herbal preparations: honeys, oxymels, and elixirs

a bee from an egyptian hieroglyph

i figured i would take a short break from the series that i’m doing on natural motherhood and crank back up on a couple of my other projects.   something that i’ve been meaning to add for a while is a basic herbal preparations entry for sweet medicine—for honeys, oxymels, and elixirs.  honey (the common denominator between all three of these preparations) is a mysterious substance.  in the archaeology of beekeeping, author eva crane posits, based on neolithic cave paintings in valencia, spain, that honey has been a food source for humans for at least 10,000 years.  since the beginning of written history, thousands of medicinal and culinary uses of honey have graced the tablets and pages of our past.  yes, dried bee puke has held our interest for quite some time!  it has been used to treat wounds, to aid in the mummification process, to preserve food and drink, to sweeten things, and, as every granny knows, to stop a cough dead in its tracks!

snake oil!!

for the modern information hound, it can be a bit maddening to look for good quality information about honey because it (like acai, mangosteen, gogi berries, and every other so-called “superfood” co-opted by the “health food” industry) is touted ad nauseum for its magical abilities to cure whatever ails you.  cancer?  honey!  erectile dysfunction?  honey!  the flu?  honey!  always shy away from websites that claim something to be a panacea, a cure-all, and most definitely do so when they also happen to be selling their so-called super food.

some good things that i’ve found about honey have been from new zealand medical studies that have investigated it’s topical use in the medical field.  here are the findings:

  • honey’s antibacterial quality not only rapidly clears existing infection, it protects wounds from additional infection
  • honey debrides wounds and removes malodor
  • honey’s anti-inflammatory activity reduces edema and minimizes scarring
  • honey stimulates growth of granulation and epithelial tissues to speed healing

yum

so clearly, though it may not be a cure-all, honey does have some very promising healing powers.  as far as its effects when taken internally, well, i know it sure tastes good, but i’m not prepared to make any radical claims about it.  in herbal medicine, honey is a ooey gooey sweet indulgence.  it can mask the taste of nastier herbs, but mostly i value it for the sheer joy that comes along with smearing a big spoonful of it on toast.  in each of these preparations then, i would say that it’s more the herbs added, and less the all-magical power of honey, that exacts a desired result in the body.

herbal honeys

plain ol’ herbal honeys are just about the easiest thing an herbalist will ever make.  here’s all you need to do to make a fantastic herbal honey:

  1. take a jar, fill it loosely with whatever fresh herb you’re using (use half as much if using dried)
  2. warm some honey in a double boiler juuuuuuust a bit (don’t overdo it—you just want it to be a little runnier than usual)
  3. pour the honey over your herbs into your jar.
  4. i use the very scientific “chopstick technique” here, jabbing a chopstick up and down into my jar to make sure the honey settles and all of the air bubbles come to the top.  add more honey as needed.
  5. cap your honey, and once or twice a day, turn the bottle on its head to “stir” the mixture.
  6. wait 2-4 weeks (taste it as you go to see when it’s at peak flavor).

elecampane root from mountain rose herbs

depending on what herbs you’re using, you can strain out the plant material or not.  for instance, when i make rose petal honey, i just leave the rose petals in and eat them on the toast (very yummy!).  obviously if you were using something like elecampane (a hard-as-nails root) this wouldn’t be a good idea.

if you’re worried about your honey “going bad” you can keep it in the fridge, but honestly, i’ve kept herbal honeys on my counter for eons and nothing has ever gone awry.  here are some herbs you might choose to use in honeys:

  • peppermint—if you like honey in your tea, this is a great one.  peppermint honey gives a real zip to any cup of tea!
  • rose petals—this is pure indulgence!  just make sure that your rose petals are from wild crafted or organic roses—never use petals from landscaped roses or from roses that may have had pesticides and chemical fertilizers added.
  • lavender—if you’re using lavender, go for a couple of tablespoons rather than the whole jar full or the flavor will be bitter and overwhelming.  this is a nice addition to a sleepytime blend tea.
  • elecampane—the root of this easy-to-grow herb can be infused in honey and used as a treatment for coughs, colds, the flu, sore throats, and lung congestion.  the honey covers the not-so-nice taste well enough that even kids will like it.
  • chamomile—you’ll most likely be using dried with this one, so remember to use half as much.  chamomile honey tastes like apples at harvest time, and it is great on toast (or a spoon!) or as an addition to tea.
  • fennel seed from mountain rose herbs

    fennel—fennel is a great carminative herb; that is, it helps prevent and alleviate gas.  i might blast the fennel in a blender first to break open the seed pods.  it’s great to take a spoon or two of this honey before or after a particularly heavy meal.  *note—fennel is often used with colicky babies but you should never give babies under 12 months anything containing honey.  honey can carry botulin spores, and while an older person’s body easily destroys these, a baby’s can’t.

