This article is part of the series “Basic Recipes for Kitchen Witches,” which is in response to students’ requests for me to post recipes online. The goal of these articles is to give you the how-to-ness, the essential mechanics of creation, as a basis for your own future creativity. You can let your little light shine all on your own from there.
Honey-based herbal preparations have become extremely well-known, especially as remedies for colds, and have both a long legacy of traditional use and a strong backing in modern scientific research. Honey is a perfect vehicle for herbal remedies because it is medicinal in and of itself, so used appropriately it can really enhance the effectiveness of your medicine. Honey is probably best-known among our families for its soothing properties to sore throats (and deliciousness), but it has several other well-demonstrated medicinal properties that make it a very useful base for other kinds of herbal formulas.
Any honey you use for medicine should be raw because pasteurization kills the probiotic critters and denatures many of the proteins that give honey its strength; I strongly recommend using local honey exclusively so that the trace amounts of pollen reflect the plants found in your bioregion. My personal favorite is wildflower honey, which is dark and rich with all the wild plant magic, but clover or tupelo or whatever is made in your area will do just fine as long as its raw.
Nutritive Raw honey is a probiotic nutritive, containing vitamins, minerals, amino acids, bioavailable enzymes that aid digestion, and healthy bacteria that enhance the function of many body systems including skin, digestion, immunity, blood clotting, cholesterol and hormone metabolism, etc. (Maybe someday I’ll write a treatise on the awesomeness of probiotics, but today is not that day. Let’s leave it here and you can look it up elsewhere if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) These nutritive aspects of honey are anabolic, meaning honey builds the body’s reserves of strength and nutrition, enhancing overall structure and function. Honey is especially appropriate for folks who tend towards deficiency, are chronically frazzled or worn out (think “vata” or “air” deficiency if you think in those terms).
Allergies & Immunity Raw honey has a very well-known use as a tonic against seasonal allergies (something you take for a long time to reduce a chronic problem) in a dose like 1-2 tablespoons every day–such hardship–or as part of a formula. This probably has to do with its probiotic content and its soothing, anti-inflammatory properties, because promoting healthy immune function reduces inappropriate immune responses such as allergies. Also, local honey contains trace amounts of local pollen, and research suggests desensitization plays an important role in mediating the allergic response. Honey is less well-known but just as effective as a tonic base for remedies against inflammatory responses that manifest themselves in the digestive tract, like IBS and food sensitivity flare-ups, again because of its probiotic content and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as vulnerary (skin healing) effect on chronic irritation in the digestive tract. I give my clients with Inflammatory Bowel Disease honey-based formulas as part of their regimen because the honey itself has such a soothing, healing affinity for that chronic inflammation.
Wounds & Ulcers Raw honey is antibacterial, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, and vulnerary, which certainly makes it effective against sore throats. These same properties make honey an extremely effective base for wound dressings, especially combined with a nice antibacterial herb like Echinacea or Oregon grape root. Honey dries out gooey wounds and promotes tissue healing (granulation). Interestingly, large research hospitals are now regularly using honey-based wound dressings for patients with severe burns or pressure ulcers, as research indicates that honey dressings may lessen both pain and tissue death associated with burns and deep tissue wounds. There is also very promising research on using honey as a remedy for chronic stomach ulcers caused by the bacteria H. pylori, most likely due to these same properties.
Electuary Electuaries are medicines that make it easier to take other medicines. This might not sound very important, but getting herbs into a kid (or an adult, for that matter) is an awful lot harder if it tastes gross or is really unpleasant in some way. I have taste buds of steel after years of taking kava kava straight from the tincture bottle, but there are many folks out there who can’t handle the weird numbing properties of Echinacea or the gym sock bouquet of fresh valerian, and to these folks I say: adding a little honey to it makes the medicine go down (sugar is bad for your immune system).
Making Medicine with Honey
Wiggle Room Obviously, you can just eat some honey, or add it to tea. Thing is, by making a honey-based formula you can enhance the medicinal aspects of both the honey and the herbs into something more medicinally complex than each would be alone (this property is called synergy). Making honey remedies is easy, fun, kid-friendly, and leaves a ton of space for creative kitchen witching. The only thing you can really screw up with it is overheating your honey, so let’s start there: don’t overheat your honey. It should be raw for the aforementioned reasons. Beyond that, you can do no wrong. The most popular honey preparations are infused honey, syrup, and elixir, but there are lots of other creative things to make. Make pills and refrigerate them, use it in baking, put some in a salve or a facial mask, use an elixir as a mixer for cocktails–whatever your little heart desires.
Choosing Herbs If you feel inclined, you can just throw some random herbs into the double boiler and see what bubbles out, but most likely you’re trying to make something specific. Choose herbs that share something medicinally or work well together towards your goal (see recipe below for an example). Honey extracts water-soluble compounds; if you want medicine that is best extracted by alcohol, use the appropriate tincture in a syrup or elixir (more info about solubility here) In terms of energetics, balanced formulas restore us to balance; more about this in a future article, but for the time being focus on not making formulas that are overly drying, heating, cooling, etc.
Infused Honey for Winter Colds
An infused honey is honey that has been slow-cooked on a very low heat for a long time with herbs. You can take it as medicine from a spoon, add it to tea or tincture to enhance medicines or make them easier to take, or make it into little honey pills (Paul Bergner has a great recipe for this on his website). Infused honey is the easiest honey preparation to make.
You will need raw local honey, and 1 Tablespoon each of dried (or 2 Tablespoons fresh):
- Hyssop above ground parts
- Cherry bark
- Elder flower
- Boil water in the bottom of a double boiler
- Measure 6 oz raw honey in a measuring cup and add it to the top of the double boiler
- Add herbs to honey and stir well. Use 2 TBSP of finely chopped dried herbs or 4 TBSP finely chopped fresh herbs per 6 oz of honey. This is flexible and should be adjusted to taste.
