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Thyme infused honey

After my recent post on aromatics  several people commented on the herbal honeys I mentioned which are surely one of the most delicious ways to enjoy taking herbs. Although I have talked of them often in other posts, I thought it time to focus on herbal infused honeys more specifically and explain a little more about how to make and use them.

Herbs that make lovely infused honeys include most of the aromatics- especially those with floral, spicy or herby tastes. Some of my favourites are plants that are at their best over the summer months including rose, sage, thyme, lemon balm, mint, lavender, chamomile or lime blossom. It is usually nicest to keep them plain but sometimes it works well to add a complimentary flavour, cinnamon or cardamom for example is delicious with rose petal honey.

Lemon balm in set honey

Chamomile in runny honey

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Making a herbal infused honey is very straight forward. All you need is a jar, a chopstick or spoon, some honey and your herb of choice.

You can use dried or fresh herbs. The benefit of fresh herbs is that they are softer so will be nicer if left in the honey where as dried herbs will be a bit chewy and you will therefore probably want to strain them out before eating. Also, the aromatic quality of freshly picked herbs is often much more vibrant. The drawback of fresh herbs is that they can make your honey more liquid, which is why it is good to use a thicker honey for infusing fresh herbs into.

You can use set or runny honey but if using set you’ll want to warm it in a pan of water to liquefy it before pouring. Just warm it enough to stir and pour, never overheat honey, as it will destroy the beneficial enzymes.

Always get good quality honey from a reputable supplier where you know the bees are well cared for.

Mint infused honey

Method:

First lightly pack your jar with herbs. Don’t cram the plant material in like you would if making a tincture, as you want plenty of space for the honey to go in and move around.

Next pour your honey over the top, stopping every now and then to give it a good stir. When you have fully covered all the plant material with honey, give it another stir and leave on the side for a fortnight before eating, stirring every couple of days or so to re-integrate the plant material.

If you wish to strain the plant material out then leave it for a month before straining.

For softer plant parts like rose petals or thinly sliced lemon balm leaves you can happily leave the plant material in the honey and enjoy just as it is however for tougher plants or those with bits of woody stem, you’ll probably be better of straining it out through a coarse sieve. Gently warm the jar with the infused honey in before you strain it to make sure you get the most honey out of the plant material. You can keep the spent herbs in the fridge for a few days and infuse in hot water to make sweet teas if you wish.

Give it a good stir!

Herbal honeys can be eaten as a delicious food, either alone, on bread or crackers, in salad dressings or teas or anything else you fancy. They can also be used medicinally. Though weaker than a tincture, they will still carry the medicinal qualities of the herbs and can be taken internally or used externally where they are particularly beneficial for minor wounds or burns. Lavender or chamomile are particularly nice for this purpose. Sage or thyme honeys are lovely taken for a sore throat and chamomile can soothe digestive problems that are exacerbated by anxiety. The fact that these honeys are both gentle and delicious makes them fantastic options for children, though remember that many people advise against the use of honey in children under two.

They can also be used cosmetically, either as a simple face wash or as a soothing anti-bacterial face mask. I sometimes mix a small teaspoon of honey with a little ground almonds to make a skin brightening (and delicious!) facial scrub.

Scented rose petal honey

There was also a lovely post recently on Nettlejuice about honey medicine which you can read here.

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At last, here is the final instalment in our cream making series, apologies that it’s over a month late!

Of the three recipes I have shared this one is the most complicated as it requires precise temperatures and the use of not one, but two emulsifiers. Once you have done it a couple of times though it’s fairly straightforward and it is a reliable cream that I have never had any problems with.

This method is taught by Aromantic in their course which I attended a couple of years ago and is very popular amongst herbalists that I have spoken to.

Pros are that it makes a light and professional looking cream with a very good finish. Cons are that it involves processed ingredients like emulsifiers and cetyl alcohol and that it does really need a preservative due to the very high water content. The high water to oil ratio could be a pro or a con depending on what you want to achieve. If your key ingredients are water based, for example a strong infusion or floral water, this would be an ideal recipe to follow but if they are oil based, such as infused calendula or St. John’s Wort, then one of the previous recipes would suit your needs better.

Ingredients:

Fats:
25 ml vegetable oil/ infused oil
4 g cocoa butter
4 g cetyl alcohol
5 g VE emulsifier

Waters:
140 ml spring water/ herbal infusion/ floral water
4 ml glycerine
9 g MF emulsifier

Extras:
2 ml Vitamin E
1-2 ml Essential oils
Preservative of choice

VE and MF emulsifiers are both available from Aromantic, see the link above, and are vegetable derived, usually from coconut or palm oil.
I used only Rosemary Antioxidant extract as a preservative which doesn’t protect well against bacteria and fungi so they won’t keep for longer that two or three months. If you require a longer shelf life then a synthetic preservative such as the mysteriously named preservative 12 would be better.

Method:
Begin by melting all the fat based ingredients in a bain marie or double boiler. At the same time heat the water/ infusion in a separate pan or double boiler and then add the other water based ingredients, whisking well to ensure the MF powder is completely dissolved in the liquid and no lumps remain. Continue heating until both mixtures have reached between 75 and 80 C.

When both parts are at temperature, turn them off the heat but leave the water part above the bain marie to ensure it remains hot. Pour the oils in a steady stream into the waters whilst whisking gently from side to side. Don’t beat the cream too vigorously or too much air will be introduced. Continue whisking in this way for five minutes to ensure everything is well mixed then remove from above the hot pan to allow for quicker cooling. At this stage I place the container in a pan of cool water to allow it to set quicker and continue gently whisking until it is cooled to below 30 C and nicely thickened.