  • cardamom—i like cardamom honey just for the taste, but cardamom is a a great herb for the respiratory and digestive systems.  use it like you would the fennel honey, or add it to cough and cold blend tea.

like i said, experiment with this, but i have had honeys for more than a year that stayed nice and fresh.  if you’re planning on long term-storage, i would  advise straining out the fresh plant material before doing so.  most of the time, it won’t be an issue, as herbal honeys are generally consumed by the heaping spoonful!

oxymels

oxymels seem pretty alien to most of us, but they’ve been around for thousands of years.  hippocrates wrote about the ability of oxymels to quench thirst, and many medical writings from antiquity tout the ability of oxymel to work on the digestive and respiratory systems in a number of ways.  so what is this mysterious stuff?  vinegar, honey, and herbs (sometimes added to water: humanity’s first sports drink!)

sekanjabin is an oxymel-based drink that you can get at persian restaurants

in its base form, an oxymel is like a sour syrup, but you can make a drink out of it it you pour it over ice and add water or club soda to it (test the ratio to taste, but i like 1 part syrup to 4-5 parts water, with plenty of ice!)  there are a few different ways you can make an oxymel depending on what kind of ingredients you’re using, and there are several good herbal choices depending on whether you want to make a medicine or a tart simple syrup for a drink.  i’ll give you the methods first and the herbs second.

  • method 1— if you happen to have herb-infused honey and herb-infused vinegar just laying around,  you can combine them in a 1 (vinegar) to 4-5 (honey) ratio.  stir throughly to combine the two elements, and store in your fridge in a jar with a lid (although i would dare a microbe to even think about living in honey and vinegar!).  making the parts separately and then combining them like this is great for the really delicate aromatic herbs like mints.  heating and cooking can kill those properties.
  • method 2—if you want to make an oxymel with a tough root, like elecampane, you’ll want to take another route entirely.  first, decoct (boil and reduce) an ounce of the root in a quart of water until only one pint remains.  add half a cup of vinegar and half a cup of honey and stir thoroughly.  because of the added water content, i would fridge this one for sure.
  • method 3—this method is similar to #2, although you use the vinegar, not water, for your boiling step (*note—unless you want to claw your eyeballs out in pain, never stick your face over a steaming pan of vinegar to get a whiff of your herbs! vinegar steam burns your eyes and nose like a mofo).  for number 3, add a heaping handful of herbs to a cup of apple cider vinegar.  bring this mixture to a boil, then turn down to a simmer and reduce by half.  strain the herbs out, let the mixture cool to warm, add four to five times as much honey as you have vinegar, and stir thoroughly to mix.

no matter which of these methods you use (i personally like #3), you can either take your finished product by the tablespoon to help soothe wet, productive coughs or other cold, phlegmy respiratory issues, or you can pour it as a simple syrup into water or club soda to make a tart and refreshing drink.

  1. i love basil so much that i can actually smell it when i look at this picture!

    herbs for medicine: pine needles (wet coughs); ginger, garlic, and onion (cold or flu with phlegmy congestion and chills); lemon peel and a pinch of salt (pour this over ice and water when illness makes hydration an issue), beebalm (sore throats, fevers)—the possibilities are limited only by your imagination!

  2. herbs for yum factor: lemon peel, rose, basil, ginger, mint, strawberries and pomegranate.  again–be adventurous!

elixirs

elixirs are just as easy to make as they are fun to gobble up…umm…. i mean, take in measured and solemn doses for strictly medicinal purposes 😉 . an elixir is an herbal infusion whose base is half honey and half brandy.   some folks will tell you that any old alcohol will do, but i say no, splash out a bit and get some good brandy—it’s gentler on the stomach, it’s warming and smooth, and it’s very tasty!  so here’s what to do:

  1. fill a jar full of fresh herb or halfway full of dried.
  2. add equal parts brandy and honey until the jar is full.
  3. poke with a utensil to free any rogue air bubbles.
  4. cap and infuse for 6 weeks.
  5. strain and enjoy (medicinally or ummmm…..medicinally 🙂 )

like the oxymel, the herbs that you use will depend on the purpose of your elixir.  here are some suggestions, but again, go nuts and try everything!

