Tag Archives: Herbs

My very favorite tools for making herbal preparations

My students were asking me about the tools I like to use for making a variety of herbal preparations. This is an illustrated list, that I thought others might find it interesting. Many items came from thrift shops and my stainless steel Vitamix blender, capable of grinding wooden blocks into sawdust has been kept going with spare parts found on eBay.  The fun is in improvising and building up over time, so don’t feel you need to go all out at once.

Hori Hori with serrated shovel and knife edges
Hori Hori with serrated shovel and knife edges


  • A hori hori, Felco pruning shears and shovel for collecting, You can use a normal shovel instead of the survival tool, but have fun with your choices.

    Mesh Collecting Bag
    Mesh Collecting Bag
  • Mesh bags for collecting that can hold up to sticks, roots and thorns. Or game hunting bags.

    Also useful for drying herbs
    Also useful for drying herbs
  • Net collecting bags or drying hammock (Ikea children’s) Hanging rack.
    Vitamix new and old
    Vitamixes new and old

    Chinese Herb Grinder
    Chinese Herb Grinder
  • Vitamix or herb grinder Vitamix $50 used to $350 new; $480 grinder new, on eBay If you can get a used stainless steel Vitamix it will grind all but the hardest roots.
  • Chemex glass coffee maker to hold strainer or filter paper while decanting tinctures.

    Chemex, good for filtering tinctures
    Chemex, good for filtering tinctures
  • Measuring Glassware in both Metric and Ounces, with lip. Pipette, For tinctures 4 and 8 oz beakers are most useful.glassbeaker250
  • Cone-shaped strainers with ears for standalone straining. $3-27 depending on size., and get different sizes and mesh grades Essential!cone-shaped-strainer
  • Muslin bags for straining-  Muslin tea bags (large) Jelly bag for tincture press or Chinois

    Use as teabags, filter bags
    Use as teabags, filter bags
  • All Clad Chinois with strand and conical pestle.

    Chinoise jelly strainer
    Chinoise jelly strainer
  • Metal or glass funnels in various sizes $15 on Amazon for mini set. Wide mouth for transferring herbs to jars. Check size of small funnels to fit tincture bottles. Lab supply stores.

    Get many sizes
    Get many sizes
  • Tincture press $50-150 on ebay. Or you can make one with a very large C Clamp and two cans that can nest, The increased tincture extracted will pay for itself early.
    Professional tincture press and C Clamp type
    Professional tincture press and C Clamp type


  • Lots of large jars- mason to giant deli jars. Square sides preferred. Non-rust lids. Boston rounds for distribution 2-8 oz. Different lids available, but droppers fail eventually so only use for immediate consumption. Salve jars, 1-4 oz.
    Storage jars
    Storage jars

    Tincture bottles
    Boston Round tincture bottles
  • Percolation cone- use powdered herbs and pour alcohol through. You can recirculate with a fish pump or pour through again. A Perrier bottle with the bottom sawed off and a hole in the lid is the low cost version. And look up Earle Sweet’s patent for the superdeluxe recirculating version- let me know if you can find it for sale, because I passed it up at an herb conference one year and never saw him again.
    Percolation cone, drips into bottom
    Percolation cone, drips into bottom

    Professional percolation cone
    Professional percolation cone
  • Dehydrator or simply a fan in hot dry room.  Important for humid areas or thick herbs. You can use a stove with a pilot light too.

    Deluxe dehydrator
    Deluxe Excalibur dehydrator
  • Vacuum food sealer will protect dried herbs from oxidation especially with desiccant packages. Use desiccants in any powdered or granule herb, even in storage jars.