- Cover and heat honey and herbs over low heat for at least 1 hour. Do not allow temperature to rise above 110 degrees. I usually keep my honey a lot lower than that and infuse it longer: I go for baby-bottle warm to be safe, and I usually infuse it all afternoon, but this isn’t strictly necessary. The longer you heat the honey for, the stronger it will be. The honey will taste strongly of the herbs when it is done, and it should be fragrant.
- Pour honey through fine strainer or cheesecloth into clean, dry, warm jar. It’s very important for jars to be warm: COLD JARS EXPOLDE! If plant matter falls through, try pouring it back and forth several times between jars, or use a coffee filter (but this takes forever).
- Plant matter (marc) goes in the compost, or give it to your chickens!
Elixir for Winter Colds
An elixir is mostly water (infusion/decoction), with a little tincture and a little honey. Sharol Tilgner calls it a “sweet alcoholic tea.” The real difference between an elixir and a syrup is the proportions. Elixirs are tasty and easy to take, but much less potent than tinctures and syrups. Also, you need to keep them in the fridge since they’ve got a bunch of water in them–put them in a pretty glass bottle and feel like a classy broad when you pull it out for your people.
You will need raw local honey and:
- Hyssop above ground parts, 1 Tablespoon dried or 2 T fresh
- Cherry bark, 1 T dried or 2 T fresh
- Elderberry, 1 T dried or 2 T fresh
- Elder flower, 1 T dried or 2 T fresh
- Cherry bark tincture, 1 oz
- Elderberry tincture, 1 oz
- Start an infused honey, steps 1-4, using 1 Tablespoon each of elderberry and cherry bark and 4 oz honey
- As honey is infusing, make an infusion of 6 oz of water with 1 T each of hyssop and elderflower. If you have more of the other herbs than you have of these two, you can decoct those instead, adding 2 oz for evaporation. Overall you want about 1.5 times the volume of water as honey, using 2 TBSP dried or 4 TBSP fresh herb per 6 oz water, adjusted for taste. Use infusions for delicate plant parts like leaves and flowers; use a decoction for denser, tougher plant parts like roots and seeds. Be careful not to burn decoctions: you’ll have to start over!
- Combine tincture and honey and strain (infused honey step 5). Do not add tincture until you’re ready to strain because the heat may evaporate some of the alcohol. Adding tincture before straining makes the straining and mixing easier.
- Combine honey-tincture mixture and strained infusion and taste. You should have roughly equal volumes of honey-alcohol mix and infusion, and it should be delicious.
Syrup for Winter Colds
Syrups contain water (infusion/decoction), tincture and infused honey in close to equal parts. This yields a delicious medicine that is easy to take, potent, and combines both alcohol and water-soluble plant compounds. It doesn’t need to be refrigerated and tastes like medicinal candy. Syrups are one of my favorite things to make and I have a full apothecary of them, they’re so effective and tasty and useful and fabulous.
You will need:
- Hyssop above ground parts, 2 Tablespoons dried or 4 T fresh
- Cherry bark, 1 T dried or 2 T fresh
- Elderberry, 1 T dried or 2 T fresh
- Elder flower, 2 T dried or 4 T fresh
- Cherry bark tincture, 1.5 oz made with 75% to 95% alcohol or 3 oz made with 50% to 75% alcohol
- Elderberry tincture, 1.5 oz made with 75% to 95% alcohol or 3 oz made with 50% to 75% alcohol
- Start an infused honey, steps 1-4, using 1 Tablespoon of each of the above dried herbs and 6 oz honey
- As honey is infusing, make an infusion of 6 oz water with 1 Tablespoon each of hyssop & elderflower. If you have more of the other herbs than you have of these two, you can decoct those instead, adding 2 oz for evaporation. Overall you want equal parts water and honey, using 2 TBSP dried or 4 TBSP fresh herb per 6 oz water, adjusted for taste. Use infusions for delicate plant parts like leaves and flowers; use a decoction for denser, tougher plant parts like roots and seeds. Be careful not to burn decoctions: you’ll have to start over!
- Strain honey and infusion together into a large jar and pour back and forth several times between 2 jars or a jar and a bowl, using the strainer. This mixes it thoroughly and gets out more plant matter.
- Add your tinctures. Use half to equal volume of tincture as you used as honey, depending on alcohol proof, as listed in ingredients. This can be adjusted to taste but syrups should taste like they have alcohol in them.
Some Notes If you don’t want to give that much alcohol to your child, add the dose to boiling water and let it cool immediately before giving it to them—this will evaporate off some of the alcohol, while leaving the medicinal compounds behind. Please take the time to infuse your honey before adding it to your syrups or elixirs, it really makes the medicine much more effective and it’s easy to do. By the same token, use tinctures in your syrups and elixirs, not plain alcohol: the only reason to use plain alcohol is as a preservative, but when you add tinctures you get stronger medicine that contains both alcohol and water soluble compounds (more here).
Note on dogma in herbalism: there are many different recipes and definitions of syrups & elixirs, and this is another. I’ve heard some folks say with certainty that a syrup is anything added to honey, others say an elixir cannot contain water, or not to use tinctures in elixirs; I personally disagree with these ideas because of my training and the practices of the herbalists I look up to, but if that works for your lineage then go for it. There is no right or wrong to this, it is each herbalist’s preference. I am sharing my recipes that I have found effective and replicable in the hopes that you will use them as a starting place to develop your own recipes. Make it up as you go along and see what you come up with–as long as the honey stays raw, people. Let me know how it goes, I love hearing from you.