Herbal Infusions and Decoctions - Preparing Medicinal Teas
“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves - slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.”
~Thich Nhat Hanh
--Text and Photographs by Juliet Blankespoor
If you’ve ever made a cup of tea with a teabag then you’ve made an herbal infusion. Teabags are certainly convenient, but if you want to prepare your own herbal blends or concentrated medicinal teas, then learning how to use dried herbs, in the form of infusions and decoctions, is indispensable. Buying herbs in bulk, or growing and gathering your own, is also substantially cheaper than purchasing teabags. Personally, I love the sensory pleasures of preparing dried herbs— homemade tea blends enhance my enjoyment of each herb’s texture, color and aroma.
Before we delve into the details of tea preparation let’s take a look at the benefits and downsides of water extraction as a delivery method for medicinal botanicals. Tea is one of the most ancient forms of medicine and can be very comforting and pleasurable to drink. It is cheaper than capsules or tinctures (alcohol extracts) and the body is able to assimilate it easily. Many medicinal herbs have a strongly unpleasant flavor, so most people opt to ingest these herbs in the form of capsules or tinctures. Certain herbs, however, can help to mask these bitter flavors: cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum and cassia , Lauraceae), cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum, Zingiberaceae), and licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra, Fabaceae) are a few examples. Medicinal teas also have the added benefit of hydration, except, of course, if the herbs are diuretic (promote water loss). In addition, teas are a better choice than tinctures for those who want or need to avoid alcohol. Water is an excellent solvent for minerals, mucilage, volatile oils, and most medicinal constituents, although it doesn’t easily extract resins or some alkaloids. For that reason, alcohol is the preferred solvent for resinous herbs, such as poplar buds or balm of gilead (Populus spp., Salicaceae).
If you have the time, make your tea fresh daily. I will typically prepare a quart of tea in the morning and slowly sip on it all day. It is easy to bring your tea out and about with you in a glass mason jar, thermos, or stainless steel beverage container. Tea will keep fresh at room temperature for about twelve hours, and then it will develop an off or stale flavor. Many people find it more convenient to make three days worth of tea at a time, and while the tea is not as fresh, it is a viable option if it makes the difference between drinking tea or not. You can make a triple batch of tea and place it in the refrigerator. It is then easy to heat up individual cups of tea. Many beverage teas are quite enjoyable cooled in the summer heat, and if you have a big batch in the refrigerator it is easy to reach for a cup. Also, consider preparing ice cubes of herbal tea. I freeze hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa, Malvaceae) and schisandra (Schisandra chinensis, Schisandraceae) tea into ice cubes, and then on busy days I pop them into my water container as I’m heading out the door.
An herbal infusion is made from lightweight plant material— namely leaves, flowers and fruits. Herbs with a high percentage of volatile oils are also typically prepared as an infusion, even if they are thicker plant parts like roots and bark. The infusion can be prepared in a French press, stainless steel pot, ceramic or glass teapot, or a stainless steel or bamboo infuser. Some herbalists use mason jars for their infusions but I do not recommend this practice as mason jars can sometimes have cracks and break when exposed to boiling water. If you really want to use a mason jar, make sure to place it in the sink when you pour your water in case it breaks. An infusion is prepared by bringing the desired amount of water to a boil, pouring it over the herb, and letting it sit covered, for twenty minutes. After straining the herb, the tea can be drunk immediately, or cooled to room temperature and refrigerated.
A decoction is basically a simmered tea and is the preferred form of preparation for bark, roots, medicinal mushrooms, and hard non-aromatic seeds. Decoctions are typically made in a stainless steel or stovetop-safe glass pot. The herb is placed in water and brought to a boil, then simmered with a lid on for 20 minutes to a half hour. Take off the heat, strain and enjoy. It is possible to simmer your decocted herbs again for a few more rounds; as long as they are still yielding a strong tasting tea, they are still good. Store your roots in the refrigerator between decoctions to reduce microbial growth. If you are making a tea mixture containing herbs to be infused and decocted, simply make your decoction, turn off the heat, and add your herbs to be infused.
Proportions for Herbal Infusions and Decoctions
Folk method: Here is a general guideline in figuring herbal proportions: 1 teaspoon of dried, cut and sifted herb, or herbal formula, or 2 tablespoons of fresh herb per 8 ounces of water. Note this strength is not exact as different herbs have varying densities and surface area. (This is a volume measurement and not a weight measurement) Alternately, many herbalists use the following proportions: one handful of an herb or herbal blend to one quart of water. Typically a daily dose would comprise of three to four cups of tea. This form of loose measurement is fine for most situations, but is not appropriate for herbs that have a high potential for side effects. After you gain a greater familiarity with each herb, you will easily be able to throw together a daily herbal tea blend without even thinking— it becomes second nature.
Weight method: .5-5 grams of dried herb, or herbal combination, for every 1 cup of water (Note this is a more exact measure since it is using weight). The dosage is typically one cup (8 ounces) of tea three times a day. When using multiple herbs in a formula, decrease the amount of each individual herb. The dosage varies depending on the herb(s) being employed; you will want to research each herb and it’s particular dosage. Another factor is the person’s constitution – if the individual is weak or sensitive, smaller dosages will be needed. Experiment with herbs as simples (single herbs) so as to familiarize yourself with each botanical’s unique flavor and aroma.
Some herbs are generally very safe and are used as food, examples are: chickweed (Stellaria media, Caryophyllaceae), hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa, Malvaceae), burdock (Arctium lappa and minus, Asteraceae), violet (Viola spp., Violaceae), nettles (Urtica dioica, Urticaceae), rosehips (Rosa spp., Rosaceae) and hawthorn (Crataegus spp., Rosaceae). The proportions of these teas are more flexible. Pungent herbs such as clove (Syzygium aromaticum, Myrtaceae), cayenne (Capsicum annuum, Solanaceae), and black pepper (Piper nigrum, Piperaceae) will obviously have a smaller dosage and a more pronounced effect on the imbiber. Note that the above proportions are typical in western herbalism, however, many traditional forms of medicine, such as Ayurveda or TCM, favor more concentrated medicinal teas. I tend to use higher dosages than most other western herbalists, especially in acute situations, as I have more success with stronger medicine. That said, stronger is not always better. Find your own strategies; use common sense, research, your senses and intuition. Many herbs, including beverage teas, can have adverse reactions when combined with pharmaceuticals; consult a trusted health care practitioner if you have concerns.
Determining dosage in children by weight:
To determine the child’s dosage by weight, you can assume that the adult dosage is for a 150-pound adult. Divide the child’s weight by 150. Take that number and multiply it by the recommended adult dosage. For example, if your child weighs 50 pounds, she will need one-third the recommended dose for a 150-pound adult. If the adult dosage is three droppers full of a tincture, she will need one third of that dose, which is one dropper full (1/3 of 3 droppers full). A 25-pound child would need one-sixth the adult dose, so he would receive one half of a dropper full (1/6 of 3 droppers full).
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This article was originally published in Juliet Blankespoor’s column, the Roots of Herbalism, in the Journal of the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy.