Thursday, February 7, 2013

Of Blossom, Leaf, Root, and Stem ~ Herbal Infusions

Infusion of Woad

The essence of all beings is earth
The essence of earth is water
The essence of water is plants
The essence of plants is the human being.

Chandogya, from the Upanishads

There is magic in sowing a seed, nurturing the sprout, reaping the leaf (or blossom, root, or stem), utilizing its essence in some aspect, recycling the waste, and starting the cycle over. There is power in that cycle - creation, abundance, a reverence for and a connection to the Earth. Putting your hands in the soil is like roots reaching out to partake in the divinity that is our existence.

And when the sun is high, or when the moon is full, my roots reach out to participate in that magical cycle.

Modern humans are like busy little bees - work, after school sports, dance class, laundry, gym, dishes, traffic…the never-ending battle against time and circumstance (that’s another type of cycle that my roots do not reach out for). My point being is that many people think they have no time to think about the many uses of herbs, much less grow them. It takes time and effort to not only grow the herb, but to educate yourself on its uses and contraindications. And depending on where you live, Mother Nature may or may not play fair where weather and climate are concerned. You may not know of a local herb grower or farmer's market. However, the awesomeness known as “The Internet” can make your herbal dreams a reality! There are plenty of reputable sources from which to procure organics herbs, seeds, resins, powders, oils, and the like and have it waiting at your door – you know, the door you rush through with hands full of groceries and kids dangling from your hip.

And now we get to where this post is going: Herbal Infusions!

I think when many people think of Herbs, they think of their culinary uses – and while taste alone is reason enough to appreciate them, Herbs have myriad purposes and methods of use. I like to find ways to incorporate herbs into all aspects of my life, whether it is cooking with them, treating a sore throat or a stomachache, or in one of my soap or salve formulas. A really simple way to incorporate herbs into your daily life is through Herbal Infusion. An infusion is the process of extracting the flavor, color, or medicinal properties of an herb into an oil. Extracting into alcohol or glycerin is called a “Tincture” or “Extract”, whereas a water infusion is usually referred to as a tea or decoction. Herbal infusions can be used for cooking and for salve, lotion, or soap making. Tinctures are usually used for medicinal purposes. Extracts are normally for cooking or perfumery. Teas and decoctions have a wide variety of uses, from consumption to fabric dyeing. If scent is your goal, I would use an essential oil. In general, infusions will not lend any scent to your soap or body product.
Essential Oils are a different matter all together, and infusing oil with an herb does not render an “essential oil”. I see this term used incorrectly all the time and wanted to clear that up.

For the purposes of this blog, we’ll discuss using Herbal Infusions for soapmaking and for the use in other leave-on body products, like salves, ointments, balms, lotions and creams.

Herbal Infusions are a pretty simple process:
  1. Fill clean, sterile Mason jar  (or recycled spaghetti sauce jar, or pickle jar, or…) with dry or fresh herb. A general proportion guideline is 250 g Dried or 500 g Fresh Herb : 750 ml Oil
  2. Pour oil of choice (Olive, Rice Bran, Safflower) into jar over herbs.
  3. Set jar in cool dark cabinet for 6 weeks or so, shaking every now and then to redistribute plant matter that settles to the bottom.
  4. After 6 weeks, strain plant matter out of oil and pour infused oil into clean sterile jar for later use.

Some sources will suggest heating your oils with your herbs for a faster infusing method – just be sure that you do not overheat the oils or the plant matter. Many herbs, especially those with blossoms, are very volatile and heat can destroy any of the properties your were trying to capture. Also, heat can break down chemical constituents of vegetable oils, leaving them vulnerable to oxidation and rancidity. Some roots and barks require heat to truly extract any of the useful constituents of the plant matter. If your purpose is to extract the color from the herb and to use it in a soap formula right away, the low heat method may suit your purpose just fine. If it’s the nutrients you’re looking to extract, I highly suggest the cold infusion method described above. Keep your infusions tightly sealed in a dark and cool temperature stable environment. Most infusions, when properly made and stored, should keep at least a year, but it's best to use them within 6 months. (If they start smelling like rancid oil, dispose of them in a compost heap or your preferred environmental manner.)

