Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Herbal Potions: Unguents, and lotions, and salve, oh my!

By: Jane Bean

Fascinating mysteries start to unfold as Herbalist Jean Pollock, of New Marlboro, MA introduced us to some of her wonderful herbal beauty products, bath oils, massage oils, and health treatments from her company called Mystical Rose Herbals. Jean's devotion to her products was clear as she poured us a cup of her delicious herbal tea. The tea, called Berkshire Meadows Tea, is made from exotic sounding herbs like chamomile, hyssop, and calendula. The color is rich and the smell pungent. Adding a touch of your own sweetener is not necessary, but brings out the rich earthiness of the herbs, and warms one's body and soul with each sip. Known as Family Health Tea, it's full of vitamins and anti-oxidants, and even though Jean is not allowed to make a claim that any of her products will heal an illness or cure any medical condition, just drinking this tea seems to define "healthy".

Although you might think that the herbal potions Jean makes are steeped in mystery, with tinctures of this and oil of that, the simplicity of her products is what makes them so desirable. A salve, which is a thickened oil-based lotion, is really made from three things: olive oil, beeswax, and herbs. The herbs can be fresh or dried, but the drying process does bring out some of the stronger elements of the herb.

"In a pinch," says Jean, "you can use fresh herbs tonight to make into a salve tomorrow." Sometimes, a fresh herb like jewel weed or burdock, can actually be more potent than their dried version.

Different herbs have specific uses, while some, like Calendula, are an all-purpose herb. Some of the uses for a Calendula salve would be to treat insect bites, diaper rash, or a variety of itches. Most of the herbs are picked during the warm, dry part of a summer day, and then dried by hanging them upside down, out of the sun, so the natural oils can retreat back into the plant. After a few weeks, at the most, the herbs will be dried and ready to use. To make a salve,
the herbs, complete with leaves, stems and flowers, are placed in a clean, glass jar with a tight fitting lid, olive oil is poured over them, and the lid put on tightly. Let this infusion sit in the sun (outdoors is best so it can cool at night and warm during the day) for about two weeks. If using dried herbs the concoction can be occasionally gently shaken. If using fresh herbs, shake every day to prevent to top layer of herbs from drying out and potentially developing mildew. After two weeks, strain the oil off the herbs, squeezing the herbs well as you do so, and put into a clean jar. In a water bath, heat the oil and add beeswax to it until it melts - generally speaking the recipe is: 2 oz. herbs - 2 cups of oil - 1 oz. beeswax. Stir the warm oil as the beeswax melts. Then, before it cools, pour the oil into containers and label then immediately. You can extend the shelf life of the salve by refrigerating (or even freezing) it. The beeswax causes the salve to thicken and become firm and stiffer than just oil, but when rubbed into the skin it warms and penetrates and won’t leave an oily residue. The reason for using olive oil? It's compatible with your skin, and will penetrate into the deeper layers to provide the treatment you're seeking. Petroleum based oils will just lay on the top of your skin, providing little long term relief. A word of caution from Jean: Cleanliness is vital - make sure all the jars and containers you use are very clean, as are any strainers, spoons, etc.

The study of herbs and their usage is not for the dilettante. Herbs have been used for thousands of years to cure illnesses and soothe skin irritations; to nourish the body inside and out. Listening to, and watching, Jean Pollock as she worked her magic with herbs, one begins to understand that her devotion to herbs and their uses doesn't stop when she leaves the garden or her "office". Family, faith, and good health are all woven together in her work and life, and ultimately in the products she produces. Too numerous to mention, a list of ailments, and the herbs used to help alleviate them, are listed and discussed in great detail in Jean's catalogue. Those of us who were able to participate in the workshop with Jean will well remember the sun streaming through the window as it warmed the lovely Calendula salve we made that day. For a few hours we were taken into a world where our senses were treated with new tastes and smells and textures, and our lives were made a little richer.

A catalogue for all the products made by Jean and her Mystical Rose Herbals, can be obtained by writing to her at:
Mystical Rose Herbals
15 NM Sandisfield Road
New Marlboro, Massachusetts 01230