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DIY herbal medicine, tinctures

Simple Herbal Remedies from the Garden

Making your own herbal medicine may seem daunting at first if you’re new to it. Medicine tends to seen as the domain of specialists.

But there’s a lot that you can do with a basic DIY herbal medicine skillset. Most garden plants with medicinal properties — familiar plants like chamomile, red clover, yarrow, mint, or garlic — are absolutely safe and hard to go wrong with. Just find a reliable, go-to resource that you consult before making or taking herbal medicines.

I’ve had Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide pulled out from the bookshelf all summer long. Whenever I’ve noticed something ready to harvest in the garden, I’ve checked out what she has to say about that particular plant, and tried to find a time to process it into a tincture, a tea, or a salve. Other books I use regularly are Herbal Healing for Women (also by Rosemary Gladstar) and Richo Cech’s Making Plant Medicine.



I’m not formally trained as an herbalist. I’m a gardener, a cook, and a maker, and my herbal medicine making has evolved pretty organically as a result of learning to use plants. Many simple medicine-making practices have become a part of my routine — making herbal teas, putting chewed-up yarrow leaves on wounds to stop bleeding, or resorting to elderberry, honey, thyme and garlic to keep the winter colds away. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert. But again, see above: there’s a lot you can do with a basic skillset and common, safe garden plants.


The magic of herbal medicine-making

Crafting herbal medicines is a great activity to do with kids. This summer, my six-year-old has accompanied me to harvest blossoms and leaves into a colander, fill up the dehydrator, or put herbs to infuse in oil, vinegar or brandy on the windowsill. I call it our “witch magic” and that’s enough to get her fully engaged in the process.

Because making tinctures, vinegars, and oils feels a little bit like being witches or alchemists: we’re mixing potions with fresh herbs and leaves and, after a few weeks of those jewel-toned jars steeping on a sunny windowsill, the solvents inside have become potent with the plants’ power. It’s like magic: transforming one thing into another. Who doesn’t love that?

Below are five safe and simple remedies using common garden plants.

calendula oil, DIY herbal medicine


Calendula lotion

Calendula is an all-purpose healing plant for various skin problems, such as cuts and rashes. In a family that’s into gardening and adventures, we get cuts and scrapes a lot! I’ve made calendula salve before, but Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs also has a recipe for a luxurious moisturizer that uses calendula flowers, olive oil, beeswax, and lavender essential oil. Whipping up oils, beeswax and essential oil in a blender until it thickens and becomes opaque is one of those alchemist moments that both kids and grownups love.


DIY herbal medicine

Herbal teas

Making tea out of herbs is a simple process of harvesting leaves, steeping them in hot water, straining, and enjoying. I use herbal teas primarily for their mental health benefits: they help to soothe anxiety and stress (not that any of us have any reason to soothe those this year!).

Good tea herbs with calming, anxiety-reducing properties are chamomile, tulsi (holy basil), lemon balm, anise hyssop, spearmint, and lavender.

thyme honey

Thyme honey

I love using thyme in cooking, but it’s also traditionally valued as a cold and cough remedy. Just pop a few of its fresh leaves onto your tongue and you’ll see why: it has an almost menthol-like freshness to it.

Honey makes a great base for a thyme syrup, since it not only extracts the healing properties of thyme, but also has beneficial enzymes of its own. Thyme honey is the simplest natural remedy to make: gently warm honey to 100 F, add it to a jar half full of fresh thyme leaves and flowers, and keep the jar in a warm place for a couple of weeks to steep. You can take it straight or mixed in herbal tea, where it adds its own healing properties to the tea.

elderberries for DIY herbal medicine

Elderberry cold syrup

Elderberry syrup is a potent natural remedy for sore throats and other cold and flu symptoms. The berries of the elder tree (Sambucus) have anti-viral, immune-boosting properties and are high in vitamins A, B, and C. The syrup is really easy to make and it’s one of the best-tasting herbal syrups out there. You can use either fresh or dried elderberries. Simmered in water with ginger and cloves and steeped in honey, they turn into a luxuriously deep-red and sweet-tasting remedy. You can either take this syrup preventatively to ward off the cold or, if the sniffles and the cough already got you, to speed recovery.

