Concerning the various methods of preparing simples for present use.
THERE is no form of medicines sent from the apothecary, which may not be prepared from the herbs of our own growth in the same manner as from foreign drugs. Electuaries may be made with the powders of these barks, roots, and seeds, with conserves of flowers, and of the tops of fresh herbs; and syrups, made from their juices and infusions; the manner of making which is very simple, and shall be subjoined to this chapter, that all may be understood before we enter on the book itself: and in the same manner their boluses may be made, which are only some of these powders mixed up with syrup: and their draughts and juleps, which are made from the distilled waters of these herbs, with spirit, or without these syrups being added; and the tinctures of the roots and barks; the method of making which shall be also annexed in a familiar manner.
But beside these several forms of giving them, there are others much more simple, easy, and ready, and these are generally more efficacious. I shall arrange these under three kinds, juices, infusions, and decoctions. These are the forms of giving the medicines most frequently mentioned in the course of the work, and there is less trouble in them than in the others. They are not indeed contrived for shew, nor would they answer the purpose of the apothecary, for his profits would be small upon them; but when the design is only to do good, they are the most to be chosen of any.
Juices are to be expressed from leaves or roots; and in order to this, they are to be first beaten in a mortar. There is no form whatever in which herbs have so much effect, and yet this is in a manner unknown in the common practice of physic.
These are to be obtained in some plants from the entire herb, as in water cresses, brook-lime, and others that have juicy stalks; in others the leaves are to be used, as in nettles, and the like, where the stalk is dry, and yields nothing; but is troublesome in the preparation. When the juice of a root is to be had, it must be fresh taken up, and thoroughly beaten. A marble mortar and wooden pestle serve best for this purpose, for any thing of metal is improper: many plants would take a tincture from it, and the juice would be so impregnated with it, as to become a different medicine, and probably very improper in the case in which it was about to be given.
As these juices have sometimes an ill taste, and as some of them are apt to be cold upon the stomach, or otherwise to disagree with it, there are methods to be used, to make them sit better up on it; and in some cases these increase their virtues.
When the thick juice, fresh drawn, is too coarse for the person's stomach, it may be suffered to settle and grow clear: a little sugar may be added also in beating the herb, and in many cases, as in those juices given for the scurvy, the juice of a Seville orange may be added, which will greatly improve the flavour.
To the roots it is often proper to add a little white wine in the bruising, and they will operate the better for it. Thus, for instance, the juice of the flower-de-luce root will not stay upon many stomachs alone; but with a little white wine added in the bruising, all becomes easy, and its effects are not the less for the addition. The same addition may be made to some of the colder herbs; and if a little sugar, and, upon occasion, a few grains of powdered ginger be added, there will be scarce any fear of the medicine disagreeing with the stomach, and its effects will be the same, as if it had been bruised and pressed alone.
Infusions are naturally to be mentioned after the juices, for they are in many cases used to supply their place. Juices can only be obtained from fresh plants, and there are times of the year when the plants are not to be had in that state. Recourse is then to be had to the shop, instead of the field; the plant whose juice cannot be had, is there to be found dried and preserved; and if that has been done according to the preceding directions, it retains a great part of its virtues; in this case it is to be cut to pieces, and hot water being poured upon it, extracts so much of its qualities, as to stand in the place of the other. Often, indeed, the virtues are the same: in some plants they are greatest from the infusion; but then some others lose so much in drying, that an infusion scarce has anything. But it is not only as a help in the place of the other, that this preparation is to be used, for infusions are very proper from many fresh herbs; and are of great virtue from many dry ones, of which, when fresh, the juice would have been worth little.
Infusions are the fittest forms for those herbs whose qualities are light, and whose virtue is easily extracted; in this case, hot water poured upon them takes up enough of their virtue, and none is lost in the operation; others require to be boiled in the water. From these are thus made what we call decoctions: and as these last would not give their virtues in infusion, so the others would lose it all in the boiling. It would go off with the vapour. We know very well, that the distilled water of any herb is only the vapour of the boiled herb caught by proper vessels, and condensed to water: therefore, whether it be caught or let to fly away, all that virtue must be lost in boiling. It is from this, that some plants are fit for decoctions, and some for infusions. There are some which, if distilled, give no virtue to the water, and these are fit for decoctions, which will retain all their virtue, as bistort, and tormentill roots, and the like. On the contrary, an infusion of mint, or pennyroyal, is of a strong taste, and excellent virtue; whereas, a decoction of these herbs is disagreeable or good for nothing.
