It’s that sweet cusp between late spring and early summer.
And when this season comes flying around the corner, it gets harder to keep my attentions riveted to herbal preparations, recipes, writings, experiments, and all those other plans kindled during cold, indoor winter months.
It’s a busy season for growers and gardeners (as all of you out there of that ilk full well know), directing your time and energy to garden planning, seeding, soil work, watering, and maintenance.
To top it all off, your strongest desire is to be outside as much as you can anyways, now that the weather is warm: to feel the sun on your skin, the dirt in your hands, and to not necessarily be huddled in the kitchen (or that computer, for god’s sakes!)
But then when I’m outside, I notice the flowers.
Even then, I have to drop everything I’m doing and make something with them – especially to take advantage of spring’s short window, and capture the essences of the herbalist’s favorite healing flowers: violets, dandelions, honeysuckle – even some peculiar ones too, like lilac and apple blossoms.
Syrups Tailor-Made for Fragile Flowers
How to best do that? The healing effects of flowers is one thing – but how can you capture that divine aroma and floral taste, too?
Last spring, I tried my hands at some syrups to achieve this. Think herbal syrups for cough remedies, for which there are myriad recipes online.
However, a lot of those recipes (such as for marshmallow, wild cherry bark, elderberries, etc.) require constant simmering or even hard boiling (especially for tough roots and bark) to unleash their essences and flavors.
Flowers, on the other hand, do not. In fact, doing this can pretty much tarnish and destroy that delicate, fragile, perfumey-floral flavor you’re after.
So what inspired me with flowers was the simple syrup: yes, the tradition of cocktails, bitters, and the roots of old herbalism. With that inspiration, I came up with a recipe that lets you hold on to these syrups for the long term, much like your typical herbal syrup.
With just a flash of heat and a little water, this recipe is enough to suffuse your honey without destroying that floral, heavenly scent and flavor – just like what happens with a cocktail simple syrup.
But I didn’t just stop there. I combined this method with sun-infusion (think sun tea), done beforehand as the first step, to craft what I have so far deemed the perfect recipe for capturing flower flavor.
Pretty beautiful, huh?
Apparently, it’s pretty easy to make, too.
Health and Healing Benefits of Flowers
Syrups have long been used as famous cough, cold, flu, and fever remedies. It’s no stretch to think that herbal syrups, made by ancient herbalists, are what we have to thank as the prototype for modern-day over-the-counter cough syrups.
The same goes for flowers, the dainty petals of many boasting certain healing powers over the centuries. Some of the most popular flowers among herbalist are elder flowers, violets, calendula, passionflower, bee balm, boneset, chamomile, yarrow, lavender, and many more as well.
Combining the two, flowers and syrups – and thus crafting floral syrups in the delicate method later described in this recipe – can accomplish a couple things. Firstly: you’ll have a divine-tasting simple syrup to enjoy in cocktails, on pancakes, sweets, fruit salads, and much more, each evoking fragrances and memories of spring.
But also: you’ll be capturing and preserving the healing benefits of some of these flowers in one of the purest ways possible, and without damaging their compounds OR their scents and flavors. To be frank, however: you probably won’t find the healing properties of some of these flowers very effective in this form, considering the amount of syrup (and sugar!) you would have to ingest to experience it.
For that very reason, if you’re thinking you could make an antiviral elder flower, boneset, or honeysuckle simple syrup for example, do beware that the presence of those sugars which you must also consume to get the adequate virus-combating phytochemicals, will likely offset any small likelihood of benefit. The same goes for many other “flower powers,” too.
But if there is one thing I have noticed in my own practice and experiences with flowers and hebalism? Almost all flowers are somehow cooling and damp in energetics, to varying degrees.
Maybe not all herbalists have put this together, but think about it: elder, yarrow, boneset, and violets are used for cooling fevers. Bee balm (Monarda) and calendula are notoriously cooling for other issues, too – while passionflower and lavender, cooling in the same way, also bring that influence to the mind and the nerves.
If I were to recommend an herbalists’ practical usage of a floral simple syrup for anything (or to the layperson as a home remedy), it would be anything from overheating, heat exhaustion, and fevers.
I have seen a couple tablespoons, added to a piping hot cup of water, promote a cooling and relieving sweat within 10 minutes time. On the other hand, their addition to midday chilled cocktails and mocktails (or maybe even an electrolyte solution) could help take the edge off an intensely hot day – especially fir those with hot and fiery liver-strong constitutions!
Floral Simple Syrup Recipe
2 pints (2 separate pickings) hand-picked edible spring flowers (lilacs, violets, dandelions, whatever you like)
1 pint-sized mason jar (with lid)
16-20 oz. honey (wildflower honey is my favorite!)
-Pick your chosen flowers (about 1 pint), and place them in your jar. The best times to pick flowers are midday on a sunny day – when flowers are fully open, at their most potent, and won’t have much excess water or dew collected on them. An excellent guide on picking and drying flowers can be found here a this Organic Life. *Remember to please pick responsibly! Harvest 1/3 of available flowers within one area – and let the remaining be, so they can repopulate for next spring.
-Once you have your flowers picked, pour honey over them until they are completely covered. Take a spoon or other utensil, and use it to push the flowers down into the honey as much as possible – this both bruises the flowers to help them release their fragrances, while discouraging mold and bacteria.
-Take your jar and place it in a bright, sunny spot for a full day (or two), such as a windowsill. Like a sun tea, this will give your syrup its first warm infusion of flower flavors.
-Once the sun-infusion is over, pour the honey through a strainer, and strain out the flowers – compost them or throw them away. You’ll notice that the syrup is a bit “thinner” – that’s from the natural water that has been extracted from the flowers.
-Pick yourself about 1 more pint of flowers (preferably of the same species and variety, unless you want to make a combo syrup blend).
-Once you have that ready to go, take the strained sun-infused syrup, place it in a saucepan (avoid cast iron – stainless steel, glass, or porcelain better), and sprinkle your new pint of fresh flowers on top.
