Preparing Your Herbal Medicine Chest For Winter
Now that you're accustomed with the art of collecting and drying herbs from your garden (see my last blog post here to learn how), you're ready to begin working on preparing your herbal medicine chest for winter. A medicine chest can be added to any time of year, but we often think of bolstering this important component of any home pharmacy in spring through summer when medicinal herbs are at their peak growing season. From immune boosting botanicals, to first aid herbals, and culinary medicinals, the herbalist's medicine chest is a prized cornucopia of healing magic.
Once the cornerstone of everyone's home and hearth, the medicine chest was not always so separate from the home. Every homestead had one, every healer tended one for their tribe, and even most towns/villages had some sort of herbal apothecary where these medicines were held. The practice of gathering medicine for the family and community is as old as any other foraging tradition and was a vital component to the primitive and simple systems that we once had for healing. I invite you to reclaim this tradition for your own home, and with that, let's build one!
Building Your Chest: Plant Parts To Consider
While not all plants are edible (or medicinal) there is medicine and healing to be found in all the different parts of the plant. When building your medicine chest it's important to consider the many different types of herbal medicine there are, and how you can represent them in your chest. When you're starting out in herbalism, it's important to remember that each medicinal plant has it's medicinal parts, and species and you want to be sure to use the right ones.
The heartiest part of the plant (besides the bark) and the one that we often harvest during the fall and spring months when the energy is most vital and the plant is actively putting attention into growing and nurturing that part. The ground is also softer and it's easier to harvest mindfully without totally damaging the plant. Heading into the fall season, think about which roots you may want to include in your chest and where you will source them (local growers encouraged).
We often find ourselves collecting berries during the summer and fall months when they are ripe and abundant on trees and bushes. Berries like elderberry are ripe and ready for harvest in mid to late summer, and are an excellent example of the healing power of plants. Please note, I often find that plants who's berries are medicinal, might not always have shared medicinal value in the other parts of the plant. When harvesting berries, especially in your yard, remember that the birds too rely on them as a vital food source during the year.
Leaves + Flowers
One of the most common parts of the plant that are edible and medicinal, leaves and flowers are often used as spices (both medicinal and as flavor) and as teas. Leaves and flowers can be dried and used in herbal blends year round, or tinctured (depending on the plant) for longer storage. We most often find ourselves collecting leaves and flowers in the spring and summer, but I also encourage folks to do a sweep of their garden for any lingering culinary herbs that could be saved before the weather turns.
My Top Three Herbs For Getting Started
While there are literally thousands of species of plants that hold medicinal quality, I always stand by the belief that a small apothecary can be almost as mighty as a vast one. Particularly when thinking about the home medicine chest, being sure to have a few good herbs that you know how to use well will serve you much better than having dozens you don't understand. The herbs listed below are my top favorite for when you're starting off and just now learning how to build your chest.
1. Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
Thyme is by far one of my most favorite medicinal herbs, not only for the home herbalist and medicine chest tender, but to the experienced practitioner as well. A powerful antimicrobial for the respiratory system and a delightful carminative for the digestive system, thyme is one of my most treasured herbs when it comes to home self care. Grow it in your garden and dry it for teas, broths, and steams, or tincture it for a more concentrated version of the same.
Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea, E. angustifolia)
One of the most classic herbs in the herbal materia medica for immune boosting, echinacea has saved me on many occasion. As a tincture (made double extracted with the roots and flowers) it is used to help boost the immune system at the onset of a cold or flu. Echinacea is also used as a blood mover, helping to keep things going when we're healing. Echinacea does come with a disclaimer - which is that it is really only meant to be used in short bursts and not for continual immune support. If you are immuno-compromised, speak with an herbalist or herbal trained medical provider about how to use it best.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
If I had to chose one herb to be stranded on a desert island with, this would be it. A supreme healer of all things flesh related, yarrow is one of the most power styptics that I've worked with in the herbal realm. Used as a mild antimicrobial and regulator of the capillaries, yarrow is my go-to herb for mild cases of herbal first aid. I prefer this herb as a fresh plant tincture made with the leaves. It is very easy to grow, is a California native plant, and is a protector of our boundaries and space. Please note - for serious wounds and infections it is best to seek proper medical care and get the advice of your doctor or a nearby hospital.
Keeping Track Of Your Inventory + Successes
As a former biologist you're never going to convince me that tracking your data and results is not worth the effort. This is how we collect information and compare it across years, cases, and seasons. When building your home medicine chest I strongly recommend labeling all of your herbs directly on their jars (plant, plant part, date harvested, location) as well as keeping a journal of these harvests and how and when the herbs were used when you use them. Anecdotal yes, but this is the tradition of how this knowledge has been tracked and kept across time.
Go on and go forth, and above all, enjoy tapping into this ancestral practice which will lead you closer to the land, plant history, and your health.
Learn More In The Herbal Path
Love what you're learning and want to learn more? Explore my Herbal Apprenticeship, The Herbal Path, to learn how we can embrace and use ancient plant wisdom in our lives and for health.