So far in the “How To Start Using Herbs” series we’ve talked about the basic, need-to-know things like purchasing quality herbs, storing then correctly, herbal safety, determining appropriate dosages, and tools to have on hand. We’ve also tackled making and using herbal preparations that are made with water such as teas, infusions, decoctions, washes, compresses, and fomentations.
So what’s next??
Today I’m going to be talking about poultices, powders, and electuaries. These herbal preparations are some of my favorites. Not only are they simple to make, but they’re fairly easy to use too.
A poultice is when you take an herb, moisten it, and apply it externally to the surface of the skin, and they can vary in several different ways.
Some poultices use fresh herbs that are mashed or chewed and put directly on the skin such as jewelweed for an itchy rash while others use dry herbs that are mixed with a warm liquid such as comfrey for a sprained ankle. Clays and other natural substances can also be used as poultices like activated charcoal and bentonite clay which are commonly used for drawing things such as toxins or splinters out of the skin, and powdered herbs mixed with warm liquids and turned into a paste can be applied to the body as well as is the case with mustard plasters for coughs.
When using an herb in a poultice, the herb is almost always moistened with some sort of liquid. Moisteners for poultices (whether from fresh, dried, or powdered material) can be any of the following:
- fresh herb’s juice
- aloe juice/gel
If you take a fresh herb you can put it in a mortar and pestle and crush it so that it’s moistened by its own juice, or you can make a “spit poultice” by putting the herb in your mouth, chewing it, and put it on the skin. Spit poultices are very common, but mostly used when you’re out and about and don’t have access to other materials to mix with your herb. Water is probably the most commonly used liquid as it’s readily available and cheap, but if you’re using a poultice for a particular reason… say a bad burn, you may want to use something a little more therapeutic like a hydrosol or aloe juice.
With almost all of the above moisteners, the liquid is either warm to begin with or warmed after the poultice is applied to the body. This moist heat helps to draw the properties out of the herbs as well as helping to open the pores of the skin and dilate the blood vessels so those properties can be absorbed. Poultices are similar to the fomentations I talked about last week because you keep a constant heat source on them to help them be more effective.
I personally like to use heat my liquids before adding it to the herbs as well as heating them afterwards so let me walk you through the steps I take to make and apply poultices.
How To Make A Poultice
- Take your herb and crush it up as much as possible. This can be with a mortar and pestle, your teeth, a fork or knife, or even a blender (I love using my magic bullet for small poultices).
- Slowly add in a small amount of warm liquid and mix, mash, or blend your herb some more. You want to add enough liquid so that your mash is spreadable and stays in place, but not so thin that it runs off and not so thick that it clumps and falls off.
- Once you’re finished, take a clean cloth and put your herbal paste on it. Fold it over a few times so that the paste is contained in the cloth, but don’t wrap it so tightly the liquid from the paste can’t come into contact with the skin.
How To Apply A Poultice
- When you’re ready to apply your poultice to the skin, simply place it wherever you need it to go. At this point you’ll want to put something over the poultice to keep it warm. This can be a hot water bottle, a hot pack, a homemade rice bag, or a heating pad. The point is to keep the herbs warm so their properties get absorbed into the skin easily.
- Keep the poultice on 20-30 minutes and repeat as often as needed.
WARNING: It’s important to keep the herb you’re applying to the skin in mind when placing it directly on the skin as some herbs will burn the skin. These herbs are called rubefacients, and they cause skin redness which shows that they are working. Garlic, mustard, ginger, and cayenne are several herbs that fall into this category. When using these kinds of herbs, it’s best to apply olive oil to the skin before placing the poultice on and to check the skin for redness every 5-10 minutes as a burn can happen fairly quickly, especially with children. You want the skin to appear pink… not red!
I already mentioned how you can take powdered herbs and use them for poultices, but what else can you use powdered herbs for and do you have to buy herbs pre-powdered or can you powder them yourself? Let’s look into these things below.
Buying Herbs Pre-powdered vs. Powdering At Home
When it comes to choosing between buying pre-powdered herbs or powdering them yourself at home there are some pros and cons to consider.
Buying Herbs Pre-Powdered:
- Pros: powders are ground finer than home-ground powders, no work on your part
- Cons: limited shelf-life, don’t always have control over amount of powder you get
Powdering Herbs At Home
- Pros: herbs are fresher, you control amount of herbs you powder
- Cons: need equipment, takes time, powder isn’t as fine
I think it’s safe to say that most people keep herbs in whole form in their homes and powder them themselves… unless they live close to an herb supplier and can pick up small amounts of powdered herbs when needed. With that being said, the final choice is up to you and what your needs are. No matter which option you go with, start with quality herbs and once they’re powdered be sure to store them in an air-tight in the fridge or freezer to lengthen their shelf-life. You can learn more about storing powdered herbs here.
For me personally, I almost always have large batches of pre-purchased powdered herb blends in my freezer that I use in smoothies and herb balls because we go through these quickly. Other than that, like if I need an herb for a medicinal reason, I like to powder it myself so it’s fresh. The only exception for this is for herbs that are roots or herbs that are resinous like myrrh. These herbs are difficult to powder well at home so I prefer to purchase these and store them correctly.
How To Use Powdered Herbs
There are a lot of uses for powdered herbs depending upon the situation. Below I’ll list some common ways one could use them.
- in foods when cooking
- in herbal smoothies or herb balls
- in other herbal preparations like poultices, electuaries, salves, teas, and capsules
- on wounds to slow bleeding or keep infections at bay
- to make percolated tinctures (tincture within 24 hours)
As you can see, powdered herbs have a lot of uses, and there may be different times when one would keep powdered herbs on hand.
How To Powder Herbs At Home
- Start by placing your dried herbs in a coffee grinder and setting the grinder on “fine”. Grind off and on in short 30 second bursts so you don’t overheat the herbs as you grind them as heat can destroy the herb’s properties.
- Once herbs are ground you can use your mortar and pestle to grind them even finer if you wish.
- Once herbs are powdered to your liking (or as good as they’re going to get), bag/bottle, label, and store them correctly. *If your plan is to use your powdered herbs in capsules, it’s best to do this immediately after powdering in order to keep as much oxygen as possible away from the herbal powder. You can fill capsules by hand or you can use a capsule machine to make quick work of it. Herbal capsules can be stored for up to 12 months.
Herbal electuaries are a mixture of powdered herbs and honey that can either be rolled into small balls (called pastilles) or eaten straight off of the spoon! They’re also a great way to get kids to take herbs because the honey masks the flavor of the herb.
You can make all sorts of electuaries from single herb electuaries to electuaries made using a blend of herbs. The choice is yours. Electuaries are quick and easy to make and they store well.
How To Make An Electuary
- Choose your herbs and place them in a bowl.
- Slowly add in a small amount of raw honey and mix until the powder is moistened. The less honey you use, the stronger your electuary will taste of herbs, but you can form this mixture into small bite-sized balls called pastilles if you’d like. The more honey you use, the sweeter your electuary will be, but it will be runnier and you’ll have to eat it off a spoon.
So there you go… info on herbal poultices, powders, and electuaries. I hope you now feel more comfortable with each of these herbal preparations and you have some ideas on how they can be used.