-Before turning up the heat, add 1-2 tablespoons of water to the saucepan with your other ingredients. Then, turning up to medium-low heat, watch while steam begins to rise slowly from your future syrup! This gently wilts and infuses the flowers’ properties into both the syrup and the water – all of which will then infuse fully into the honey, once most of the water has evaporated away. Feel free to stir occasionally.
An important note: your syrup should not boil! This can interfere with both the properties and flavor of your simple syrup. If your syrup does start to froth and bubble in the pan, take it off the heat immediately, and let it cool while stirring.
-As you wait for the syrup to cool, check its consistency with a metal spoon. If it remains watery, throw it back on the stove on low heat to let a bit more water gently evaporate away. You’ll want the syrup to run slow, taking its time to drip away from the spoon.
-If you’re satisfied with the consistency, let it cool down completely. Strain the remaining flowers from the syrup, bottle it, and store it in the fridge for the best perishability!
I hope you try out this recipe – an herbalist’s true labor of love with edible flowers – and come up with some magnificent simple syrups of your own.
And do please feel free to share your own experiences, past or present, with flower syrups (or flowers in herbalism, in general) in the comments below! Thank you for reading.
Are you a lover of kombucha? How about herbal vinegars, oxymels, and the wonderful healing qualities of herbs themselves?
I really enjoy kombucha myself – especially brewing my very own, with select medicinal herbs to go well with its tangy, refreshing taste and digestive powers.
I also happen to really love herbal vinegars, Flemish Sour Ales, anything sour and acidic really (I owe it to my 50% Flemish Belgian ancestry) and you’d know my love of sour if you read another article of mine, Sweet & Sour Libations: The Craft of Herbal Oxymels.
But what this article concerns is not quite an oxymel – though it does boast the virtues of raw vinegar, honey, and herbs like oxymels do. (For an excellent example of an oxymel, I’d suggest you follow the link to my article above!)
On the contrary: I’m talking about shrubs. No, not bushes or garden plants, but a very traditional fermented medicinal cordial that masqueraded as a fruit liqueur, starting in the 1400’s.
If you love kombucha and other sour tonics, then you must absolutely try shrubs (also called drinking vinegars), and particularly making your own. They transform even the most healthiest (yet hardest!) to eat foods and herbs into sour and fruity beverages that go down easy – such as this beet and peach shrub, for example.
I’ve been loving them lately – and if you continue reading on, you can very well learn how to make your own herbal blends.
Shrubs or Herbal Drinking Vinegars: What Are They?
Originally, shrubs were medicinal electuaries to help sweeten the tastes of bitter herbal medicines, as first seen in Europe.
You’ve probably heard the good ol’ Mary Poppins tune: “a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
Old apothecaries would stock their shelves with herbal remedies, preserving them in sour, acidic vinegar to prevent spoilage. Then they would add a variety of fruit juices, fruits, citrus rinds, honey, and more healing spices to the mix – sometimes including spirits like brandy or rum, though that was purely optional.
A fermentation and maceration process then followed, and in a couple weeks: you had your shrub!
The end product was a tangy, flavorful syrup that most would enjoy added to tonic water or soda – refreshing, healing, and fizzy, like kombucha.
When early American colonists and pioneers settled in North America, shrubs were an excellent method for preserving fruits and herbs from going rancid – especially on long journeys out west, when having mobile food and medicine was incredibly important. The shrub then found its tasty way into bars, saloons, and cocktails.
Fast forward to 2012, and shrubs have made a sweeping comeback – much like kombucha, there are now shrub bars featured as accepted parts of many juice bars and smoothie stores, and sprouting prolifically in other places all along highly food-cultured, health conscious areas.
Yet shrubs are also trickling back into liquor bars, cocktails, and “mocktails” (non-alcoholic aperitifs). It would seem that the main reason for their comeback is for a new type of refreshing, cooling libation – yet there is clearly an undeniable health and herbalism angle to the shrub, making it an exciting comeback for the modern herbalist, too!
Shrubs and Herbalism: Health and Healing Benefits
As history and tradition do tell, shrubs were crafted for the purpose of making medicines taste better.
For all of us DIY home medicine-makers and herbalists out there, we know all too well how hard the struggle is to make herbal concoctions taste good – though it continues to bring out the inventiveness in us.
From tinctures, teas, and bitters to syrups, elixirs, and cordials – we run into creative barriers, limits to the herbal palettes we can paint on. Yet the herbal shrub gives us a fresh yet ancient, traditional, and endearingly rustic new option!
Sure, shrubs add a sweet-and-sour, tasty layer to your preparations. But unlike alcohol- or sugar-based formulas, the raw vinegar menstruum (base) of these effervescent drinks have health benefits and other virtues of their very own, making them arguably better for you than any healing herb extracted in alcohol or honey (arguably less-healthy bases).
Healing Effects of Fermented Raw Vinegar Shrubs:
Digestive Tonic – Probiotics from raw vinegar (boosted by fermentation) replenish and tone the microflora of your digestive tract.
Allergies – Food, seasonal, and pollen- or dust-related experience some benefit from probiotics.
Antimicrobial – when added to prepared foods, a shrub with raw vinegar could help remove bacteria and even chemicals (like pesticides) while improving flavor, as seen in this study.
Cancer-protective Properties – The live cultures in shrubs have been observed attacking and preventing the spread of cancer-causing cells in those already suffering from cancer, according to this study.
Type 2 Diabetes Support – Raw vinegar has been shown to reduce hunger and fasting glucose in the blood, a helpful therapy to diabetics in a study here.
Weight Management – A combination of digestive powers and reducing fasting glucose can help achieve or maintain a healthy weight.
If you’re a skilled herbalist thinking about crafting a healing shrub of your own, you’ll know full well that there is a whole plethora of medicinal herbs you can add in to your blend to enhance any of these properties.
