Potions and Tonics

A DIY guide to healing tinctures.

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I had a great-aunt named Lannie who made teas, poultices, and tinctures to treat her family. They were poor and living in the Appalachian Mountains and couldn't afford visits to the doctor unless it was a life-or-death emergency, and not always even then. So when my mom or one of her many siblings fell ill, my grandmother would write down the symptoms on a paper bag and send a healthy kid up to see Lannie. Lannie would go into her big barn, stocked with dried herbs and jars of roots that she'd grown and harvested herself, and select things she thought would help. She'd write down the instructions on the bag — what should be steeped and what should go under the bed for luck — and send the carefully bundled package with its courier to be delivered back to my grandmother. I first learned about Lannie after I asked my mother if I could use part of her big Virginia yard to grow some lemon balm and yarrow. "Just like Lannie," she said, her voice colored with the happiness that comes with seeing part of your own historical memory manifest in someone else. I'd been dabbling in tonics and herbs for the last few years, both as a way to formulate my own definition of wellness, and as an alternative treatment for the anxiety and stress that I've been experiencing in recent years in response to the heightening stakes and crises in the world. Nearly everything I've learned is self-taught, which is another way of saying — I'm no expert. I've taken a few herbalism classes, read a lot of books, and watched many traditional healers at work, but I still encourage everyone to interrogate and investigate remedies and tonics that appeal to them, rather than taking my word for it. The biggest lesson I've learned about herbal and holistic treatments and remedies is that some work for you and some won't. Every body is different, and we have to experiment with our own to figure out what we respond to and what we don't. But above all, this is meant to be fun and empowering and invigorating. All that said, here are a few of my favorite recipes, to treat, to heal, and to help you deal.

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Late Nite Lemon Balm

I first tried lemon balm by adding some dried leaves that my mom grew to hot toddies. I liked the flavor, but noticed that afterward, I slept deep, deeper than I have in a long, long time. I finally looked it up in my herb encyclopedia and was pleased to find out that it's known to reduce anxiety and has a calming effect, making it ideal for a bedtime tonic. You can buy it online or find it in most health-food stores. Despite the name, it's a leafy bush and a member of the mint family, and is sometime listed as "Melissa." I like steeping a crushed handful in a large cup of just boiled water. I usually add some peppercorns for spice and an extra immunity boost — peppercorns are an Ayurvedic treatment for coughs and sore throats — and then I like to stir in some honey and some fresh sweet citrus (like kumquat or blood orange) to even out the taste. You can add a dash of bourbon if you like a little whiskey with your tea, like me and Beyoncé's dad. It's a lovely tonic to sip before bed, when you're trying to decompress from the day and transition into a state conducive to a restful night's sleep.

Power Up Tonic

Over the summer, I became obsessed with rose hips. They're hard little fruits on wild rose bushes that grow in sandy areas, like beaches and dunes, and I first encountered them in gorgeous full bloom in the wild during a trip to Cape Cod. They're dense with vitamin C, making them extremely ideal as a preventive measure against winter colds. Plus, vitamin C is thought to reduce skin dryness, which is ideal for my entire aesthetic as well as for the cooler months. I collected mine in Cape Cod earlier this summer, but you can buy them in bulk online or find them at most tea and spice shops. Steep them like any other tea, and a good ratio to follow is one teaspoon per cup of water. You can drink it hot or iced. It's a sour-ish drink, with notes similar to hibiscus, so be sure to add a sweetener and fresh lemon for additional immunity.

Ginger 'Tussin

Ginger is my 'tussin — whenever I feel a cold coming on, or get queasy from menstrual cramps, or have an upset stomach from a bout of anxiety or depression, I haul out my big soup pot and make a batch of ginger tonic. It's the most restorative and healing thing I drink on a regular basis. Take two large ginger-root systems (grab a couple of palmfuls, and get organic if you can swing it). Peel and chop them and throw them in a soup pot. Add enough water to cover, plus a little more, and set to a low boil. Add a cinnamon stick, or some anise pods if you have any lying around. Cardamom pods work well here too. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes, until the liquid turns dark amber, and then allow to cool. Strain the ginger and various twigs, and discard the solids. Add a little raw honey or maple sugar to taste. Pour into mugs on a cold night. I keep a few jars of this in my fridge and have a couple of teaspoons every morning and at night until it's finished.

Jenna lives in Brooklyn, and you can follow along with her herbtastic voyage by subscribing to her TinyLetter.

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