  • rose—cooling and anti-inflammatory, good for the heart and reproductive system
  • elderberry—antiviral, cooling to fevers, immune booster
  • pomegranate, cinnamon, and a pinch of cardamom—a holiday favorite
  • plus a special recipe to share with a lover—rosemary gladstar’s damiana chocolate love liqueur:

 

sexy damiana!

1 ounce damiana leaves

 

2 cups brandy

1 ½ cups spring-water

1 cup honey

vanilla extract

rosewater

chocolate syrup

almond extract

  1. infuse the damiana leaves in the brandy for 5 days.  strain; reserve the liquid in a bottle.
  2. soak the alcohol-drenched leaves in the spring-water for 3 days.  strain and reserve the liquid.
  3. over low heat, gently warm the water extract and dissolve the honey in it.
  4. remove the pan from heat, then add the alcohol extract and stir well.
  5. pour into a clean bottle and add a dash of vanilla, a dash of almond extract, and a touch of rosewater.
  6. let it mellow for 1 month or longer; it gets smoother with age.
  7. after a month, add chocolate syrup to taste.
  8. share with a lover 😉

i hope you try some of these recipes—they are as tasty as they are medicinal (perhaps even more so!).  honey is a fun and easy herbal menstruum—it accentuates tasty herbs and it mellows not-so tasty herbs.  although i won’t claim it to be the secret to eternal life, honey is certainly one ingredient in a happy life!

blessings!

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11 Comments

  1. Marybeth said,

    February 20, 2011 at 11:01 pm

    I love reading this stuff. So interesting–and inspiring! Do have any honey recommendations? There are quite a few to choose from at the store (not even including the comb-inclusive jars at health food stores). Is organic a big deal in the world of honey? Thanks, Abby!

    • February 20, 2011 at 11:23 pm

      “organic” on a honey jar is an odds-based guess at best. i believe u.s. regulations stipulate that organic honey farms have to be at least two miles away from any polluted or chemically altered/pest controlled fields, but bees can travel far more than two miles to get nectar from plants. my uneducated opinion is that it’s pretty much just a stamp on the side of the bottle that lets people charge more.

      and the honey comb in the jar is just a way to cheat you out of money by taking up space! (although it’s very pretty on a shelf)

      my advice would be, no matter where you are, to buy locally-produced honey. this is especially important for people with allergies, because the honey will be made from your local environment plants and can serve as a light inoculation against that plant’s allergy irritants. in tuscaloosa, our local honey is hewett’s and is available at manna and at the farmer’s market for the same price.

  2. February 21, 2011 at 6:33 pm

    Great post! Packed with info….trying to brush up on my knowledge of herbs! As a pharmacist, I get questions all day long, and I really should know more. Thanks!

    • February 21, 2011 at 9:29 pm

      you might try herbmentor.com! that’s one of the places i got my start 🙂

  3. maureen said,

    March 22, 2011 at 8:19 am

    This is an excellent article! I make a ginger and cinnamon honey that is great when the flu hits.

  4. Nancy Kelly said,

    January 25, 2012 at 9:11 pm

    I know this is an old thread but hopefully someone will still see my question. Could you use candied ginger rather than fresh as an ingredient in an oxymel?

    • Tierrynna said,

      December 10, 2012 at 4:20 pm

      To Nancy- I could be wrong but I don’t think you’ll get the same affect as using fresh…the candied ginger, a lot of the flavor has been cooked out into the sugars and its also got the added sugars…I suspect you just won’t leech the flavor to your honey or beverage with as nice a quality or result as using fresh. And fresh ginger Is probably cheaper then candied or crystalized.

      • Nancy Kelly said,

        January 28, 2013 at 2:53 pm

        Thank you. I have a lot of candied ginger that I have been trying to find a way to use up. But I will use fresh for this oxymel.

  5. May 28, 2013 at 10:21 pm

    […] some of the anti-allergy herbs to it can really help. There are great oxymel tutorials over at Urban Midwifery  and The Nerdy Farmwife if you would like to make […]


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