Bitters like hops or citrus zest could make for a premier aperitif and digestive tonic; respiratory, anti-allergy herbs like chamomile and ginger capitalize on sinus-soothing, nasal-clearing relief as an allergy tonic, all in one tart-and-tasty drink.
You can also get creative opting for low glycemic index sweeteners, fruits, herbs, and veggies to make this a healthy alcohol-free mocktail for the diabetic or pre-diabetic: cucumber, prickly pear cactus, aloe vera, and blueberries are healing ingredients, for example.
Fermented Raw Vinegar Shrubs Also Contain:
Probiotics – acetic acid bacteria tonify digestion, ameliorate allergies, and more in this research here and here.
More Vitamins and Minerals – vinegar will preserve nutrients from the fruits, veggies, and herbs you add – while increasing the digestion and absorption of certain minerals as found in a study here.
Herbal Properties – Polysaccharides, volatile oils, and more for certain therapeutic effects
Crafting + Fermenting DIY Shrubs
I’ve taken my main shrub-making inspiration from cook Mary Karlin’s recipe at MasteringFermentation.com. My reasoning: her craftsmanship involves a brief stage of fermentation, which in my opinion adds something vital to the healthy element of shrubs (as it noticeably enhances probiotic and enzymatic activity a bit). However, you can find recipes out there devoid of the fermenting process altogether if you like.
There are hundreds of different shrub recipes – as many as there are combinations of vinegar, fruit, honeys, syrups, juices, healing herbs, spices, and even methods you can assemble together!
For that very reason, I have boiled down all my own recipes into one baseline recipe: a shrub “formula” if you will, of how to make a good one, and with which you can choose, combine, and rearrange your desired ingredients at will.
Use it to craft signature recipes of your very own – while designing “mock-tails” tailored to certain nutritional, healing themes or needs. The shrub world is your oyster.
Deer Nation’s Shrub Formula
1 quart mason jar with lid and ring
Cheesecloth or thin, clean rag of breathable material (with fine holes)
Wooden spoon or muddler
Raw vinegar (apple cider, coconut, your choice – I prefer apple cider. Must be raw for fermentation)
3 cups of “juicy” ingredients: desired fruits or herbal roots and spices (e.g. chopped garlic or ginger)
1 cup “leafy” ingredients: dried or fresh healing herbs of choice, or spices to taste (e.g. thyme, mint, echinacea)
1 cup (roughly) of juice to add to shrub after straining out matter, as liquid volume will decrease (lemon, lime, etc.)
Parchment or wax paper
(Up to) 1 cup sweetener of your choice – sugar, stevia, honey, agave, you name it.
-Place all “fleshy,” juicy ingredients in jar packed full with leafy and herbal ingredients. Muddle with a wooden spoon or pestle to release juices, oils, fragrances, and other properties.
-Cover with raw vinegar of choice, until jar brims almost full – but with 1 inch airspace remaining under rim. Make sure all ingredients are submerged under vinegar to discourage mold.
-Drape cheesecloth or other breathable cloth over mouth of jar, then affix lid ring (just the ring!) onto jar to keep cloth in place.
–Leave jar out at room temperature overnight (12 hours more or less). Like a kombucha culture, wild yeasts and beneficial bacteria will be captured; molds, bugs, and other pests are discouraged. (Side note: leave jar out for another day or two if you’re feeling brave, and want more wild probiotic bacteria in your shrub!)
-After fermentation is up, remove cloth from jar and seal it shut with both lid and lid ring. Place a piece of wax or parchment paper over mouth of jar before screwing lid back on – this will protect the lid’s metal from being oxidized and rusted by the vinegar.
-For next 3 days, you’ll be shaking the shrub as often as you think of it (like a tincture) as it macerates at room temperature, preferably a dark place. During that time, juices and compounds will be extracted, while carbonation and probiotic action takes place!
The Cooling Stage
-After 3 days are over, strain everything out of your shrub into a stainless-steel bowl or the like. Remove herbal matter (dried leaves, stems, twigs, etc.) and compost; keep fruit and juicy herbs, putting them back into the vinegar alone.
-Replace wax or parchment paper, seal jar closed all over again, and place in the fridge this time – your shrub will get cool and collected for 4 more days, as flavors mingle. Shake as much as you can all the while. This last process, in the end, totals 7 days (a whole week) for shrub development.
-Your whole week of carbonating, fermenting, and maturation is over – after 4 days in the fridge, go ahead and strain everything out of your shrub, leaving just the syrupy, fruity herbal vinegar in the jar.
-Here it’s time to add special flavors and extras to taste – put in your sweetener (honey, sugar, etc.) and juice (lemon, lime, grapefruit, your call), even an aromatic plant sprig that jives well with other flavors. I would even fancy cooled down herbal teas or kombucha for further fermentation and flavor at this point (this is your chance to “control” and round out your shrub a bit, bringing it closer to what you envisioned – and to better mask medicinal flavors)!
-Once you’re done, replace the parchment/wax paper, put the lid back, on and return to the fridge. You’ll let it sit for yet another full week to let it carbonate, thicken, and grow to maturity. Shake your jar sporadically to help unlock more flavor.
-After that second week, your shrub should be ready to use and enjoy. Take a couple tablespoons a day as a raw vinegar, probiotic supplement – or add it to tonic water, club soda, or fizzy kombucha for a fruity, sour, refreshing beverage or mocktail. Sweeten to taste if need be.
Certain shrubs can also go as salad dressings or ingredients to cocktail fixings! Add herbal bitters, syrups, and get creative – craft your own drinks, and dress them up to your liking.
Shrub Recipes, Concoctions, and Healing-Specific Blends
Whether you just want to get started making a shrub immediately – or you’re an herbalist trying to brainstorm some healing-formula combinations – try a few of my following healthful favorites out. They taste just delectable!
Keep in mind: the formulas listed here are not intended to cure or manage any illness. Rather, they are meant to provide sporadic, enjoyable alternatives to less healthy beverages (cocktails, etc.) and are tailored to match specific conditions.
