I spent this afternoon in the apothecary. Historically, the apothecary was the medical hub of a community. It was where one found medical advice, herbal remedies, a mid-wife and perhaps a surgeon. Today the word is obsolete, as there are no longer such places. But I like the way the word “apothecary” rolls around in my mouth. So I call the area where I make herbal medicine my apothecary.
Working in the apothecary is a sensual experience. So much of what is considered healthy today is devoid of the rich indulgence nature offers the five senses. Either healthy is so bland one is not sure what one has taken, or drenched with anti-septic fumes which offend not only germs but anyone who enjoys a walk in the woods. Herbs are anything but bland.
The first task in the apothecary is to put away the dried herbs I have just received. Each herb gets checked for quality. There are three basic ways to be sure a dried herb is of good quality. First the colour must be as close to the fresh herb as possible. The nettles (Urtica dioica), I put away today, were as green as the grass in June. As a matter of fact, I have never seen such a green batch of nettles. I am particularly please these herbs.
Next, I smell the herb. There is an expression amongst herbalists which goes like this, “Smell your herbs like a wolf.” No dainty sniffs, but deep inhalations, kind of like doing yoga. An inhalation that will overwhelm the chemo receptors at the top of nose with the rich fragrance of green, as in the nettles, or the sweet, spiciness of black elder flowers (Sambucus nigra), or the dark earthy aroma of dandelion root (Taraxacum radix). No scent, no medicine.
The third test is the taste of the herbs. A well dried herb is rich in flavour. One tastes herbs like one samples fine wine. Let the herb linger, mingle with salvia, dally over the tongue. Good herbs have at least three layers of flavour. Often bitter becomes sweet which in turns becomes dry. Or the pucker of sour herbs turns to pungent, moistening the mouth. Nibbling on nettles, leaves the flavour of minerals.
Once a herb has past its quality test, it is inventoried. It is important to know when a herb has arrived in the apothecary as most herbs loose many of their medicinal properties after six months becoming compost.
Next I filled the tea jars I had brought home from the clinic. The herbal teas are under rated in their effects by most people, including herbalists, but that is for another column. Today, I found many of the jars I was refilling are cold and flu herbs, including black elder flowers, yarrow (Achillea millifolium), peppermint (Menthe piperita) and boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum). Each of these herbs eases the congestion of a cold and breaks the fever of a flue sipped frequently.
The big job in the apothecary today was to press tinctures. This is hard work. I had ten tinctures on the go that needed to pressed and bottled. A tincture is a water/alcohol extract of a herb. Many of the medicinal constituents in herbs are not water soluble. Alcohol is used to draw out the plant’s medicinal effects. It is also a preservative. Remember dried herbs are compost after six months. Once in a tincture, most medicine will be good medicine for years.