At this point I stir in the essential oils, vitamin E and preservative and spoon into jars. Keep this cream in the fridge when it’s not being used unless you have added synthetic preservatives.

And that my friends is all there is to it. Happy cream making and a very happy Imbolc to all for tomorrow.

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It’s time for the next instalment of our cream making recipes, this one using emulsifying wax.

Emulsifying wax can be made from either vegetable wax or petroleum wax mixed with a detergent, so do ensure that you know which you are getting. I always use the vegetable derived one which is what most herbal suppliers will be selling. It comes as a flaky white solid which melts at fairly low temperatures and helps to thicken and emulsify fats and waters to make a cream. You will see from the recipe that this cream includes a much higher proportion of water compared to the last one I posted about, enabling you to make a cream that is not quite so rich and sinks in easily.

Here in the UK many herbal suppliers sell emulsifying wax including Baldwins here, Neal’s Yard here, Woodland herbs here and Aromantic here. All these will ship internationally but I’m sure most countries will have their own suppliers.

Pros to this cream include that it is simple and potentially quite cheap to make, it doesn’t involve any special equipment, just a few bowls and a whisk, and it is more stable than the cream without emulsifiers which can tend to sweat when exposed to temperature fluctuations.

Cons are that it is not completely natural and can sometimes tend to leave a slight residue behind when massaged into the skin.

This recipe will make about about half the quantity of the last one incase you didn’t want to experiment with quite such a large amount.

Ingredients:

Waters:
200ml of spring water, floral water or herbal tea.

Oils and Waxes:
20g emulsifying wax
10g beeswax
50ml herbal infused oil or plain base oil

Extras
2.5ml vitamin E
1 ml essential oils

Method:
First melt the beeswax and emulsifying wax in a bain marie or double boiler adding the oil and waiting until it is all completely melted. Whilst that is happening place the waters in another pan and heat until fairly hot but not boiling. When both are ready turn the oils off the heat and place the waters in a heat proof jug and begin to pour very slowly into the oil mixture whisking vigorously as you go.

Keep pouring and whisking until all the waters are incorporated into the oils. As they are still hot they will have a thin texture, a bit like milk.

Keep whisking until it starts to thicken, then add in your vitamin E and essential oils.

It should end up fairly firm and deliciously creamy, by which time your arms will be ready to fall off!

Spoon into jars, swirl the top and that’s all there is to it!

For my thoughts on using preservatives see the previous two instalments of this series.

 

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This is my absolute favourite cream recipe. It’s rich, it’s luscious, it leaves my skin silky smooth and it can be adapted in numerous ways. Though it has a higher oil content than creams which use emulsifiers and can therefore feel quite oily when applied, my experience is that it sinks in really well when applied to damp skin and doesn’t leave any residue.

In some ways it is the most simple of the recipes and certainly the most natural as it uses no emulsifiers (except a little beeswax) and no synthetic preservatives. In other ways it is the most complicated as it requires waters and oils to mix and can take a few tries to get just right, though if you follow these instructions and use good quality ingredients it should turn out well first time.

Other pros include the fact that it is almost edible so fits with that old saying, ‘you shouldn’t put anything on your skin that you wouldn’t put in your mouth.’ The high oil content makes it great for dry skins or skin conditions – it’s the recipe I used to make my calendula and chamomile cream which you can see here and also this wonderfully protective and strengthening hand cream here. You only need to use a tiny amount so it lasts for ages and it has a lovely look and feel to it.

Cons are that it can be more expensive to make than many other creams which have a high amount of water and little infused oil or butters and it will not last indefinitely as it has no preservative. Also it can be too rich for some people who like very light creams or have oily skins. Finally this recipe requires a fairly decent blender, it doesn’t have to be top of the range but if it’s a very cheap one you may find it hard to keep the motor running for long and have to add small amounts of water at a time, turning the blender off in between which can increase the chances of it separating.

N.B. Being in Europe I do my measurements in grams rather than ounces. I hope that is not a problem for those in the US, there are online conversion charts or if that is confusing let me know and I will attempt to convert it myself for you.

Ingredients: (variations in brackets)

Waters
250ml Herbal infusion or floral water (or 200 ml waters with 50ml aloe vera juice)
1 tsp vegetable glycerine

Oils
175ml herbal infused oil (or plain base oil)
75g Coconut oil (or a mixture of coconut and cacao)
25g beeswax

Extras
5ml vitamin E
2.5ml Essential oil

Method:

Melt your beeswax and butters in a bain marie or double boiler, then add the liquid oils and allow to become completely liquified, like so.

Melted oils in a bain marie

Pour these oils into your blender and allow to cool.

Whilst that is happening mix together the waters. You can use just floral water but the glycerine does add an extra silkiness. Aloe vera is great to add for sensitive skins or use herbal tea cooled to room temperature (make it double strength) for additional therapeutic value.

After a short while, depending how warm your room is, the oils should turn from this…

In the bottom of the blender

To this…

Butters and oils starting to cool

Like in the picture below, it will appear to be setting but when you move the jug you see that it is still liquid though much thicker than when you first poured it in. Don’t let it over solidify, though there may be a small amount on the sides that is set. If so just get a small spatula or wooden chopstick and scrape it down – don’t worry if it looks a bit lumpy at this stage.

Opaque but still fluid

Now turn the blender on to a lowish speed and start to pour the waters in in a slow trickle. If the blender gets stuck turn it off, scrap the sides down with a spatula and turn it back on again adding a bit more of the water part at a time till the full amount is incorporated. After which the cream should look like this.

Mix in the vitamin E and essential oils of choice by hand and pour into suitable jars.

Thick but just about pourable!

Spoon the last bits in then use a chopstick to swirl the top so it looks like the icing on a cupcake.

Almost edible!

