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How to use loose herbs

Loose Herbs at the Haelan Centre
The loose herbs in the jars are divided into two sections, culinary and functional. The herbs in the culinary section may be added to soups, dressings, sauces, stews, curries and numerous other dishes. The use of herbs adds extra flavour, variety and nutrition to your cooking. Many culinary herbs are also used for healing. These include: sage, thyme, fenugreek, kudzu (wild arrowroot) fennel seed and celery seed.

Please remember that all herbs are potent remedies. Certain herbs are not suitable for pregnant or breast-feeding women, or for those on long-term medication. If you are unsure ask staff for advice. It is advised that if you use herbs regularly, that you refer to a herbalist. See also recommended reading.

Internal Use

General guidelines
The way in which you prepare a herb depends largely on the part of the plant which you are using. Herbs may be leaves, flowers, roots, rhizomes, barks, stems, berries, seeds or husks. The following table gives a rough guideline as to how each type of herb may be prepared. If you are making a blend of herbs try to keep all herbs in the blend to a similar type. Store herbs in a cool dark place away from strong smells. If the essential oil content is high, store in glass jars.

Method Part of the plant
Infusion Leaves, flowers, stems
Decoction 15min+ Roots, rhizomes, barks
Decoction 5-10min Seeds, berries, stems
Vegi-cap Powdered roots and barks
Stir with water (hot) Powdered roots and barks
Stir with water (cold) Husks, powders

NOTE: There are exceptions to the guidelines given in this table. For example, valerian (a root) may be prepared as an infusion or left in cold water for 12 hours to steep. Horsetail (leaves and stems) should be decocted for 5 minutes to destroy toxic constituents. If you are unsure, particularly if you take the herb frequently, it is best to check in the herbal dispensary available upstairs at the Haelan Centre.

Infusions are the simplest method of preparation. You may use either a teapot or an individual mug. You will need a strainer or infuser. Add 1 heaped teaspoon per cup of tea that you would like to make, and then pour on freshly boiling water. Cover the mug with a saucer, as active essential oils will be lost through the steam. Leave for around 15 minutes (less or more according to taste). Then strain, or remove the infuser. For mullein and cornsilk, use 2-3 teaspoons per cup.

Decoctions involve cooking the herb for a length of time. You will need a stainless steel or enamel pot with a lid and a strainer. If you are decocting seeds, particularly aromatic ones, bruise them with the back of a spoon before using. If you are using hard berries then crush them with a mortar and pestle. Most of the roots come already chopped. Add 1 heaped teaspoon per cup of tea, then either add boiling water and simmer; or add cold water, bring to the boil and then simmer. The simmering time and amount of herb can vary according to the herb you are using; usually one teaspoon is simmered for between 5 and 20 minutes.

Some of the powdered herbs (e.g. goldenseal, guarana) may be put into vegi-caps and then taken internally. Simply put the powder into a bowl and scoop the powder into the capsule.

Stirring into liquid (hot)
Some herbal powders are best taken in this way, particularly slippery elm. To make a slippery elm drink stir boiling water with 1-2 heaped teaspoons of the herb to make a paste, leave for a couple of minutes. Then add hot water or hot soya milk and ginger, cinnamon and honey to taste. You cannot take too much slippery elm - it may be taken as gruel for convalescents who are unable to eat solid food. To prepare the gruel mix half and half with a suitable grain and cook gently for half an hour. Goldenseal works better taken with water, as you experience the bitter taste. Stir teaspoon into a small amount of hot water and drink back in a gulp. Remember to use goldenseal sparingly. It is an endangered species, hence the price! Goldenseal may cause problems for the kidneys and stomach if taken on a long-term basis.

Stirring into liquid (cold)
Psyllium husks are best taken in a very large glass (1 pint) of cold water. You can use 1-3 teaspoons. It is important to drink lots of water with these husks because the husks swell up and absorb the liquid. They create a gel, which absorbs stuck matter and toxins from the sides of the intestines. A good mix for constipation would be equal parts of psyllium husk and linseeds. Stir between 2 - 6 teaspoons into a pint of water and drink before breakfast. Drink plenty of water throughout the day. Guarana, spirulina and wheatgrass powders can be stirred into fruit juice, fruit smoothies and shakes (use to a teaspoon of guarana, use spirulina and wheatgrass as directed).

External Use

Herbal Baths
Many herbs may be used therapeutically in the bath. Either run the hot water through a muslin bag filled with herbs, or make a strong pot of tea (about a pint) and add this to the bath when it is run. Herbs for healing include comfrey, St. John's wort and marigold. Herbs for relaxing include chamomile (German) flowers, lavender flowers and rosebuds or rose petals.

An eyebright eyebath can be made by infusion of eyebright herb with purified water. The infusion must be strained through a fine filter, a coffee filter is ideal, to remove any irritating bits of leaf. Once cooled the eyebath will keep in a glass jar in the fridge for three days. Eyebright is used for irritated, sticky or inflamed eyes, but not where there is dryness.

Ointments, Poultices, Compresses etc.
For information on other external methods of using dried herbs, see recommended reading.

Recommended Reading:
An Encyclopaedia of Herbal Medicine, Thomas Bartram, (Grace Publishers; 1995)
The New Holistic Herbal, David Hoffman, (Element; 1999)

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