Medicine Making | SustenanceNW
Recording Why make medicine? Tradeoffs Making Medicines: WHOLE: poultice, ingredient, powder... EXTRACT: tea, tincture, decoction... MULTI-STEP: balm, lotion, smoke...

There are so many different ways to prepare medicines, and in this session you will get an overview of tons of them! You will get recipes for them, so you will be ready to explore whatever strikes your fancy. You may not ever prepare all of these, but it is very useful to know what your options are. We will briefly cover many of the kinds of medicines that can be made.


Why make medicine?

The simplest possible way to interact with medicinal plants is to reach down, pluck off a bit… and then either eat it or smush it up and put it on the skin. And for some things, this is the very best medicine! There is no better medicine for a beesting than a freshly chewed wad of plantain leaf. Whenever we do anything, we should be able to simply explain why we are doing it.

This is especially important with something like medicine making, where processing or lack of processing can make such a huge difference in terms of time taken, and the quality of result. Here are some of the reasons we do the work of medicine making…

To capture seasonal potency

Many important medicines have a seasonal harvest window, and are simply not available in other seasons unless we have stored them away! Flowers must be gathered when they bloom, berries when they are ripe, and roots when the energy of the plant is in them. When storing material, our primary concern is to keep the medicine in it. General rules of thumb are to avoid sunlight, and warmth - many medicines keep well simply by being dried. Some medicines, like St. John’s Wort, lost important parts of their medicine when dried and must be processed into a tincture or oil shortly after harvest.

To make it practical to use the medicine

Having dried comfrey root is great, but doesn’t do us a lot of immediate good if we have a muscle ache! If we stored all our comfrey root dry, every time we wanted to use it we’d need to brew up a decoction, which means dirty dishes and a cost of time. But if we take the time to infuse an oil, it can be used instantly when we need it! And going one step further, if we additionally melt in some beeswax and prepare a balm, that can be thrown in a little tin and taken anywhere with us, with less mess and hassle than using an oil.

We need to stay aware of how far we need to go down this road. The more frequently we could use a medicine, the more it makes sense to invest more time upfront so we have the access we need to it. But for a medicine that we may use infrequently and is fairly easy to prepare (like simmered elderberry tea), we may choose to leave that stored in bulk form untill we need it.

To make it bioavailable

Medicinal mushrooms carry most of their potency locked up in tough chitin cell walls, and they must be processed with heat in order for the medicine to be available to us.

To get it to the tissue

Many medicines need to be processed in order to have a form that lets us get them to the part of the body that needs them. For example, to treat an eye issue, we might prepare an eyewash or a compress, and for a nasal problem we would prepare a carefully filtered, sterilized infusion. The growing tips of blackberry plants have wonderful medicine, but can easily be too prickly to consume - we can get past the prickliness by making them into a tea.

To control dosage

This is especially important for medicines that are more powerful, or rare, or difficult to process, or vary widely in natural potency. If we make a batch of tincture that is big enough to last us for a year, or mix up a big blend of tea, we have a sense of how potent it is. Then we know how much of that medicine to use for as long as the batch lasts. For example, if we are using a skullcap tincture as a gentle anxiety medicine, once we have a sense for how strong our tincture is we can take a certain dose and have a predictable effect.


There is no “best” kind of medicine to make - every kind of medicinal preparation has its advantages and disadvantages. Here are some of the key tradeoffs that we make:

  • Time and mess: Making vs Using We can store dry comfrey leaves, and use them to make a poultice when needed. All we need to do is dry them (simple and not messy), but making a poultice can be a bit of a bother and mess. Alternately we can infuse an oil, then process it into a balm. That takes more time up front requires cleanup… but then when we want comfrey medicine we can open a tin and have instant, clean access to the medicine.
  • Shelf life: short and less processed versus long and more processed Some medicines can be stored for a year or more dried, but some will lose much of their potency. Most medicines are stable for years in tincture form.
  • Expense vs other factors The cheapest medicine we can make involves only the thing itself: a tea, decoction, powder, or such. If we are processing into some additional kind of medicine, we may need to buy alcohol, or oils, or glycerin, or beeswax. If we are making medicine to support a lot of people in our family or community this can add up. We should be ready to consider the other tradeoffs to wisely decide if the advantages of additional processing are worth the money. In addition, if we need money to make a medicine that typically means we are relying on an ingredient we cannot produce ourselves (high-proof alcohol, wax, glycerine, refined oils, etc), and we should understand the loss of local resilience that involves.
  • Whole medicine vs Single extraction vs Multi-extraction Extracts (such as tinctures or infusions) can be incredibly convenient, but the act of extracting does not necessarily get all the constituents out of a medicine. We can use multiple extraction techniques and mix them together to get a broader spread of constitutuents, but that requires a greater investment of time. Making bioavailable powders, capsules, or using the medicine as an ingredient in food can get the full spectrum of medicine, but can involve a shorter shelf life or more hassle.

Making Medicines

It is arbitrary, but useful to divide medicines into a few different broad categories. Remember that these distinctions are to help us make a mental map, and some medicines don’t neatly fit into a single category.

Whole medicines include every part of the original material when they are used - for example, powdering a dried herb and consuming the powder, or smashing a leaf to use as a poultice. They may have things added, like honey or vinegar, but none of the original material is discarded.

Extract medicines pull a portion of the medicine out of the material and discard the rest - for example, a cup of tea. In a tea, the water-soluble constituents comes out in the water and the dregs are discarded. Or infusing leaves into an oil, straining it off and making a balm with it.

For our purposes here, “other medicines” involve smoke and fire, or a multiple stage procecss.

Whole medicines





Pure medicines have nothing at all added, and minimal processing. These are the very most simple ways to prepare medicine.





Preserve medicines are held in a state of potency with the addition of something - salt, sugar, acid, microbes, etc.





The simplest powder medicine, dust, is also a pure medicine. The other powder medicines are various convenient ways to work up a powder.

Extract Medicines








Sweet n’ Sour





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Nothing on this site should be taken as advice for treating or diagnosing any medical condition, and is only shared for educational purposes.