Wellness Fire Cider Shrub (fondly called “The Burning Bush”)
This is a smooth, spicy remix of Rosemary Gladstar’s cold-fighting, flu-kicking recipe. It’s pungent, but goes down easy. If you don’t already know, the term “Fire Cider” is used freely among herbalists to describe a healing preparation made of chopped fresh ginger, garlic, horseradish, cayenne, and more herbs of choice in a vinegar (and sometimes honey) solution to fight off colds.
However, the term Fire Cider has been trademarked in a legal move to threaten small-practice herbalists. If you want to learn more about preventing and lifting this trademark, visit FreeFireCider.com; as well as make your own Fire Cider (and Fire Cider Shrubs) and spread the word!
3 cups “juicy” ingredients include chopped fresh ginger, garlic, and horseradish (1 cup of each approx.)
1 cup “leafy” ingredients include dried cayenne pepper and any extra cold-fighting herbs (e.g. thyme, sage)
Up to 1 cup of orange juice or lemon juice can be added to shrub after straining out matter, as liquid volume will decrease )
I add about 1/2 cup of turmeric powder to really bring out color, while adding anti-inflammatory properties for any stray sinus issues that come with colds and flu
Up to 1 cup honey (preferably raw)
My signature touch: 1/2 cup dried Goldenrod blossoms (for sinus issues)
Enjoy this shrub as a cold-season tonic, taking a few tablespoons 3 times per day during the duration of a cold. Or, dilute it with a bit of orange juice for a potent mocktail – though “The Burning Bush” could make an interesting addition to Bloody Mary cocktail mixes.
Honeydew-Cardamom Blood Pressure Support Shrub
It certainly cannot cure high blood pressure, mind you – but both honeydew and cardamom are considered helpful for those trying to manage blood pressure levels. Honeydew has a moderate glycemic index and plenty of potassium, a good mineral for those with high blood pressure to focus on (take it from the American Heart Association) – while cardamom has shown potential for therapeutically lowering blood pressure in a recent study here.
They also taste great together as a culinary pair, so this could be the perfect healthy-option alternative mocktail to sipping a less healthy cocktail instead!
3 cups of “juicy” ingredient: chopped honeydew
2-3 Tbsp. cardamom powder
1 cup (roughly) of liquid to add to shrub after straining out matter: I would recommend a combination of lemon juice, and a bit white wine or champagne (though optional)
1/2 cup sweetener of your choice (I used buckwheat honey – really adds to the combination!)
Fresh herbal sprigs (try a sprig of basil, lemon basil, tarragon, or even cilantro)
Southwest Blood Sugar Support Shrub – with Grapefruit, Prickly Pear, and Agave Syrup
All ingredients in this one have excellent reputations for diabetics and blood sugar. Grapefruit has a low glycemic index, with added capabilities for lowering blood pressure and cholesterol (according to this health report), and even helping with weight management (in this study) – all common problems for diabetics.
Many studies, including this one, show that prickly pear cactus is a blood sugar superstar! To top it all off, a dash of agave nectar makes for a sweetener that doesn’t tamper too much with blood glucose levels – though make sure to read about the reality of how Agave nectar is processed. Low glycemic index or no, sweeteners of all kinds are harmful if regular parts of the diet, and agave is no exception.
1 cup (roughly) of juice to add to shrub after straining out matter- I use sugar-free grapefruit here, and mix in some lime as well
1-2 Tbsp. agave syrup (optional – feel free to use other sweeteners)
Fresh herbal sprigs (fresh mint, fennel, or tarragon works well here)
Urinary Health Shrub – Raspberry, Cranberry, Cedar Berry, Spruce Tips
Mixing the astringency of cranberries with the piney tastes of cedar and spruce, you have here a mocktail shrub that could support you through even the most troublesome of urinary problems – U.T.I.’s, fungal issues, yeast problems, infections, you name it.
Cranberry is used by herbalists (and universally by almost everyone else I know) for such issues, with the present knowledge being that the berry helps “slough” pathogens from the walls of the urethra, bladder, and vagina – while both cranberry and raspberry have diuretic action.
Similarly, cedar (and its relative juniper) yields blue berries with known anti-microbial urinary affinities, supported in this review of urinary herbal medicines by herbalist Eric Yarnell here. It can be assumed that spruce has similar effects as cedar, though there aren’t many studies to back this.
Health benefits aside, the melding of raspberry, cranberry, cedar, and spruce makes for a fruity shrub with unique, juicy undertones.
3 cups of “juicy” ingredients: 1 cup raspberries, 1 cup cranberries, 1 cup Cedar/Juniper berries
1 cup “leafy” ingredients: fresh spruce tips (picked from the tree in May)
1 cup (roughly) of juice to add to shrub after straining out matter (cranberry juice)
1-2 Tbsp. sweetener (sugar, agave, honey, stevia)
Fresh herbal sprigs (fresh mint works great)
Digestive Tonic Shrub – Kiwi, Green Tea, Aloe
The probiotic benefits of shrubs are patently obvious, making any among them a great digestive tonic. However, you can bring in the added aid of kiwi and aloe juice – both which help keep the bowels “moving” and soothe the digestive tract (medical info supporting that here and here).
The same sources point to both being ideal herbs and foods for diabetics – kiwi is a low-glycemic, while aloe has properties to stabilize blood sugars. As it is well established, the addition of some green tea brings in beneficial antioxidants, which can help marginally take care of digestive inflammatory issues.
3 cups of “juicy” ingredients: chopped kiwi fruit
1 cup “leafy” ingredients: loose leaf green tea
1 cup (roughly) of juice to add to shrub after straining out matter: aloe juice
1-2 Tbsp. sweetener (sugar, agave, honey, stevia)
Fresh herbal sprigs (fresh mint works great)
Happy Shrub-making! Have your own recipes and inspirations? You can share them in the comments below.