Here are a few different recipes for elderberry syrup:



Tinctures — concentrated liquid extracts of herbs — are one step up in the herbal medicine making game, though still easy to make. They take a few weeks to steep, and you also want to take care in choosing the proper solvent. The most potent tinctures use 80 to 100 proof alcohol like vodka or brandy; for children or adults who don’t want to use alcohol, you can use vegetable glycerin or apple cider vinegar instead. The amount taken daily is very small, 1 to 2 teaspoons per day. That’s a dropperful, taken straight or mixed into a water or a beverage.

(Sometime I wonder if I make tinctures just because all those little bottles look so darn cute in my herbal home apothecary…)

herbal medicine cabinet at home

Basic instructions for making tinctures:

Chop the herbs fine and put them in a clean glass jar. Pour in either 80 to 100 proof alcohol, vinegar, or vegetable glycerin, enough to cover the herbs by a couple of inches. Put the jar in a sunny spot and let soak for 4-6 weeks, shaking daily. Strain and store in a clean bottle or jar. Take as directed either by the dropperful or diluted in tea or water. A tincture will keep for 1 year if you used vinegar, 2-3 years in case of glycerin, and several years with alcohol.

Good beginner’s herbs to make tinctures with: echinacea, cinnamon, tulsi, yarrrow, St. John’s wort, dandelion, burdock, and valerian.

child reading nature book

Raising Nature-literate Kids

A is for acorn, B is for bluebell, C is for clover.

My daughter is holding in her hands a “spellbook of lost words.” The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris captures this moment in time when we’re rapidly losing not only knowledge about the natural world, but even the language with which we can talk about it.

“Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children. They disappeared so quietly that at first almost no one noticed — fading away like water on stone. The words were those that children used to name the natural world around them: acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conker — gone! Fern, heather, kingfisher, otter, raven, willow, wren… all of them gone! The words were becoming lost: no longer vivid in children’s voices, no longer alive in their stories.”

Here’s why this book exists: In 2007, the editors at Oxford Junior Dictionary dropped 50 nature-related words from this children’s dictionary as “culturally irrelevant.” ‘Acorn,’ ‘buttercup,’ ‘conker,’ ‘chestnut’ and ‘fern’ and ‘lark’ had to go in order to make space for terms such as ‘broadband’ and ‘cut-and-paste.’ The decision has received a lot of criticism. In 2015, Margaret Atwood and 27 other prominent writers, naturalists, and media personalities wrote an open letter to Oxford University Press, pleading that they reinstate the omitted words. A petition on Change.org drew over 214,000 signatures.

The Lost Words, too, is a protest, a petition, but a visually stunning and lyrical one, an ode to all the beautiful creatures and plants whose names are in danger of being forgotten.


Nature Play and Children’s Well-Being

Innumerable studies have shown that decline in nature play correlates with a decline in children’s well-being. A 2009 study by Natural England showed that a generation ago, 40% of children regularly played in wild places; now its fewer than 10%. 40% of children never play outdoors. According to some studies, kids spend on average 6-7 hours a day in front of gadgets. Children can name more Pokémon characters than wildlife species.

The numbers are hardly better for the U.S. or many other affluent countries. The heartbreakingly-titled Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv brings together a growing body of research on the so-called nature-deficit disorder among children, and its links to the disturbing rise in childhood obesity, attention disorders, and depression.

We know children need to play outside more. We know they are not spending enough time in unsupervised play in natural environments. We know they are becoming increasingly disconnected from the most basic knowledge regarding where food comes from, or how things are made, or how to use simple tools to solve problems.

These facts are not up for debate. The question is: what do we do about it?

Parents, grandparents, and caretakers: it’s on us.

Here are 10 things you can do to make nature awareness a daily, ordinary part of a child’s life.


#1 Nurture a child’s innate curiosity about the natural world

Little kids are instinctively fascinated by nature’s processes. Tap into that curiosity and give them space to explore: digging for worms and pill bugs in the backyard, observing squirrels and birds, building log cabins out of sticks and creek dams with rocks. Often, all we as caretakers need to provide is the context, the opportunity. The kids will take it from there.

kids playing in nature

#2 Lead by example

Children pick up on the grownups’ vibes. If you yourself are uncomfortable or distracted in nature — not having a good time and instead compulsively checking your newsfeed — you are wordlessly communicating to a child that the natural world is not fun or worthy of our attention. So reflect on your own relationship to nature, and commit to working on whatever it is that makes you unable or unwilling to relax or get adventurous in it. Probably your best teachers in this will be kids themselves.

toddler gardening

#3 Plant a garden

One of the best ways to learn about nature’s cycles is to get one’s hands in the dirt and participate in them. Involve kids in all stages of gardening: preparing the soil, planting seeds, watering, weeding, and harvesting. Give them a little patch of their own to tend. If you have no garden space, a windowsill or balcony container garden works great. Over time, they start to “get it”: they learn to make the connection between soil and sunlight and water on the one hand, and food on our plates, on the other. Gardening also encourages kids to eat fresh produce: often a picky eater who won’t eat vegetables at the dinner table loves to pick snap peas or cherry tomatoes straight off the vine.


