The different ways of using plants in phytotherapy

The most widespread use of dried plants is in herbal teas, the grandmother's remedy par excellence. Herbal teas contain mainly the water-soluble extracts of the plant. There are 3 types of preparations to make herbal tea: infusion, decoction and maceration. All are based on the same principle: to put the plant in contact with water in order to extract its compounds. It is in practice that we will find variations between these different methods of preparation! However, herbal teas are not the only way to use plants, there are others such as maceration in oil, medicinal wines, mother tinctures etc. Each extraction process and method of use has its advantages, but also its disadvantages. The uses of plants can thus be declined to infinity!

In infusion

The infusion is the mode of use of dried plants the most known. It consists in pouring on the plant to be infused simmering water, that is to say just boiling, at a temperature of 80-90°C. Infusion is particularly suitable for fragile parts of plants, such as flowers or leaves, as well as plants rich in volatile and aromatic substances (our famous essential oils), which let's remember degrade at too high a temperature. This is why it is advisable to always cover your infusion: to preserve all the active principles.

The duration of infusion varies from 5 to 10 minutes generally, according to the plants:

  • 5 minutes will be sufficient for aromatics for example, which risk releasing bitter compounds beyond that, or flowers, which are rather fragile.
  • 10 minutes will be necessary for other parts of the plant such as some leaves.

The duration of infusion depends on the taste of each one also, according to whether one prefers a powerful or rather soft taste. Last advice: when filtering, don't forget to press the plant well, in order to recover all the active principles.

For purists, there is another form of preparation to make a good infusion. The principle remains the same, but here it involves putting the plants in cold water, then heating gently and stopping the heat before boiling. This form gently rehydrates the plant without assaulting it, as one would do by pouring hot water directly on it.

In decoction

The decoction is the mode of preparation to be preferred for the more rigid and fibrous parts of the plant such as the roots, some seeds or even the bark. The principle changes slightly from infusion: it consists of putting the plants in a pan of cold water, heating very gently until boiling, letting it boil for the time indicated, then cutting the heat and letting it infuse covered. Finally, strain while squeezing the pomace, then drink.

The duration of decoction will depend on the part of the plant used:

  • for stems, fruits or tough leaves: 2 to 3 minutes will be necessary
  • for tougher parts such as roots, rhizomes and bark: 5 minutes are required

In cold maceration

Cold maceration is also called cold infusion. The principle is simple, it consists of leaving the plants in contact with cold water for 10 hours to 12 hours covered, then filtering by pressing the pomace. Be careful, as water is a very bad preservative, you should not let the plants macerate for more than 10 hours at the risk of fermentation, and consume the liquid within 24 hours to avoid any risk of microbial development.

Cold maceration can be done on most plants, but is particularly suited to plants rich in mucilage, such as Marshmallow, Gentian, Licorice or even Mallow, as well as plants containing thermolabile compounds, sensitive to heat.
Maceration can also take place in vegetable oil, often olive or sunflower, to obtain the famous oily macerates. These can be endlessly declined, by varying the oil of maceration used. It is best to use a stable macerating oil to preserve it as long as possible. The principle remains more or less the same, but the plants are macerated for several weeks this time, in the sun. The oil is then filtered, and the plants are pressed to recover all the active principles.

In wines and medicinal spirits

Medicinal plants lend themselves perfectly to the pleasure of a good digestive after the meal, and even before to anticipate. Indeed, they can be macerated in a wine or strong alcohol to make a medicinal wine or alcohol. These are mostly used for their digestive properties. It is known today that our digestive system is our "second brain", with its 200 million neurons and billions of bacteria that make up the intestinal flora. A direct link is made between certain diseases and our intestinal microbiota. Digestive problems are frequent nowadays, and in parallel with a healthy and balanced diet, medicinal wines and spirits can be of good support.

