How to Make Plant Treatments
Healthy, happy plants, photo by Cathy Skipper
In this, the second article of three on the subject of herbal treatments for plants in the garden or agriculture, I am going to look at the actual treatments themselves, how they work, and how to make them. This is a huge subject with its roots in antiquity, and its new shoots stretching out towards a new subtle, energetic approach to cultivating plants. In order to reduce things to article size, I have had to generalise and condense. My aim is to outline the basic tools and information necessary for making and experimenting with botanical plant preparations.
Do not forget, however, that we are rediscovering this subject and there is still a lot of scope for experimentation, I have outlined below some of the main forms of treatments used but this is not an end in itself, just a beginning. I love the idea that we are moving towards a subtle and intimate relationship with our land; guiding nature rather than exploiting it, and using plant treatments to induce a message of rebalancing for the plants we are growing, and the land we are tending.
In the first article, I covered the importance of the overall vitality and health of the piece of land concerned, and compared this to the work we do as herbalists: encouraging our patients, and helping them find ways to develop vitality and health. This holistic approach is the basis for human health care, as well as care of the land, the earth, and the plants that we tend. Both human organisms and nature have a huge potential for finding the perfect balance needed for optimum health, on both a physical and subtle level. Ill health and disease arise when, for some reason or another, this balance is thrown out. It is at this point that the gardener, like the herbalist, needs to find the treatment that will help the organism (which in this case is the plant and the soil in which it thrives) get back into balance. Before turning to the use of treatments, it is important for the holistic gardener to observe, observe, observe. The first stage of any treatment a herbalist prescribes is the consultation: the herbalist needs to interact with the patient, ask questions, feel what is happening with the person, go beyond what is being said, and interpret the possible underlying causes behind the illness. It is in observing the piece of land in question (closely at different times of the day and during different seasons) and observing the plants that are being grown (spending time with them, getting to know them) that their needs and possible fragilities can be understood and acted upon.
So what I am trying to say here is that, as in holistic healing, holistic gardening is not just about making a plant treatment for a certain disease, but treating the ‘whole’ organism, which as I can’t stress enough is not only the diseased plant, but the whole ecosystem in which it grows.
There are, of course, a number of plant treatments that are used to help combat specific diseases and attacks by predators, and I will look at a selection of these in the last article when I outline some of the main plants used. What is important to look at first, however, are the actions that we can obtain when using these plant preparations. Below is a list and short explication of the main ones.
Plant defence system stimulators
Nettle is one of our great allays in holistic gardening, and usually the one plant preparation that most people have heard of. Among other things, it is a plant defence system stimulator, which triggers the plant’s own defence mechanisms and helps it fight attacks from pathogens, such as fungi and bacteria. As herbalists, it seems so much more logical to help and support the plant while it fights its own fight, rather than try to find something that will fight in its place. System defence stimulators can be compared to immunostimulants.
The plant’s defence system is elicited by:
1) Early warning signs: as we all know plants aren’t stupid, and they already have an intrinsic capacity to recognise a possible threat. For example, they can detect the presence of pathogens by recognising specific molecules (oligosaccharides) that come from the cellular membrane of fungi. They are then capable of responding by synthesising metabolites (compounds produced by the plant for essential and specific functions), which help them to defend themselves.
Plant defence system stimulators often have a similar structure to these and can therefore be used to trigger this natural defence mechanism when the threat of infestation is imminent or present.
2) Once triggered, the plant produces:
a) Defence molecules known as phytoalexins, which are antimicrobial and often antioxidative substances synthesised by the plant in response to different stress factors. These molecules possess an inhibiting action towards a large range of pathogenic microorganisms.
b) Pathogenesis related proteins from different chemical families (ex. salicylic acid), which are capable of deteriorating the fungi or bacteria’s outer membranes.
3) In many cases the plant purposefully kills some of its own cells situated around the infected area, creating a necrosis in the plant tissue. In other words, the plant sacrifices some of its cells so that the others may survive. This impedes a relationship from developing between the cell and the pathogen, inhibiting the pathogens growth by suppressing its access to nutrition. This localised resistance induced by the plant is backed up by the thickening of the pecto-cellulosic membrane at the spot where the pathogen is situated, thus limiting the aggressor’s progression, and again preventing it from accessing the plant metabolites that it needs to thrive.
4) In some cases, the plant is capable of either accumulating toxins to deter the pathogen, or directly detoxifying the toxins produced by the pathogen.
It is important to understand that these plant defence system stimulators do not directly protect the plant or kill the parasite/bacteria as a synthetic treatment is aimed to do. Rather, they have an action on the plant itself, triggering its own form of defence against the pathogen.