    Use with desiccant packages for longer life
    Use with desiccant packages for longer life
  • Crock pot on standalone dimmer- the crock pot may not be low enough for infusing oils without burning them. Get a dimmer that can lower the voltage. Alternatively use a yogurt maker or roast pan filled with water on a buffet heater

    Crockpot with standalone dimmer lowers temperature enough for oils
    Crock pot with standalone dimmer lowers temperature enough for oils
  • Food scale with gram and ounce measurements and tare function- good for measuring granules. Some talk! A Chinese hand scale or balance is fun but not necessary unless you are off the gridfood-scale
  • Essential oil still on eBay $200-$300 if you want to make essential oils and have fresh herbs readily available, You can often find used stills
    Steam distiller for esssential oils
    Steam distiller for essential oils
    Small scale drying and prep shelf

    Herbalist Storage for dark room
    Herbalist Storage for dark room
  • Bookshelves in a dark cool room or closet that can support the weight of your herbs. CD shelves are good for tincture bottles.  Commercial nail polish holders work for essential oils.
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Attorney General Enshrines Bad Herbal Product Test with GNC

supplementsRecently the press was transfixed when NY State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office announced that the vast majority of herbal supplements tested by the AG’s office had none of the herbs claimed. This followed a Canadian Guelph University study from the developers of a novel DNA testing process that claimed a huge percent of herbs tested were bogus.  That study was so poorly done that the American Botanical Council asked for it to be retracted.  Their title said it all:

Science Group Says Article on DNA Barcode Analysis of Herbs Is Flawed, Contains Errors, Creates Confusion, and Should Be Retracted:  Methodological Flaws, Statistical Inconsistencies, Taxonomic Confusion, and Unreliable Conclusions Require Paper in BMC Medicine to be Corrected, Revised, and Re-peer-reviewed

Nonetheless the specter of a relatively inexpensive new test in an industry everyone assumes is unregulated was irresistible to the AGs office (and besides everyone knows DNA is scientific!)  This new DNA barcode test is different from forensic DNA tests which is what people think of when they hear “DNA test.”  Now GNC has signed a premature consent agreement and the AG’s offices in 14 states are planning to follow suit based on technically misleading testing.

As a clinical herbalist for over 25 years and a professor of herbal medicine I need to point out that the press has given a free ride to the validity of new DNA barcode testing which purported to show that 79% of herbs from Target, GNC, Walgreens and Wallmart were adulterated or missing the herb claimed. The high figure should have given the AG’s office pause.  Verification including microscopy and validated chemical test methods, like those found in official pharmacopeias for these seven herbs, should have been conducted to confirm the DNA findings.

When the initial 2013 Canadian DNA barcode study came out it was clear that it was oriented to the sales of a testing method and had poor application to prepared herbs. DNA barcoding is less expensive than traditional herbal tests and that of course would be a great new market for the test developers. Raw herbs before extraction can be identified by DNA. It has proven itself with foods where whole plant products are being tested. But the test only tests the presence of DNA. Unless I am growing herbs, the least useful compound is DNA:  instead I want to extract the medicinal secondary metabolites, the minerals, polysaccharides, polyphenols, sesqueterpenes and flavonoids.

A typical Chinese formula has 7-9 grams per herb and 5-9 herbs, so say has 50 grams of herbs daily. You would need at least 20 large 400 mg pills- too much, which is why herbs are extracted to find their most medicinally useful components. DNA isn’t one of those and it is usually degraded by extraction. However there is a need to add something like rice flour to keep the powdered extracts from clumping and that doesn’t need to be extracted, so its DNA is present. The DNA barcode test doesn’t test concentration so it looks like the herbal capsule is free of the herb and adulterated when, in fact, it is properly made.

Now encapsulated herbs are perhaps the least effective form since you can’t taste them. (Taste and smell are not merely aesthetic experiences- they engage body feedback systems.) Powders can oxidize rapidly. I wouldn’t buy my herbs from Target, Walmart, Walgreens or GNC.  I want higher quality. But it begs credibility that 79% of products were free of the herbs claimed. You can visit wholesale herb markets to see the tonnage of herbs at reasonable prices. GNC is in the business of selling herbs and they need to have a certain level of quality (if only because people like me will bite into the capsules and can taste whether the herb is present.)

So it was not accurate to say that 79% of supplements lacked the herbs claimed, instead 79% did not have DNA present.  It might have other medicinally useful constituents from the herb in question, and in fact subsequent industry-standard testing found herbs in all samples. It was not accurate to assume there was substantial adulteration, only that excipients were usually used. Some 90% of herbs are sold in extract form, unlike the foods that work with DNA barcoding.

