Herbal Medicine Making

In an introductory course lead by Melissa Soto of Cutting Root Farm and Apothecary and hosted by the Garfield Community Farm, participants learned how to extract the medicinal supplements of plants through mediums like syrup, honey, alcohol, oils/salves, and teas.

Jar of plucked staghorn sumac berries.

For the purpose of the course, we prepared medicine from the fruit of Rhus typhina, commonly known as staghorn sumac, which is easily identified by its bright red and fuzzy, cone-shaped clusters of fruit. The staghorn sumac is fairly common across the south, northeast, and midwestern terrain. The fruit is high in Vitamin C, and is reported to promote healing and protection from colds, sore throat, diarrhea, and scurvy. Indigenous peoples crushed the fruit to make a sour drink reminiscent to lemonade–if one chooses to extract the plant’s medicine this way, be sure to use cold water as hot water will break down the Vitamin C compounds.

To create our syrup infusion, we followed the folk method: simply fill a jar with the berries and cover completely with honey, leaving about an inch of space at the top. Do not lid the jar; instead, cover the opening with a coffee filter or cloth that will allow water vapor to escape the jar as the honey cures for six weeks. If honey is unavailable or an infused syrup is needed for immediate use, a 1:1 ratio of tea to honey/sugar can be used. If stored properly in a cool space with minimal sunlight or refrigerated, the syrup can last up to about a year. 

Michelle pouring honey over a jar of plucked berries.

Similarly, if one would like to create another type of infusion such as a tincture or salve, the method remains relatively the same: fill a jar with fresh or dried leaves/flowers/berries, bark, or root, and cover completely in alcohol/vinegar (tincture) or oil (salve).

It is important to understand that modern medicine is established upon the framework of traditional medicine systems practiced by indigenous peoples across the globe. Among the indigenous populations of North America and the descendants of enslaved Africans in the United States, there is a historical precedent for reliance upon traditional systems of medicine. Strengthened by their stay and work with the land, these communities developed sophisticated understandings of the plant life around them and transferred that knowledge to incoming generations. Yet, due to the forced exodus of these communities via land dispossession and the search for asylum in the urban North, knowledge transmission and access to plant medicine was disrupted.

There is strong potential for the crossroads of herbal medicine and vacant land activation to support the social, emotional, spiritual, mental, and physiological health of under-resourced communities. Rebuilding a knowledge base of plant identification and uses, especially within parcels of vacant land, transforms the green life within those spaces from obstacle to opportunity.

From left to right: AJ (Garfield Community Farm), Jahqwahn (Grounded), Michelle (Cutting Root). Jahqwahn is holding a vial of “That Gurl”, a mixture of yarrow, hibiscus, and echinacea honey infusions. Benefits include immune-boosting, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammation, and improved blood circulation.


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