To use an herbal infusion in your soap formula, you would sub out a portion of the same oil in your recipe (if your infusion is Olive Oil based, you would sub out some Olive Oil in your soap recipe) for the same amount of Infused Oil. The amount will be determined by your purpose. 

For Example:
Soap Recipe: 
300 g Olive Oil
100 g Castor Oil
300 g Coconut Oil
300 g Palm Oil

For a purple colorant, you could substitute 10% of your total oils for Alkanet Root Infused Olive Oil, so your recipe would now look like this:

200 g Olive Oil
100 g Alkanet Root Infused Olive Oil
100 g Castor Oil
300 g Coconut Oil
300 g Palm Oil

Some herbs you may find useful in soap and body product making:

The information below is in no way to be misconstrued as medical advice, and the advocation of herbs in this information is in reference to topical use only. Please educate yourself on these herbs before using them.

Alkanet Root (Batschia Canescens): Also known as Dyer’s Bugloss. Renders a Grey – Purple result in Cold Process Soap. Rattan jot (Onosma Hispidum) can be substituted.

 Annato Seed (Bixa Orellana): Renders a bright gold to orange shade in Cold Process Soap.

Yellowdock Root (Rumex Crispus): Renders anywhere from a pale flesh/peach tone to a bright pink in Cold Process Soap.

Infusions of Yellowdock Root, Annatto Seed, and Alkanet Root

Borage (Borago Officinalis): Rich in polyunsaturated fats and very emollient. It is used for the treatment of eczema and other chronic skin conditions.

Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis): The stem, leaf, and flower are used in infusions for eczema and itchy skin conditions.

Chamomile (Matricaria Recutita): Renders a pastel yellow in Cold Process Soap. In salves and creams, it soothes itchy skin and eczema. Chamomile is in the ragweed family, so if you have a ragweed allergy, you should avoid Chamomile.

Lemon Balm (Melissa Officinalis): An ointment made with the Infusion of Lemon Balm is used to relieve the sting of insect bites.

Infusions of Evening Primrose, Lemon Balm, Chamomile, and Borage

Comfrey Root and Leaf (Symphytum Officinale): Also known as Knitbone or Boneset. The leaves render a green color and the roots a brown color in Cold Process Soap. Infused oil of leaves is used for sprains and bruises. It is useful in the treatment of psoriasis and acne.

Red Clover (Trifolium Pratense):  Used to treat skin conditions.

Infusions of Red Clover Blossoms and a synergistic blend of Comfrey, Nettle, and Borage

Burdock Root (Arcticum Lappa): Useful for skin conditions such as acne, infections and rashes. It is better used in salves, ointments, balms, and creams.

Calendula (Calendula Officinalis): Also known as “Marigold”, the flowers will render a pastel to bright yellow in Cold Process Soap. The infused oil is used to make salves, ointments, and lotions., and is known to be an excellent remedy for the skin. It is antiseptic, and useful with healing cuts, scrapes, burns, and fungal conditions.

Cayenne (Capsicum Frutescens): Use an infusion of the pepper in a massage oil or ointment for rheumatic conditions. Do NOT use on broken skin, children, or fragile skin!

Chickweed (Stellaria Media): An infusion of the aerial parts is used to soothe irritated skin.

Dandelion (Taraxacum Officinale): Infusion of the leaf renders a green shade to Cold Process Soap.

Indigo Root (Baptisia tinctoria): A little goes a long way! Renders a blue – navy/black color in Cold Process Soap.

Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla Vulgaris): A known wound healer due to its astringent properties. The infusion is used in balms, salves, and ointments.

Madder Root (Rubia Tinctorum): Renders a dusty rose to maroon shade in Cold Process Soap.

Marshmallow (Althaea Officinalis): An infusion made from the root is used for boils and abcesses. An infusion made from the flowers is used for inflamed skin. Common Mallow (Malva Sylvestris) has similar uses. They are both emollients.

