The weather is cooling down here as the wheel of the year turns toward winter in the northern hemisphere. There is woodsmoke in the air, and soon the snow will fly. Now is the time to burrow in, to shore up, to make your home a space to rest and shelter in.
Why not think about setting up an herbal apothecary in your home, too?
Just think: you can create a small nook where you can go for comfort and remedies to help you through the cold months. It could be a cabinet, a drawer, even just a little shelf. These long dark months are a great time to dip your toes into the world of herbs and get to know a few of them.
But where do you start? With so many herbs out there in the world (and at the healthfood store), how can you narrow it down?
Well, the answer is to start small and go slow. Below are a few categories I think are important to have in a home apothecary, along with the herbs I like to keep stocked. Check it out, think about what the most common issues for you are, and then research some of the plants I'll mention. (And of course, make sure all the herbs you select are safe for you to consume and won't interfere with any medications you are taking or any medical conditions you may have. That vast majority of herbs are perfectly safe, but it's always best to be sure.)
It's a good idea to start out with just a few herbs in small amounts at first so you can get to know them, see if they work for you, and decide if they're something you'd like to have around. Over time, you'll have a reliable group of herbal allies that you'll love working with.
Here are a few categories to consider:
Antivirals: bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), elderberry (Sambucus nigra), elderflower (Sambucus nigra), garlic (Allium sativum), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), star anise (Illicium verum), st. john's wort (Hypericum perforatum), white pine (Pinus strobus)
Digestive Issues: bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), barberry root (Berberis vulgaris), burdock (Arctium lappa), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), common mallow (Malva neglecta), dandelion root (Taraxicum officinalis), marshmallow (Althea officinalis), mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), peppermint (Mentha piperata), rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus), slippery elm (Ulmus rubra), spearmint (Mentha spicata), yellow dock root (Rumex crispus)
Immune Tonics: astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
Herbs for Pain: cayenne (Capsicum annuum), cramp bark (Viburnum opulus), kava kava (Piper methysticum), skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), valerian (valeriana officinalis), yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Herbs for the Respiratory System: common mallow (Malva neglecta), elderflower (Sambucus nigra), elecampane (Inula helenium), horehound (Marrubium vulgare), licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), marshmallow (Althea officinalis), mullein (Verbascum thapsus), slippery elm (Ulmus rubra), new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), white pine (Pinus strobus), wild cherry (Prunus serotina)
Herbs for Sleep: chamomile (Matricaria recutita), hops, (Humulus lupulus), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), linden (Tilia spp.), maypop (Passiflora incarnata), skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
Herbs for Stress, Tension and Anxiety: ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), blue vervain (Verbena hastata), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), kava kava, (Piper methysticum), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), linden (Tilia spp.), maypop (Passiflora incarnata), peppermint (Mentha piperata), rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), rose (Rosa spp.), spearmint (Mentha spicata), valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
Wounds/Healing: calendula (Calendula officinalis), comfrey (external only) (Symphytum officinale), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), mullein (Verbascum thapsus), plantain (Pantago sp.), rose (Rosa spp.), yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Where to Purchase Herbs
I'm a big proponent of growing and harvesting local plants or finding a local, reputable herbalist or herb shop if you have one. Not everyone will have that privilege, though; if you need to order online, here are a few of the places I trust for high-quality herbs and tinctures:
Setting up the Apothecary Space
Take some time to think about what you'd like your apothecary to look and feel like. Make it a special, sacred place that brings you joy when you visit it. If you have a witchy bent, you can even turn it into a little altar.
When you keep your apothecary organized, accessible, cozy, and separate from the other stuff in your house/kitchen, you're much more likely to work with the herbs and enjoy doing it.
And remember, it doesn't have to be fancy; I have a really cool old bookshelf I rescued from the side of the road where I store dried herbs and bigger jars of stuff, and a cabinet I built to keep my small tincture bottles in.
Storing Your Herbs
I've got a whole post about harvesting, drying, and storing herbs here. But these are the main points:
- When you first get your herbs, examine them to make sure they're fresh. They should be vibrant, not dusty and brown. Memorize how they look, feel, and smell so that later on you'll realize when they've started to go bad and need to be tossed.
- Store your herbs in airtight glass jars, preferably in a cooler place away from the sunlight, as the rays can break down the herbs over time. Regular glass jars are ok if the herbs won't be indirect sunlight, but it's a good idea to look for jars with dark colored glass (just make sure it's colored glass, not glass that has a coating of tint painted on).
- Make sure your herbs and jars are both bone dry when you put them up. Moisture creates mold.
- Label those jars! You think you'll remember...but will you? I have to admit that more than once I've had to dig deep into my memory to remember what herb I'm looking at. Adding the date to the label will help you remember how long you've had a certain herb and when it should be replaced, too.
In addition to storage jars and labels, consider springing for some beautiful tea making equipment to stash in your apothecary. I'm pretty sure most herbalists have an extensive collection of beautiful mugs and teapots...I know I do, and I'm not going to apologize for it!
- A nice kettle to boil water in
- A teapot with a steeping basket (a french press works great too)
- A mug you love
- A scoop
- A couple of extra tea strainers
I also have a special bowl that my mother in law made and a small wooden teaspoon that I use to measure and mix herbs for my tea blends. I think they add a little magic to whatever I'm whipping up.
Having a teapot, mug, and steeping equipment that works well and is fun to use will encourage you to experiment with your new herbs. It also elevates your daily cup of tea into an enjoyable ritual that you'll really look forward to on chilly winter days.
A Note on Working with Herbs
Keep in mind that although I've grouped the above herbs together under certain categories, they will each have a slightly different effect. Some will be more suitable than others depending on the specific situation and your personal constitution. Herbs are as individual and nuanced as people; no two are the same or will behave the same way, and most of them are good at more than one thing. Getting to know them is like getting to know a friend - it takes a little time.
It may take years (maybe a lifetime or seven, really) to understand exactly how certain herbs work, plus lots of study to understand exactly what plants to choose for a given situation, but don't be intimidated. Herbal medicine is the people's medicine, and I believe we can all cultivate skills when it comes to working with it.
Go slow, trust yourself, and trust the plants.
Be well friends,
Note: All statements made herein are meant to be strictly educational and are not intended to treat, cure, or prevent disease. Consult a physician before trying a new herb or starting a new herbal regimen, especially if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, have underlying conditions or are taking medication.