How to Make Easy Herbal Oils, Salves, and Syrups

Soothe injuries and boost your immune system with these simple, plant-based recipes for trauma oil, Saint John’s wort oil, black elderberry syrup, herbal lip balm, and more.


| October/November 2016



Herbal Medicine

To fashion homemade therapies, extract herbs' healing qualities with water, oil, or alcohol.


Photo by Heather Cole

Not long ago, I got a gash in my foot, but it felt relatively comfortable propped up and encased in a gooey poultice made of crushed comfrey roots. Soon enough, my foot quit throbbing, and I marveled at how minimally processed roots had effectively eased my pain. Then again, processing has its advantages — drying the herbs, grinding them, and extracting their properties with water, oil, or alcohol can make herbal therapy more convenient, and, I thought (while flexing my mucilage-laden toes, which, thankfully, still worked), a lot less messy!

How to Make Infused Herbal Oils

Herbal oils are convenient and easy to use. These are made by extracting ground-up herbs with organic olive oil. You can apply this herb-laden oil directly to your skin, where it will exert its healing influence through absorption, or you can use the oil as a base for making a salve or lip balm. Infused oils aren’t the same as essential oils, which are composed of concentrated, steam-distilled volatile oils of a plant. Infused herbal oils may be made from dried arnica flowers, bergamot leaves and flowers, calendula flowers, cayenne peppers, cannabis leaves and flowers, chickweed leaves and flowers, comfrey leaves, ginger roots, helichrysum flowers, mullein leaves, turmeric roots, and virtually any herb containing essential oils (such as rosemary, thyme, and lavender). All will extract well in warm oil.

Fresh garlic cloves, cottonwood buds, elderberry leaves, horse chestnut buds, mullein flowers, and especially flowering Saint John’s wort also extract very nicely in warm olive oil.

To make Saint John’s wort oil, grind fresh Saint John’s wort flowers and leaves into a mash and add 1 part of this fresh herb mash to 3 parts olive oil. Stir thoroughly, and then pour the mass into a gallon jar, capped with cheesecloth held in place with a rubber band. (The cheesecloth will allow excess moisture to escape.) Set the jar in the sun for 2 weeks, stirring daily. The oil will eventually take on the ruby-red color of its active constituent, hypericin. After 2 weeks, squeeze the contents through 4 layers of cheesecloth into a clean bowl, pour the oil into a clean gallon jar, and allow it to settle overnight. Then, excluding the watery sludge, pour the bright-red oil into clean containers for storage, and use as needed.

To make an infused oil of dried herbs, first grind the herbs to a medium-fine consistency. In a crockpot, stainless steel pan, or gallon jar, combine 1 part herbs with 5 parts organic olive oil (for 1 ounce of herb, use 5 ounces of oil). Or, simply put the dried herbs into the vessel and add sufficient olive oil to make a thick mash that you can just stir with a spoon. Stir daily to encourage extraction, and keep the oil very warm (110 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit). Some folks set the macerating oil close to a woodstove or in the sun to stay warm. In any case, never heat the oil directly on a stovetop — temperatures in excess of 150 degrees will denature the oil. After 1 week, pour the warm mass through 4 layers of cheesecloth draped over a bowl. Lift the corners, gather them together, and squeeze and squeeze, allowing the clear oil to flow into the bowl. Alternatively, you can use a tincture press, which is certainly more efficient. Collect the infused oil in a jar and allow it to settle overnight. Then, being careful to exclude the sludge that will have formed on the bottom of the jar, pour off the clear oil into amber glass jars for storage. Store in a cool, dark place. The shelf life of infused herbal oils is 1 year.

How to Make Herbal Salves and Balms

Homemade salves and lip balms call for beeswax and oil, which mix only if heated to 150 degrees. You won’t need to use a thermometer; simply pour an infused oil into a heat-resistant glass beaker, set it into a saucepan half-filled with water, and bring the water bath to a gentle simmer on the stovetop.

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