Monday, August 4, 2008

Herbal Oils

I had a request to describe how I’ll be using the herbal oils I listed in this spring/summer’s herbal medicine making. I have to admit that while I have extensive experience with some of these oils, others I am making for the first time and can only tell you what I’ve read.

The first herbal class I ever took was Lip Balms and Healing Salves with Karen Sherwood of Earthwalk Northwest. I remember that class fondly as it firmly marked the beginning of a new path for me. That day I learned what a cedar tree was and asked Karen to point out plantain for me. (Not kidding!) Now it seems ludicrous to be that out of touch with a sense of place, but we all start someplace and that’s where it was for me, at the very beginning.

Karen taught me to use freshly dried herbal material for my oils, which I did with good results for years. This year however, I switched to using freshly wilted plant material and I really prefer the rich colors of the oils after infusing for six weeks.

Most of you probably know how to make herbal oils, but for those of you who aren’t herbalists and just read the blog because you love me (Hi Dad!) I’ll give a short run down of how I do it.

Simplest method for oils:
For most leafy plants I let them wilt overnight in order to lose most of their water content. The next day I chop them up very finely and place them in a mason jar. I want to fill the jar loosely. I then pour organic extra virgin olive oil over the plants, stir, and pour oil again until it goes to about a ¼” from the top. I then cover this with a paper towel, and a mason jar ring. I let it sit in a dark warm place, and stir it every day for at least two weeks. However, I stirred my comfrey, plantain, and arnica oils every day until I strained them off 6 weeks later.

There are variations to this of course. St. John’s Wort Flowers and Dandelion Flowers get put in the sun and as a rule I don’t chop them. For any herb I feel needs a little prodding, or I want things to move a little more quickly I warm the oil first, or place them in boxes or paper bags and then put them outside in the sun. I like infusing my cottonwood buds for at least six months, preferably a year.

Currently I mainly use olive oil and coconut oil for my infusions. This fall, however, I’ll be experimenting with using rendered lard. Every year my husband and I try to take large steps to gathering all of our needs locally. Olive oil and coconut oil are one of the only things we still depend on from far away. Luckily lard is available abundantly and I have rendered fat several times to make pemmican (yum!).

So how am I using those herbal oils?

St. John’s Wort: I have a much longer blog post waiting for pictures all about St. John’s, so I won’t go into much detail here. This has to be the most dramatic oil to make as the yellow flowers give way to a blood red oil indicating the presence of hypericin, an anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, and anti-fungal substance. To make this oil I gather the tops of the plant just before flowering, cover in oil, and let sit in the sun. This year the oil was a deep dark red in about four days, but I’ve left the flowers in for a couple of weeks now. I use this oil in a cold sore lip balm (along with lemon balm), and for topical use on nerve pain for clients. Many people report using St. John’s Wort oil as a sunscreen of sorts, but I can’t handle oils on my skin, so I haven’t tried this myself. (Maybe infused in jojoba oil…)

Cottonwood: If St. John’s Wort oil wins a prize for its brilliant color, cottonwood wins it for its intoxicating smell. I made up well over a gallon of cottonwood oil this year as I add it to all of my salves as a preservative. A wonderful all around healing salve, I use it on clean cuts, scrapes, as well as superficial muscle pain.

Arnica: A friend gathered me a whole paper bag full of fresh arnica this spring, so instead of letting it go to waste, I made oil with all of it. arnica is well known for its use on unbroken skin strains, pains, and bruises.

Comfrey: No matter which side of the comfrey controversy you stand in, we can all agree that comfrey is strong medicine. Used as a base in healing salves it works magic on diaper rash and healing clean superficial cuts and scrapes. This herb is so powerful you would never want to use it on deep broken skin, or on an infection as its cell proliferant capabilities will seal the skin shut, trapping the infection inside. Besides using it for healing skin, I use it on clients with tendinous and ligamentous strains and sprains.

Calendula: Bright and beautiful, calendula blossoms take special care of our skin. Herbalist Kimberly Gallagher not only makes calendula oil each year, but also freezes a good supply of blossoms for poultices. Last year was the first time I was able to grow calendula myself. Each day we harvested the open buds and dried them on the counter until I had enough to fill a jar. I let the flowers infuse for the winter, straining after six months. The beautifully golden oil that I strained off has been used in all my lip balms and vulnary healing salves.

Plantain: For diaper rash, bug bites, and healing cuts and scrapes, herbalist Kiva Rose suggests you “kiss your plantain” and I would heartily agree.

Hyssop: Hyssop is most used for its affinity to help the respiratory system. Gail Faith Edwards describes using hyssop oil externally for arthritic pain, rubbing it into any sore and inflamed areas of the body.

Lemon Balm: A wonderful herbalist in the valley gave me some lemon balm from her garden this summer to infuse in oil for my cold sore care lip balm. I’ve been placing this one in a paper bag in the sun each day and it should be ready soon.

Mullein Flowers: Mullein is flowering now in the valley, gracing our highways and pastures with long spikes of yellow flowers. Heather, from the Village Herbalist on says instead of individually plucking each yellow flower for infusing in oil, you can just chop up the whole flower head. I mention this for those of you who may be lacking in mullein, or for some reason don’t like plucking those waxy flowers. As for me, we’ve got plenty of mullein and harvesting is one of my favorite ways to pass the time. And, as you all probably know, mullein oil is used in conjunction with garlic oil and possibly St. John’s Wort oil for ear infections.

Red Clover: I did this on a whim as it was the Herb of the Month on in July. Red Clover is known for its anti-tumor activities and this will make a lovely breast massage oil – adding a little spice to those monthly exams.

Rue: I looked to Gail Faith Edwards for wisdom with Rue. She says, “Externally, rue is stimulating, anti-spasmodic, and a rubifacient” and reportedly uses it warmed on nerve pain, strained muscles, nervous spasms, and neuralgia.

Artemesia spp.: Kiva says it best here.

Yarrow: Yarrow has been an important herbal ally for me for years as I’ve witnessed it stop severe bleeding in an emergency situation, as well as cure many UTIs. Its pain relieving and antiseptic properties make it a great addition to vulnary healing salves.