#4 Make it relevant

Let’s forget about the Oxford Junior Dictionary: What words get used in your home? Does your language reflect an appreciation for the rich variety of life-forms and elements that make up the natural world?

I can say with some certainty that my daughter is not likely to lose the meaning of “acorn” as long as we forage acorns together or have acorn pancakes for breakfast on Sundays. Nor will “otter” disappear from her vocabulary as long as we make regular visits to the WNC Nature Center, where the two otters swimming in their tank is her favorite highlight. She won’t forget the meaning of “hawk” as long as she has the large hawk feather in her treasure basket, along with her rock and sea shell collection, that she will proudly pull out to show visitors.


#5 Look into forest and outdoor educational programs

Forest kindergartens, wilderness summer camps and other kids’ nature programs are a wonderful thing if you can take advantage of them. Through outdoor play, children develop their motor skills, engage in creative play, learn to use their five senses, and start to cultivate a lifelong relationship with nature and wildlife. Learn more about forest schools here.

kids on nature trip

#6 Make outdoor play as inviting as possible

Make the outdoor spaces around your home at least as exciting as the (increasingly addictive and techno-focused) indoor activities. If there’s nothing for them outside except a drab lawn or landscaping they aren’t allowed to touch, no wonder kids don’t want to go outside. Install a rope swing. Set up a sandbox or other area where kids can simply play with soil and rocks. Stop worrying and let them climb trees. Provide really fun outdoor toys (they don’t have to be expensive: think frisbees or balls). Get them biking in the park. True, it’s not true wilderness exposure if you live in urban or suburban areas. But just getting kids to play outside, breathing fresh air, being physically active, is infinitely better than no outdoor time at all. You’re still giving them opportunities for engagement with the natural world.


#7 Just dress them properly

Rain gear. Snow gear. Running-under-the-sprinkler gear. You get the point. I grew up playing and walking to school in –30 Celsius weather. It was fine — I simply had warm clothes on. To quote the title of Linda Åkerson McGurk, “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather” — only inadequate gear.


#8 Dirt is okay

The modern dirt phobia, the overuse of sanitizers and antibacterials, actually weakens our bodies’ own defense systems. Asthma and allergy are lower in farming communities than in urban areas because children who grow up on farms get exposed to a diversity of bacterial species through their interaction with farm animals and farm dirt. These very bacterial and fungal organisms promote a healthy immunological response.

As Maya Sherat-Klein writes in The Dirt Cure,

“It turns out that all the things that are messy and dirty in the world, the very things we thought we needed to control or even eliminate to stay alive, are actually the very elements necessary for robust health. Research says that bacteria, fungi, parasites, insects, weeds — and living, nutrient-dense soil full of all of those elements — play direct and critical roles in the health of our food, and by extension, the health of our children.”

And those muddy clothes can be thrown in the washer afterwards. Let kids get dirty.

kids play in nature

#9 Schedule nature time…

…as something that you do together as a family. Unless you live in a rural area, in the modern world it takes a bit of a commitment to spend time regularly in nature. So plan family activities so that they include that regular dose of “forest bathing.” For our family, a weekend forest hike is a weekly tradition. We meet with friends to go play in the woods or wade by the creek. And in part because of our commitment to eating as locally as possible, we make frequent visits to local farms, orchards, and foraging spots.


#10 Read nature-related books together

Head to the library and explore together age-appropriate books on nature. I don’t know any young child that isn’t interested in animals. Let them lead and pick books on subjects they find most fascinating: is it cute puffins or koalas, or dinosaurs, or volcanoes, or slimy sea creatures? It doesn’t matter what the content is: what matters is that you sit down and read together and talk about what you learn. Again, in doing so, the grownup is affirming the child’s sense that this is interesting and worthwhile to learn about.


That’s my two cents. Now I’d love to hear from you: What other strategies do you have in your tool belt? What have you found helpful in raising kids to be comfortable in the natural world and engaged in it?