There is a need for quality control, especially in the bodybuilding and weight-lifting sectors of the industry where ConsumerLab has identified real problems. I do use suppliers of international herbs who use HPLC and heavy metal testing, but I also purchase whole herbs directly from US growers I know, where I can taste and smell the herbs and make my own extracts.  The American Botanical Council has been in the forefront of protecting against adulteration, intentional or accidental. The ABC-AHP-NCNPR Botanical Adulterants Program, is being conducted by ABC with the nonprofit American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP) and the NCNPR, a FDA Center of Excellence lab at the University of Mississippi.

GNC couldn’t afford a shadow over their business so signed the consent requirement. They will have ample evidence they used the herbs claimed but are likely to miss the DNA barcoding target unless they add powdered herb to the excipient. But the spotlight will be off by then.  By all means make major retailers stand behind their herbs, but do not enshrine a novel DNA test just because it is cheap.

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What Is In Your Natural First Aid Travel Kit?

English: First aid kit for a trip to rural Nic...
English: First aid kit for a trip to rural Nicaragua. Not pictured: Chloroquine. The contacts and the medical tape didn’t make it in. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After a trip to Guatemala where a few of us ended up with severe parasites and after the death of my friend Keiko Golambos to virulent malaria, I was asked to put together an emergency travel kit for international outreach.  This is a kit for Continue reading What Is In Your Natural First Aid Travel Kit?

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Eat Your Christmas Tree

Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) buds
Douglas Fir. Image via Wikipedia

What do you do with a Christmas tree after Christmas is over?  Have you considered eating it?  Well not the trunk (although the inner bark can be used medicinally), but the needles. Fir or spruce tips and pine needles can make a fine tea- infused a short period of time (don’t boil it.)  But there is a world of uses beyond teas.

Pine needles are high in Vitamin C, Vitamin A,  quercetin, flavonoids, anthocyanins, tannins, pine oils, resveratrol, pinosylvin, shikimic acid, and isocupressic acid.  Vitamin C levels may be as high as 5 times as that of lemons, depending on the species.  The flavonoids, Vitamin C and associated compounds, and proanthocyanin are considered protective against cancer and scurvy.  They are also are good for respiratory infections.  Russian studies show pine oils as useful for weight control, lowered cholesterol and lowering blood pressure while Chinese studies find them as  slowing the growth of liver cancer. Pinosylvin is antifungal and antimicrobial.  Proanthocyanin and resveratrol are potent antiaging compounds.

Isocupressic acid blocks  progesterone in ruminants like cows and is considered toxic and abortafacient to them after the fermentation in their second stomach.  This should not be a concern for humans due to our single stomach digestion, but of course has not been studied.  The less tasty, more resinous pines like Ponderosa or Lodgepole pine  have the highest levels.  I think that if you let your taste be your guide, you will not overdose- pregnant women are quick to feel nauseated by harmful foods.  Parsley can be abortafacient too, but pregnant women eat it in normal amounts without problem. But you are forewarned that it has not been tested as safe for pregnancy.

Image by jon.hayes via Flickr

The Vitamin C will extract into water but is not destroyed by boiling as is popularly believed.  Vitamin C boils at over 500 degrees centigrade (water boils at 100 degrees centigrade and you can’t get to 500c with a normal stove)  In most cases you are drinking the water.

Just be careful that trees are not sprayed with fire retardants or infused with coloring.  I don’t see it too much in my area, but I have been told it is more prevalent elsewhere.  A tree farm owner says it is probably on trees imported from Canada  but in New York is not required on local trees.  While the fire retardant is supposed to be safe to ingest, I wouldn’t.  If you have any doubts use young Spring tips of growing trees.

Dry Pine Needles

This is the easiest way to use your tree.  I always saved the needles that dropped off my tree especially after taking it outside.  You can dry the needles of most Christmas trees to use this way.  Just avoid trees that have been treated, flocked or sprayed.  Dry the needles to use like rosemary in cooking.  The flavor is resinous, lemony and good.  You can also rub the needles into chicken, game or fish or most anything else.  This is also good for tea- infuse a teaspoon or two of dry needles into a cup of boiling water.

