Walking into an herbal apothecary is like walking into a magical wonderland. I love the way it smells, the collection of curious labels and recipe books, and the endless line of herb packed jars sitting atop wooden shelves (and if you’re lucky some of them are actually labeled). Herb collections are like personal potion shops, with literally hundreds and hundreds of possibilities for formulas and remedies. I remember when I was 20, walking through Pike Place Market in Seattle, I went into a tea shop and was in total awe of the little place. Jars and jars and jars of teas, empty bottles, scoops and wooden spoons and tea pots lined every wall, not to mention the overwhelming aroma of the earthy, rosy, palpable tea filled air that encircled me. I had almost no idea where to start, but I knew I wanted something like this in my home one day. Over the next 10 years that followed, I will have seen a lot of herb collections – from little stores and shoppes to professional compounding dispensaries to at-home personal apothecaries. The array is always inspiring (and the herbalists that mind them are always so lovely), and it’s been such a joyful and slow process to continue to create my own herbal apothecary at home over the years.
When I started out in herbal medicine, I had pretty much nothing set up other than a few reference books, empty mason jars and a sparse supply of half empty tincture bottles. I would collect maybe one herb at a time, whichever herb I was focusing on and trying that week or that month. As the semesters went by and my materia medica arsenal built up, I acquired a few more and a few more until eventually I had what you might call a ramshackle home-apothecary filled with unlabeled jars, half used-dropper bottles and notebooks FILLED with un-indexed notes (I’d remember where and what it all was, right?). Usually yes, but I wouldn’t recommend that method on the regular.
Over the years, I’ve had lots of people ask me where to start when they want to cultivate their own home apothecary for their every day health needs and this makes me SUPER EXCITED. It’s so fun to create a little nook in your home with your remedies and herbs and spices and teas and tinctures to play with and actually use for good old fashioned preventative and acute care. Like I say – herbal medicine is amazingly simple and also amazingly complex. Starting your own herbal collection at home doesn’t have to be done in one fell swoop – it’s a process. A process depending on what you and your family’s needs are. I would break down what herbs to invest in by category and action, and then start trying them out yourself to see which are the most effective for you. Here are some basic botanical herbal actions to pick and choose from (although not nearly a complete list):
Herbal Actions For Your Home Apothecary
Adaptogen (increases endurance and resistance to stress)
Ashwagandha, Holy Basil, Licorice, Milky Oat Tops, Nettle
Analgesics (Pain relieving)
Antispasmodics (prevents and relieves spasms)
Chamomile, Peppermint, Skullcap, Yarrow, Wild Yam
Ashwagandha, Chamomile, Cinnamon, Holy Basil, Nettle, Turmeric, Yarrow
Chamomile, Elderberries, Yarrow, Ginger, Goldenseal
Chamomile, Gentian, Dandelion leaf
Carminative (soothes digestion, relieves gas & bloating)
Fennel, Cardamom, Chamomile
Demulcent (to soothe inflamed tissues)
Marshmallow, Slippery Elm bark
Expectorant (increases the elimination of excess mucus)
Mullein, Wild Cherry, Thyme
Hepatic (liver protecting)
Burdock, Dandelion root, Turmeric, Reishi
Immune Stimulant (to acutely increase immune activity)
Echinacea root, Elderberries
Immune Modulator (to balance and support the immune system)
Astragalus, Reishi, Elderberries, Turmeric
Alfalfa, Nettle, Slippery Elm, Milky Oat, Reishi
Sedative/anxiolytic (calms the body and nervous system)
Chamomile, Ashwagandha, Skullcap, Passionflower, Valerian, Kava kava, Lemon balm
Stimulant (increases circulation and breaks through obstructions)
Ginger, Turmeric, Rosemary
How to Store Herbs
This is kind of a big deal if you plan on keeping your herbs for any length of time. Herbs, like food, have a shelf life much dependent on the manner in which they’re kept.
Rule #1 – keep them out of direct sunlight (this causes them to break down and “age” more quickly).
Rule #2 – dried herbs for tea and infusions must be stored and kept completely dry. Moisture is the kiss of death to most herbs. Make sure they’re good and dry if you’re harvesting and drying your own.
Rule #3 – store loose herbs in air tight (preferably glass) containers like mason jars or amber glass bottles. Air oxidizes herbs over time, making them break down more quickly.
Rule #4 – LABEL YOUR JARS. I know you think you’ll remember them, and your sense of smell is keen and unmatched…but you probably won’t. I promise you’ll thank yourself for doing this 4 months after you’ve bottled and stored something and it all starts to look the same. Label the herb (common and botanical name if you know it), date you collected or packaged it, and where it came from.
Extra Tools For Your Herbal Apothecary
Most of the items below (and lots of extras!) can be found at Mountain Rose Herbs.
Small and large ball jars or amber glass jars, mortar and pestle, empty heat-and-seal tea bags or muslin bags, base oils for infused oils (I like apricot kernel oil, olive oil, sesame oil or grape seed oil), beeswax and butters for salve making, digital kitchen scale (weighing in grams), and 1 ounce and 2 ounce dropper bottles for travel sized tinctures.
Documenting Your Materia Medica
When you try an herb for the first time (or even the tenth time), write down your experience with it in your own materia medica journal. Keeping an herb journal will help you refine your apothecary to keeping and utilizing only the most effective herbs and combinations of herbs that work well for what you need. It’s extremely easy to have a ramshackle apothecary that quickly becomes messy, unorganized and filled with expired or un-used herbs. Keeping track and routinely rotating and freshly stocking your supply is made much simpler when you keep track of your herbs and your relationship with them.
Now What? For even more apothecary fun, read my Guide to Herbal Formulating.
Begin your own herbal medicine studies with the super comprehensive Introductory Herbal Course with the Herbal Academy, or deepen your knowledge even further with the Clinical Herbalist Package and really take off!
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