Oh herbs, how do I prepare thee? Let me count the ways.
Water extracts sugars, proteins, gums, mucilage, pectin, tannins, acids, mineral salts, glycosides, some alkaloids, most alkaloidal salts, and some essential oils very well, but is not very shelf stable.
Tea – A tea is made using a tablespoon of fresh or teaspoon of dried herb per 8 ounces of just boiled water. You use mainly the aerial parts and steep for 2-10 minutes, covered to avoid evaporation of the essential oils. Tea has been and continues to be the preferred method of using herbs for health for thousands of years.
Common herbal teas are aromatic plants, including: mint, chamomile, ginger, and tulsi.
Decoction – A decoction is made of roots, leaves, and/or berries. You simmer these tougher plant parts, covered, for 20-40 minutes or more in order to extract their constituents.
Good plants to decoct include: prickly ash bark, dandelion root, and elderberries.
Nourishing herbal infusion – A nourishing herbal infusion is made from 1 ounce of dried, non-aromatic herb per quart of boiling water and steeped for a minimum of 4 hours, covered. This method extracts the most minerals from these nourishing plants.
Good herbs for nourishing herbal infusions include: nettles, red clover, and oat straw.
Herbal Waters - Simply adding herbs to a jar of water and setting in the sun, similar to making sun tea. Or simply putting herbs in your water bottle before heading out for the day.
Good herbs for herbal waters include: lemon balm, anise hyssop, mint, and holy basil.
Hydrosol – A sweet smelling by-product of essential oil distillation.
A common herb used as a hydrosol is rose as rose water.
Pure alcohol best extracts essential oils, resins, alkaloids, glycosides, organic acids, chlorophyll, acrid and bitter constituents, as well as many other plant compounds, but not minerals, gums, or mucilage. Alcohol is also an excellent preservative maintaining the integrity of the herb for many years. When taken sublingually, the body rapidly assimilates the herbs.
Tincture – A tincture is made by extracting herbs in alcohol and is considered to be a very concentrated and convenient way to take an herbal remedy, as well as having a long shelf life.
Good herbs for tinctures include: California poppy, hyssop, boneset, and Solomon’s seal (and most others!).
Wine extraction – Wine is a traditional, dilute alcohol menstruum, though not often used today. It has a long shelf life. Wine can also be made using medicinal herbs as a method of preserving these herbs (as opposed to soaking the herbs in already made wine).
Good herbs for wine extraction include: dandelion flowers, elderberry, and elderflower.
Liniment – Topical application of a tincture, often for pain.
I often use witch hazel as the menstruum for a liniment. Rubbing/isopropyl alcohol could also be used.
Good herbs for use as a liniment include: prickly ash, cayenne, and yarrow.
Glycerin is a sweet tasting plant fat, but actually contains no sugar and is slowly absorbed by the body. Glycerin does not extract resins, fixed oils, or volatile oils well, but extracts mucilage better than alcohol. It has a longer shelf life than water, but shorter than alcohol. It is suggested to mix with a little alcohol to boost shelf life and extractive effect.
Good herbs for glycerin extraction include: mints (very tasty mixed into hot beverages), marshmallow root, hyssop (improves its palatability).
Herbal vinegar is made by infusing herbs in vinegar. This extracts minerals very well and can be used as a food as well as a tonic medicine. Generally vinegar extractions are not as strong medicinally as alcohol extractions, but they still have a good medicinal effect. You can also use vinegar extractions externally as a hair rinse or topically much like a liniment.
Good herbs for vinegar extraction include: culinary herbs such as sage and rosemary as well herbs high in mineral content such as nettles, dandelions, and horsetail.
Oil can be infused with fresh or dried herbs at room temperature for 4-6 weeks or heated at a low temperature for a few hours. Infused oils make excellent topical remedies and extract resins, essential oils, and flavonoids well. Olive oil is good to use as it has a long shelf life, but you can use any fixed oil.
Good herbs for infused oils include calendula, St. John’s Wort, and yarrow.
Salve/balm/ointment – An herbal salve consists of infused oil to which beeswax has been added to create a thicker consistency, making it more convenient and less messy to carry around and to apply.