This cream contains no preservatives but should still last three months. If you live in a warmer climate it would be advisable to store it in the fridge. Actually I have never had mine go off and I’ve kept jars for at least 6 months but I wouldn’t want to make any promises.

You could add a synthetic preservative if you wanted to ensure they lasted longer. At the moment I have only given these to friends and family and a few clients who I know understand that they are all natural and may go off at some point. If I ever get round to setting up that etsy shop and selling them to folks that I don’t know personally, I may have to reassess this question. I would say if you are just making them for gifts or selling to people you know, then keep them lovely and all natural.

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With the weather staying mild so late this year, Christmas has snuck up on me before I am ready for it and I realise now, with just three weeks to go, that it’s time to get into action.

Since beginning this blog, the topic I have been questioned about more than any other is how to make creams. Unlike simple salves and balms  cream making can be notoriously tricky as it requires mixing together oils and waters which naturally want to separate. There are a number of ways to achieve a nice cream with a good consistency and, over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting the main recipes I have used, hopefully in time for you to make some for your own Christmas presents too.

In this post I want to introduce some of the ingredients which can be used in cream making to enable you to adapt the recipes more to your own specifications. There are so many different base oils, herbs, essential oils etc. that its impossible to cover them all here, but I’ll include the main ones I have found useful after much experimentation. If you have any questions or want anything clarifying then do ask in the comments section and I will try to answer if I am able.

The three recipes I will post are:
A simple cream involving no emulsifier – my own variation on Rosemary Gladstar’s classic.
A cream using emulsifying wax – as seems to be most popular in herbal recipe books.
A cream with VE and MF emulsifiers – as used by many UK herbalists and popularised by Aromatic in their courses.

In my experience, different recipes work better for different people. I’m a firm fan of the first but others I have met prefer to use emulsifying wax. It’s all down to personal preference as some like a richer cream whilst others like something lighter with a higher water content. If your cream is for therapeutic use then you need to consider whether the condition you are treating is dry, flaky and in need of protection, in which case a richer cream with a higher oil content is preferable, or whether it is red, itchy, weeping  and hot, in which case a lighter cream with a higher water content and cooling, astringent oils will have better results.

Ingredients used in Creams include the following:

Base oils and herbal infused oils – Base oils are usually vegetable oils, pressed from nuts, seeds, kernels and other fatty parts of fruits and vegetables. Things to be aware of when choosing base oils include the consistency and smell. Some oils are rich and moisturising and good for drier skins like avocado, hemp, macadamia, argan and rosehip. Often you would only use these in a smaller percentage along with a lighter oil like almond or apricot. Oils like rosehip, hemp and macadamia can have quite a strong aroma, especially if they’re high quality and unrefined so factor this into your recipe and don’t use too much. Lighter oils that are good for oiler skins include hazelnut, grapeseed and jojoba. Sensitive skins respond well to apricot oil. As this topic is something of a vast one, I will dedicate a post to exploring some different base oils in further detail soon. Be aware that some wonderfully nutritious skin oils like borage and evening primrose have a very short shelf life, around 6 months, so ensure you get them from a good supplier and store them in the fridge. Never buy oils that smell rancid and be aware of using nut oils on those with allergies. Herbal infused oils are simply vegetable oils infused with herbs. You can read my post on how to make them here.

Solid oils and butters – These include cacao butter, coconut oil, avocado butter, mango butter and shea butter and they are rich and moisturising as well as adding body to a cream. For a lighter effect which sinks in to the skin easily use coconut, or for a rich, nourishing hand cream opt for shea. Cacao is nice in both body and face creams and, if you get it food grade, it lends a delicious chocolatey aroma to your finished product.  Somewhere between a liquid oil and beeswax or plant waxes in consistency, fats will partly absorb into the skin but will leave something of a protective film behind.

Beeswax and plant waxes – These thicken and add body to creams and also help a little with emulsification. They are not well absorbed into the skin creating a protective barrier that helps it maintain its own moisture and keeps it hydrated, especially during these wintery months with their high winds.

Waters – These include spring water, floral waters, herbal teas and aloe vera. You can vary them endlessly to suit your purpose. If you are making a plain base cream try using just spring water or if it’s a luxury face cream then use rose floral water. If you want a soothing cream with anti-inflammatory properties then try a strong tea of chamomile and calendula.

Vegetable Glycerine – Glycerine is a sweet, syrupy, clear liquid that helps draw moisture to the surface of the skin. In very dry climates it can apparently take the moisture from deeper layers of skin so best to avoid using it, but if you live in the damp UK, it can be a nice addition and improve the consistency of your creams.

Tinctures – A small proportion of a suitable herbal tincture will add therapeutic value as well as helping to preserve your cream. Try calendula in a soothing cream, comfrey in a bruise healing cream or yarrow in an anti-inflammatory cream. Do beware though that alcohol can irritate sensitive skins.

Essential Oils – The volatile oil content of the plant is distilled, pressed or extracted with solvents leaving a highly concentrated and powerfully aromatic liquid that can be used for strong therapeutic benefits or simply to make the product smell delicious.

Emulsifiers – These help the water and oil parts of a cream to mix and leave a homogenous finish. Common ones include emulsifying wax, vegetal and VE/MF emulsifiers all derived from vegetable sources, albeit after some intense processing! Another commonly used and readily available emulsifier is borax, though I have heard mixed reports of its safety and prefer not to use it myself.

Vitamins and minerals – These can be added to creams and usually come as a powder or in liquid form. Vitamins A, C and E are the ones most commonly used as they are good anti-oxidants and can help prevent oils going rancid.  Sometimes minerals like zinc are added to sun creams to create a barrier against the suns rays.

