So, how do you start an apothecary?
As a child, the word “apothecary” conjured up exciting images.
They were that of a rustic wooden room filled with mysterious herbs in glass jars; magic dust floating past my nose; pestles, mortars, and bowls; and a faint beautiful tune coming from no one knows where.
That was when I was little.
Today, many years and adulthood later, not much has changed. Of course, the interest in that kind of childhood fantasy has waned, but the rest remain the same. That is, I still love the jars and herbs and that rustic room.
The bottom line is that apothecaries can be fun if you have the interest and the drive.
You Will Need Herbs
An apothecary without herbs is simply a room, and that’s no fun.
It’s best to start with something familiar. Or, if you have heard or read about others that tickle your fancy, bring them into the fold too.
Herbs for Medicinal Usage
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that there are over 50,000 medicinal plants globally. So, listing all the herbs and their medicinal properties is improbable.
However, there are a few common herbs that you can use to start an apothecary. Here are 15 of them.
- Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) – This one’s high on versatility. Ashwagandha can improve the immune system, relieve pain, and has a calming effect on the body.
- Calendula (Calendula officinalis) – This herb is excellent for spasms, especially menstrual cramps, and can be used in salves to treat wounds and bruises.
- Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) – Chamomile is the closest to a “super herb” and is widely used in the US to treat anxiety. In Europe, it is a popular anti-inflammatory. This herb can also treat skin irritation and control vomiting caused by cancer treatments. And yes, chamomile is approved by the FDA!
- Dandelion (Taraxacum) – The root of the dandelion flower is known to be a powerful detoxifying agent that can flush out toxins and excess water from the body.
- Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) – This herb is widely used to treat flu, cold, and wound infections. It may also be beneficial for lung infections.
- Elderberries (Sambucus) – These are great for the immune system and effective against colds and infections, and for recovering patients.
- Gingko (Ginkgo biloba) – This herb is popular in Chinese medicine. It may have the ability to improve brain health and control Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Gingko may also improve bone strength and diabetes, though research is limited on these claims.
- Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) – Goldenseal has anti-septic properties and can treat skin irritation. It is also used to treat diarrhea.
- Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) – Lavender leaves and flowers can soothe muscle spasms and also act as an anti-depressant. Its essential oil can treat wounds as well as headaches and tension.
- Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) – Lemon balm offers anti-bacterial and anti-spasmodic properties and is an excellent sedative. The leaves, in particular, have a pleasant scent that can relieve tension.
- Mint (Mentha) – Mint leaves are used in tea as a stimulant, and they are also a useful treatment for indigestion, headaches, and colds.
- Nettle (Urtica dioica) – This herb is potent against colds and illnesses and also provides valuable vitamins to the body.
- Sage (Salvia officinalis) – Sage tea can treat throat and skin infections and may help to control Alzheimer’s disease
- Turmeric (Curcuma longa) – Turmeric root contains an antioxidant compound called curcumin that helps fight inflammation. Besides, it improves our immune system and is an effective detoxifying agent.
- Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) – Valerian may help to treat insomnia and reduce stress.
Collecting these and other herbs is the first step. But, for all the mystery and lore associated with them, herbs are not immortal. It is imperative to store them in a way that they don’t lose their potency.
How to store your herbs
There are a few rules that you must abide by if you want your herbs to retain their kick.
1. Store the herbs in a place where sunlight does not reach them, or else they may lose their essence and adopt an unrecognizable color. A dark place such as a basement is preferable.
2. Sunlight threat notwithstanding, moisture is indisputably the number one villain of dried herbs. Moisture causes herbs to form mildew and mold and a musty smell that is not one bit attractive. So, the ideal place to store them must be dark and with no moisture at all.
3. Number three is oxygen. It may be good for us, but for herbs, it signals death. Oxygen breaks down the herbs over time. So, store them in air-tight glass containers.
4. Finally, label your glass jars. Don’t overestimate your sense of smell; you are a human being, not a poodle.
Now that you have your herbal ammunition ready, what else do you require?
