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Herbalism

By Sophia Hutnik, AMI Fellow

A couple of weeks ago, we had an herbalism workshop with a local herbalist in nearby West Virginia. This workshop was the catalyst for several of us to start taking advantage of the special ecology all around us, begin learning our wild edible herbs, and make some tinctures. Tinctures are medicinal herbs that infused into high proof alcohol (sometimes diluted with water). Tinctures can be used to treat symptoms, illness prevention, and more.

The first concoction brewing in our pantry is a reishi tincture. Several weeks ago, a few of us found reishi mushrooms while kayaking. Reishi is a valued immune booster and many people make teas or take tinctures as preventative medicine, or when they feel a sickness coming on; we appreciate its medicinal powers, and its place in our world. We harvested a reishi and dried it in our dehydrator, then put it in the food processor and blended it with high proof alcohol, and then set it in a half-gallon jar. Once a day, we shake the jar to make sure that the alcohol covers all of the surface area available, in order to draw out the medicinal properties of the mushroom.

After six weeks, we will make a second infusion by seeping some more dried reishi in boiling water. Then, we will add this to the alcohol, respecting advised ratios. The last stage will be to put it in tinted glass dropper bottles. The tinted bottle helps preserve the tincture. Typically, the tincture is taken by either adding 20-30 drops of it in water or on the tongue.

Next, we started separate infusions of calendula, comfrey, St. John’s Wort, and mullein flowers in almond, hemp and jojoba oils. First, we had to identify these plants, and learn how, when, and which parts to harvest. Every plant is different. Comfrey should be harvested before it goes to flower, when the leaves are healthy and full. The flowers of mullein should be harvested every day, as each flower opens and until you have your desired quantity.

After collecting our flowers, we dried them for a day or two after some of the water dissipated, and before they became dry and dead looking. Then we put them in separate jars with different oils so that the oil was 1-2 inches above the plants. To increase surface area, we first chopped or put them in the food processor before adding the oil. After labeling, we added them to the reishi tincture in a dark and temperature-stable pantry, making sure to mix them every day. Since the first couple of experiments, we have started skullcap, echinacea, yarrow, and goldenrod tinctures. We will turn some of these tinctures and oil infusions that into salves, and leave a medicinal arsenal for the incoming fellows next year. In addition, we will be able to keep some for our own use in the coming years.

For me, the adventure is found in being able to identify plants, and having an awareness of the medicinal or edible properties they may offer-- a form of knowledge in reclaiming my health. There is a bit of activism embedded in the act of exploring traditional medicinal arsenals that can be gleaned from the land. Another aspect is more spiritual and ties into how I want to interact, and the relationships I want to form with the life around me. Many herbalism books recommend sitting next to the plants you are going to use as medicine to learn how they exist in the world, and form a connection with them and the system we all exist in. Learning through observation and interaction, through reading, and through the diffusion of ideas about medicinal plants, we can gain powerful insight into how to act to change how we interface with our surroundings. Herbalism is a way that you can heal yourself with what is around you, rather than depend on pharmaceutical corporations, or far away ecological systems.

If this has sparked your interest, I recommend reading The Herbal Apothecary by JJ Pursell, or any of the books by Rosemary Gladstar. For more information on the activist side of herbalism, visit http://livingmedicineproject.com/herbalismasactivism/, a blog that shares stories of herbalism as activism.

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