By Katya Difani
It was in the act of following my mother out to collect red clover blossoms in our sheep pasture that my love of herbal medicine was first born. Of course, I did not know this at the time. I did not know that I would eventually find the only degree program in Herbal Science in the country and move to Seattle in order to study. I did not know that I would start an herb shop in Kirkland and be teaching people how to use herbs in their lives on a daily basis. And yet, that is what I did. And it really all began in those fields in Montana, living in tune with the rhythms of life, where the vibrancy of the plant world buzzed around me.
My mother was herself a force of nature, a woman who was born in the wrong era, born with a pioneer spirit. She and my father moved onto the cattle ranch I was raised on when I was two years old. I grew up riding horses, helping turn soil, weed my mother’s large vegetable garden, milking our cow, raising orphaned lambs and calves. She loved to grow our food, and that eventually expanded into a large herb garden as well. We were apt to drink an herbal tea for an upset stomach or trouble sleeping, and I remember jars of herbal tinctures with roots floating in the alcohol mixture on our cold storage shelves.
When I was in high school, my mom introduced herbal overnight infusions into our family
When I was in high school, my mom introduced herbal overnight infusions into our family after studying with herbalist Susun Weed in upstate New York. This was a practice of taking very nutritionally rich plants such as nettle, and adding dry leaves to a pot of just-boiled hot water, covering with a lid and allowing to steep overnight. The herbs are then filtered through a strainer the next morning. This method of extraction allows the maximum amount of minerals and other compounds of the plant to infuse into the water.
We were served a glass of this herbal infusion (or “tea”) with our breakfast each morning. She would rotate nettle-peppermint, oat straw-lemon verbena, and red clover blossoms as the daily mineral blend. I loved these mixes. To me, the taste of these herbs was not off-putting, and seeing dried leaves or flowers spread on sheets or hung from wood beams in our house was normal. I feel very grateful now for this now, as the history of Western medicine has made it so that most people are unacquainted with the use of plants as medicine, and many are taught to be skeptical or even afraid to use them this way.
Let me share more about herbal infusions
Any water extraction of herbs, commonly referred to as a “tea” involves soaking the herbs in hot or cold water for a period of time, either with the herbs in a tea bag, or scooped loose into a tea ball, a tea strainer, or allowed to float loose in a jar, a french press, or any other vessel, and then pouring through a strainer to filter out the leaves. Most people are familiar with this method for most bagged and loose-leaf teas that are commonly consumed.
The method most people are less familiar with is referred to as a “long infusion,” where the herbs are allowed to sit in the water over a long period of time, anywhere from 4 to 8 hours. Pouring hot water over the herbs at night and allowing to sit out until morning when you strain them is the easiest way I have found.
What is the benefit of a long infusion? For one thing, it is a simple way to extract the properties of mineral-rich herbs. This long of a steep allows most of the minerals to extract into the water, and the minerals in the plants are in a form that your body can utilize easily. One of my favorite all-time herbs is nettle leaf, which grows wild abundantly in parts of the world, including the Pacific Northwest. It is an excellent source of minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium, and potassium, as well as containing a good amount of purifying chlorophyll. Consumed this way, nettle infusion can help reverse anemia in women, strengthen hair, skin, and nails, and hydrate and alkalinize the body. Nettle leaf is also a supportive herb for the kidneys and has antihistamine properties to help reduce or prevent allergy symptoms.
My other favorite mineral-rich herbs for long infusions are oat straw or oat pods that are high in calcium and b-vitamins and very soothing for the nervous system; alfalfa leaf and red clover leaf which are both high in minerals such as magnesium and iron and have compounds which help with gentle detoxification of body via the lymph and blood; and red raspberry leaf, which is high in calcium, magnesium, and iron, among other minerals, and is particularly beneficial for tonifying and strengthening the uterus and reproductive tract of women and can help reduce symptoms of PMS, while enhancing fertility, and preparing the body for giving birth for pregnant women.
Another benefit of a long infusion is allowing extraction of the carbohydrates in certain herbal medicines that can have demulcent (soothing and cooling) effects on the mucosal membranes of the digestive tract. These herbs form a liquid that has a “weight” to it, and can be slightly thick and gelatinous in nature. These herbs are best extracted in an overnight infusion that uses cold water from the start. Herbs such as slippery elm bark and marshmallow root are most commonly utilized this way, and can really help heal esophageal issues, gastric inflammation and acid reflux, and other inflammatory issues of the intestines.
Most herbs that are utilized by steeping in water benefit from being steeped for several hours, as this allows the water to soften and access more of the plant constituents. However, simply steeping most leaves and flowers for 15 minutes is enough to get a lot of the medicinal value. Roots, barks, and berries, the harder parts of the plant, are best extracted using a method called a “decoction,” where water is brought to a boil in a pot on the stove, the herbs are added, the heat is lowered to a simmer, and the herbs are allowed to “cook” for 20-30 minutes. This allows more softening of the cell wall of the plants and more of the medicinal constituents are extracted. Herbs such as burdock root that is good for stimulating digestion, supporting liver and kidney function, and useful for chronic skin conditions is best prepared this way. Hawthorn berries, an excellent tonic herb for the heart and vascular system, is another medicine best extracted as a decoction.
The art and science of herbal medicine is something that continues to inspire and challenge me
I have seen herbs help support health in myself, my family, and my community of customers in ways that continue to fuel my desire to educate people on how to use herbs as a tool on the path of healing. Finding a way to utilize these plant medicines in a way that you can easily incorporate them into your life is when you’ll see the best long-term results, especially from these nutritious, mineral-rich, and tonic herbs.
Katya Difani is a Bastyr-trained Herbalist and Founder of Herban Wellness, an herbal apothecary in Kirkland that has been in business serving the herbal needs of the community since July 2009. She grew up surrounded by nature on a cattle ranch in western Montana and has always had a deep love and commitment to the Earth and all of its life forms. She is an herbal educator and formulator, and enjoys helping people find natural solutions for common health concerns, as well as providing guidance and quality herbs and extracts for supporting health and vitality. She is in the process of expanding her business and realizing the dream of co-creating a wellness center called OPTLife Wellness Center that will open summer 2017 in the Bellevue/Redmond area. Herban Wellness will move into this new location and expand its offerings as the Herban Wellness Community Shop.
Find more information at www.herbanwellness.net or on Facebook (Herban Wellness).