When it comes to working with plants, knowing where to start can feel intimidating. However, don’t let the vast amount of information available overwhelm you, or stop you from giving it a try. 

Working with plants is an incredible way to connect deeper with Mother Earth and with your ancestors. These ancient herbal preparations have been passed down for thousands of years, and it is important for us to remember these practices in order to keep the medicine in the people's hands and to share them with future generations. Below is a list of brief explanations on the different ways you can prepare plants for medicinal or cosmetic reasons. The list is not exhaustive, but allow it to serve as an introduction to various preparation methods.

OIL-BASED

Oil infusion

Oil infusions are a wonderful starting place when it comes to working with plants. Herbal oil infusions can be used on their own, or used to create other remedies such as salves, ointments, serums, massage oils. Oil infusions can take a few hours, or even up to a few weeks depending on how you would like to prepare them. 

To make an oil infusion, you will need a carrier oil, such as olive, coconut, grapeseed, sesame or sunflower, and an herb(s) of your choice. You can decide whether to infuse the herbs via a double boiler on low heat for a few hours, or for a longer process, you can add the dried leaves to a jar, pour the oil over top and leave it to infuse for 3-6 weeks. After either process, you can strain the plant matter out and store the medicinal oil in a container for use. 

There are benefits to both methods and it is up to you which one feels best!

Salves 

Salves are a great remedy to have around the house. They are a semi-solid formula made from herbal infused oil and beeswax. Salves can be useful in healing minor cuts and wounds, as well as for preventing infections, or to aid muscle and joint pain depending on which herbs you use. Some herbal-infused oils which work great for salves could include Calendula, Yarrow, Mint, Pine, Eucalyptus, or Poplar Bud.

Balms

Balms are similar to salves, and prepared in almost the exact same way, however balms require more beeswax. The additional wax helps to give the balm more solidity and thickness, which allows it to stay on the surface of skin longer and efficiently relieve dryness or irritation. Balms are meant to be hydrating and are often used in cosmetic context such as lip balm. 

Ointment 

Ointment is also prepared exactly like a balm or a salve, however its texture is the most soft. This is because for ointment, you would use the least amount of beeswax in the preparation. Ointments can be used for a variety of conditions, such as to help heal cuts or wounds, for dry or cracked skin, dry lips, and can be great for relieving things like sunburns. 

Body butter

Body butter has a thicker oil content than both lotion and cream, and because of the viscosity, tends to be the most moisturizing. Body butters are generally used from the neck down, and  thicker oils are utilized as the base, such as shea or cocoa butter. As body butter is a little more heavy-duty than the others, it can be especially helpful to use during the winter, when skin tends to be more dry.

Creams 

Creams are used cosmetically and are oil based, but with some water added. They are a medium thickness between lotion and body butter, and are commonly used on the face. Creams can be used to alleviate dryness, or various skin conditions. For creams you would also want to use a lighter oil.

Lotions

Lotions are liquidy and are intended generally to be used all over the body. Lotions can be used throughout the year to promote skin hydration, and preparing it generally calls for thinner base oils to be used, such as olive, grapeseed. Lotions and creams differ from what is listed above, due to their water content and emulsification.

For lotions, creams and body butter, it can be a good idea to add vitamin E to the preparation as a preservative. As well, adding essential oils to your formulas can enhance the fragrance, and  offer added medicinal benefits. 

Serums

Serums tend to be the most concentrated of the herbal oil-based preparations and can be used for a wide range of skin conditions. Typically a serum is used for the face, and can help with acne, eczema, dryness, and to keep the skin on your face nourished and glowing. Serums are lighter, so they will absorb into the skin quicker and not appear greasy. Commonly, serums are made with thin carrier oils such as jojoba, rose hip, tamanu or apricot kernel. When making a serum, some wonderful herbs to use can include Rose, Sandalwood, Neem, Chamomile, and Lavender. All of these herbs can help to reduce inflammation, irritation or redness in the skin. Essential oils can also be included in serum with proper dilution!

Massage oil 

Massage oils tend to be light in order to allow for easy gliding movements and quick absorption into the skin. You can make massage oil by simply adding essential oils to a thin carrier oil such as jojoba or grapeseed (click here for our essential oil dilution guide). Or, you can infuse the herbs into a carrier oil, with the same process as an oil infusion. This would be a longer process, but may allow you to include a greater variety of ingredients. Some wonderful herbs to use in massage oil could include Sandalwood, Lavender, Rose, Lemongrass, Tulsi, or Bala – a root powder commonly used in Ayurvedic massage oils. 

Alcohol-based

Tinctures

Tinctures are a common way to prepare herbs for medicinal use. They extract medicinal components of plants which are not water soluble. Tinctures are made by infusing herbs in alcohol or vinegar for an extended period of time, so that the medicinal properties are released. To do this, you would simply add herbs to a glass container, pour the alcohol over top, seal the container and then let it sit for around 4 to 8 weeks. Shake regularly and then when it is ready, strain out the plant matter. The most common alcohol used for tinctures is vodka, or an 80 proof or higher ethanol. 

Cordials

Cordials can be a tasty way to receive the medicinal benefits of plants. Their preparation is made similarly to a tincture, however, typically, cordials are made from a combination of herbs, spices, sweetener and alcohol. As a sweetener, you can decide whether to use sugar, jaggery, or something like maple syrup, elderberry syrup, honey or molasses. As for alcohol, typically lower percentage alcohols are used such as brandy, dessert wine, vodka or gin, or anything you have on hand. 