Natural preservatives – These include rosemary extract and grapeseed extract. Both are powerful anti-oxidants that can increase the shelf life of creams. They also have some anti-bacterial action but many say it is not powerful enough for products sold commercially. Grapefruit seed extract is more powerfully anti-microbial but there is much evidence out there that suggests it is quite problematic so I suggest reading the research yourself before using it.

Synthetic preservatives - If you are only making creams for friends and family you have no need to go down this route but if you are making creams to sell you may need to add a synthetic preservative which will protect against moulds, yeasts, bacteria etc. Though there is conflicting evidence as to whether all types are carcinogenic, I would avoid parabens altogether myself. The safest ones seem to be Preservative 12 and Preservative Eco, both sold by Aromantic. I often avoid using these where possible but for creams with a high water content they are necessary if you want your product to last longer than a couple of months in the fridge.

I will post the first recipe in the next couple of days so check back soon.

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Poultices and compresses are very useful ways to utilise herbs for ailments both external and internal. They are not much used in today’s herbal medicine, primarily because they are a little more time consuming and potentially messy than bottles of tincture, teas or capsules and unfortunately, most of us in today’s world are always in a rush.

Still, they can be powerful aids to healing and are well worth having a play with for conditions as diverse as skin rashes, constipation, wounds, sprains, IBS and respiratory problems.

Compresses and poultices are both external applications that involve placing a herbal preparation over the affected part of the body to enable the healing constituents of the herb to absorb into the tissue. The difference between them is only that poultices use whole plant material, either fresh or dried, and compresses use a liquid preparation of the herb, such as a tea. I prefer to use compresses for aches and pains, digestive issues and headaches and poultices for skin irritations, minor wounds and burns. I find both to be helpful for respiratory problems.

Compresses:

Compresses involve soaking a cloth or flannel in a liquid herbal preparation such as a tea, diluted tincture or an oil, wringing it out well, then placing over the body. They are usually applied warm but can also be used cold in cases of swelling, inflammation etc. For ease they can be wrapped in cling film to keep in place and avoid staining clothes, sofas, beds etc. In cases where a deeply warming action is needed, a towel and a hot water bottle can then be placed on top. They would usually be left in place for about 10 minutes and sometimes repeated with fresh liquid once or several times.

Compresses are particularly useful where heat or cold are appropriate as it is easy to warm up or cool down liquids to a suitable temperature. Here are some ideas for using compresses at home.

  • A compress of strong lavender tea can be useful at the onset of a headache. You can apply it warm to the base of the neck if muscular tension is a contributing factor or chilled across the forehead if the headache feels hot and throbbing.
  • A compress of hot thyme tea is useful laid over the lung area for coughs, colds and other respiratory problems where there is phlegm and congestion.
  • A chamomile tea compress on the stomach may soothe nervous digestion. If the digestion is sluggish, nervous or constricted it is particularly nice to apply alternating compresses of hot and cold chamomile tea across the abdomen to increase circulation and stimulate vital force. Make the tea and keep half in a flask so it stays hot, then chill the other half in the fridge. When it has chilled completely soak a flannel in the hot tea (it should be as warm is as is completely comfortable, be careful not to apply anything too hot to the skin) and apply to the abdomen for 1 minute, then soak another cloth in the cold liquid, remove the hot and apply the cold for another minute. Alternate between hot and cold 5 times each, beginning with hot and ending on cold.
  • Alternating hot and cold compresses are also particularly useful for sprains to speed healing and repair. Herbs such as elder leaf, ginger, comfrey or horsetail could be of use here.
  • Warm compresses of ginger tea can be useful to strengthen kidney function if laid over the lower back. Don’t do this if you are suffering from a kidney infection, though it can help to prevent them if used at other times.
  • Castor oil packs. Many people have heard of castor oil packs for easing congestion and I find them very useful in practice if people have the time and inclination to do them. They are useful for easing period pains, liver stagnation and constipation when applied over the abdominal region. To do a castor oil pack you need to warm about two tablespoons of castor oil very gently in a pan then pour onto a clean, slightly damp, warm flannel. Check carefully not to overheat it as you most definitely don’t want to be applying too hot oil directly on to your skin. It should be nice and warm but quite comfortable on the skin. Apply the flannel (oil side against the skin) over the abdominal area either centrally or slightly to the right over the liver area. Wrap with cling film and cover with a towel and hot water bottle. Lie down and relax for at least an hour before removing and washing off the oil.
  • Rose water and apple cider vinegar, or rose infused cider vinegar diluted in water, can be used as a compress for sunburn. Aloe vera juice is also lovely applied cool on a soft cloth.
  • In the absence of fresh plant material a compress can be used in place of a poultice such as a cool calendula tea for rashes or some plantain or yarrow tincture for minor wounds.
A good rule with compresses and poultices is that if it feels uncomfortable then remove it immediately. Anything that is too hot or causing irritation or itching is best removed and allowed to cool or discarded.
You can also make compresses with a few drops of essential oil dispersed in warm or cold water in place of teas or tinctures.

Poultices:

Poultices use whole herbs, usually mashed up into a paste and applied onto the problem area. The simplest form of poultice is the spit poultice, made my chewing up a bit of herb and applying to the skin. Plantain can be applied this way to stings and minor wounds and yarrow is great for staunching bleeding if you cut yourself whilst out walking and need a spot of first aid. A plantain poultice is also useful for drawing out splinters and boils. You can also mash the herbs with a little water and honey in a pestle and mortar or blend then down and apply directly to the site. You can also grate the plant material, as with ginger or potato which was used traditionally as a poultice for boils. If using spicy herbs such as ginger and mustard, you need to put several layers of fine muslin cloth between them and your skin to prevent irritation. Maurice Messegue, the French herbalist who was famous for his many cures, often used only external preparations such as foot and hand baths and poultices. He writes, “the herbs can be placed in a bag of finely woven cloth before being placed on the area to be treated. Which one of these methods is chosen depends on how strong the active elements in the plant are. If it is a gently acting herb, such as cabbage, there need be no hesitation in letting it come in contact with the skin. But if it is irritant or acid, with a tendency to cause redness, then it needs a brake on its action and the skin should be protected by a cloth. This precaution must always be taken with the true revulsives such as mustard.”