Pine, Fir or Spruce Powder

Take a few cups of dried needles and powder in a blender.  This makes a light, somewhat lemony aromatic powder which is good on fish,  chicken, sweet desserts or muffins.

Fresh Frozen Spruce or Fir Tips

Cut the final tips off of a fresh tree into four inch sections (perhaps as you are pruning your tree into shape initially or if you can take the clippings from your tree vendor.) Freeze until you are ready to use so they do not dry out.  You can bake or steam fish or poultry over them, stick a sprig into boiling spinach during the last few minutes or drp into your butternut squash soup.

Tinctured Tips

Fill a jar with dried fir tips,  spruce tips or pine needles.  Pour in vodka or gin to the top and let infuse for a month, then strain and bottle.  I keep some of this by my stove and in my herbal apothecary for coughs and flu.  When cooking, I throw a little on meat or vegetables.  The alcohol burns off pretty instantly which helps the taste of the food all by itself, but it also leaves the taste of the evergreens.  People who are into cocktails use a more dilute form of this.  If you wish to pursue it, there are recipes in the linked articles below.

Scotch Pine Sorbet

Simmer a 6″sprig of Scotch or White pine or fir in a cup of water for 10 minutes. Strain out and cool. Add 1 cup honey and a teaspoon of brandy.  Put into an ice cream  and freeze and crank according to the directions for your ice cream maker.  Alternatively  you can freeze into an ice cube tray and then pulse in a strong blender or Vitamix until smooth.

Spuce Butter

Melt a pound of butter in a double boiler.  Add 1/4 cup of spruce or fir tips or white pine cut into pieces.  Infuse for a quarter hour, then strain and let solidify in a serving state.

Infused Oil

Fill a jar of needles about a quarter full, then pour in olive oil or coconut oil. Put the jar in a double boiler or over a source of low heat.  I have used a flat baking pan with water over a warming buffet on low.  Let infuse for 3 days, then strain.  You can use this in cooking, rub it on sore limbs or drizzle on salads.  I tried this with juniper including the berries from my Christmas wreath, but the pectin in the berries added a gelatinous texture- it is still good though.

Balsamic  Vinegar

Fill a jar with white pine needles (Douglas fir, balsam pine or spruce will work too.)  Fill with apple cider vinegar.  Let infuse one month in a dark place.  Strain and decant.  This works better with apple cider vinegar than red wine vinegar.

Pine Needle Syrup

Fill a jar with a finely cut up organic lemon with peel and pine needles.  Pour a thin honey up to the top.  Cover and steep for 3 weeks.  Strain and decant.  This is a delicious syrup which can be used as a beverage, poured over ice cream or used as a cough syrup high in Vitamin C.

Fir tea. Image from http://www.celsias.com/article/recipe-saving-western-pine-forests-got-herbs/

If you don’t want to go to the trouble, for medicinal use ask your pharmacist to get you USP Compound White Pine Syrup.  It is made of the inner bark rather than the needles, but both work.

See also:

Pine Needle Uses and Health Benefits elperfecto.com

Evergreen, Ever  Delicious newyorktimes.com

Alpine Martini foodnetwork.com

Eat Your Christmas Tree  thecrunchychicken.com


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Cooling Summer Herbal Beverages

Iced coffee
Iced coffee (photo care of Baltimore Sun)

When summer comes around I turn to the cooling bitter or astringent drinks, served slightly below room temperature or at most refrigerated.   I don’t really like to use ice because it can ruin your digestion but cold feels awfully good.  The bitter flavor is also cooling.  Sour or astringent flavors help reduce water loss, so I like an infused vinegar in water at times as well as lemon or lime water.

And while warm beverages don’t often come to mind, hot tea is often consumed all day long in China or the Mideast.  Think of it as homeopathy- like cures like.  Or just as a way of reducing the difference between your body and the environment so adjustment isn’t such a shock.