Liniments 

Liniments are most helpful in relieving muscle and joint pain, and are made by infusing herbs in a solvent such as rubbing alcohol, vodka or vinegar. These preparations are made to be rubbed into the skin with friction, creating warmth and allowing for deeper penetration into skin and muscle. They are usually formulated to be either heating by using plants like ginger, cayenne, black pepper, or cooling, by using plants such as mint, or menthol crystals. To make a liniment, the process is similar to that of a tincture. Combine herbs and alcohol in a jar, include any essential oils you would like to add, and then let the mixture sit in a cool dark place. Shake regularly, and then after 4 to 6 weeks, strain the infusion through a cheesecloth and into a container to remove the plant matter. 

Perfume

Since ancient times, aromatic plants have been used to please and awaken the senses and create an exotic presence. Many herbs long used in perfumery are even mentioned in sacred texts such as the Bible. There are a couple of different ways that you can prepare a basic perfume at home. Some require the use of essential oils, others use tinctures and oil extractions. 

When using essential oils, the dilution ratio typically used for safety concerns is around 15-30%. Meaning 15-30% of your total volume is essential oil, the rest is oil or alcohol. This percentage is much higher than other types of herbal preparations used for healing purposes because only a small amount of perfume is used in comparison. 

Oil-based perfume

Liquid perfume can either be alcohol or oil based. Oil based perfume is typically a mixture of various essential oils added to a carrier oil (most commonly Jojoba for its longer shelf life) with a mild scent profile. Sometimes an aromatic herbal infused oil or mixture of them can be used as a base for added fragrance. These types are commonly used in a roll-on tube applied directly to the skin. Oil based perfumes last for hours after they are applied as the oil base takes a while to absorb into the skin and release the aromatics. These types are the simplest to make for the beginner. 

Alcohol-based perfume 

These types are typically delivered as a spray-on perfume. As the small droplets touch the skin, they are heated and evaporate much quicker than oil based perfumes. This allows for a perfume that packs more of an immediate punch, as the most volatile aromatics within are released fairly quickly. Several layers of scent are released over a couple hour period. If sprayed on clothes or fabric, these perfumes will last longer. Typically, either essential oils are added to alcohol, or tinctured aromatic botanicals and resins are combined in carefully calculated formulas. 

Solid perfume 

The base for solid perfume is most often a carrier oil with a low scent profile. These types don’t require alcohol because they are intended to have a firm consistency at room temperature. To make solid perfume, a mixture of essential oils are added into a carrier oil, and then with a double boiler, different plant-based waxes or beeswax is added to give it a more solid consistency. It is best to use a carrier oil with a mild scent, so that it does not interfere with the fragrance you are trying to create!

Essential oils

Essential oils are made by distilling plants with steam, and capturing the volatile oils released by the plant. Some type of distillation equipment is required. Essential oils have been used throughout time for medicinal, spiritual and cosmetic reasons. They are highly concentrated aromatic constituents from various plants and plant parts. It takes a lot of plant matter to make essential oils, but they are very potent, and a little goes a long way. Making essential oils at home is a little bit more of a complex process than making an oil infusion. It will require you to have some tools at home in order to extract the oils. There are many options as to how you can make your own essential oils, and you may have to research to find the way that works best for you.

Absolutes

Absolutes are very similar to distilled essential oils but are derived through a solvent extraction, rather than with steam. Absolutes can have a stronger scent than essential oils, and for this reason, absolutes are commonly used in perfumery. Absolutes tend to be a little bit thicker in consistency and have a darker color than essential oils. Some plants like Jasmine, do not successfully produce essential oil with steam distillation, and must be extracted with a solvent. 

incense

Incense has been utilized by nearly every culture around the world for thousands of years to promote physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Incense comes in many forms, including sticks, ropes, raw tree resins, pellets, cones, coils, single herbs and loose incense. Traditionally, incense has been burned in ceremonies and spiritual practices, given as offerings, and used medicinally. Incense has a long history in uplifting the human spirit, and connecting us to something greater than ourselves.

Crafting your own incense allows you to tap into an ancient art form, have the freedom of choosing which herbs you would like to use, and can ensure the plants you use are of high quality!

Sticks

There are two kinds of incense sticks which you can make: either with a wooden center or without. Incense sticks are made with powdered plant material and/or resins and a binding agent to hold it together. Using a bamboo stick in the core of the incense can be helpful for durability purposes, but can also change the scent slightly. 

Cones 

Incense cones are an easier preparation method than sticks. They tend to be more fragrant than sticks because they burn more material faster, releasing more aromatic components of a plant into the air in a shorter amount of time. Incense cones were created by the Japanese in the 1800’s, and traditionally are a blend of powdered herbs, woods and resins, all combined together with a plant gum to help hold their shape.

Loose Incense

Loose incense is the most simple and ancient way of burning incense. This method was practiced before the use of sticks and cones. Loose incense is burned on top of a red hot incense charcoal, and you can choose to burn a single plant or resin or a blend. 

If you would like to learn more about making your own incense at home, check out our incense crafting program.

Tools to have on hand

Some great things to have on hand to make herbal remedies: 

  • glass jars or containers
  • glass dropper bottles
  • mortar and pestle to grind the plants into powders
  • cheesecloth to use as a strainer
  • funnel
  • slow cooker or double boiler for making oil infusions

in conclusion

Working with plants is a life-long journey and an art form. It is important to allow your learning process to unfold with an open mind and heart. When you start working with plants, let your intuition be the ultimate guide and witness your creative expression flow. Preparing plants in traditional ways connects us not only to Mother Earth, but to our ancestors and the incredible wisdom they held. You are bound to learn, grow, and have heart expanding experiences through interacting with the botanical kingdom. All you need to do is begin!

Article Written By Dawn Gibson

© 2022 The Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. All rights reserved.

*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA, and are for educational purposes only. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This article should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your physician before you use this information for health purposes.