The Winter Herbalist
The soft earth beneath our feet, pollen and aromatics in the air, clipping leaves and flowers and filling your baskets – the herbalist thrives in the time of summer where the plants are at their most fecund and the medicines can be gathered with fingertips and laid to dry in the The soft earth beneath our feet, pollen and aromatics in the air, clipping leaves and flowers and filling your baskets – the herbalist thrives in the time of summer where the plants are at their most fecund and the medicines can be gathered with fingertips and laid to dry in the warm air.
In the winter, plants become housemates in their jars and bags, little pieces of summer in the times when the earth is bare and plants are sleeping, their medicines either gathered deep in their roots or hopefully passed into their seeds. A few stand frozen with the medicine intact as we hastily gather them and take them into our warm homes.
As an herbalist connected with the seasons, much of what I tend to use is dripping in abundance around me all growing season. Mint teas from the generous carpets of mint, parsley pesto from basal bunches, wild weed salads from what looks juicy and lush and filled with spring. In the winter, the herbalist hibernates and turns to her stores of herbal medicines she has gathered in preparation for the winter.
There are several medicines I tend to use much more in the winter than the summer, medicines more suitable for the energy of the cold and dry air. Medicines which give warmth, moisture, and balance the darker days and the darkest of winter nights. These medicines are an integral part of summer as they are gathered with winter in mind.
The simple act of growing, gathering or making something small in preparation for winter can be a profound exercise in the acknowledgement of the seasonal cycles and the human response to these changes.
Here are three herbs you can easily cultivate or gather in the summer to use in the winter, how to prepare them, and how to use them.
Calendula Infused Oil Base
Calendula flowers are one of our most vibrant and photogenic flowers, and with their sticky scented resin covered sepals they bring many of your senses into the process. Calendula is very easy to grow, even in pots, and doesn’t mind a bit of summer heat if it has enough water to drink. The flowers come and will continue to come if you are picking them most days, so plant your calendula in an area you walk by regularly. It’s also an excellent task for children to gather the blossoms. They dry easily in a basket and can be used for a variety of topical and internal preparations for the whole family.
Once your calendula has finished flowering and they are all dried, or you have enough for a batch to loosely fill a glass jar, you can infuse them into oil. The oil will come out best if you remove the petals from the green sepals and grind them in a coffee or herb grinder just before infusing (they degrade fast!), place them in the dry jar, and fill the jar with oil. I prefer almond or apricot oil, or olive oil, but any oil you like or have access to can work well. You’ll want to expose that jar to some gentle heat, and you can do this in your gas oven because of its pilot light, on a radiator, a sunny window, or even a gentle hot water bath. The oil will take on the orange color after a few hours or a few days, up to a week, when you can strain it and bottle it again. Be sure to not introduce moisture in any part of this process since it will make it mold.
Calendula oil can be used for so many winter ailments. It’s the perfect base for salves, lip balms, and creams, but it’s also lovely alone on skin, even the most delicate of skin or babies or the elderly. Combined with melted beeswax (you can look online for how to make a salve) it can treat dry hands and feet or any other part of the body. My children’s skin gets so dry this time of the year that the oil is a warm ritual before dressing for bed to soothe and moisten.
Sweet fennel can grow towering in your yard or in your weedy small plot of dirt along the sidewalk. It provides a home for little animals as well as swallowtail butterfly caterpillars. It’s early spring foliage is tasty, it’s flowers even more so and pretty in salads, and the seeds sweet and aromatic and perfect for winter chai. It’s also a completely safe and well tolerated herbal medicine which is simultaneously powerful.
You can use fennel as a base for herbal chai, which has few rules and can be fun to play with. Adults and children can sniff and sort and assemble their favorite blend, and all you need to do is to gentle boil it, covered, in water for about 10 minutes. The ratio can vary, but is about 1 tablespoon to 3 cups of water (24oz), depending on steeping time and taste. You can add honey or maple syrup and something creamy as you wish, and my family loves to add some vanilla extract at the end. Other herbs and spices you might want to add include cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, peppercorns, anise, or cardamom. You can also add a base of rooibos, nettles, or black tea as you prefer.
Each of these herbs, and in any combination, is warming and stimulating (gently, unless you add the black tea) and can be an excellent pick me up on a cold day when you would like something warming. They are also all helpful for regular digestion and very useful in gas and bloating. We often make a big batch and keep it in a crock pot so it stays warm and ready for any of us to dip into.
In many parts of the country you’ll see goldenrod patches signaling the coming of fall. There are many (many) different species of goldenrod, but the good news is that all of them can be used for tea. The best of them are aromatic and a bit spicy in taste and smell. When the goldenrod has just begun flowering, you’ll want to clip off the entire stem, and then cut off the bottom part where it is bug eaten or not vital looking, and then dry the rest of it. It’s easy (and pretty) to do this in a bunch. Once dried, you can garble the leaves and flowers off the stem and store them somewhere airtight.
These leaves make a wonderful tea once “sinus season” is upon us. Combining them with nettle leaves and other gentle tonic tea leaves you have gathered in the summer, like sassafras, mint, lemon balm, linden or peach leaf, you can also add in something spicy like a slice of fresh ginger when you make your tea.
Once you blend your blend, give it a try and adjust as needed, there aren’t many rules here. A blend of winter teas based around goldenrod will provide expectorant, soothing, moistening, and warming help for just about any condition of the lungs in the winter.
Just go for it!
It’s easy to get hung up on the right plants, gathering times, medicines, uses, proportions, and so many other things. But plants are easy to play with, and as long as you know what your plant is and that it is safe to consume, there are very few rules and infinite possibilities.
Of course, each of these herbs can be purchased, but it’s also possible many of them are around you already. Take the time next summer to gather some of these medicines for yourself for the winter, and to dream up new ways of using them to help support your body and your family through the winter.
And in this, you’ll dream of summer, and think of the warm day, your fingers sticky with calendula, that you gathered plants to complete the circle of caring for yourself all year long.