What to keep in your herbal medicine chest. These herbs and essential oils are basics that are great for anyone, especially those new to natural medicine.
Do you make an infusion, a salve, a pastille? What herb is best for your cough or what about that bump on your left shoulder? Timmy skinned his knee, what should you use to stop the bleeding and assist in healing? Susie has an upset tummy after eating cake and ice cream at a birthday party, what should I use that will ease her stomach, yet is safe?
With all the information out there on essential oils and herbs, it’s hard to know where to even start.
While it’d be great to be able to run out and forage for, or purchase all the herbs known to mankind, and all the essential oils you can smell, it’s just not that feasible in the budget for most of us. In many cases, it’s not necessary to have them all. Many are “dual purpose” in that they can be used for more than one thing, making them truly versatile.
When you are just getting started in setting up your herbal medicine chest, you are going to see a lot of terms out there that confuse you. I’ll break them down for you here.
Common Herbal Medicine Terms
Adjuvant: This term refers to an herb that is added to enhance the effect of the main, active ingredient.
Anodynes: This is an herb used to relieve pain. Examples of common anodynes include chamomile, calendula, and valerian.
Antiemetics: Antiemetics are herbs that are used to relieve nausea. They can also relive vomiting. An example would be spearmint.
Antimycotics: These herbs discourage the growth of fungus.
Antiphlogistic: Antiphlogistic herbs reduce inflammation. Chickweed would be an example. Another common term for an herb that reduces inflammation is Balsamic.
Astringents: Astringents are ingredients that contract tissues and stop discharge.
Calmative: Calmative herbs are those that have sedative properties.
Cordials: Cordials stimulate the heart and help warm the stomach.
Demulcents: These herbs help sooth internal inflammation and soothe tissues.
Emetics: Emetics should not be used lightly! They induce vomiting, which may be necessary in some circumstances.
Hypnotics: These herbs relax the nerves and encourage sleep.
Refrigerants: These herbs have cooling properties and can help relieve thirst in a situation of dehydration.
Tonics: Tonics strengthen, stimulate, and energize the body. An example would be dandelion or thyme.
Vermifuge: Vermifuge herbs help expel worms.
For the beginner in natural health, you really only need a few items to get started. then you can add to your herbal first aid kit as you gain more knowledge. Here’s what I recommend people start out with and why:
For essential oils and carrier oils in your herbal remedy kit, try these:
- Lavender Essential Oil-this has natural antibacterial properties and is great for calming or soothing. Lavender can also be applied “neat” in small amounts, directly on burns, cuts or scrapes. I love it in homemade sunburn spray especially.
- Sweet Orange Oil-this is another great scent. It’s natural antibacterial properties also make this great for homemade hand sanitizers and natural home cleaning products. It’s energizing scent is perfect for those moments when you need a bit of a “boost” in the afternoons. Just 5 drops diffused in your room will help perk you up.
- Olive Oil-not only great for cooking and salad dressings, olive oil is very useful for infusing herbs in for salves, lotions, and massage oils. I choose organic as much as possible, especially for internal or culinary uses. Garlic-infused olive oil is great for rubbing behind the ear when an earache comes on.
- Jojoba Oil-another awesome carrier oil, jojoba has natural anti-inflammatory properties. When you get a minor burn, sunburn, scrape or other damage, the skin will go to great lengths to protect itself. That inflammation can be quite painful. Jojoba oil keeps the skin soft and supple while helping to reduce the inflammation. It’s a great massage oil, as it’s light and non-greasy. A couple of drops of sweet orange and lavender into 1/4 cup of jojoba oil will give you a relaxing massage just before sleep.
- Beeswax-this will come in handy for making salves and oils thicker. Just a couple tablespoons per cup of oil will usually thicken it enough to use as a rub on salve. Non-greasy, and a light honey scent along make this an easy addition. A little goes a long way with pastilles, and they are usually best stored in the fridge.
There are many dried herbs to choose when building your herbal medicine cabinet.
I have a lot of favorites, but I seem to keep coming back to the same herbs time and again for my family. Many of these can be added to your garden or foraged and dried for later.
- Dried plantain I love having this on hand for cuts and scrapes. Well, more cuts from the knives in the kitchen. Just a couple tablespoons of the dried herb, moistened with water in a cotton cloth make a great poultice to lay directly on a cut. It will help stop bleeding quickly.
- Echinacea This is a “go to” constantly in my family. We keep this on hand in the form of tinctures and for teas when colds or the flu hits. It’s not the best tasting, but it’s been effective at helping to shorten the time we are sick.
- Astragalus This is another non-tasty herb, especially in tincture form. It’s been described as what the bottom of the chicken coop would taste like. But, astragalus is an adaptogenic herb, meaning that it can assist the body in times of stress. I like to keep this one in tincture form as well and my family takes it daily. I up the dosage to 2x a day when under stress, like time changes, seasonal changes or other physical and mental challenges arise.