References: Oakley, Tim (August 9, 2011). “Shrub: A History”. Class Magazine. Difford’s Guide. – “Anticancer impacts of potentially probiotic acetic acid bacteria isolated from traditional dairy microbiota.” ScienceDirect.com/LWT – Food Science and Technology.
This article is dedicated to those funky, dry late-winter months, blending into Spring – a time when cold and flu season seems to be over, and yet you find yourself still blowing your nose, over and over.
You might be a bit unsure about whether you are dealing with allergies, or the last cold of the season to kick your butt.
In fact, at this very particular time right now during late Winter/early Spring, I’ve been seeing and hearing a lot about folks coming down with something: not quite a cold, but not quite something easy to ignore, either.
Think inflamed, stuffy sinuses, allergies, plugged ears, and the vestige of a cough, with some lingering respiratory issues as if they have just overcome a cold. Sometimes there are even swollen lymph nodes, tonsils, and throat symptoms thrown into the mix. Sound familiar?
I have found myself hesitant to just recommend the typical cold and flu herbs in these situations. Immunity is always important to focus on, and the tried-and-true bulls-eye of the practicing herbalist. But what about the best relief, on top of all that, and with the help of herbs used at home – sinus relief?
Neti Pots and Their Virtues
The past couple years, Neti pots have been my constant go-to when I’m in the midst of cold, flu, and allergy troubles. Especially when it takes a while for those immune-stimulating anti-cold herbs to kick in, or an herbal steam just won’t get into the sinuses fast enough – I open up my cupboard, and take my Neti pot off the shelf.
It gets rid of all of the gunk, and quickly. Once I realized I could combine herbs with Neti rinses, I have since chosen this method as a top one in my arsenal for colds and flu fighting.
What’s the low-down on using Neti pots? If you don’t know, Neti pots (also called “nasal lavage”) are little magical-looking genie bottle-type containers you fill with warm water and a bit of salt. You then hold back your head, put the spout in your nostril, breathe through your mouth, and let the water flow through your sinuses – through one nostril, and then out the other. Read more on the Mayo Clinic’s recommendations on how to use the Neti pot here.
Is using a Neti pot safe? Most doctors and health practitioners (including herbalists) dub Neti pots safe and effective, with a few guidelines (that I happen to agree with).
Good first line of defense against cold symptoms and allergies
Great for thick, chunky mucus
Sporadic, non-regular use is best
Use boiled, distilled, sterilized, and filtered water
If using tap water, make sure it is filtered through hole sizes 1 micron or smaller, or boiled several minutes then cooled before use
CLEAN your Neti pot regularly
Why all the concerns? Some studies have shown that regular use of Neti pots may actually increase the chances of sinus infections and bacterial growth. Think about it: adding yet more water to a part of the body that is warm, damp, and dark could end up being the fuel to the fodder that bacteria actually needs to get started.
That’s certainly not in the spirit of an herbalist or holistic practitioner, right? We want to be aiding the body’s battle, not hindering it.
As a result, I use Neti pots only in a real pinch – and no longer than about 2 weeks at a time in a daily series. I also make sure that both the water and Neti pot I use is completely sterilized, to avoid adding more bacteria to the fire than before I had even started.
My Experiences with Herbal Neti Pot Rinses
I started my use of the Neti pot with the standard salt rinse, as usual, with strong warm water.
Then one day, it hit me: the Neti rinse could easily use a bit of an herbal twist, particularly after I happened upon an herb shop’s Sinus Care tincture: formulated specifically for the Neti pot!
Since then, I can’t resist adding a supporting herb into the mix each time, depending on the type of sinus issue or cold I’m dealing with.
There are so many varieties of herbs and varieties of herbal actions that would suit a Neti rinse perfectly: vasodilating, bronchiodilating, anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antimicrobial. If you have dry sinuses, you can rinse with moistening herbs; goopy sinuses, and you can turn to more drawing and drying ones. Through my personal explorations with my Neti pot, I’ve found a delightful selection of herbs to include in my rinses – which I will be happily covering in this article.
How I Use My Neti Pot
*Dosage/Preparation: To each Neti Rinse you prepare, use warm (not hot!) water, and add roughly a teaspoon of salt.
Neti solution should not be too salty – to taste, the water should be “as salty as your tears.”
Avoid using tap water.Use filtered, reverse-osmosis, or pre-boiled then cooled water – or bottled and/or distilled water.
To each solution, add about 10-20 drops tincture, or whatever you are comfortable.
If you aren’t comfortable with tinctures- or, if you don’t have a tincture of any these herbs handy- you can make a tea, decoction, infusion, or tisane of these herbs, but make sure that the plant matter is WELL STRAINED to avoid putting any thing foreign in your sinuses that shouldn’t be there, and could only make matters worse.
Choice Herbs For the Herbal Neti Pot
GINGER (Zingiber officinalis) – Warm and damp, this culinary root is prime for drier sinuses, with or without accompanying dull pressure – and those dealing with lingering viral infection.
Ginger is also one of an exclusive circle of helpful herbs that can stave off a good deal of viral activity, while modern medicine has yet to come up with anything synthetically antiviral to match. This makes Ginger great for colds or viral bugs, soothing what feels like inflammation and a lot of pressure – and, overall, quite a perfect addition to the Neti.
Surprisingly, while you might think Ginger could “burn,” the most potent of my Ginger tinctures haven’t caused a single discomfort (though I’m sure you would have to be careful with a decoction).
You can replace Ginger with native Wild Ginger if you’d prefer, though Wild Ginger is not reputedly anti-viral.
CHAMOMILE (Matricaria chamomilla) – Or, along the same lines, Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium). Sinus headaches/pressure with either drip or dryness could call for either of these two white-flowered, dainty and aromatic herbs, especially if there is sneezing involved. They are both relatively easy to find in herb gardens and herbal sections of food stores.
Sinus allergies are a good target – whether runny or dry, these two plants are known to prevent histamine reaction in a unique way, and a rinse with these is quite gentle. Check out this research on both Feverfew and Chamomile, supporting their uses for allergies.