One word about caffeinated beverages.  You aren’t eating dry leaves or beans, you are drinking a water-based beverage flavored with the leaves or beans.  The research shows you don’t lose more water than you take in, but you do lose it sooner, so tissues don’t hydrate as well.  Rule of thumb:  you lose 25% of the fluid value from coffee compared to water, and Continue reading Cooling Summer Herbal Beverages

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May Blog Party: Herbs for Sexual Health and Vitality

Sean Donahue

Greenman Sean Donahue, of Green Man Ramblings is host to the May Herbal Blog Party on Herbs for Sexual Health and Vitality. A number of prominent herbalists have written articles on various facets of sexuality and herbs, from improving function to contraception.  Here is his reblogged post with the links to the articles:

Saturday, May 15, 2010

May Blog Party: Herbs For Sexual Health and Vitality

How do you promote healthy, vital, joyful sexuality?     Continue reading May Blog Party: Herbs for Sexual Health and Vitality

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Springtime in an Urban Garden

Springtime in an urban garden is different than in a suburban or rural garden. For one thing you may not own your land.  Your plants may be growing in raised beds, in pots or in circumstances that would not be considered optimal.  Your coop board or condo association may prevent compost bins.  Your wildcrafting may be in city parks where you need to avoid areas of pesticide use.

For many  years I struggled with feeling that I couldn’t be an authentic herbalist living in the city.  I thought “real herbalists” should be living off of the land Continue reading Springtime in an Urban Garden

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Grow Your Own Drugs

photo by Meggar
Oregon Grape-  Image via Wikipedia

It is almost Spring, depending on where you are in the country.  Time to start the annuals and to awaken the garden.  Even if your garden is primarily ornamental, you can include medicinal herbs, many of which are lovely.  And don’t forget to eat the weeds, once you know what they are and what is safe!          Continue reading Grow Your Own Drugs

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Cordyceps for stamina, against cancer

Cordyceps ophioglossoides

Cordyceps sinensis has been part of my anti-cancer formulas for many years, since Thai doctor Santi Rosswong suggested that I add it to my reishi formulas for stamina.  It appears from recent research that the herb stops cell proliferation as well.

Cordyceps is a strange herb, a fungus that colonizes then kills an insect, as shown in a BBC  video (with one of the other 680 described cordyceps species found on 6 continents.)  When the Cordyceps sinensis fungus attacks a Continue reading Cordyceps for stamina, against cancer

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The Sweet Herbal Blog Party

Each month herbalists are encouraged to submit articles to the Herbal Blog Parties, hosted by various herbalists.  The August party had as its theme sweet ways to use herbs, including herbal honey’s, glycerites, elixirs, electuaries, melomels and the like.  If you need definitions, go down to Kiva Rose’s article which has an overview.

Kiva'w Wild Rose Tincture
Kiva's Wild Rose Tincture

While we generally want to keep sugars low in our diet, there are legitimate uses for sweet herbs.  Sugar in its various forms is used in a variety of traditional medicines.  In Chinese medicine it strengthens the Spleen/pancreas function (in judicious quantities) and formulas often use dates, honey, longan fruit, or licorice to engage the digestive function.  Ayurveda makes medicinal honey and ghee preparations like Chayawanprash. Continue reading The Sweet Herbal Blog Party

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Numen, an Extraordinary Film About The Plants

Numen is a film that previewed at the International Herbal Symposium this June. It features prominent herbalists, botanists and ethnobotanists like Rosemary Gladstar, Tierona LowDog, the late Bill Mitchell, Stephen Buhner, Phyllis Light, Ken Ausubel, James Duke and Rocio Alarcon, among others. Numen, defined as the animating force in nature, brings together innovative thinkers to discuss how our disconnection from nature affects human and environmental health and the healing made possible by embracing our place in the wider web of life.

You can view a 15 minute preview here:

Rosemary Gladstar

The 80 minute film features wonderful time lapse photography and will be an extraordinary DVD to show and replay. The DVD will include tutorials on growing and harvesting medicinal herbs, preparing kitchen medicine, and on the growing field of ecological medicine and should be available later this month from the site above.

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