Herbal Remedies

Types of Botanical Remedies

There are many ways that medicinal plants can be prepared as medicines.  They can be some work best as external preparations - like ointments and creams, and other are best as ingested medicines - like teas and tinctures.  Read on to find out about some of the most common types of herbal preparations and what you might expect to get after your consultation with a medical herbalist.



A tincture is an alcoholic extract of a plant.  Essentially, the plant material is soaked in alcohol and then the liquid is strained off for use.  The percentage of alcohol used - the  ABV or proof - varies from 25% to 90% depending upon the herb and the type of constituents to be extracted.  Tinctures are liquid preparations, and are favoured by Western herbalists for their ease of use and portability.      

Many people do not wish to take alcohol, and this is does not present a problem. Tinctures can be de-alcoholised if the patient wishes, or other preparations can be used instead.

Dried Herbs: Infusions, Decoctions, Tisanes & Teas

Dried herbs are just that  They may be leaves, flowers, roots, fruits, bark, stems, twigs, or other plant parts, chopped, sliced, or otherwise prepared.  Herbalists typically prescribe blends of dried herbs to be drunk as teas or tisanes, boiled in decoctions, used in the bath, or to be inhaled as steam for hay fever or other catarrhal conditions. 

They are a favourite way to prescribe herbs because the colours, textures, smells, flavours, and other physical properties of the plants can be appreciated by patients more readily than with other forms of medicine.  


Several different items that go under the name “oil” are used medicinally, including fixed, infused, macerated, essential and tocopherol oils.  They are usually used as ingredients in other preparations, most commonly creams and ointments, although they may make appearances in liniments, on their own, and in a few other places. 

Fixed oils are pressed from seeds, nuts, and fruits like olives and avocados. They are called fixed because they are relatively stable substances. 

Infused or macerated oils are fixed oils that have had been infused with medicinal herbs, similarly to the culinary infused oils like chili and garlic.  Like fixed oils, they are fairly stable, and the herbs often help to preserve them.  Find out more about fixed, infused and macerated oils.

Essential or volatile oils, as employed in Aromatherapy, are not oils at all, but rather the aromatic principles of plants, diverse in chemistry and medicinal properties.  Most of their constituents are very light and easily disperse into the air, making essential oils very unstable things.  They are best stored somewhere cool and dark.  Sunlight especially destroys them.

Sometimes pure vitamin E, a mixture of several tocopherols, is used by herbalists.  Very dry skin or mucous membranes are potential indications for this substance.     

Creams & Lotions

The familiar cream is actually an amazing item: it’s a mixture of oil and water.  Never let it be said that oil and water don’t mix, they most certainly do, they just need a little help.  Typically a small amount of wax is added to the oil and water components, allowing the cream to stiffen into a useable semi-solid preparation.  The oil and water ingredients can be anything - rose water and macerated oil for example, and creams are excellent vehicles for other medicinals like essential oils and aloe vera gel. 

Once the cream is made, additional water or oil can be added, changing the properties of the cream.  The advantages taken together make cream an extremely versatile preparation, suited to a virtually limitless number of ailments.  We use a lot of them. 

Broadly speaking, creams are used when tinctures are required externally, or when the condition is improved by cooling, as with eczema or sunburn.

Lotions are runny creams, made with a high water content.


As a cream is a combination of oil and water, an ointment is a combination of oil or a fat-based preparation and wax.  Essential oils and powdered dried herbs dilute well in them, and high alcohol tinctures can be beaten into them while they are still liquid.  Ointments, also called balms and salves, are typically used on conditions improved by heat, such as arthritis.


Glycerites are syrupy liquid preparations of herbs in vegetable glycerine. They are very sweet with a warm feeling in the mouth, and they may be beautifully coloured.  Because the sweetness of glycerine is not due to sugars, these preparations are well suited to diabetics and those with sensitivities to sugar.

Glycerites are prepared in one of three ways:  the herb can be soaked directly in the glycerine, the glycerine can be added to an infusion to preserve it, or it can be added to a tincture to produce cough syrups and the like.  They are common in over-the-counter herbal preparations, and because of their sweetness are often used when treating children.  

Other Preparations

Liniments are liquid preparations to be applied with friction.  Classically half oil and half alcohol, any liquids may be used in any proportions. Liniments are prescribed for conditions requiring a lot of heat, such as pulled muscles and tendonitis.

Some herbs, notably turmeric, are prescribed in capsule form.  Often, this is done because of the quantity required or a certain inconvenience, like the legendary staining powers of turmeric.  Slippery Elm is often prescribed in tablet form because the tablets are easy to chew. 

Suppositories and pessaries, for rectal and vaginal insertion respectively, are also sometimes prescribed when warranted. They are typically similar to ointments, made from oils and hardened with wax, then formed in moulds.  Suppositories are best retained when they are bullet shaped, pessaries when round. Essential oils, vitamin E oil, gels, and powdered herbs are often included in these items for soothing and anti-infective purposes.  Both pessaries and suppositories must melt at body temperature to release their botanicals, and so they are commonly very soft and should be stored in the refrigerator.  This fact, however, does not make them uncomfortable to use.

Elixirs are the syrupy results of combining alcohol, honey, and herbs.  Elixirs can also be made simply by combining tinctures and honey.  They are used as tonics for the debilitated, and as support measures for coughs, colds, weak and irritable lungs, and for many other conditions.

Oxymels are an ancient preparation consisting of vinegar, honey, and a herb.  They can be made by infusing the herb in vinegar and honey or adding honey to a herbal vinegar.  They are then very tasty diluted in water and sipped.  These are very common in home herbalism (and very popular when tasted at workshops), but less common in professional dispesanries, which is rather a shame. 

Want to know more?  Check out how to take herbal medicines, and see if any upcoming workshops, herb walks, or talks strike your fancy.