Cream – A cream is a mixture of infused oil and water. This is a tricky process as oil and water do not want to mix. Creams are more likely to mold due to the presence of water.
Plaster - Herbs combined with oil (and/or wax) and applied directly to skin, warm, typically the chest or abdomen, to stimulate the internal organs.
Good herbs to use as a plaster include: mustard seed, onion, and garlic.
Suppository - A suppository is made with either oil and wax or gelatin in molds. They are solid at room temperature or need to be refrigerated, and melt at body temperature. They are inserted into the anus or vagina to deliver herbal properties.
Good herbs for suppositories include calendula, yarrow, and marshmallow
Infused Honey - Infuse herbs in honey to make a delicious, aromatic herbal treat.
Good herbs for infusing honey include: aromatic herbs such as anise hyssop and elderflower. Garlic and onion infused honey are a potent medicine for a sore throat or respiratory tightness (and taste great on toast or used in cooking).
Syrup – A syrup is a concentrated infusion or decoction (usually simmered to reduce volume by half) which is then preserved with honey. This is a tasty, alcohol free, and effective way to ingest many herbs that are well extracted by water. To increase shelf life, you could add 20% alcohol. For example, add an antiviral tincture, such as spilanthes, to elderberry syrup.
Good herbs for syrup include: elderberry, ginger, holy basil/tulsi, and elecampane.
Elixir – An elixir uses honey and alcohol along with the herb(s) of choice combined in a jar all throughout the process. The alcohol gives it a little more extractive oomph to this sweet honey and herb extraction. An elixir is very shelf stable.
Good herbs for an elixir include: cacao, holy basil, elderflowers, and elderberries (or any berries).
Oxymel – An oxymel is an herbal extraction using honey and vinegar (ideally apple cider vinegar). The combination of vinegar and honey by itself is very healing so adding in herbs is simply an added medicinal and tasty bonus!
Good herbs for an oxymel include: hyssop, nettle, and garlic. Actually, pretty much anything!
You can add powdered herb to foods like smoothies, soups, and oatmeal. Powdered herbs can be placed in and taken as capsules. They are also a convenient way to ingest larger quantities of herbs as food. I have difficulty powdering my dried herbs fine enough so typically purchase those through Mountain Rose Herbs.
Good herbs for use as powders include: dandelion root, ashwagandha, and slippery elm bark.
Lozenge – Powdered herb mixed with honey or other liquid to form a lozenge which can be sucked on.
Good herbs for use as lozenges include: wild cherry bark, licorice root, and slippery elm bark.
A succus is the juice of an herb, which can be consumed as is or stabilized with alcohol or used as part of a tincture of that herb to increase potency.
Good herbs for use as a succus include cleavers and chickweed.
A compress is an herbal ‘hot pack.’ One steams an herb and places it over desired area, covering with a bandage or towel for desired length of time.
Good herbs for use as a compress include: comfrey leaf, plantain, and onions.
A poultice is simply chewed or mashed up plant material or (moistened dried herbs) applied directly to skin, typically kept warm and left on for several hours.
Good herbs to use as a poultice include: plantain, yarrow, and comfrey leaves.
There are several ways to use herbs as a bath – a full body bath, foot or hand bath, sitz bath, douche, or pour over area. You could use herbal teas, tinctures, or simply a tightly secured pouch of herbs in your bath water.
Good herbs to use in a bath include: chamomile, calendula, lavender, and mint.
Drying herbs is a great way to preserve your herbs for off-season use as teas, baths, topical application, and more.
Good herbs to use dried include: mint, calendula, and tulsi
I prepared this multifarious (yes, Kerry gave me that word) list to refer to when I teach "Intro to Folk Herbalism" classes. And this is just the short list! I didn't touch homeopathic remedies, flower essences, aromatherapy...
I want to emphasize that when I gave examples of herbs to use in each category, these are simply the ones that came to mind right away. There are many more that could be included in every category, depending on what type of support is needed at the moment. Do your research, chat with other herbalists, and come visit the you pick garden for some time with the plants.
For more information about these methods, do an online search or reference these two books that offer extensive research:
The Herbal Medicine-Maker's Handbook, A Home Manual, by James Green
Medical Herbalism, by David Hoffman