If you have sinus issues or allergies that often transform into migraines, these could be your buddies especially. A warning to those allergic to Ragweed pollen- avoid these herbs and anything in the Asteraceae family altogether. They will most likely make you feel much, much worse.
RAGWEED (Ambrosia artemisifolia/trifida) – Before you say “What? Why?!!?” Ragweed can be amazing for sinus allergy symptoms, particularly for those who are NOT allergic to its pollen.
Yet for those who are allergic to Ragweed, there is strong supporting research out there nonetheless, revealing that the antidote to the poison might be just a bit of the plant itself. To top it all off, the FDA did approve a drug that contained a bit of Ragweed itself in a pill for allergy relief symptoms due to Ragweed pollen itself in 2014.
Again- if you know you are allergic to Ragweed or other Asterids, it might be wiser to steer clear. For those who aren’t (including myself), a tincture or tea of in-season Ragweed blooms can provide amazing relief, particularly when you feel a histamine reaction going on. I experimented with some tincture last Summer for some dusty-stuff sinus problems, and wow- just, wow.
This is best aimed at allergy-related sinus issues specifically, and less so for cold or viral stuff. If you are the brave sort of Ragweed-allergic, I’ve been told that Ragweed leaf (NOT flower) can be alright and less harmful to Ragweed-sufferers…but that is not a recommendation or suggestion. Experiment at your own risk please.
GOLDENROD (Solidago canadensis + other species) – The dried blossoms of Goldenrod are similar to Chamomile or Feverfew in action, making it best suited to allergies once again – but more so the damp and drippy kind. For whatever magical reason too, this plant has a stronger affinity to pet allergies, and sinus flare-ups that might happen as a result.
Another great thing about it: it’s well-known support of Ragweed allergies in the empirical knowledge of herbalists. Growing right next to Ragweed in the Fall and blooming twice as “showily,” not many folks know that a well-worked herbal cure to Ragweed allergies might be growing just a couple feet away. What more – preliminary studies are showing that Goldenrod has some marked anti-inflammatory activity.
Goldenrod flowers have a sweet, astringent, and pleasant flavor that I love adding to herbal allergy blends of any sort. Out of all the possible Neti, sinus and allergy herbs altogether too, Goldenrod stands out as my very favorite- combine this one with Ginger if you’re having a viral cold with a fever, and it could help bring the fever down.
USNEA (Usnea spp.) – Along with Goldenrod, Usnea is one of my favorites for a sinus rinse. Its astringency and anti-microbial action are very highly desirable for the average sinus infection!
Best for damp and runny sinuses only, this lichen contains usnic acids that pack a punch against notorious bacteria including staph and strep (with studies to prove it). While fighting off infection, this plant will also aid in drawing and pulling out the nasty gunk you’re trying to forget, helping airways unclog and clear.
MULLEIN (Verbascum thapsus) – You can never do without Mullein. Whether raspy or goopy, this fuzzy, common plant can be of help – although I do think it stands out best in situations where the sinuses are much drier.
This plant is simple; and in being so, there really isn’t much else more to say about it. It’s a top pick among herbalists for such things having to do with colds, flu, and sinuses.
A tincture of the root may be effective, but a fresh, hot tea of the leaves or flowers (without having reached the boiling point) can help loosen stuff up when your stuffed up, too.
Allergies and colds can be relieved with Mullein as well – and some studies support not only that Mullein’s plant “mucilages” could be what truly relieves sinus inflammation, but also that there are compounds in the plant that have been seen killing viruses on contact.
PLANTAIN (Plantago major) – Like Mullein or Ginger, I like to put Plantain in practically all of my Neti rinses as a feature role of the blend.
This is because Plantain leaf does something special that the remainder of these herbs don’t do as well: Plantain is a “drawing” agent in herbalists’ experience, which can help pull foreign objects out of the sinus while helping neutralize the amount of irritation or goop you have going on.
So if you simply feel like you’ve got “stuff”- any kind of stuff- lodged in your sinuses, Plantain is your go-to remedy. Beyond allergies, colds or normal sinus issues, you could turn to this herb for the weirder stuff: inhaling a bug, food, or something else accidental. Plantain can help you pull that out.
The other great thing about Plantain? You can use it for both wet and dry sinuses. Plantain is both mucilaginous and astringent: it will help draw up and pull out any excess mucus, but at the same time soothe, moisturize, and tonify the soft tissues of the nasal cavities.
Studies are also beginning to support this plant’s use for inflammation, too – even showing that it could have protective capabilities against certain bacteria perilous to the nose and throat, such as strep bacteria and others included!
This article is not meant to diagnose, prescribe, promise, or suggest cure. It’s purpose and intent is to be purely educational.
**Disclaimer** The information in this article is NOT intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe, or promise cure. Its intent is to be purely educational; if suffering serious illness, please contact a professional healthcare provider.
When I was a little girl playing in my family’s big sloped garden in Utah, I would spend a lot of time in the little stand of Sumac there. I remember it clearly – and for that I consider Sumac a childhood friend of sorts.
A patch of Sumac is the perfect place for a kid to play and pretend they’re in a different world, completely hidden from an adult’s prying eyes.
As an herbalist and wild food fan, my friendship with Sumac has continued to the present. In a chef’s words, the flavor profileof Sumac is sour and light; in an herbalist’s words, its “energetics” are cool and dry, sour and astringent. Sound similar, right?
That might be because Sumac has been a popular wild food, culinary spice, and folk medicine for hundreds of years among many cultures. When a single herb crosses over into all these categories, then you really know it’s a good food and herb.
A huge lover of Sumac, I will sometimes try to talk about how awesome this plant really is for you, healing-wise and nutritionally. Most of the time I’ll get a glazed, unknowing, fairly uninterested look.
One response I got was: “Oh, you mean those long, branching, pokey things you see along the highway, with the fiery berries?” Yes, those.