- Elderberry ah, the wonderful, humble elderberry. Awesome for cooking down into a syrup to assist the body during times of cold or flu. This can also be used over pancakes and waffles, over ice cream and even cakes to let your “food be your medicine”. Elderberries are toxic when fresh, so you MUST cook them to eliminate that. The flowers of the elderberry plant, however, are NOT toxic and are great as a tea during colds. It has immune stimulating actions and can help to increase bronchial secretions, helping you to cough up congestion.
- Dried Peppermint or Spearmint This is perfect for those upset tummies due to overindulgence. A peppermint infused tea will help settle your stomach and ease digestion.
Learning Herbal Medicine
For other items in your home herbal medicine chest, I suggest the following items to help make your herbal emergency medicine kit. These will be helpful as you are learning herbal medicine and how to use it safely.
Vodka, brandy or nonalcohol menstruums. You can use food grade glycerine or apple cider vinegar. These are a must for making herbal tinctures, as they “pull” the medicinal qualities from the herb. Normally, for alcohol, you would use 5 mL of liquid for every gram of dried herb.
Since it’s medicinal, you NEED to measure by weight. For glycerine and apple cider vinegar, you would use 3mL of that liquid PLUS 2 mL of water for each gram of herb.
Garlic-most households will already have fresh garlic in their kitchen for culinary uses. Garlic also has medicinal qualities to it that make this a MUST have on hand. Garlic infused olive oil is great for ear aches, or even used on warts.
You can also assist the body in shortening the life of a cold or flu by liberally adding this to your food. Again, letting “food be your medicine” is a great choice. My mother in love used to feed my hubby raw garlic on buttered bread when he was sick. It wasn’t his favorite, but he felt it worked at getting him over being sick sooner.
Chamomile is considered a cure-all by many homesteaders! It is often used as a calmative and sedative, as it can ease anxiety and promote relaxation. In Europe, it is also used to heal wounds and reduce swelling. You can use chamomile in a tea or as a compress, but it may increase drowsiness in some cases.
Feverfew, as the name might indicate, is often used to treat fevers. In many cases, it is effective against migraines and arthritis, but you need to be careful about taking to much as it can cause digestive upset.
Ginger is very beneficial when it is used for nausea, motion sickness, and other digestive problems. It can relieve pregnancy-related nausea, too.
Gingko leaf extract has been used for centuries to treat bronchitis, tinnitus, and asthma. It can also improve memory. Why exactly gingko works isn’t exactly clear to scientists, but the general recommendation is that you should only use extract from the leaves> The seeds contain a toxin that can cause seizures.
Both a tonic and an aphrodisiac, ginseng is a common homestead treatment. You can’t use it with certain medications, though, like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines.
This root is used to treat eye and skin irritations as well as diarrhea. It is a powerful antiseptic that can also be used to prevent colds. Be careful taking too much as it can cause gastric irritation.
This herb is often used to treat liver problems and high cholesterol. There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that it may reduce the growth of cancer cells, too.
Saint John’s Wort
This natural antidepressant that can be found on many homesteads. It does cause some sensitivity to light in high doses, so if you are already prone to sunburn, you might want to stay away from this one.
Valerian root is often used to treat sleeplessness and relieve anxiety. There is some research to back this up, so it’s a good option fi you are looking for a way to get some better sleep.
Yarrow is a popular medicinal herb. It is used as a tonic and an astringent. It also smells great, so it’s one of those herbs you won’t mind having on hand.
This herb is often used to treat arthritis and related muscle pain, but it’s actually a good herb to have on hand if you are a woman, too. Black cohosh is said to treat some of the symptoms of menopause and even menstruation, too.
Celery seed is often used as a diuretic. You can of course consume the other parts of the plant, too, but the seeds are the most effective.
If you’ve got burdock hanging around, you’re in luck. Often viewed as a weed, burdock is actually an awesome herb to have in your medicine cabinet. It can address low blood sugar and is also a way to lower blood sugar. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is used as a treatment for symptoms of the common cold, like sore throat.
Borage is a great herb for treating a variety of issues. It can help with respiratory and cardiovascular issues but can also help heal some gastrointestinal upset.
Who doesn’t love the beautiful calendula plant? Also known as marigold, this plant is a good one to have around to decorate your home as well as to keep in your medicine cabinet. It can help soothe your skin and even treat wounds.
Cayenne pepper is made out of the chili pepper. It’s a common ingredient in many foods and is also an effective medicine. It contains tons of Vitamin C, so it can help reduce cholesterol levels while at the same time combat viruses and bacteria. It can also reduce pain and swelling with its heat. The same theory applies to capsaicin, also derived from the chili pepper.
Not technically an herb, lemon is a fantastic ingredient to have in your medicine cabinet. You can use the whole lemon or the essential oil of the lemon. It has a long history in Chinese and Indian medicines and it is commonly used to treat sore throat and coughs.
Hawthorn berries have been used for centuries to fight heart disease. Some studies have suggested that they can be used to relieve kidney and digestive issues.
