Three of the most common herbal preparations are Teas, Infusions and Decoctions. An infusion is really just a very strongly brewed tea. A decoction is when you reduce the infusion by approximately half in order to make it even more concentrated. An herbal syrup is a good example of a decoction. Some herbalist’s definitions of teas, infusions and decoctions are different, but this is the way I learned it. At any rate, no matter what you call them, the reason for using one process and over another is actually simpler than it may seem.
When you make tea, you are usually brewing for just a few minutes and the herbs are generally soft, like flowers, leaves and stems that aren’t very woody. Typically there is less medicinal value in Tea because it is steeped such a short time and only a small amount of herb is used.
An infusion’s purpose is to extract more nutrients, vitamins, minerals and chlorophyll from your dried herb than a tea does. It’s considered more medicinal because of this and in addition to producing a more concentrated elixir, it’s often used for preparations that contain hard, woody stems or bark since they need more than just a little warm water to extract their medicinal properties. To make an infusion, add one cup of dried herb to a quart jar of boiling water, cap it and let it sit at least 4 hours. You then strain it, making sure to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. The remaining plant matter can then be put in your compost. Once your infusion is finished and plenty cool, keep it in the refrigerator. It generally doesn’t keep well out of the fridge and even when refrigerated, should be kept no longer than about 3 days.
As far as the time to let it steep goes, I use the times below. There’s a wide range of suggestions, depending on who you ask, but this is the way I learned.
Roots/Barks – 8 hours minimum
Leaves – 4 hours minimum
Flowers – 2 hours minimum
Seeds/Berries – 30 minutes minimum
The noteworthy part is that the more fragile parts of the plant need a lot less steeping time than the woody parts. For very woody herbs, it’s a useful practice to chop and crush them, then pour over a small amount of 100 proof alcohol and let it sit for 20 to 30 minutes. Then follow the instructions for infusions. The alcohol will give a kickstart to the breakdown of medicinal properties and also extract some of the properties that boiling water does not. Usnea is a good example of this. You can read more about that in the article Usnea – The Antibiotic That Grows In Your Yard
A decoction can be prepared once you have an infusion. Simply steam your infusion slowly (very slowly) letting the steam evaporate and leave you with a more concentrated product. To do this, I set my stovetop to medium heat and put the pot of infusion on. As soon as it starts to steam, I turn the burner down even lower to keep it from boiling. Once the liquid has reduced by about half, the decoction is ready. In measuring how much to boil off, you can eyeball it or be more scientific and use something like a chopstick or knife that you mark the beginning liquid level on. One of the cool things about decoctions is that you can then turn them into cordials and extend their shelf life by adding a little liquor, but that will be a whole other post of its own!
Teas, infusions and decoctions are a large part of our medicine cabinet AND our preventative-medicine cabinet. Nourishing, health building plants like Nettle (Urtica dioica) for recharging adrenals and kidneys; Oatstraw (Avena sativa) for the nervous system; and Elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis) for warding off colds and flu are a few of our mainstays. The ability to make medicine from our surroundings is very important to us when it comes to self-sufficiency and these medicines are good for you, free of chemical additives and readily available. If you don’t have access to a place to wild harvest your own medicinal herbs, there are a number of places you can order it online. My favorite is Mountain Rose Herbs, they have a great selection and their products are always fresh. There are endless other ways to incorporate herbs into your lifestyle, but the use of teas, infusions and decoctions are a really easy way to get started!