Here’s a secret for my HOMEGROWN friends: I’m a disaster—even more so than usual lately. I’ve always been a person who falls, frequently and spectacularly. I’m also the one who lands in situations where, if things can go haywire, they will. Over the years, I’ve grown comfortable with that. This summer, however, has been a whopper.
At the beginning of summer, I fell and twisted my right ankle and did something to my foot. A week later, while planting fruit trees, I stepped wrong and sprained my other ankle TWO ways. (I’m an overachiever!) As I lay in the hospital for several days last week, I decided straight away to take better care of myself. Of course, I couldn’t have foreseen that the stray tabby I took in would create a riot in my animal kingdom, leaving me with cuts and scrapes and bites into my tendon that led to an infected hand, which sent me back to my mothership, AKA the local hospital.
The time, listening to beeps and alarms in a room by myself with only a fuzzy Maury Povich declaring “You are NOT the father!” in the background to keep me company, I had an epiphany about how I can take care of myself and my family right at home. I’ve always been into herbs and natural remedies, so I decided to expand on that interest by creating an apothecary wall.
I have one wall in my dining room that I refer to as my “problem wall.” It’s plaster—crumbly plaster, due to past water damage—and I had long ago decided to make it an accent wall. I scrolled Pinterest and found exactly what I was looking for: a rustic wall façade made from pallet wood that could accommodate shelves for my apothecary supplies while still looking nice. (That photo at left was my original inspiration.) It not only represented me pretty well but it would serve as a conversation starter. I don’t know many other people with an at-home apothecary, and I would love for it to foster curiosity in others, perhaps even prompting them to consider more at-home remedies.
WHAT YOU NEED FOR A HOME APOTHECARY
Although I’m still in the early stages of assembling my wall, I have started to collect supplies. I wanted to do all of this on a budget, and since it’s not urgent, I can take some time.
• Herbs. I started out with a few of the natural components that would take a bit longer: I dried mint, sage, and rosemary. I picked up some others in bulk: lavender, elderberry, and bay. I also started to buy essential oils as they went on sale.
• Tools. I pulled out my old mortar and pestle. Generally, whole herbs have a longer shelf life than powdered, so it’s best to grind on demand, when possible. (If you’re planning to use something up quickly and aren’t worried about shelf life, powder works in a pinch.) I also picked up some cheesecloth and a metal strainer—the fine type, versus a colander—for making infusions. The finer herbs will require use of the cheesecloth.
• Jars. I also made the much-dreaded trip to Ikea for glass jars, as I’m looking to keep things as uniform as possible and to keep the cost down. I should mention that lots of folks won’t store their herbs in glass jars since they can reduce potency and shelf life by letting in light.
• Location. On a related note, when choosing a location for your herbs, you want to find a darkish spot, out of the sun and direct artificial light. My dining room isn’t quite at dungeon-level status, but it doesn’t receive much sunlight, and we rarely turn on the overhead light (mostly because I picked a light far too bright and hot for the space, and it’s a little like sitting on the face of the sun when the light is on). The dining room is adjacent to the kitchen and gets light from there or from candles, which are much kinder to my crow’s feet anyhow.
• Pallets or shelving. I managed to get my hands on pallets, a feat that seems increasingly difficult these days. I did go to a big home-supply chain, as people online had recommended, and got ten pallets for free, even though the guy said he was supposed to start charging for them. You can probably source them from local companies for free.
While I’m aware that a raging infection isn’t necessarily best treated at home, I do believe that herbs and natural remedies are one more way of getting back to our roots. Whether it’s ginger tea for an upset stomach or lavender in your bath to relax you and help you sleep, you’re putting far fewer chemicals put into your body to heal something that could be addressed naturally.
TYPES OF HERBAL CONCOCTIONS
Most herbal concoctions are prepared in one of these ways: infusion/teas, tinctures, decoction, maceration, poultices/compress, or bathing practices. The following is a very high-level, simplified overview.
• Infusion/teas. Making one of these is similar to making a cup of tea, by pouring just-boiled water over the herbs or plant in questions. In most cases, you’ll steep 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
• Decoction. This is another boiling method but with more attention paid to the amount of water and herbs. This is more common with harder bark-type or woody materials as opposed to loose and leafy herbs, which only require an infusion.
• Tinctures. Requiring alcohol and water, these are much more time consuming to make but produce long-lasting products.
• Maceration. This is a soaking method. It doesn’t call for any harsh treatment, simply soaking overnight and occasional stirring. This is easy and typically used with more delicate herbs that can’t withstand other methods.
• Compresses and bathing. These last two are just what they sound like. Most herbal-remedy books will walk you through step-by-step preparations, as well as measurements and timelines for maximum efficacy.
WAYS TO USE YOUR HOME REMEDIES
If you’re on the fence about creating your own apothecary, here are some interesting facts:
• Pet care. Your furry friends will benefit as well. Last year I took my dog to an all-natural vet who used herbs to treat a condition that almost always results in a dog being put down. My pooch is perfect now. While I don’t have the expertise to treat seriously ailing animals, I can turn something as simple as Epsom salt (which I use myself three times a week) as a soak to soothe my dog’s sore spots and swelling.
• Cold sores. Lemon balm tea can help with these. No more chemicals on your face to battle the little buggers.
• Prevention. Sprinkling clove on a fresh cut will not only help prevent an infection but also helps with pain relief.
• Headaches. Willow is a long-standing remedy, as it produces the same analgesic effect as aspirin.
• Magic! You get to feel slightly Harry Potterish when your friends ask what’s in your jars. You can answer things like, “mugwart, houndstooth, valerian, and scullcap.” They don’t have to know these are regular, run-of-the-mill plants!
• And more. Some of those weeds in your backyard can be turned into effective remedies. Dandelion, for instance, is a diuretic.
Building up your home apothecary is a great activity for the cold-weather months ahead, but here comes my obligatory warning: PLEASE do your research prior to jumping in with two feet. This is medicine, after all, and there are risks associated. I find the subject fascinating, but I’m still a beginner myself, so I’m taking the time to get educated. While these healing methods can do some heavy lifting when it comes to keeping us well, they pack an equally serious punch if used incorrectly.
There’s a wealth of knowledge and purveyors online, including my current obsession, Mountain Rose Herbs. I could spend hours on the site, perusing their information. (They also have a no-waste policy and a strong environmental commitment.) Happy healing!
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Although she’s something of a newbie homesteader herself, Michelle Wire comes from serious pioneer stock: Her great-grandmother literally wrote the book. It’s this legacy, in part, that led Michelle to trade in her high-stress life for a home on the grounds of a Pennsylvania CSA farm. You can read her monthly posts on beginner homesteading with kids and more here in HOMEGROWN Life, and sometimes you can find her popping up in The Stew, HOMEGROWN’s member blog.
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