A Guide to Herbal Teas, Infusions, and Decoctions

by Emily Light

Herbal teas are one of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to support your body and warm up in cold weather. As you prepare your herbal remedy, your energy and intention will be incorporated into the medicine; being a part of this process creates a highly therapeutic product.

A few different methods (tea, infusion, and decoction) can be used to make water extractions of herbs. These methods differ according to the part of the plant used and the length of steeping time. Leaves, flowers, and seeds require a shorter steep, while roots and barks need a longer one. Herbs contain a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, as well as other beneficial compounds. The appropriate steeping time ensures adequate extraction of herbal constituents.

There are a few things you can do to help create the perfect herbal water extraction.
1. If using chlorinated or unfiltered water, boil it for ten minutes to help reduce impurities. Boiling the water in a non-metallic pot is ideal to prevent leaching. (Aluminum pots are the worst in this respect.)
2. Make sure to always cover the jar you use for steeping to prevent compounds from escaping in the steam or reacting with oxygen.
3. To strain your preparation, use a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth.
4. Herbal water extractions should be stored in the refrigerator and consumed within 24-48 hours.
5. Last but certainly not least, be sure to delight in Mother Nature’s gift of nourishment while enjoying your extraction.

Teas
Of the extraction methods, tea is most expedient, requiring a steeping time of 10 to 20 minutes. The herb-to-water ratio when preparing tea is one tablespoon dried herb to one cup of water. (If you’re using fresh herbs, double the amount.) Herbs rich in volatile oils like peppermint and sage as well as delicate flowers such as chamomile and calendula are the best choices for this short-steep extraction method.

Infusions
The infusion method of water extraction is useful for seeds, flowers, leaves, and stems. Seeds should be steeped for 30 minutes with an herb-to-water ratio of one tablespoon seeds to one cup of water. Leaves and heartier flowers like hibiscus should steep for four hours.

Decoctions
Roots such as ginger and barks like pau d’arco are very dense. Therefore, they require the decoction method of water extraction, which calls for eight hours of steeping time.
Although water extraction methods typically need hot water, some plants are better suited to cold water. These include herbs like marshmallow root and slippery elm bark that are rich in mucilage. Cold water can be used in infusions and decoctions but is not appropriate for the tea method of extraction.

Once you know how to properly prepare water extractions, the possibilities are endless in terms of all the different herbal remedies you can make. No matter what result you’re hoping for, there is probably an herb that can help you achieve it. The following is a list of some of my favorite extractions.

Astragalus root helps to strengthen many body systems, including the immune, respiratory, and digestive systems. It aids in building resistance to infection and increasing vigor. Astragalus root can be taken as a daily tonic and should be decocted for eight hours.

Oatstraw is a superb nervous system and adrenal tonic. It supports the body by providing essential vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins and substantial amounts of calcium and magnesium. When consumed on a regular basis, oatstraw can help reverse the effects of adrenal fatigue and nervous system exhaustion. It should be infused for four hours.

Blackberry leaf is a time-tested remedy. For many years parents have relied on the astringent qualities of these leaves to help diminish their children’s diarrhea. Tannin is the constituent responsible for the leaf’s astringent action; the longer the leaves are steeped, the more tannins will be present in the extraction. To provide fast relief, make a batch of tea by steeping the leaves for 20 minutes and administer immediately. In the meantime, prepare an infusion for later, letting the leaves steep for four hours.
Two parts of the dandelion plant are used in herbal medicine. The leaves are an ideal diuretic in that they are very effective but also replenish the body’s store of potassium, an electrolyte commonly depleted by diuretics. Dandelion root is used as a bitter digestive aid because it stimulates bile production. It also supports liver and spleen function. Dandelion leaves should be infused for four hours while the root should be decocted for eight.

Peppermint leaf is a premier digestive aid that’s quite useful in addressing gastrointestinal conditions like indigestion, flatulence, cramping, and constipation. Peppermint leaf is also a circulatory stimulant. Because of its many wonderful properties, peppermint leaf is the third-most widely consumed tea in the world! It can be steeped for anywhere from ten minutes to four hours.

These are but a few of the hundreds of options for medicinal herbal water extractions. Try some of these but also feel free to experiment! As with any medicine, always check with your doctor or practioner before using herbal remedies.

For more information:
The Herbal Medicine-Makers Handbook by James Green
The Way of Herbs by Michael Tierra, L.Ac, O.M.D.
Healing Wise by Susun Weed
Emily Light is an herbalist and yoga instructor living in Portland, OR.