As mentioned above, observation, along with experience and understanding, are needed to use these plant defence system stimulators correctly. This should not be difficult for herbalists to do, as these are qualities we need every day in our work.
Points to be aware of are:
A certain delay is often needed before the plant’s reaction becomes effective, and certain plants can only be treated at a specific stage in their development. In order for these treatments to be effective, they need to be used as close to the beginning of infection or infestation as possible (observation).
Plant defence system stimulators are preventative treatments and so it is sometimes necessary to back them up with a curative treatment.
Effectiveness is variable depending of course on the intensity of the attack, general health of the plot, etc. Once a certain level of attack has been reached, plant defence system stimulators are not enough.
There is not always an immune response on the part of the plant, for this can depend very much on its stress levels.
The resistance that many predators develop towards synthetic treatments is not developed with the use of plant defence system stimulators, for they trigger a multitude of responses on the part of the plant, making it difficult for microorganisms and insects to adapt.
These treatments are polyvalent: they function on a huge number of plant species as well as fungi, viruses and bacteria.
The myriad of different actions that plant defence system stimulators activate help to create an environment that inhibits the pathogen. Its growth is reduced: it is starved, poisoned, or stopped in its tracks by a physical barrier.
Nettle is the plant (when correctly prepared) that best corresponds to the label of plant defence system stimulator. Others that also have a role to play within this function are meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria), wild thyme (Thymus serphyllum) and Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinal), which we will look at in more detail in the final article.
Symphytum officinale (Comfrey), photo by Cathy Skipper
Another important action that plant preparations can have in the protection of cultivated plants is in stimulating the plant’s development. This involves improving its response to stress and its capacity to absorb what it needs from the environment in which it grows, and at the same time making it more resistant to pathogens, and thus reducing the need for treatments. I see this form of treatment very much like how an adaptogen would be prescribed to someone who needs to adapt to stress and new and challenging situations. Don’t forget, cultivated plants are not in their natural environment – they haven’t chosen to grow in our gardens on plots in rows, or on soils that don’t necessarily suit them.
Yes, you’ve guessed it: nettle is one of our main phytostimulants as well. Others include comfrey (Symphytum officinale), horsetail (Equisetum arvense), burdock (Arctium lappa), yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and birch (Betula verrucossa).
The minerals contained in the plants are extracted by water, in most cases through a fermentation process (don’t panic, I will be looking at the forms of extraction in more detail next). These minerals and oligo-elements represent an important source of nutrition and are more easily extracted in the fermented extracts than in herbal teas. The various constituents of the soil’s organic matter are decomposed by the activity of microorganisms, which release carbon and nitrogen for the plants to use. These preparations can easily replace mineral fertilizers and when used at the right moment, and in the right doses will stimulate the size and volume of the plants and increase fruit yield.
Arctium lappa (Burdock), photo by Cathy Skipper
We are lucky to know of a large range of plants that we can use as fungicides, such as common bracken (Pteridium aquilinum), horsetail (Equisetum arvense), yes nettle again, sage (Salvia officinalis), winter savoury (Satureja Montana), burdock (Arctium lappa), wild thyme (Thymus serphyllum), oregano (Origanum vulgaris)…
They are used mainly as preventative treatments against different forms of fungal development. As often is the case in humans, fungal infections can be difficult to eradicate. In plants, the best way to protect them is by using a natural fungicide from the list in association with a ‘plant defence system stimulator’. As in herbalism, we use a preventative treatment at signs of imminent risk, or fragile periods, and at the same time stimulate the body’s own defence system.
Ruta graveolens (Rue), photo by Cathy Skipper
These plants include tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), sage (Salvia officinalis), rue (Ruta graveolens), soapwort (Saponaria officinalis), peppermint (Mentha x piperita), santolina (Santolina Chamaecyparissus), absinthe (Artemisia absinthum), oregano (Origanum vulgare), lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), nettle (Ortica dioica), horsetail (Equisetum arvense)
A direct insecticide action is characterised by one or several concentrated molecules that act on the parasite’s nervous or digestive system or a repulsive action that can be obtained with the help of strongly smelling volatile essences.
If a large infestation of parasites is already apparent, we would need to try and control the situation by using high dosages of plant preparations containing toxic molecules or essential oils that have an insecticide action…in an emergency call in the rescue team!!!
However as a plant cannot defend itself and grow at the same time, it would be judicious once this treatment is underway to also prepare a phytostimulant plant preparation to help the plant rebuild itself nutritionally and energetically.
