Basic Herbal Preparations with Motherwort
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Learning a few different herbal preparation methods goes a long way in making them more accessible. While teas and tinctures can be costly when bought at a store, harvesting and preparing your own is cheap or free. And you get the added bonus of working directly with the plant!
In the article below, I explain some basic herbal preparations using the plant motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) as an example. (These preparation methods also apply to other plants, of course.) I also quickly go over identification features and medicinal properties of motherwort, but I encourage you to follow the links provided and learn more!
As a plant of the mint family, motherwort has a square stem, opposite leaves, and small flowers divided into two lips. It is a prolific plant, often found in gardens, yards, roadsides, vacant lots, and disturbed soils. It blooms from June to August, and typically reaches heights of two to four feet.
Motherwort should be harvested when in full bloom. Harvest the aerial parts—leaves, flowers, and stems can be used. I use the stem only on the upper portions of the plant, where it is fairly small and supple. On the lower portions, I remove the leaves to use in tea or tinctures, and discard the stem outdoors.
Be careful when harvesting; the flowers have a spiky, five-pointed calyx (modified leaves) that can prick the fingers!
For more details on motherwort identification, see Minnesota Wildflowers.
Medicinal Uses of Motherwort
Motherwort is probably best known as a uterine stimulant, which is where its name comes from. It is used for painful or delayed periods, and in the last few weeks of pregnancy to prepare for childbirth. It is also known to ease symptoms of menopause.
The Latin name Leonurus cardiaca means something like “lion’s heart,” and refers to motherwort’s use as a cardiovascular tonic. It strengthens the heart and can treat heart palpitations and irregularities, especially where those are associated with anxiety and tension. Motherwort also has the ability to lower blood pressure.
As a nervine, motherwort eases anxiety, and is useful in times of grief and sorrow. It can also help people draw healthy boundaries and protect the self.
*Note: don’t use during pregnancy except when nearing childbirth.
Teas (Infusion and Decoction)
In the herbal medicine world, teas are called either infusions or decoctions. Infusions are made with non-boiling water, and are used for delicate plant material such as leaves or flowers. Decoctions are used for tough, woody material such as roots, bark, and twigs; and boil the plant material in order to extract the active constituents. Since the parts of motherwort that are used medicinally are leaves, flowers, and stems, it requires the infusion method.
Infusions are used for delicate plant material such as leaves or flowers. To make an infusion, start with the fresh or dried plant material. Fresh material requires greater quantities, because it contains the weight and volume of water, which has been evaporated out of the dry. For a quart jar’s worth of tea, you will need approximately one cup dried plant material or three cups fresh.
Bring a quart of water to simmer in a saucepan. Make sure it is not boiling! Boiling water will destroy delicate compounds. You want it just at the point where a few bubbles are rising and steam is escaping, which should be about 180 degrees. Place the fresh or dried plant material in a glass quart jar, and pour in the hot water. Place a lid on the jar. This will help prevent volatile compounds from escaping. Steep for 15 minutes to a half hour. Longer steeping won’t hurt anything, so if you forget about it, that’s ok! Strain out the plant matter and drink warm or cold. The tea will keep in the fridge for 48 hours. The standard dose is one cup, drank three times daily.
Decoctions are used for tough, woody material such as roots, bark, and twigs, in order to extract the active constituents. To make a decoction, start with ½ cup finely chopped fresh root or other tough plant material. (Make sure you scrub the root clean first!) If using dried root, you will need less: only about ⅓ of the original amount, or about 3 tablespoons in this instance. Put the chopped root in a non-reactive pot, such as stainless steel or glass. Add 3 cups cold water. Bring to a boil, and simmer uncovered about 20 minutes, or until the liquid is reduced by approximately ⅓ (to 2 cups). Strain the liquid into a mug or jar and discard the plant material. The decoction can be drank hot or cold, and can be stored in the fridge for up to 48 hours. The standard dosage is one cup 3 times a day.
Tinctures are an effective and long-lasting way to extract and store plant materials. To make a tincture, start with fresh plant material. Make sure it’s thoroughly dry on the outside—no dew or other moisture should be on the plant, or it may cause the tincture to mold. Chop coarsely with a sharp knife. Sterilize a glass jar and pack partially with the plant material. If using leaves, pack about 3/4 of the way full. If using roots or other tough material like bark or twigs, pack about 1/2 full. It should be packed fairly tightly—not so tight that the plant material can't move at all, but without large air gaps. Fill the jar with a hard alcohol that doesn't have a strong taste, such as vodka. Make sure it's at least 80 to 90 proof (40 to 45% alcohol) so it's strong enough to extract the compounds and preserve the plant parts. Run a sterilized non-metal utensil around the inside to release air bubbles. Then label with date and contents and store in a cool, dark place for six to eight weeks. Strain through muslin into a sterilized glass jar or bowl. Make sure to really squeeze out the last drops of tincture! Transfer to sterilized glass jars, preferably amber-colored. Amber glass protects the tincture against damage from light. Label with date and contents and store in a cool, dark area. Tinctures will stay viable for several years if stored properly. The standard dosage is ½ to 1 tsp diluted in water, 3 times a day.
Drying herbs may seem like a simple task, but there are a few key areas where you can go wrong. First of all, don’t dry your herbs in direct sunlight! This is especially important for aromatic herbs like mint, rose, lavender, etc. Putting herbs in the sun causes them to oxidize, which reduces the amount of active constituents. Same goes for putting herbs in high heat. Again, this will cause oxidization, which results in a compromised product. Instead, you ideally want an area with low humidity, high ventilation, and out of direct sunlight. I understand this can be difficult; where I live in Minnesota, low humidity is hard to come by in the summertime. You may have a similar issue depending on where you live. If you have trouble getting your herbs to dry completely, try placing them in front of a fan. I put my herbs in a brown paper bag with slits cut at regular intervals and put them near a fan. Then I shake the bag a couple times a day to encourage air flow. It usually takes a few days to a week for herbs to dry using this method. If you’re still having problems with humidity, invest in a dehumidifier. Small dehumidifiers can be found for pretty low costs. Place the dehumidifier and herbs into a closet, small room, or large box. Add a small fan for ventilation. The results will amaze you! Fully dried herbs that retain their smell and taste—as dried herbs should.
Once fully dry, transfer herbs to a jar and label with contents and date. Store in a cool, dark place. Use within one year.
That’s it! Three different methods to prepare herbs that are easy, safe, and effective. Try it yourself, and let me know how it went in the comments below!
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