Sumac’s Healing and Nutritional Properties
For starters, the species of Sumac I’m most familiar with is a robust Midwestern version: Smooth Sumac, scientific name Rhus glabra.
There aren’t many tinctures, capsules, or supplements of Sumac available for you to try at your local natural foods store. Thus hardly anybody knows what to say about it, even the majority of herbalists. But Sumac deserves its own attention outside the mainstream – and I just love an underdog.
If you want to go out there and get to know this plant and its exceptional qualities, it will require a hike or a short walk rather than a trip to the whole foods store. Though you can find “culinary” Sumac, a sour, burgundy-red powder and popular Middle Eastern spice at some local shops. Experiment with that, if you like, though its effects and health properties are not something I’m familiar with.
Otherwise, you can walk up to this plant and with your fingers or a knife, and gently snap off or cut away the clusters of soft, red berries…respectfully, of course.
High in Vitamin C for immunity
Antioxidants for cellular protection
Gallic acids – potent antimicrobials
Not only does Sumac contain ample Vitamin C and Antioxidants like its contemporaries Hibiscus, Rose, and Raspberry – it also hosts powerful Gallic Acids that make it a worthy opponent for bacteria, fungus, even viruses alike.
Yes, there are studies to prove it: “…of 100 medicinal plants screened for antibiotic activity, [Rhus glabra] was most active, attributed to content of gallic acid, 4-methoxygallic acid, and methyl gallate. Alcoholic extracts had the strongest activity.” (Foster, Duke; Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs, p. 281).
Another study demonstrated Smooth Sumac’s (tincture of the berry) efficacy against certain strains of bacteria, including Staph, E. Coli, Salmonella, and the much-feared yeast Candida. The Middle Eastern species of Sumac, Rhus coriara, was able to destroy Streptococcus bacteria, the cause for Strep Throat. (1)
Studies aren’t needed to support this one, but powdered Sumac (or whole berries) make an excellent cooling beverage when mixed with some lemon, classically called “Sumac-Ade.” Plus, the powdered berry from its roots as a Middle Eastern culinary spice, is an excellent food pairing with grilled fish or chicken!
I will stop and say here that yes, Sumac-Ade is quite delicious – and you can learn how to make it here.But if you want a potent healing infusion of Sumac berries, simply cold-steeping to get only the pleasantly sour aspect will produce a weak and hardly effective tea.That’s right…you’ve got to boil it or at the very least heat it in some way, until the water is a darker, vivid yellowish-red color.
Don’t worry, it will still be plenty sour, though it will also have an earthy, bitter taste that might repel most people – unless you’re one of those people who knows, of course, that bitterness means the “medicine is working.”
Traditional Healing Uses of Sumac:
Opens the pores, promoting sweating and elimination – fever-supporting
Strengthens the kidneys
Relieves and prevents diarrhea
Fights colds, flus, and infection of the mouth and digestive tract
Interestingly, traditional and folk use seemed to emphasize its affinity to mouth infections specifically. It’s fun for me to say that my experiences lined up with that, too.
My Experiences With Sumac
Four years ago, a case of strep throat hit me in late November 2012. With no health insurance, being at least 30 miles away from a clinic and practically penniless, I rummaged my plant resources.
I didn’t have ideal strep-fighting herbs with me at the time, such as Usnea(Usnea spp.) or Red Root/New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus), so I set about trying to, somewhat creatively, figure out how I could kick the illness. Even then, take it from me though:if you can get access to healthcare to take care of your strep…DO IT!
Strep can be dangerous. I do not recommend going this route, as this was an option I faced in the desperation of wintertime poverty deep in rural Iowa.
For the first two days using various other herbs in teas, I didn’t see a whole lot of improvement. I then opted also for Smooth Sumac tincture added into the mixture I was using. I went out on a bit of a limb relying on this herb – though I had stumbled upon its anti-microbial research, and was intrigued.
I took the tincture internally, three times a day. But a gargle of Sumac tincture in water at least three times a day – allowing direct contact on my swollen, infected throat – was what I believe the biggest impact on Strep. I was a combination of surprised and pleased: every time I gargled with Sumac, there were very observable results day-to-day, and the infection progressively withdrew!
I did this for about a week, eventually chucking all the other herbs and mostly just relying on the Smooth Sumac. In spite of not having found any information or research yet on Sumac fighting Strep throat bacteria specifically, the infection hit the road.
From that time forward, I decided I really appreciated the stuff. I would be fated to make more if it, and I started to put it in almost everything (cause it tastes delicious, too)!
The experiences continued. In the next winter of 2013, after getting four wisdom teeth yanked out of my face, Sumac was my go-to remedy. I even preferred it over the prescription antibiotic mouth-rinse the dentists gave me afterward, and it still sits unused on my shelf even today.
Needless to say, I avoided the common post-surgery “dry-socket” problem. When one of the clots broke, it took a single swishing-session of Sumac tincture to stop the bleeding. The next gargle, I was amazed to feel that the hole had somehow pinched together and clotted, back on track to closing itself up.
Other’s Experiences With Sumac
Not long afterward, a co-worker of mine at the time approached me with an abscessed tooth.
He fretted because it had been abscessed for a while. He didn’t just want to go to a doctor, pay the money, and get it taken care of, with antibiotics and penicillin and the like. The tooth had been hurting him the last few days, and it frightened him that it was getting infected.
Without thinking it would really take care of the problem – maybe just help it, a bit – I said “Hey, try Sumac tincture. It seemed to get rid of my strep throat.” It was an easy sell, considering my co-worker’s enthusiasm for herbal remedies.
Less than a week later, he came to me saying not only had the pain and infection gone, but the tooth was no longer abscessed! He seemed as shocked and awed as I was, but definitely happy.
Sumac: History, Information, Background, and Tradition
There are many different species of Sumac, all belonging to the genus Rhus.
There are other species of Sumac in Iowa. One other, Staghorn Sumac, (Rhus typhina) is also native to Iowa. Its range clings closely to the banks of the Upper Mississippi region and the Driftless region of the state, then spreads north and eastward.
