I’ve been back from the Taproot Gathering for almost a month now – it’s crazy to me how much time has gone by. While I was able to start canning pretty quickly after I got home, the random combination of procuring supplies for herbal medicine making plus my trip up to Snow Farm have led to a slower rollout of what I learned about in my other class: herbal apothecary.
Originally, I signed up for the class because of my interest in using flower spritzes and essences for emotional health. I was introduced to the concept when I attended Squam for the first time in fall 2012; I was enrolled in a photography class and our teacher, Thea, shared a brand of spritzes by Lotus Wei with us. I found them really effective at calming my nerves and became interested in the idea of customized formulations that I could develop for myself. When I saw Holly Bellebuono’s class on the schedule, I thought it would be the perfect way to dive into custom blends.
Holly began class by showing us different formulations she had made, including in-progress infusions, herbal honeys, cordials, tinctures and oils. I loved this part of class; it really opened my eyes to the scope of what we could do with herbal medicine. Next she showed us how to use a distiller to make hydrosols, herbal water with a tiny amount of essential oils, after which we moved on to blending our own spritzes. Mine was designed to help with all the residual stress in my system from my old job and includes clove essential oil, basil essential oil, rose hydrosol and hyssop hydrosol made in class with Holly’s distiller. Holly also blended a custom essential oil for the class before we took our lunch break.
In the afternoon, we tasted several herbal tea blends Holly had made and then began work blending our own. We each made two blends. My two were a tulsi and rose blend (half and half of each) and a nettle, spearmint and lemon balm blend (50% lemon balm, 25% nettle and 25% spearmint). I was very focused on gladdening herbs and herbs to reduce anxiety in class as I blended, but would love to experiment further with more medicinal teas to treat cold and flu this season. I’m a big believer in echinacea for drying up fluids when I’m sick, so this felt like a natural extension of that. At the end of class, before going our separate ways for dinner, we also created flower essences, which was a really emotional experience for me and a powerful way to end the class.
I ended the day with a copy of Holly’s Essential Herbal in hand, really amped up to put what I had learned into practice. At one point in class, Holly said something to us about how women had traditionally been the keepers of herbal medicinal knowledge, and that reviving that knowledge would empower us as we treated chronic or routine ailments within our own families. That really resonated with me and got me thinking of areas where I thought our household was overly reliant on OTC pharmacy solutions.
One area that jumped right out at me was my over-dependence on ibuprofen for pain management. In class we tried out a massage oil intended to relieve inflammation, and it was really effective at reducing the tension in my shoulders, so I decided to look for a similar formula in Holly’s book to use at home, and I found two likely candidates. The first was an herbal infusion of arnica flowers that will eventually become a salve. The first step in producing the salve is to infuse the arnica in oil for two to four weeks. Since I had it to hand for a different remedy I used almond oil, but for a salve, I could also have used coconut oil, which probably would have been cheaper to buy locally. I do like the almond oil, though, and Bulk Apothecary has an excellent price on it. My oil is a little over a week into its infusion, and I plan to give it a full month to increase its potency, so in a few more weeks I should be able to make the infusion into a salve.
I’m expecting the salve to be the more potent remedy of the two I’m experimenting with, but since I was headed up to Snow Farm, I also wanted to make something I could put together quickly to use in place of ibuprofen while I was travelling. I opted to mix up a batch of the Deep Forest massage oil from Holly’s Essential Herbal; the recipe calls for ginger essential oil, which is said to aid in relieving inflammation and help improve circulation. Holly also says this oil aids in relaxation, which sounded like a great plus to me. I did find it effective, but the best part for me was seeing my mother use it. She had a pinched muscle in her shoulder the day I mixed the batch and also has chronic arthritis in her hands for which she gets regular cortisone shots. She was really into the idea of trying the blend and found it so effective that she ended up taking home half the batch. It was gratifying beyond words to see something that my hands made relieve a little of her pain.
While using the oil at Snow Farm, I found that it definitely had its limits – not surprising, considering the hours I put in on my embroidery while I was there – but it did help a lot. It’s really key to use a lot of oil, more than you might think you need. I generally needed at least a quarter-size dollop applied twice (applying it all at once was too greasy for me; putting it on in two batches allowed the first batch to absorb before I added more). After I use this batch, I’m considering altering the recipe some to produce a more ginger-heavy batch, or perhaps infusing some ginger in the oil first before adding the essential oils. I would love to try first infusing the oil with some fresh ginger from our favorite market in D.C.; one of the vendors had some gorgeous plants last week and I’ll be looking for them again this week.
I also tried one more project, this time more for emotional health than physical – herbal honey. My parents have a big plot of land and are both avid gardeners, so when I need fresh herbs or flowers, they’re usually my first stop. For the honey, I used fragrant blooms from my mother’s rose garden. I wanted to use rose for its ability to soothe anxiety and thought the flavor would be great for tea. Since it’s late in the season we only got one bloom at a time, but saving them for a few days until we could harvest more was easy. To do it, wash the petals, cut out any bitter white spots, and layer them between the folds of some damp paper towels. Slide the paper towels into a ziplock and refrigerate the bag, and the petals will last for about a week. In this way, we were able to harvest three roses’ worth of petals for this batch of honey. Since I was about to leave for Snow Farm, I put the rose petals in a small 4 ounce jar, covered them with local honey from the Farm at Sunnyside, and let it sit for a week. Ordinarily a day or two would be fine to get the infusion, but since the bitter parts of the petals were cut out, leaving it for a week worked out well. To strain it, warm the honey until it’s lighter and runny, then cover the top of the jar with cheesecloth and pour the honey into a new jar. If it’s not straining through the cheesecloth, that means the honey isn’t warm enough; I was feeling timid about heating my jar and had to heat it three times before I finally got it warm enough for it to strain. Being careful is fine – you want to heat the jar safely so you don’t crack the glass. I got an extremely fragrant honey, rich with rose scent and flavor. I’ll be rationing it through the winter and making quite a bit more next season.
Final note: herbal remedies are not recognized by the FDA as medicines and can’t be guaranteed to treat any particular illness or injury. The information provided here is intended to be an anecdotal account of my foray until holistic medicine and shouldn’t be substituted for consultation with a physician or other licensed medical professional.