Herbal Infusions & Decoctions: Working with Earth and Water

The Wheel of the Seasons is turning, and we’re entering the Season of Water here in the Pacific Northwest. The light and warmth of the Sun has waned, and the plants have drawn their energy downward into their roots. The leaves are brown, the clouds and rain have turned the forests into misty, secretive cathedrals. And the rains have returned, cleansing, restoring and nourishing the life that will spring forth when the Wheel turns again. And this is the gift of Water.

In herbal practice, the water element shows up in a variety of ways. But one of the most important applications of Water is in teas and brews. This practice entails the interaction of all the elements: fire heating the water, water meeting the plant (Earth), infusion meeting the Air and warming the Heart. It’s elemental art at work.

There’s something so alluring about making beautiful teas & brews. The simplicity and tradition of the practice is so nurturing to the soul. It’s just about hot water and plants. Unlike other botanical preparations, my tea and brew-making activities are very informal and casual. I don’t like to fuss or worry about amount of this or that or exact times.

About Infusions

This is what we think of the most when we refer to tea. You heat water to nearly boiling, pour it over leaves in a teapot (I actually just use a measuring cup most often), wait and strain. Please ditch the teabags. Use loose leaves, whole leaves if possible. I really detest cut and sifted leaves and stems, and collect and dry whole leaves as much as possible. There’s nothing like watching beautifully-dried leaves and flowers unfurling in the water. How much herb for tea? I go by hefty pinches: about a pinch a cup. Again, this is a no-fuss thing for me. I leave the teaspoon measure for baking. And I like to cover the tea while it’s steeping. I never time it. You just know when it’s done.

You can also do infusions with cold water. Just don’t heat the water and let the herbs infused overnight or in the fridge. This works well with demulcent/mucilaginous herbs like slippery elm, violet leaves, marshmallow. This really helps with the burning/irritating kind of gastrointestinal upset. When you’re tummy’s too hot and dry.

About Decoctions

All you need: herbs, water, vessel. This is eleuthro root, oatstraw & rose.

They’re what are commonly referred to as brews. I have a very special vessel for brewing–a Pyrex flameware teapot.It’s a 3-cup, covered stovetop pot that’s perfect for my purposes. Decoctions basically go like this: put herbs in pot (I use a good healthy pinch per ingredient), cover with ample amount of cold water, heat on high to boiling, down to simmer for at least 30 mins.

Plant parts that are good to brew are roots, barks, seeds, dried berries–tougher materials that need more heat & time to extract. If I’m wanting a brew that has leaves, stems or flowers in it, I’ll add them in for the last 5 or so minutes of steeping. Ananda Wilson named that method an incoction. Great articulation. Brews are also good to do for mineral-rich herbs, like oatstraw, nettle, alfalfa and raspberry leaf. A long brew (several hours or overnight) really helps break down the cell walls of these plants to make the minerals more bioavailable. And syrup bases are made from extensive decoctions.

And I have to say–I really like using the crockpot for long brews. Yes, chai from scratch with your choice of medicinal herbs in it, brewing for an entire day is UNBEATABLE. In fact, I use the crockpot the most for brews than for any other purpose.

Some Thoughts on Praxis & The Water Element

Honor yourself, the water and the tea: use beautiful and quality materials. For instance, I prefer to use glass only for tea and brews. I brew with glass, stir with glass, drink from clear glass. It’s my preference, my way of connecting with the beauty of the materials and elements. I just happen to like glass over any other material (though cast iron and copper certainly have their places!). And honor your vessels and wares. My practice is to bless the tools in my medicine-making practice under the Full moon, as a way of honoring the elements. I also stir the waters in specific and intentional ways. That’s one example, you can do whatever you like. But I really encourage some kind of intentional, devotional practice. And always honor yourself by taking the time everyday to just enjoy a great cup of tea. It’s a practice of love, so practice loving yourself. Or heck, have friends over and share it with them too! Everybody loves tea time.

Also–use good, pure water. One thing I love about Olympia is our artesian well, which us residents regularly coagulate around to fill our jugs up with the best water we’ve ever tasted. Clean and pure water is so important, let’s bless it and be thankful for it.

To kick it up a little, here are some of my go-to favorites for teas & brews (and concoctions that lie somewhere in between those categories):

  • Eleuthro root, rose petals, oatstraw
  • Yerba maté & bee balm
  • Fresh tulsi & rose
  • White sage, peppermint, nettle seed
  • Nettles, rosemary, ginkgo leaves
  • Hawthorne flower, elderflower, linden flower
  • Burdock root, dandelion root, chicory root & cinnamon
  • Pedicularis chai
  • Spruce (or any conifer tips)
  • Fireweed & salmonberry leaves
  • Wildcrafted pacific willow & meadowsweet (for the achey days)
  • Hawthorne berry & rosehip chai
  • Burdock root & usnea chai
  • Any dark, earthy high-quality pu-erh. There’s just nothing like it. As well as a good Phoenix oolong. Camellia sinesis, the tea plant, is a plant that’s helped me tremendously over long bouts of illness this year. It’s a great plant for the mind.

Want to read more? Recently, New England herbalist Ananda Wilson did a great post on milk decoctions that I recommend you check out. And Brooklyn acupuncturist Karen Vaughn posted about mineral infusions and decoctions that helped me better understand how to extract minerals from my brews.

And, if you’re in Portland, please go have tea with my friend and tea monk Po Li at Heaven’s Tea, whose entire plant practice is serving high-vibration and pure teas. He’s devoted his life to practicing tea medicine.  And if you’re in Olympia, visit the best & most beautiful coffee teahouse in town, SIZIZIS.

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