Ask an HerbalistFeb 2, 2022
We love talking about herbs and herbalism, and we especially love answering your questions about those
topics. That's why we brought in our team of herbal experts to respond to some of the most common questions
and concerns we hear.
Our herbalists have decades of combined experience working with herbs — and the people who take them. They
answer your most pressing questions, in our regular column “Ask an
Maceration: Maceration is a method of making extractions. It’s the process of soaking the
herb or plant matter in the menstruum, or solvent, for a period of time that varies based on the
ingredients. Maceration allows a menstruum to soak up an herb’s constituents. The process is
complete when the liquid inside an herb is the same strength as the liquid outside.
Marc: Marc is what’s left over after maceration and extraction into a menstruum. For example,
marc could be the herbs in a soaked tea bag or those that were used to make a tincture or elixir
after they have been pressed and separated from the liquid extract.
Menstruum or Solvent: The liquids used to extract an herbal preparation are called the
menstruum, or solvent. Depending on the preparation and the herbs used, the menstruum could be
water, alcohol (ethanol), vinegar, glycerin or any combination.
Percolation: Percolation is a method of extraction. The process involves filtering a
menstruum through finely powdered, dried herbs that have been packed into a cone-shaped percolator.
The herb is traditionally moistened with a small amount of menstruum for 12 to 24 hours to allow for
in-cone maceration and expansion. After, the remaining menstruum is poured over the herbs and the
liquid extract slowly drips out, as gravity pulls the menstruum down through the herb.
Cordial: Cordials are made by combining herbs (often fresh herbs or fruit juices) with
alcohol, such as brandy. The mixture is then left to macerate. After the herbs are strained, an
equal amount of sweetener is added.
Decoction: A decoction is a water extraction that uses a continuous heat supply, usually a
simmer of 10 to 60 minutes. This technique is typically used for denser herb parts, such as roots,
bark, seeds, berries and mushrooms.
Elixir: An elixir is a type of sweetened herbal preparation. Elixirs start with tea or herbs
to which alcohol (usually brandy) is added. The herbs are removed after the mixture soaks (this is
called maceration), and finally a sweetener (traditionally honey or sugar) is added, usually with
some essential oil.
Essential Oil: Essential oils are the highly concentrated, volatile oils extracted from a
plant. Most often, essential oils are extracted using steam distillation.
Flower Essence: Flower essences contain the “essence” of a plant and are extremely diluted
before use. The flowers are infused in water, most often under the sun, and then preserved with a
small amount of alcohol or glycerin, to create what is called the “mother essence.” That essence is
further diluted to create a “stock bottle.” The stock bottle is then used in drop-size amounts
multiple times daily in a bottle of water over the long term.
Glycerite: Glycerites start with dried or fresh herbs infused in a menstruum that is
glycerin-based. Water may be included in the menstruum. A glycerite can also be referred to as an
Hydrosol: Hydrosols are the water by-product of the steam distillation of essential oils.
They are often used as sprays or as a base for other topical herb forms.
Infused Oil: These are often used on their own as topicals or as a base for other forms of
herb-based topicals. Dried or fresh herbs are infused into a carrier oil, such as Olive, Sesame (not
toasted) or Jojoba. The infusion can be warmed over low heat or allowed to macerate at room
temperature for a certain amount of time. The herbs are strained out and the remaining liquid is
what’s used. The infused oil can then be used as a base for salves, balms, lotions or creams. Fixed
or fatty oils (such as Avocado oil, Hemp seed oil or Coconut) can also be infused with culinary
herbs that are taken orally and used in cooking.
Infused Vinegar: Infused vinegar is the liquid remaining after dried or fresh herbs have been
extracted into vinegar and the marc has been pressed and removed.
Infusion: An infusion is a tea made by pouring water over plant material, then allowing it to
steep for 3 to 20 minutes. Infusions usually involve more delicate parts of the plant such as dried
flowers, fruit, leaves or other parts, though fresh plant material may also be used. The water is
usually freshly boiled, but you can also make cold infusions. Infusions are considered one of the
oldest and simplest preparations used in herbalism.
Liniment: Liniments are used topically and rubbed into the skin. They can vary in consistency
from watery to thick, such as a balm. They are made from herbs extracted in any substance that is
liquid at body temperature, including alcohol, soap or, less commonly, oil.
Mel: Mels are made of honey infused with dried or fresh herbs, which can either be removed by
straining or (if powdered first) stirred into the mixture.
Oxymel: Oxymels are a subcategory of mels. The name comes from oxymeli in Latin, meaning acid
and honey. Equal parts vinegar and honey, and sometimes water, are infused with dried or fresh
herbs, macerated, then strained. They are the herbal version of a shrub, a vinegar-based drink
generally made from fruit.
Poultice: Herbal powders can be moistened slightly with warm water to create a paste called a
poultice, which is then applied topically. Poultices can also be made with fresh herb material that
is blended with a small amount of water.
Syrup: Syrups are made with herbal tea and sweetener (usually sugar, but honey or other
sweeteners can be used). The ratio of tea to sweetener can be equal or 1:2.
Tincture: Tinctures start with dried or fresh herbs infused in a menstruum that is
alcohol-based. Water or a small amount of glycerin may be included in the menstruum.
Adaptogens: Adaptogens are a category of herbs known for their balancing effects, and they
support our bodies’ natural responses to stress, fatigue and more.* Their actions let you take them
over long periods and as a rapid response to short-term situations.* Some common adaptogens are
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), Schisandra
(Schisandra chinensis) and Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea).*
Aromatherapy: Aromatherapy uses natural plant extracts, such as aromatic essential oils, and
sometimes hydrosols and carrier oils.
Phytochemicals or Constituents: “Phyto-” means “plant,” so “phytochemicals” are chemicals
produced by plants. These chemical compounds or constituents are formed in a plant’s normal
metabolic processes. Phytochemicals are often referred to as primary or secondary metabolites,
depending on their purpose in the plant. There are several classes, including alkaloids,
anthraquinones, coumarins, fats, flavonoids, glycosides, gums, iridoids, mucilages, phenols,
phytoestrogens, tannins, terpenes and terpenoids.
Tonic: Tonics are herbs that are gentle enough to be taken daily for long-term dietary
support. Common tonics include Maca (Lepidium meyenii), Stinging Nettle (Urtica
dioica), Turmeric (Curcuma longa) and Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lingzhi).