. Water is good for extracting minerals, vitamins, and other water soluble parts like tannins or mucilage. Usually hot water is used, but sometimes not.
Alcohol: used for making tinctures and liqueurs, or liniments for external use. It extracts properties that water can’t, and tends to produce a stronger medicine than water.
Vinegar: used for herbal vinegars. It is excellent at extracting minerals, so can be used to make a mineral supplement. Can be used to make tinctures for people that avoid alcohol but is not as potent as alcohol.
Oil: herbal oils are for external use, either as is or for making ointments or salves. Fat is the traditional menstruum but many people now use a vegetable oil.
Honey: a divine menstruum, virtually any tasty herb can be put up in honey for pleasure, food or medicine.