This spice probably isn’t one you’ll be able to grow at home, but it still is a good option for using in your traditional medicine cabinet. It can help heal arthritis pain and regulate menstruation and it’s a common ingredient in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicines.
Commonly viewed as a weed, this plant has been used since ancient Greek and Roman times, when it was used to heal ulcers and stop bleeding. It can also treat tuberculosis and kidney issues.
Eucalyptus is tough to grow at home, but if you’re able to grow eucalyptus indoors or even outside (especially if you live in a warm growing zone), take advantage of this. Its oil is a great treatment for coughs and colds – it’s actually used in a variety of over-the-counter products, like cough drops.
Licorice root is extremely helpful in treating issues like sore throat, infections caused by viruses, ulcers, bronchitis, and more.
Hyssop has some pretty powerful gastrointestinal benefits. You can use the leaves or the seeds and it will help heal colds, sore throat, asthma, respiratory problems, and even digestive issues like gas.
This beautiful, sweetly-scented flower offers many benefits to herbalists. It is an excellent skin remedy, used as both an anti-inflammatory and anti-septic agent.
Bay leaves, or bay laurel, can be used as astringents or as salves for open wounds. It’s also a great ingredient to keep on hand if you like a regular massage – the essential oil can relieve rheumatism. If you inhale the essential oil, it may be helpful in treating earaches, too.
Flaxseed is often used as a laxative. You can use the seeds or the oil – it will also help with arthritis pain.
Alfalfa is a great crop to grow if you have livestock you need to feed – like chickens or rabbits – but it’s also a great ingredient to have hanging out in your medicine cabinet, too. Alfalfa can help lower cholesterol and treat a variety of kidney and other urinary tract problems.
Tea Tree Oil
Tea tree oil has been used for centuries all over the world. It is an effective antibacterial and antifungal agent. I keep some in the house specifically for cleaning, but it can also be used topically.
This plant – not related to the citrus fruit lemon, which I mentioned above – has some pretty potent powers when used as a digestive aid or a sleep aid.
I used to think that holy basil was the same thing as regular basil -not the case! This variety of basil, also known as tulsi, is used for a variety of conditions. It can be used as an ingredient in cosmetics but it can also be consumed in a tea or mixed with ghee. It has potent anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.
Oregano is another good herb to have on hand. It is commonly used in folk medicine to cure respiratory and stomach problems. It’s a good cleaning agent and can also relieve a sore throat.
Plain rosemary, as well as rosemary essential oil, also is a powerful antibacterial and antifungal agent. This herb has been used medicinally since ancient times, and while it’s most effective when inhaled, it is also useful when used orally or topically, too.
White willow is one of the best plant-based sources of salicylic acid. It can relieve pain just as well as aspirin – it has the same active ingredient! However, you need to exercise caution when consuming white willow. Just as salicylic acid in aspiring, it can cause some destruction of the stomach lining if consumed to excess.
Sage has been shown to improve cognitive functioning. It can also help boost your immune system.
Commonly considered a weed, purslane actually has powerful anticandidal, antifungal, and antibacterial properties. So the next time you see it in your garden, don’t toss it out! Save it.
Another common garden “weed,” comfrey has some pretty powerful benefits when it comes to using it to reduce inflammation. Be careful about how much you consume – it can be toxic in high doses.
Dandelion root is often used to treat liver diseases, spleen problems, and kidney diseases. It tastes fantastic when served in a salad, or you can make your own wine! Although that may negate some of the medicinal benefits, I suppose.
Cloves aren’t just useful for scenting the house during the holidays, using in baking, or repelling garden pests – they also have some medicinal benefits. You can take cloves for an upset stomach or use them as an expectorant. Clove oil is also often used to treat toothache.
Thyme is an expectorant and antispasmodic agent. It can treat heavy coughing and also bronchitis. It also is an effective cleaning agent!
Stinging nettle can be taken internally, via tea or just consumption of the fresh leaves, to treat issues related to the urinary tract and kidneys. It can also help heal issues related to cardiovascular health and the flu.
Blueberries and Cranberries
Yes, blueberries, and cranberries too! If you have a blueberry patch on your homestead, you’re in luck. This tasty fruit is a powerful antioxidant and is also believed to relive urinary tract problems. Many people use cranberries to treat urinary tract problems, but it can also treat diarrhea, stomach ailments, and other issues.
Mullein is effective at fighting bacteria, as it has glycyrrhizin compounds. These are concentrated in the flowers, so you should keep some of these on hand.
These herbs are my personal favorites, and the ones we always have on hand.
Building our herbal medicine cabinet has helped us save time and money. We do not have to go to the doctor every time we have a cough and sniffle, and I feel better that we are assisting our bodies naturally during stressful times, colds, coughs, the flu, and minor burns, cuts, and scrapes.
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Heather’s homesteading journey started in 2006, with baby steps: first, she got a few raised beds, some chickens, and rabbits. Over the years, she amassed a wealth of homesteading knowledge, knowledge that you can find in the articles of this blog.