Wetting agents, or surfactants, increase the spreading ability of the liquid plant preparation by reducing its surface tension, and thus helping it to cover the leaf’s cuticle. They also help to disperse and stabilise the preparation in the container in which the treatment is going to be carried out. Resins are good for helping plant extracts adhere to the leaves and withstand the washing effect of rain. Other wetting agents help to create a synergy, strengthening the effectiveness of certain active constituents:
Organic liquid soap (100gms in 10 litres of water)
Green clay (1 to 2 soupspoons in 10 litres of water)
Whey (yes milk curd)
Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis)
Resins such as pine oil (Pinus pinaster)
For herbalists, the next part of this article, which is about the practicalities of making these preparations, should be simple! Firstly, since plants are living beings, the same care and attention that we put into making our medicines needs to be put into making medicines for plants. And secondly, a certain rigour and attention to detail is needed in order for the preparations to have the desired effect.
The questions to ask oneself before putting into place a natural plant treatment will again be very familiar to herbalists:
1) Which plant should I use?
2) What action do I want?
3) Which part of the plant should I use?
4) Which Galenical form is best suited for this particular situation?
5) What quantity will I need?
The Galenical forms most commonly used in plant cultivation today are fermented extracts, herbal teas, macerations, and decoctions.
Medicinals for use in plant treatments, photo by Cathy Skipper
This is the only form of plant preparation that differs from the Galenical forms that, as herbalists, we are familiar with. It is, however, the form that is used to prepare both the ‘plant defence system stimulators’ and phytostimulants, which is the backbone of these plant treatments.
The references to nettles being macerated in water for use in gardens can be found in many books, and refers to what is known as a fermented extract. However, as I previously mentioned, there is more to it than just shoving nettles into water and waiting. In fact, just as with winemaking or any other fermentation technique, there is a certain art to it.
Due to the CO2 contained in the plant cell’s vacuoles, an anaerobiosis forms and is progressively liberated. This results in the formation of foam on the surface of the liquid. The microbial enzymes then slowly break down the plant matter, and an antioxidative reaction takes place in the absence of air.
I will go through the method of making these extracts step by step in order to try and make it easy to understand.
1) The quantities of plant material needed are always based on the ratio of 1kg of fresh plant matter for 10 litres of water, and can be altered depending on the quantity of plants that need to be treated. Bear in mind that the finished extract needs to be diluted ten times before being applied to the plants. Unlike herbal teas, when fermented extracts are made correctly, they do keep well.
2) Required materials include a large plastic or stainless steel container with a lid (do not use wood or metal), and the size of container is important as the fermentation process takes place better in a larger container (many people use plastic rubbish bins); water (see below for details); and some form of filter – these are usually homemade contraptions using material or stockings etc, containers for stocking.
3) It is all very basic; the plant material is shredded or cut up small and placed in the container with the correct amount of water (min 11 to 12° in temperature) with the lid on, but not hermetically closed.
4) An ambient temperature of at least 15° is needed in order for the fermentation process to take place correctly.
5) The preparation needs to be stirred with a long stick once or twice per day in order to activate the fermentation. After a day or two (depending on the temperature), small air bubbles come up to the surface of the liquid – this is a sign that the fermentation has begun. After 10 to 14 days, these small bubbles disappear and the fermentation is finished.
6) Once fermentation is completed, it is important to filter the liquid rapidly, and either use it immediately, or stock it in bottles in order to avoid it putrefying.
7) A well made extract can be stocked in a cool place away from daylight for a maximum of three months. In order to stock the extract for longer, an antioxidant such as rosemary (1.8 cineol) or ascorbic acid in powder form can be added.
Rosemary essential oil – 5ml per 100 litres of fermented extract. Use a liquid soap to disperse the essential oil before adding to the extract.
Powdered ascorbic acid – 5gms/100 litres.
My colleague Eric Petiot, France’s expert on botanical plant treatments, and a former student of the herbal school where I work, has studied and experimented on the different types of water used to make fermented extracts.
Rainwater is ideal because it is neither too hard or full of chlorine. For those who have decided to prepare their own treatments, it is worth recuperating the rain water from your roof with the help of a barrel and gutter adjustment.
Tap water definitely contains too much chlorine and limestone: chlorine has a negative effect on extracts by killing or slowing down the action of the bacteria responsible for the fermentation. Eric suggests that if you have no other solution, then leave the water in a large plastic bin or bucket outside for 2 to 4 days (depending on the quantity of chlorine it contains), and stir the solution from time to time in order to evaporate the chlorine before making the fermented extract.