Poison Sumac(Rhus toxicodendron) is quite similar looking to other sumacs, with white instead of red berries. However, it is incredibly uncommon in Iowa; the only place where you might stumble upon it would be on the banks of the Mississippi. Just make sure the Sumac you are harvesting has berries, and that they are definitely not white (not much of a challenge).
Like its namesake, Sumac is typically seen growing gingerly at the forest’s edge, in the shadows of clearings on the paths where deer are known to frequent. According to herbalist Matthew Wood, Sumac is a Deer Medicine.
Deer Medicine is a categorization of certain types of herbs originating from American Indian Medicine practices, though I couldn’t tell you which exact people or nations. Deer Medicines, as Wood puts them, are meant to be “juicy and beautiful, and plants that attract deer.”
I have seen many a deer hiding among stands of Sumac, blending right in with its graceful branches and jagged foliage. It is, indeed, the perfect haven for deer to hide.
Being an important part of herbal healing of past and future tradition, Sumac in my mind perfectly reflects and represents itself as a symbol of Iowa herbalism- a state and region where the deer themselves are incredibly prolific.
There is an incredible amount of knowledge going way, way back on the many uses of Sumacs, also spelled “sumach”; both from the acumen of historical texts and the rich lore of old traditional cultures, in North America, Europe, and Africa.
In Iowa, Sumacs- particularly Smooth Sumac- were important and prevalent medicines among some original cultures native to the state, or those who were known to pass through Iowa regularly. The Cahokia Indians, early agriculturists of Iowa, were thought to have cultivated Sumac along the Upper Mississippi as food, no doubt as medicine.
The Omahas most notably had a wide range of uses for it, along with the Meskwaki, who are the last-standing Indian nation with a settlement present here in Iowa. I personally think this long-time use of Sumac is a strong reason to consider it a vital herbal, especially one with strong cultural and regional ties to healing traditions rooted right here, in the state of Iowa.
The antique literature out there backs up Sumac’s usefulness as a medicine for the mouth, resonating with both its research and my own experiences. One herbal mentions its folk use in the Ozarks as a chew stick for cleaning teeth, by stripping the bark off a thin twig and massaging the gums.
A modern study confirms Smooth Sumac as a mouth medicine, due to examined and tested samples of the species from the Ozark mountains, which was shown to prevent tooth decay among rural Ozark inhabitants.
The old herbals don’t just stop there. Stemming from the use of Old World Rhus coriara in Europe, its subsequent adoption by pioneers was carried over to America – and a rhapsody of Old and New World uses, European and Native, developed into a robust tradition of medicinal use.
Old herbals praise its unique potency against various afflictions, among them diarrhea, dysentery, fevers, scrofula, and weakness with too much/not enough perspiration.
Sumac is noted to help tone the uterus and prevent its prolapse, like Raspberry. In fact, it is an all-around great Woman’s Medicine, regulating the cycle and preventing cramps through its actions on stabilizing the blood. As a bowel medicine, the herb helps against urinary complaints as a diuretic, acting through the kidneys. Historically, and in our present day, Sumac may be used to aid diabetes medication due to its kidney effect; Southeastern native tribes used it as their own regional analogue of more Western/Southwestern herbs like Brickelia (Brickellia spp.) or Nopal Cactus (Opuntia spp.).
A few famous herbalists of today discuss Sumacs of various species being medicines with a long history of successful use, Matthew Wood and Phyllis Light being its biggest proponents. Phyllis Light herself learned the uses of Sumac passed down from her grandmother in Southern Appalachia, a knowledge inherited from the Creek Indians. Wood compares the uses of Staghorn and Smooth Sumacs in his book The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism, and touches on the fact that Smooth Sumac is indeed a useful remedy in cases of mild putrefaction – this could include an illness like strep throat.
Next time you are driving along the highway, jogging, or passing through those more “thickety” parts of your town – I hope you stop to take a look at Sumac, if the gorgeous plant already doesn’t grab your eye.
Sumac could be a first step into a powerful pantheon of Iowa herbs, a plant that for many of us, could be just outside our window, waiting to yield its uses to us.
Although the stands of Sumac are widespread and numerous….please, harvest respectfully.
References: Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs by Steven Foster and James A. Duke. The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism by Matthew Wood. Cahokia: Domination and Ideology in the Mississippian World by K. Kris Hirst. Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie: An Ethnobotanical Guide by Kelly Kindscher. King’s American Dispensatory, 1898. Henriette’s Herbal Homepage. Personal Experience.
Working and collaborating with author Carmen Reeves overthe traditional herbalist knowledge and research in her new book has been a rush and a joy. I’m proud and happy to share her latest publication, Homemade Herbal Medicine, ranking as a #1 bestseller in the Herbs and Herbal Remedies category on Amazon as we speak!
For only a couple more days yet, until December 5th, you can still get the Kindle version of this priming guide on at-home herbalism without paying a single cent.
You can also email Carmen Reeves directly, and in exchange for leaving her a good review, she will pass on to you a full PDF version of the E-book absolutely free! Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org if interested.
This guide is what I could only call one of the most well-rounded, simple, and straightforward introductions to herbalism that I have seen in a long time. For beginners new to herbalism, I really feel that the knowledge and research put into this book gives you the adequate perspective and skills in herbalism you need to do it safely and successfully.
For expert herbalists even, Homemade Herbal Medicine helps you narrow down and “hone” your herbal repertoire with the very best herbs out there. Each herb selected in this book has been carefully researched and hand-picked for both traditional, folkloric reputation and scientific study alike!
I’m also in love with the designs and pictures of each individual herb. The graphic designs add a very cozy, at-home feel which is perfect for learning the ropes to homemade, DIY herbalism. The perfect package!
Thank you for following, and don’t hesitate to get in touch with Carmen. More articles, updates, free e-books, and upcoming publications to arrive soon!