Essentials to start an apothecary
Don’t be daunted by others who have a flourishing apothecary with wild tinctures and salves, and herbs you didn’t know existed. They are probably exponents at the height of their powers. You are just an apprentice.
So, start simple.
Mortar and Pestle
Are these a must? If you want to approach this the modern way, the answer is probably no. There are machines that do a more efficient job.
But I’d recommend keeping them in your apothecary for two reasons. One is the romantic notion of grinding down the herbs with a mortar and pestle.
The second is that a grinder at home can chop the herbs too fine. With a mortar and pestle, you are in control. Plus, I prefer rustic over mechanically uniform.
Mason jars of different sizes
Mason jars are useful for storing herbs and their byproducts such as tinctures, oils, salves, etc. Don’t buy uniform sizes and invest in a few quarts or pints.
This one is necessary though the type is optional. It is necessary to weigh your herbs and other ingredients when making salves and tinctures.
So, you have a choice to opt for the more accurate modern contraption or go medieval with an old-school scale.
You will require a cheesecloth or similar strainer to collect the herbs when making infusions.
Now let’s look at some liquids.
Tinctures require vodka, so go for something that has 40 percent alcohol. Of course, other solvents are there that do a decent job with tinctures, the best of which is…
Aficionados will claim that vinegar is not as adept as vodka in extracting the essence out of herbs. And they are right.
However, vinegar is still a good alternative and ideal if you intend to give your herbal medicines to children. You can also offer your vinegar-based concoctions to those whose religion or medical condition forbids them from taking alcohol.
The arsenal is complete, and now you are ready to let loose your creativity in your herbal lab. Do you straight away work on the panacea to cure all diseases?
Or do you take a more prudent approach? A cautious is advisable, and you may start with something simpler, like the following:
These are the most basic of all herb forms. Just hang a bunch of fresh leaves upside down in a dark basement and let nature weave her magic. Once the moisture has left the herbs, you can bottle and use them as tea.
These days, there are other ways to accelerate the process, such as utilizing an oven or a dehydrator. To each their own, though I prefer the traditional method.
Herbs used for loose-leaf teas include peppermint (Mentha piperita), hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis), Echinacea, chamomile, and sage. I had so much fun adding some of them to my homemade apple tea.
Now that you have your dried herbs, you can graduate to making tinctures.
For this, you require a sanitized glass jar, herbs of your choice, and vodka.
Fill the bottle halfway with herbs and pour the vodka two inches above the level of the herbs. Shut the lid tightly so no oxygen can enter and spoil your tincture.
Shake the mixture once or twice every day for about a month, and your tincture is good to use.
Herbs used to make tinctures include chamomile, gingko, ginseng (Panax ginseng), and feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium).
And then we have salves.
A salve is a typical herbal ointment that you can use to treat bruises, cuts, and inflammation.
And it is easy to conjure.
First, infuse the herbs in a carrier oil for about a month. It takes about that long for the properties of the herbs to well and truly mix with the oil.
Combine this oil with beeswax, and you have your medicinal salve.
Some of the popular herbs used for salves include plantain (Plantago), arnica (Arnica montana), calendula, dandelion, and lemon balm.
Use your apothecary produce with caution
When we start an apothecary, we do so with our hearts in the right place. We want to work on recipes and medicines that we can share with friends and family.
But, despite our noble intentions, lack of knowledge when dealing with herbs can lead to dangerous, sometimes embarrassing, consequences.
For instance, take the case of Cesare Borgia, the infamous Italian cardinal of the 15th century. Poor Cesare became more acquainted with the toilet (eight times, they say) than his new wife during his wedding night because the apothecary gave him laxatives when he had ordered virility pills.
The moral of the story is simple. If you are not sure about the side-effects of an herb –and there are several, especially with overuse – don’t wing it. Instead, consult a physician or an expert who will give you a clearer picture.
Do you want to start an apothecary? How do you intend to go about it? Let us know in the comments.