The water’s pH is also very important for the quality of the finished extract, it should ideally be between 6.5 and 7. If it is too alkaline, then the limestone can block up the plant’s stomata, which will reduce foliar assimilation and modify the pH. The calculation for lowering the water’s pH by one point is a ¼ of a litre of alcohol vinegar per 30 litres of water (the pH can be measured either with a pH meter or pH paper test strips). Spring and well water are often too hard and full of nitrates (depending where you live of course) and do not suit extract making.
The only things that really need to be taken into consideration when making herbal teas for plant preparations are:
1) Temperature control: be careful not to heat plants containing molecules that are sensitive to heat, such as salicylic acid, which starts to be deteriorate at 60°.
2) Chop up the plants well in order to liberate all the active principals easily.
3) Use stainless steel or enamel containers to heat the herbal teas, and avoid metal as it can provoke enzymatic reactions with certain plants.
4) I use the technique that we teach at the herbal school for herbal tea making. In order not to create a thermal shock for the plants and their constituents, put the dried or fresh plants into cold water, and bring slowly to the boil. When the water begins to simmer, turn of the source of heat, cover, and leave to infuse. It is very important not to let the herbal tea boil (yes even for plant preparations) as the acids that interest us can be destroyed at high temperatures.
5) Once cooled, remove the cover and allow the drops that have formed on its upper side to drip into the preparation; these drops are full of volatile molecules.
6) Filter and use straight away. It is not advisable to store herbal teas as they deteriorate rapidly. If fresh plants are not in season, then use dried plant matter (don’t forget to alter the dosages).
Herbal teas are used in order to extract the acids contained in certain plants, which have insecticide or fungicide actions, or stimulate the defence system. Herbal teas are also a good method of liberating bio-available minerals and oligo-elements contained in the plants. Plants from the Lamiaceae family are also used in herbal tea form to extract the phenols, ketones, and terpenes that they contain.
Decoctions help to burst the external protective envelope of harder plant parts, such as fresh or dried roots, bark, seeds and wood.
They are made in the same way as herbal teas, except the plant parts should be left to soak in water at room temperature for 24 hours before being decocted so that the essence cavities do not burst too violently. Allow the water to simmer for twenty minutes before turning off the heat. Next, leave it to cool without taking off the lid, filter, and use immediately. The dosages differ depending on the plant used. This will be looked at with the plant information in the final article.
Decoctions are used in preventative or curative treatments against plant diseases and pests. For example, comfrey decoction is a leaf growth fertilizer, insecticide, and light fungicide all at the same time.
This is the simplest form of herbal preparation to make. Allow the shredded plants to soak in water at room temperature for 24 hours (1kg of plant matter for 10 litres of water), filter, and use straight away without diluting. Macerations are essentially fungicides but can in some cases be used as stimulants due to their chlorophyll content. They are less commonly used in agriculture as their volumes are small and the concentration of their active constituents poor.
It is very important that preparations are correctly filtered because many of them must be pulverised, and poorly filtered preparations can cause blockages in the pulveriser. Additionally, properly filtered fermented extracts will keep better in storage. However, it is important not to filter extracts too finely because this can compromise their effectiveness – this is especially important when working with fermented extracts.
Ok so after all this technical stuff, I would like to come back to what I mentioned at the beginning of this article in regards to working towards a higher resonance of healing with plant cultivation. As the need for respecting our environment becomes urgent, healing plants with plants is, in my opinion, just one step along the way – albeit an important one – but just a step all the same.
I believe we are working towards a time where, globally, we will be growing food with a higher vibration in forest gardens and places where nature and humans can dance together to create what we need to survive. Given the nature of the food, this will result in a lot less in quantity, and a lot more in terms of real nourishment!!
The final article will take a look at some of the plants used to make these preparations and their uses.
Purin et ortie et Compagnie “Les Plantes au Secours des Plantes” by Eric Petiot – Edtions Terran
Les soins naturels au arbres by Eric Petiot – Editions de Terran
Cathy has been working and living in rural France for the last 20 years. She obtained the herbalist diploma from Lyons school of Medicinal Plants where she now teaches botany field study, healing with plants and herbal gardening. Cathy is one of the founding members and coordinators of the new multi-language herbal network Herbalistes sans Frontières.
This article was originally published in Plant Healer Magazine, a quarterly downloadable, full color PDF magazine that “combines cutting edge science with heartful intuitive practice, personal stories that inspire, and practical skills that enable.” Follow this link to join the folk herbalism resurgence.