If I am at home I often use dried herbs in powder form to make a poultice as this is straightforward, not too messy and can be done all year round even if there is no fresh plant material available. I mix my herbs with an equal part slippery elm powder which is healing, demulcent and drawing in its own right, then add a little warm water and honey (preferably herbal infused honey if I have some to hand) and mix into a thick paste. I then spread it over the area in question and bandage in place.

Here are some useful poultices that are easy to prepare at home:

  • Cabbage. The cabbage poultice must be one of the most traditional of kitchen remedies around. Used for inflammations and swellings, particularly mastitis, it is very simple to prepare. All you do is iron a few cabbage leaves to warm them up and break them down a bit then wrap them over the offending area and secure in place. Many women with mastitis just wear the leaves inside their bras.
  • Mustard. Another traditional poultice for respiratory problems, make sure the skin does not come into direct contact with the mustard, see above. The onion poultice is another variation often used for respiratory ailments though in truth, I tend to stick to thyme compresses for such issues.
  • Calendula and yarrow. Great as a spit poultice or made into a paste from powdered herbs to treat minor wounds and skin rashes.
  • Comfrey. Well known for its usefulness in speeding the healing of sprains, strains and broken bones, you can mash up the herb and apply directly on the site or, if it is in plaster, just apply to the area above and below the cast.
  • Clay. An effective drawing poultice for splinters and infections, clay packs are popular amongst naturopaths and horse owners!
What are your favourite compresses and poultices?

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For a long time I was confused about the difference between salves, ointments and balms. Some writers use all three terms interchangeably whilst others have separate definitions, many of which contradict those from other sources. In this post I wanted to tell you a little about how I make salves, ointments and balms with the intention of sharing some hopefully useful tips and practical information.

Salves, ointments, unguents, balms, call them what you will, what all these preparations have in common is they are primarily a semi-solid mix of fatty ingredients such as oils and waxes, usually with no water part at all, though they may contain a small amount of herbal tincture or similar. This differentiates them from creams and lotions which contain both fats and waters.

Generally, ointments and salves are considered much the same thing; a healing external preparation made with medicinal substances in a base of oils and waxes. According to the Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health an ointment is “a semisolid preparation for external application to the skin or mucous membranes. Official ointments consist of medicinal substances incorporated in suitable vehicles (bases). Called also salve and unguent.”  All in all the definitions are pretty vague which is probably why we find discrepancies.

Suitable ingredients for a salve include many vegetable oils (such as olive, sunflower, sweet almond, apricot) and beeswax or vegetable wax such as candelilla or carnuba. In older herbals lard or animal fats were often used and these are enjoying something of a comeback amongst some traditional herbalists but, as a vegetarian, they don’t feature on my radar so I won’t be talking about them here. Many herbal books include recipes made with mineral oil byproducts such as petroleum jelly or vaseline but again, as I don’t work with them, I will not be including any information here.

As making salves involves some degree of heat it’s best to use oils that are fairly heat stable, the main ones to avoid are oils like flax seed, evening primrose and borage. If you want to include these then stir them in after the other ingredients have been melted and are beginning to cool.  Coconut oil is the most heat stable vegetable oil but as you will not be heating it very high, oils like olive, sunflower and apricot kernal can be happily used.

Beeswax comes in two varieties, white and yellow but the white is bleached and processed so I never use it, it’s always better to stay as close to nature as possible. Candelilla wax is derived from the leaves of a shrub native to Mexico and is slightly harder than beeswax so you generally want to use a fraction less in a recipe. Carnuba is a similar product derived from a Brazilian Palm. The advantages of these two is that they are vegan so products can be made that are suitable for everyone. The disadvantage is that they come from a very long way away (at least if you live here in Europe!). It’s a tricky choice as some producers of bee products are far from ethical or kind to their bees. I do use beeswax but always try to get it from a local supplier that I know I can trust.

Basic Salve Recipe:

90ml herbal infused oil
10g beeswax

Basic Vegan Salve Recipe:

92 ml infused oil
8g candelilla wax

Medicinal Salve Recipe:

75 – 80ml infused oil
10g beeswax
10ml tincture
2 – 5 ml essential oil

Method:

Weigh or measure out the wax (preferably grated or cut into small pieces) and the herbal infused oil and place in a double boiler or bain marie. Heat over a low heat until the wax is fully melted and then stir well. If adding tincture drizzle it in slowly now whilst whisking lightly with a fork. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly but not set. You can test the consistency of the salve by dipping the tip of a teaspoon into it. Such a  small amount will set quickly and will show you how the finished product will be. If you are not happy you can return it to the heat and add a fraction more oil/wax until you get it just right. Whilst the salve is still liquid, stir in the essential oils, pour into glass jars and cap immediately to stop the volatile oils from evaporating. Allow to cool and set completely before using.

You can make salves for use as chest rubs, for treating aches and pains, for protecting and healing dry and sore skin and many other uses. The recipe can be easily adapted according to your preferences or required ingredients. A very simple skin healing salve can be made with calendula infused oil and beeswax or a chest salve with olive oil, wax and 5% suitable essential oils. The possibilities are limitless!