Mullein (Verbascum Thapsus): astringent and emollient, an infusion of the fresh flowers is said to be an effective bactericide.

Neem (Azadirachta Indica): Also known as the Margosa Tree. An infusion of the leaves is useful with acne, eczema, and psoriasis. Use it in lotions, salves, and other leave-on products.

Nettle Leaf (Urtica Dioica): Renders a nice green in Cold Process Soap. An ointment made from the infusion is used as a treatment for eczema.

Paprika (Capsicum Annuum): Renders an orange shade in Cold Process Soap.

Plantain (Plantago Major): Repairs damaged tissue.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus Officinalis): Use the infusion to make a lotion for achy muscles.

Sandalwood (Santalum Album): Red Sandalwood Powder will produce a pink – maroon/purple shade in Cold Process Soap. (This infusion will likely need heat to extract any color from the wood or powdered Sandalwood)

Self-Heal (Prunella Vulgaris): It’s astringent nature makes it useful for healing wounds. Studies show it may be effective against a broad range of bacteria.

Spirulina (Algae): Renders a green to a green blue color in Cold Process Soap.

St. John’s Wort (Hypericum Perforatum): The leaves render a yellow color in Cold Process Soap. An infusion of the oil is useful in creams for minor wounds and burns, and a cream can be made to relieve cramps and neuralgia. Some people are very sensitive to St. John’s Wort and it may interact with prescription medicines, even when used topically. Check with your doctor before using this!

Turmeric (Curcuma Longa): Renders a gold – orange hue in Cold Process Soap.

Witch Hazel (Hamamelis Virginiana): An infusion of the leaves is useful for making a lotion to soothe cysts and other inflamed skin conditions. An infusion of the bark makes for a good ointment for inflamed skin conditions.

Woad (Isatis Tinctoria): Renders a gray to green/blue shade in Cold Process Soap.

Now that you have the hang of Herbal Infusions, I’ll share a simple salve recipe to make use of your new concoctions! As with all my recipes given, I will give it to you in proportions, or parts, so that you can adjust the size to suit your needs, whether that be in ounces or grams.


This basic salve recipe can be used for a gazillion purposes, like an ointment for bug bites, a cuticle treatment, a chapped skin soother, skin protectant…the possibilities are endless! Just use an herbal infusion that suits the purpose that the salve will be used for.

3 Parts Infused Oil
1 Part Beeswax (Or Vegan Wax Source of your choice, like Candelilla )

For example:
1oz Comfrey Infused Oil
1 oz Borage Infused Oil
1 oz Nettle Infused Oil
1 oz Beeswax

1. Melt the beeswax in a double boiler or crock pot on low – but let me warn you, beeswax can be a total pain to clean up, so you may want to use one designated solely for this task.
I find that the small 6 oz crock pots like the ones made for warm dips and appetizers work great for melting beeswax (if it has a high/low setting). I use mine only to melt beeswax to avoid cross contamination.

2. When wax is melted, add your Infused Oil and stir until it looks fully incorporated.

3. Pour into sterile jars and allow to cool before putting the lid on..

It really is pretty simple, right?

And the beauty of it is, if you find the salve is too “stiff” for your purpose (too much wax), you can melt it down and add a little more oil to get the consistency you want. If the salve is too “loose” (too much oil), you can melt it and add a (tiny bit) more beeswax! Just remember, a little beeswax goes a long way!

Feeling really herbally inspired? (I know you are!)

Try adding a few milliliters (or drops, depending on the size of your batch) of Essential Oil to your melted beeswax and oil mixture before pouring into jars to enhance the herbal properties! Or to make this a lip balm, try adding a little cocoa butter (sub out 1 part of the oil) to the mix before pouring it into your containers. Consistency of the salve is a personal preference and is determined by the purpose of the salve, so experiment until you get the texture, firmness, and slip that you want. Make sure to take notes so that you can recreate your masterpiece!



Both Mountain Rose Herbs and Richter’s have great information about herbs and their uses on their website.