[Herbal Rootlets] No. 63 – Making Herbal Oils

making oil infusion

“Once upon a time, children would have learned about the many uses of plants—as food, as decoration, and most importantly, as medicine—from their elders. A wise woman or man who had learned the ways of the plants would have guided children as they discovered the natural world around them. Our world is very different now, but plants still have much to teach us.”

-Ellen Evert Hopman, Walking the World of Wonder

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In herbalism, there are many ways to extract herbs to make remedies. Infusions are a common method and can involve water, alcohol, vinegar, or oil. Today we are going to focus on oil infusions.

Oil infusions are fun and easy to make with kids. They will enjoy making an herbal remedy that they can use on themselves.

Why oil infusions?
Oil infusions (not to be confused with essential oils, which are a completely different process) infuse the constituents of herbs in oil. Resins, gums and oleoresins are most soluble in oils. Other active principles such as the hypericin in St. John’s Wort, as well as essential oils, mucilage and alkaloids are all partially soluble in oils. These make oils that are great for topical use. They can be massaged directly on the skin, or combined with other ingredients to make salves, lotions, creams and even soaps for using topically.

Internally, infused oils are great for using as a base for salad dressings or any other way that oils are used in cooking. They are best used on food after the cooking is finished so that the constituents of the herbs are not cooked out of them.

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Which oils are best?
A variety of oils can be used for making infused oils. Olive oil is a standard, all purpose base and works well as a massage oil, salve base or salad dressing. If you want to make an oil specifically for a massage oil, almond oil, apricot kernel oil and grape seed oil are all lighter and work especially well for this task. Coconut oil is also a great base, especially if you will be using it in your hair. Be aware that coconut oil generally solidifies at temperatures cooler than 76 degrees fahrenheit. Don’t limit your oils to vegetable oils. Animal oils can be used as well: emu oil, lanolin, lard, tallow, butter and ghee are all excellent oils to use.

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St. John’s Wort flowers make a great herbal oil for sunburns and nerve pain.

What herbs infuse best into oils?
Some herbs that are great for skin include Calendula, St. John’s Wort, Comfrey, Plantain, Prunella, Chickweed, Cottonwood, Garlic, Ginger, Lavender, Goldenrod, Birch, Burdock, Cayenne, Mullein and Black Pepper. The list is endless but these are a few to get you started!

Calendula flowers make a great herbal oil.

Calendula flowers make a great herbal oil.

Whichever herbs you use, it’s best to use dried herbs for the infusion. If you must use fresh, let the plants wilt for at least 8 hours so that some of the moisture will come out of the plant material. The exceptions to this rule are St. John’s Wort, Mullein and Garlic which infuse best fresh.

Infusing Cottonwood. Photo by Ananda Wilson.

Infusing Cottonwood. Photo by Ananda Wilson.

Let’s get started!
First decide what you would like the oil for. If you want to make a lovely massage oil for achy muscles, try infusing a massage type oil such as apricot or almond with herbs for achiness such as Birch, Cottonwood, Goldenrod, Lavender or Prunella. These plants work great for sprains, strains, bumps and bruises too.

For a wound healing oil, which can later be made into a wound healing salve, herbs such as Calendula, Comfrey, Plantain, Chickweed and/or Cottonwood can be used. If you are using Comfrey on wounds, be sure to add an antibacterial herb such as Calendula to the mix since Comfrey can be quick to heal skin over a wound, trapping any debris and germs inside that may not have been thoroughly removed.

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Fresh Ginger infused oil

For help with circulation, Ginger, Cayenne and Black Pepper work great. Mullein and Garlic oil make a nice ear oil, especially with a little St. John’s Wort added in.

St. John’s Wort makes a mild sunscreen, especially when infused in Sunflower oil which also has sunscreen properties. Burdock seeds, smashed and infused in oil make a nice scalp oil for treating dandruff.

Jaden with a bouquet of Prunella, ready to be dried and made into oil.

Jaden with a bouquet of Prunella, ready to be dried and made into oil.

How to infuse oils
Once you’ve decided what type of oil to make, it’s time to get started! To make an oil, place a handful of herb in the top of a double boiler. Pour enough oil to cover, bring the water below to a boil then turn down and gently heat for 2-3 hours. Turn off the heat and strain out the herbs from the oil by pouring it through a strainer lined with cheesecloth. Squeeze the cloth to get the final bits of oil out of the plants.

Pour your oil into a jar and cap it. After 48 hours, check to see if anything has settled to the bottom. Usually when using dried material, there will not be anything settling but when your plants are fresh, water can sometimes mix with the oil during the infusion process and will settle to the bottom. If this happens, you will want to strain off the oil from the sediment at the bottom as the sediment will cause the oil to go rancid.

There are alternative methods for oil infusions. The basic premise of oil infusions is to heat the plant material at a level that the pores open and release the medicinal constituents but not so much that you cook the plant material. Any heat source is acceptable although a continuous heat source is best.

Sun Method:

Fill a jar about 1/2 full of dried plant material in a jar and fill to the top with oil. Stir with a chopstick to get air bubbles out and put on the lid. Set jar outside in the sun for about 2 weeks. Bring inside and follow instructions for straining and settling.

Crock Pot Method:

If you are making a larger quantity of oil, you can heat it in a crock pot. Place the desired amount of herb and oil into the pot, set on low and let heat overnight. Follow instructions for straining and settling.

Storing your oils
Whichever method you use, it’s best to store your oils in the refrigerator so that they won’t go rancid. Oils typically last about a year, sometimes longer. Smell them regularly and you will notice if they go off, they get a peculiar smell about them.

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What some more sources of information about making oil infusions?
Try these books:

A Kid’s Herb Book by Lesley Tierra

Healing Wise by Susun Weed pages 271 – 273 (Similar version taken from Breast Cancer? Breast Health! can be found online here: http://www.susunweed.com/herbal_ezine/July09/breasthealth.htm )

Making Plant Medicine by Richo Cech pages 81 – 86 (First part of Chapter 10)

The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook by James Green Chapter 17: Oil Infusion pages 193 – 200 (click to see online…3 pages are missing from this version but you can see most of this chapter).

Herbal oils are easy to make and easy to use. They are a great ‘starter remedy’ for kids to learn how to make.

Have you made herbal oils with your kids? What kinds did you make and what did you use them for?

Herbal Blessings,

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