There are herbs also, which have so little juice, that it would be impossible to get it out; and others whose virtue lies in the husks and buds, and this would be lost in the operation. An infusion of these is the right way of giving them. Thus mother of thyme is a dry little herb, from which it would be hard to get any juice, and when gotten, it would possess very little of its virtues: but an infusion of mother of thyme possesses it entirely.
Infusions are of two kinds. They are either prepared in quantity, to be drank cold; or they are drank as they are made, in the manner of tea. This last method is the best, but people will not be prevailed upon to do it, unless the taste of the herb be agreeable; for the flavour is much stronger hot, than it is cold.
Infusions the manner of tea, are to be made just as tea, and drank with a little sugar: the others are to be made in this manner:
A stone jar is to be fitted with a close cover; the herb, whether fresh or dried, is to be cut to pieces; and when the jar has been scalded out with hot water, it is to be put in: boiling water is then to be poured upon it; and the top is to be fixed on: it is thus to stand four, five, or six hours, or a whole night, according to the nature of the ingredient, and then to be poured off clear.
It is impossible to direct the quantity in general for these infusions, because much more of some plants is required than of others: for the most part, three quarters of an ounce of a dried plant, or two ounces of the fresh gathered. The best rule is to suit it to the patient's strength and palate. It is intended not to be disagreeable, and to have as much virtue of the herb as is necessary: this is only to be known in each kind by trial; and the virtue may be heightened, as well as the flavour mended, by several additions. Of these sugar and a little white wine are the most familiar, but lemon juice is often very serviceable, as we find in sage tea; and a few drops of oil of vitriol give colour aid strength to tincture of roses. Salt of tartar makes many infusions stronger also than they would be, but it gives them a very disagreeable taste. It is, therefore, fit only for such as are to be taken at one draught, not for such as are to be swallowed in large quantities time after time.
Among the herbs that yield their virtues most commodiously by infusion, may be accounted many of those which are pectoral, and good in coughs, as colts-foot, ground-ivy, and the like; the light and aromatic, good in nervous disorders, as mother of thyme, balm, and the like; the bitters are also excellent in infusion, but very disagreeable in decoction; thus boiling water poured upon Roman wormwood, gentian root, and orange peel, makes a very excellent bitter. It need only stand till the liquor is cold, and may be then poured off for use.
It is often proper to add some purging ingredient to this bitter infusion; and a little fresh polypody root excellently answers that purpose, without spoiling the taste of the medicine.
Several of the purging plants also do very well in infusion, as purging flax, and the like; and the fresh root of polypody alone is a very good one: a little lemon juice added to the last named infusion does no harm; and it takes off what is disagreeable in the taste, in the same manner as it does from an infusion of sena.
Thus we see what a great number of purposes may be answered by infusions, and they are the most familiar of all preparations. Nothing is required, but pouring some boiling water upon the plants fresh or dried, as already directed, and pouring it off again when cold.
Decoctions are contrived to answer the purpose of infusions, upon plants which are of so firm a texture, that they will not easily yield forth their useful parts. In these the ingredients are to be boiled in the water, as in the others, the boiling water was to be poured over them. In general, leaves, flowers, and entire plants, whether fresh or dried, are used in infusions; the roots and barks in decoctions.
An earthen pipkin, with a close cover, is the best vessel for preparing these; for many of those medicines which are little suspected of it, will take a tincture from the metal; and it would be as improper to boil them in a copper pan, (as it is too common a custom,) as to beat the herbs and roots in a metal mortar.
Fresh roots are used in decoction, as well as those which are dried; and the barks and other ingredients in like manner. When the fresh are used, the roots are to be cut into thin slices, and the barks and woods should be shaved down; as to the leaves and entire plants, they need be cut but slightly. When dry ingredients are used, the roots and barks are best pounded to pieces, and as to the herbs and flowers, little is to be done to them, and in general, they are best added toward the end of the decoction.
It is always best to let the ingredients of a decoction stand in the water cold for twelve hours, before it is set on the fire, and then it should be heated gradually, and afterwards kept boiling gently as long as is necessary: and this is to be proportioned to the nature of the ingredients. Generally a quarter of an hour is sufficient, sometimes much longer is necessary. They are then to be strained off while they are hot, pressing them hard, and the liquor set by to cool: when they are thoroughly cold, they are to be poured off clear from the settlement, for they always become clear as they cool, and sweetened with a little sugar. Frequently also, it is proper to add to them a little white wine, as to the infusions.
The Family Herbal, 1812, was written by John Hill.