Balms are similar to salves, some people class them as the same thing entirely whilst others make a slight differentiation.  According to James Green who wrote The Herbal Medicine Makers Handbook, “a balm is simply a salve that contains a relatively high amount of volatile oils. Upon application is delivers a notably intense cloud of aromatic vapours.”  My understanding of a balm is that it is a salve that also contains butters such as cacao or shea butter making for a creamier end product. These are just individual definitions though so you can use whichever you prefer.

Cacao is fairly hard at room temperature so makes for a slightly firmer end product where as shea is very creamy and therefore a lovely addition to lip balms or body butters. Mango butter is also delicious and has a lower melt point and a more slippery consistency.

Basic Balm Recipe:

67 ml infused oil
25 g cacao butter
5 g beeswax
2 ml vitamin E
1 ml essential oils of choice

Basic Body Butter Recipe:

57 ml infused oil
20 g shea butter
20 g cacao butter
2 ml vitamin E
1 ml essential oils

These balms can be made as above by melting the oils, butters and wax in a bain marie then adding the essential oils and vitamin E at the last moment so they will not be affected by the heat.

I hope that was helpful rather than just confusing the issue further! Happy making.

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Elderberries

I’ve managed a few elderberry harvests in the last couple of weeks and have been mixing up some different syrups and other medicinal and delectable preparations. Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is one of our most important herbs at this time of year as both a treatment and preventative for autumn and winter colds and flus.

Harvesting Elderberries

Collect  your elderberries when they are ripe and a deep purple/black, remembering of course to ask the Elder Mother’s permission first. When you get home, strip them from the stems and discard any that are still green or red as well as any that have shrived. Elderberries should be cooked before ingesting as they can be laxative and emetic when eaten raw.

Ripe Black Berries

Discard the unripe berries

Elderberry Syrups

I have made a variety of different elderberry syrups this year with different healing properties emphasised in each one. The basic method for all the syrups is the same and is as follows:

  1. Place 2 cups of elderberries in a pan with 2 cups fresh water and whichever additional herbs you are using (see below for variations.) Simmer gently for about 30mins with the lid off until the water has reduced to about half it’s original amount and the berries have released all their juice. Set aside and allow to cool completely.
  2. When cool, strain through a jelly bag into a measuring jug.
  3. Add approximately the same quantity of raw honey to the elderberry juice and stir until dissolved. You can use less honey but the mixture will not last so long.
  4. Bottle in sterilised preserving bottles and label. Store in the fridge.

Making Different Syrups

Simmering Elderberries

Deliciously gruesome!

During the first stage you can add different herbs according to your preference. I added a handful of fresh thyme and hyssop to my first batch to make a syrup that is particularly effective for winter ailments that affect the respiratory system. My next batch included orange peel and cloves to make a Vitamin C rich, anti-microbial blend that will also ease the digestion. Cardamom and ginger added to the next batch are warming and stimulating to sluggish winter circulation. Finally I simmered a batch of elderberries on their own and added 12 pink rosebuds when I turned it off the heat. I let these infuse whilst the mixture cooled and added half the quantity of linden blossom honey (I used less so as not to overpower the beautiful and delicate rose flavour) to make a divinely comforting blend for grey days which also encourages a healthy heart. As I mentioned before this syrup won’t last as long as the others but it’s so delicious I don’t think it will be hanging around for long anyway! In the fridge these syrups should last 3/4 months, slightly less for the rose one.

Syrups can be taken directly off the spoon, added to hot or cold drinks, drizzled on porridge, added to smoothies or any other way that takes your fancy.

Sugar vs. Honey? Most traditional syrup recipes use sugar instead of honey and heat the elderberry juice a second time after adding it to make a thicker syrup. The advantages of this are that it will last longer, potentially the whole year until the next harvest comes round, and that it’s much cheaper- raw honey can get a bit pricey in large quantities. The downsides of course are that sugar does not contain the medicinal benefits of raw honey which is antibacterial and rich in antioxidants and enzymes. In fact, sugar can act to deplete the immune system and many people in today’s sweet-crazed society already have imbalances caused from an excess. Still if you want to make large quantities that will last, it’s pretty much the only option and the damaging effects won’t out way the benefits of the elderberries.

Elderberry Elixir

If you want a long lasting and delicious preparation that warms your wintery cockles then this could be the one for you. I go to town a bit on my elixir, making it with a combination of port and brandy, local raw honey and warming spices. When i was at university I was introduced by a friend to the winning combination of port and brandy as the ultimate cure for colds and flus. Nowadays I tend to turn to herbs first but I still respect these warming alcohols for driving out the cold and the ache. That’s why I combine them with the elderberries and the warming spices from another of my favourite beverages, Chai. For me, this blend is the ultimate winter warming wonder recipe. Take a tablespoon in a small glass of warm water each evening as a preventative or take half a teaspoon every couple of hours at the first sign of infection.

Elixir Magic

To make it fill a jar with freshly picked elderberries and add one cinnamon stick, broken into pieces, 8 thin slices of fresh ginger and then 12 cloves, 12 black peppercorns and 20 cardamom pods lightly crushed in a mortar and pestle. Add brandy until 1/3 jar is filled with liquid, then add 1/3 port and top the final third up with honey. Stir everything thoroughly with a bamboo chopstick or glass stirring rod. Lid, label and store out of direct sunlight, somewhere cool and dry for a month to six weeks before straining and rebottling. I like to hold the jar between my hands every few days and add some energy healing to the mix.

Elderberry Tincture

This  can be made very simply by filling a jar with elderberries and covering with vodka, lidding, then allowing to sit for a month stirring occasionally, before straining and re-bottling. This will last at least the year and has the advantage of being easily added to blends of other herbs.