To make a medicinal wine or elixir, the principle is relatively simple, it is nothing more nor less than a maceration in alcohol :

  • weigh the plant to be macerated and put it in a large jar
  • cover with white or red wine or strong alcohol (rum, vodka, etc.). Make sure that the plant is well covered with alcohol. Uncoated plant parts may oxidize. It is possible to create a natural ballast with a pebble for example to maintain them at the bottom of the jar.
  • close the jar and leave to macerate for 1 to 4 weeks depending on the plant, stirring the jar every day
  • filter, press the marc and transfer it into sterilized bottles.
  • it is possible to add a sweetening substance (unrefined) according to taste, but this remains optional.

If quality water is necessary to make a good herbal tea, the same is true for the wine used in medicinal wines. In fact, for optimal extraction of the plant compounds, a high alcohol content should be preferred. The average alcohol content of a wine is 12%. Thus, the trick is to add strong alcohol to the mixture to be macerated to promote a better extraction rate. The choice of wine is therefore important: it must be of good quality of course, it must be pleasing to the taste, but it must also contain a high level of alcohol, and if possible it must not have too much tannin, which could cause undesirable effects such as drying the mouth, modifying intestinal absorption or interacting with certain plant compounds.

Regarding the doses, it can vary between a tablespoon and a small glass of liquor, as an aperitif or digestive, and of course, always in moderation! Medicinal wines can be kept in a cool place, up to 6 months, and elixirs several years.

In mother tincture

Mother tinctures are obtained by maceration of fresh plants in alcohol, or a mixture of alcohol and water, allowing extraction of the active ingredients. This is also referred to as a hydroalcoholic extract or alcoholature. The maceration of dry plants in alcohol, less common, is by abuse of language often considered a mother tincture as well, but purists will rather speak of officinal tincture.

The principle remains the same between the two types of tinctures: it is to macerate a certain amount of plant in alcohol.This must be as pure as possible, preferably between 60 and 90 °, but as it is difficult to obtain such alcohols today, it is preferable to use a strong alcohol titrating at 45-50 °.

For a perfect realization of an alcoholature, it is necessary to know the rate of moisture of the fresh plants. Indeed, the moisture content will impact the quality of the mother tincture since the water contained in the plant will be extracted by the alcohol and change the alcoholic degree. In the laboratory, the moisture content is evaluated by weighing the plant before and after dehydration. According to the French pharmacopoeia, the alcoholic strength is 1/10th of the dry weight of the plant used. Thus, 10 parts of alcohol will be necessary for one part of plant. For dry plants, the officinal tincture is prepared at 1/5th of the dry plant weight.

The duration of maceration depends on the plant, it can be from a few days to a few weeks. For a good maceration, it is necessary :

  • use an airtight jar, to be kept away from light.
  • cut the plant (fresh or dry), or even reduce it to a powder to promote a larger contact surface between the alcohol and the plant.
  • cover the plant completely to avoid any oxidation phenomenon.
  • weight the plant with a smaller jar or a clean stone to keep it at the bottom.
  • Stir the jar regularly to promote the good diffusion of the active ingredients.
  • when the maceration is finished, filter the mixture and press the plant to recover all the active principles.

In fluid extract

Fluid extracts, unlike mother tinctures, are obtained by maceration of fresh plants, or crushed parts of fresh plants, in a solvent other than alcohol. Extraction of the active substances from plants is usually done in a water or glycerin based solvent.

Fluid (liquid) extracts are frequently found in commerce, but there are also soft (semi-solid) or dry (solid) extracts. The latter two forms are derived from the former: once the fluid extract is obtained, the solvent is then partially or completely removed. Different methods are used to remove this liquid: freeze-drying or nebulization.

In sugar

Unlike the mother tincture and the fluid extract, the juice is not derived from a maceration of the plant. It is not diluted in a solvent and contains only the juice of the plant.

To extract it, the freshly harvested plant is piled or pressed and then filtered. For some plants, it is sometimes necessary to cook them before being able to proceed to the extraction of the juice. Depending on the plant chosen, the juice can be consumed for internal or external use.

Coming directly from the plant, the conservation of the bag is relatively delicate. It is because it is difficult to keep its freshness that it can be complicated to find this type of preparation in the trade.

In powder form

The plant powders are particularly suitable for very fibrous plants to facilitate their infusion, but also for plants rich in minerals such as Nettle. The powder form has a dual interest: it allows on the one hand a better digestion and on the other a better absorption at the level of the digestive mucosa.

The pulverization of plants is mainly used to prepare capsules or tablets, but the powders can also simply be mixed with cold or hot water, or integrated into the food.

The two main disadvantages of pulverization are the risk of deterioration of the active principles at the time of grinding, and the risks of oxidation, in particular for the aromatic plants. Powders are therefore more sensitive and less stable over time than whole plants. Thus, it is advised to pulverize the plant just before using it, or to prepare it in small quantities to avoid having to store it.

In compress or poultice

Pads and poultices are particularly suitable for skin problems, sprains, fractures or muscle and joint pain. They are single use and should not be reused.

The compress: here the infusion or decoction of the plant is used to soak a clean compress or cloth, to be applied to the skin. Maintain the compress with a bandage, and leave in place for about twenty minutes, to be renewed after a few hours.

The poultice: the plant is here applied directly to the skin if it is fine enough (the leaves or flowers for example). Otherwise, it is possible to heat them in water to soften them and crush them gently to extract the active principles. Just like the compresses, you have to leave them on for about twenty minutes, and renew them after a few hours.

In lotion

Lotions are made from infusion, decoction or sometimes mother tincture diluted in water. These preparations can be used in lotion by cutaneous way, in friction directly on the skin of the body or face. The lotion is used to soothe skin disorders or joint or muscle pain.

Lotions made from an infusion or decoction can be used as collyrs or eye baths. To do this, the preparation must be properly filtered using a coffee filter to remove all impurities and thus avoid irritating the eye. This method of use is going to be useful to relieve irritated eyes or conjunctivitis thanks to the use of plants such as Chamomile Matricaria, Rose or even Sweet Woodruff.

In gargle

Mouthwash and gargle are two very similar methods for relieving oral-pharyngeal ailments. The preferred herbs have astringent or antiseptic properties, to tighten tissues while disinfecting them.

Mouthwash relieves oral disorders by absorbing, without swallowing, a sip of cooled infusion or decoction. The preparation is stirred inside the mouth so that it is in contact with all the mucous membranes. One then spits the mouthwash before repeating if necessary.

The gargle will target the throat, not the inside of the mouth. To do this, simply scrape the back of the throat with a little infusion or decoction, the famous "grrrrr", as long as possible before spitting. This operation should be carried out for 5 to 10 minutes.

In the bath

Baths can relieve many problems, whether they are skin, circulatory, muscular, joint or nervous.

The aromatic bath: here we use an infusion or decoction of the plant in 1 or even 2 liters of water, to be left to cool or cool down. This preparation will then be added to the bath water. Another fun way is to hang a cloth bag containing the dried plants under the hot water tap. The infusion will take place during the bath. It is possible to squeeze the bag regularly to facilitate the extraction of the active ingredients. Generally, you stay in the bath for at least ten minutes.

The sitz bath: for this type of bath we make an infusion or decoction of the plant also 1 or 2 liters of water. It is often necessary to add water to the preparation to obtain a sufficient volume. It is possible to let the water of the sitz bath cool or warm. It can be done hot or cold. A hot or cold sitz bath can be used, often preferred in case of hemorrhoids. It is recommended to stay approximately 5 to 15 minutes in the sitz bath and to renew the operation 1 to 2 times per day if necessary.


Herbal inhalation is ideal and effective for clearing the airways in cases of congestion or to relieve respiratory ailments. This is usually accomplished by using expectorant and mucolytic plants such as Eucalyptus.

To make an inhalation, it is necessary to carry out 1 liter of infusion or hot decoction which one places in a bowl to inhale or a salad bowl. Then you just have to stand over the container, covering your head with a towel, and breathe in the rising vapors. Be careful not to burn your airways! It may sometimes be necessary to wait a few minutes for the temperature of the water to decrease. Your nose may tend to run, so don't hesitate to blow your nose.

The inhalation lasts as long as the preparation is hot, about 10 minutes. It is of course possible to repeat the operation if necessary.

Tea and herbal tea infuser

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