Elderberry, Blackberry and Apple Autumn Crumble

Add some elderberries into your favourite crumble recipe to give your immune system a boost and lend a lovely tang to the other fruit. I made this one with cooking apples, blackberries and elderberries with a few dates to sweeten it. The topping was made from oats, ground almonds, seeds and pecan nuts with a few more chopped dates and some ground cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and vanilla powders. Scrumptious.

Elderberry, Blackberry and Apple Crumble

Elderberries can also be dried or frozen to make into teas or add to other preparations later in the season. I’ve had lots of fun creating delicious elderberry concoctions this autumn and I’ve enjoyed reading about other people’s adventures with elder too. Some posts from other bloggers I’ve been enjoying over the last few weeks include a lovely one over at Nettlejuice which you can read here. This one here from Moment to Moment which is full of beautiful photos. And this one here from Sensory Herbcraft which has an alternative syrup recipe using sugar.

Update: I’ve just read this post over at the delightful Teacup Chronicles which is full of great information on elderberries and some lovely reflections.

Enjoy!

Elderberry Medicine Chest

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Love-in-a-mist – A favourite flower of mine which makes a beautiful essence.

Flower essences are a subtle form of energetic medicine that work as a remarkable catalyst for healing the body and mind by addressing underlying emotional and spiritual imbalances which are thought to be the cause of poor health. They are a wonderful tool for self-exploration and can facilitate great shifts in understanding.

The unique qualities of the flowering part of the plant are captured in the remedy and stored in a base of water and brandy. Suitable remedies are then selected according to the individual’s needs and a blend is made up which is usually taken orally, though the essences may also be combined in a spray, massage oil or other medium.

The first flower remedies were developed by the famous English Medical Doctor and Homeopath, Dr Edward Bach, though there are historical records of similar substances being used in Ancient Greece by Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, and the 16th Century physician Paracelsus who was said to collect the dew from certain flowers to treat his patients. Dr Bach wanted to create a healing system that was simple to use and could enable people to treat themselves and their families and even make their own remedies. Dr Bach said “The whole principle of healing by this method is so simple it can be understood by almost everyone and even the very herbs themselves can be gathered and prepared by any who take delight in such.”

Morning Dew on Petals

Love, respect and gratitude are the most important things when making a flower remedy. We are co-creating with nature in a beautiful process which can result in profound healing and understanding.

What you will need to make a sun infused essence:

★ Fresh pure water
★ An unmarked glass bowl (If you are only making remedies for family and friends this can be very small to avoid using too many flowers)
★ A dark glass storage bottle
★ Organic brandy or vodka
★ Your chosen flowers
★ Three hours of clear morning sunshine
★ Unbleached coffee filter papers or cheesecloth for straining

I generally recommend working with only one flower at a time when making essences, whichever one calls to you. Try to be intuitive rather than rational in this. Spend some time sitting and connecting with your chosen flower, getting a sense of how and where it affects you. Do you feel a physical sensation? Does it make you feel calmer, lighter, more joyful? Does it bring up certain memories or associations? If these are painful, it may be the that the purpose of finished remedy is to help you address them.

Itʼs ideal to use pure water from a local source, though filtered or bottled water will work if this isnʼt available.

Its best to start early and have all the flowers picked by 9 oʼ clock to ensure at least 3 hours of uninterrupted sunlight before midday. This is because the sunʼs energy becomes draining rather than energising after 12pm.

Rinse your hands in clean water then place the bowl next to the flowers you are working with so that it gets full sun. Fill the bowl with the spring water

Pick enough flowers to fill the bowl, touching them as little as possible. If you plan to use the remedy for others, it’s good to use new tweezers or nail scissors to cut them to avoid touching them at all. Gently lie the flowers on the top of the water until the surface is covered and leave in full sun for 3-4 hours or until the flowers begin to fade, if this is sooner. Spend some time sitting with the flowers or drawing them and giving thanks whilst they are infusing.

Red Clover Essence

When the time has passed, remove the flowers using a stalk or leaf of the same plant, being careful not to touch the water. Unless the remaining water is completely clear, its best to strain through a coffee filter or cheesecloth to ensure no plant matter is left behind.

Half fill your dark glass bottle with the flower essence water and top the other half up with brandy (40% proof is advised to prolong the shelf life). This is your mother tincture, label it with the date and the name of the flower.

After tasting a little, return any remaining essence water to the earth around the flowers youʼve been working with. Give thanks in the ways that seem most appropriate to you.

To make a stock bottle from your mother tincture, fill a 30ml dropper bottle 3/4 with brandy and 1/4 with spring water, then add three drops of the mother tincture. This will last a long time and enable you to make lots of dosage bottles which are the ones you actually take.

To make the dosage bottle just add 2 or 3 drops of the stock bottle to another 30ml dropper bottle of 1/4 brandy and 3/4 spring water. As youʼll be using this quite quickly it does not need as much brandy to preserve it.

Place 4 drops of this under your tongue or sip in a glass of water 4 times a day or as often as you feel the need. You canʼt overdose on flower remedies, though more frequent, rather than larger, doses are much more effective.

And finally, sit back and enjoy the magic! :)

Dahlia in Sunlight

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We had a lovely evening at last week’s Potions group in which I taught about how to make your own herbal infused oils.

We made a soothing calendula oil and some salve with comfrey infused oil.

Here are some of the group straining, pouring and bottling their oils.

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Here are the notes I wrote for the class for those of you who are new to herbal infused oils, including two simple methods and some basic recipes.

Herbal Infused Oils

Oils infused with herbs are a lovely way to utilise the healing properties of plants which contain volatile oils and fats. Unlike essential oils they are easy to make at home and usually very gentle on the skin. You can use them to make massage oils, to heal skin problems, or to make lovely subtly scented balms and creams.

Plants containing volatile oils are generally those commonly used in aromatherapy. Aromatic plants such as lavender, rosemary, thyme and sage make lovely infused oils, as do peppermint, melissa, chamomile, rose, yarrow, juniper and pine. You can experiment with any plants that you know have a high volatile oil content.

Also plants that have a high level of other fat soluble components; including fat soluble vitamins, antioxidants, resins and saponins, can be extracted by macerating in oil. Calendula is a good example. When you pick calendula flowers you can feel how resinous and sticky they are, a good sign they will work well in oil. Other suitable plants include comfrey, St John’s wort, viola, plantain and mullein.

You can use a variety of different oils as the base, or menstrum, for the infusion. Olive is classic for the leafy herbs, sunflower is lovely for calendula, sweet almond or apricot make a great base for creams and jojoba is light and well absorbed.

How to Make Infused Oils:

The Sun Method-

  • You can generally use dried or fresh plant material when available, though some herbs, such as calendula work better as dried and others, such as comfrey, are better from fresh.
  • If using fresh herbs, pick them on a dry day after the sun has dried the morning dew.
  • Make sure you pick clean plant material from an area you can be sure has not been sprayed with chemical fertilisers. This is particularly important as you are not going to wash the plant material, you want it to be as dry as possible to prevent spoilage, though you can bush off any dirt with a soft bristled brush.
  • If using leaves such as comfrey or plantain, it’s good to let them wilt overnight to reduce some of the water content but flowers are best used fresh.
  • Chop fresh leafy herbs finely and lightly fill a completely dry jar with the material. Its important to cut the herb first as it exposes more of the plant to the oil, making for a better infusion. Flowers can be put in whole and dried herbs will most likely come already cut.
  • If using fresh herbs you can pour the oil of your choice straight on but if using dried, its nice to warm the oil first in a bain marie to get things going. Fill the jar almost to the brim with oil as an air gap will promote oxidation and spoilage.
  • Stir the contents with a wooden chopstick or glass stirring rod until all the bubbles have dispersed and cap with a lid or a piece of kitchen roll held in place with a rubber band. This works well for fresh plant material as it allows moisture to escape.
  • You can leave it to infuse on a bright sunny windowsill or in a nice warm spot such as beside the boiler or in an airing cupboard. I like doing calendula in the sun but it’s best to leave it somewhere that is consistently warm and windowsills can get cold at night which encourages condensation.
  • Stir every day for the first two weeks then leave to infuse for another two to four, that’s four to six weeks in total. Calendula and some other oils are nice to double infuse- leave for 3 weeks, strain, then fill the jar with fresh flowers and pour the partially infused oil back on top and repeat the process.
  • Don’t forget to label your jars so you remember when to strain them. Strain through a sieve covered in cheesecloth or a jelly bag. If you used fresh material it is wise to let it stand for a week and check if any water has settled in the bottom of the jar. If so pour off the oil and discard the water.
  • Bottle the resulting oil and label and date.

The Heat Infusion Method:

This is a quicker method if you need to prepare your oil for immediate use.

  • Use about 50-75g of dried herb, or 75-100g fresh herb per 300ml base oil. This is an approximate amount as some herbs are bigger and fluffier than others! Basicially you want the oil to just cover the dried herb.
  • Place the oil and herbs in a double boiler or bain marie with a tightly fitting lid over a pan of gently boiling water.
  • Allow to infuse at a continuous heat for 2 hours making sure the water does not boil away! Stir every half hour or so and check the progress of your oil.
  • Strain and bottle or repeat the process if you desire a stronger, double infused oil.
  • Always remember to label and date your products.
You can also heat infuse your oils as above in an oven on the lowest possible temperature.

Some Simple Recipes for infused Oils:

Comfrey Salve:
Ingredients:
70ml Comfrey macerated oil
25g Grated cocoa butter
5g Beeswax

  • Melt the cocoa butter and beeswax in a double boiler or bain marie over a pan of boiling water.
  • Add the comfrey oil and stir slowly until completely dissolved. Don’t allow the oil to start to bubble, turn the heat down immediately if this happens.
  • If you would like to add an essential oil then do so now, mix well and pour into jars. Leave to set in the fridge for a few hours before using liberally.

Comfrey has a long history of traditional use for healing damaged tissues such as strains, sprains, broken bones and slow healing wounds. Its common name was ‘knitbone’ and it possesses profound healing capabilities which enable it to aid in the ‘knitting’ together of tissues. It may also be helpful for inflammation and rashes. Comfrey oil is not recommended for internal use or use on broken skin but you can use this salve freely for bruising or any injury of the muscles or bones. Even if you have to wear a cast you can rub the slave into the skin at the top and bottom to help the bones heal strong and healthy.

Simple St John’s Wort Lip balm for Cold Sores:
Ingredients:
60ml St John’s wort infused oil
15g Cocoa butter
15g Shea butter
10g beeswax
25 drops Melissa Essential Oil
25 drops St John’s wort tincture
25 drops Melissa tincture

  • Melt the cocoa butter, shea butter and beeswax in a bain marie over a low heat and when completely liquid add in the infused oil and mix thoroughly.
  • Add the Melissa oil and the tinctures and whisk lightly with a fork to ensure the tinctures are well mixed with the oils.
  • Pour into small jars and use liberally when you feel the first tingle coming on.

St John’s Wort and Melissa are both anti-viral and therefor helpful for treating the herpes virus that causes cold sores.

Rosemary Warming Massage Oil:

  • Infuse fresh rosemary in oil according to one of the methods detailed above.
  • To 100ml of the oil add 10 drops rosemary essential oil, 5 drops ginger, 5 drops black pepper and 5 drops cardamom.
  • This would be a wonderful oil for promoting circulation and easing sore muscles and joints.

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