Sweet Medicine: An Overview of Honeyed Healing and Sensory Delight
The taste of a drop of rich wildflower honey, a lick of peach elixir or a sip of spice infused cordial is sensual, comforting and ecstatic all at once. Humans crave and love all things sweet, and while it’s clear that this is the taste most easily overdone and abused, it still retains its own medicine and magic. Bees, maple trees, beets and other sweet creatures gift us with their rich blessings, and when used wisely they can be powerful allies in the healing process and add a special magic to the amazing sensory experience that is life.
I’ve chosen to do a general overview of a wide variety of Sweet Medicines this month’s blogparty post, including recipes, tips and insights where appropriate. My favorite sweet medicines are always those that can be used in small doses as an effective remedy and still taste not just sugary, but of the unique essence and flavor of the particular plant. Likewise, I don’t use sweeteners in my herbal preparations to cover up or mask flavors but rather to enhance and bring out the taste.
The medicinal effects of many herbs are dependent, at least in part, upon their taste. For instance, bitters work primarily through activating the release of gastric juices and are triggered by the taste. This means that if you choose to bury the bitterness in sugar, you are losing out on a big part of the plant’s medicine. I much prefer to compliment and enhance the flavor of bitters with aromatic herbs and just a touch of sweetness (depending on the case and what’s needed) which, once you’re acquainted and comfortable with the bitter taste, be quite satisfying and yummy.
Let’s just be clear that I don’t deal in exact measurements (that would foster dependance in my readers, and besides, I just can’t be bothered with measuring tools) so please take my proportions and adjust them to your personal tastes. I am using the folkloric method for infused honeys, vinegars etc in this post, so relax and wing it, you’ll be fine without weighing everything, I promise.
You will note that most of my preferred sweet medicines (like elixirs) or those that are very concentrated and require a small (or even tiny) dosage, such as a few drops of Rose up to half a dropper of Elderberry Elixir. They’re basically the same strength as tinctures, maybe a little bit stronger, depending on the herb.
~~~Cordials & Tonics~~~
Cordials are basically a combination of hard alcohol (often brandy) and a fruit flavored syrup or concentrate. The result is usually drank in cute little cordial cups with dessert (or perhaps breakfast, if you’re hardcore that way) or added to sweet foods for flavor. My cordials are less sweet than most with intense taste, most often made with a combo of wild fruits and herbs and some good hard booze. Many cordials are often drank straight but I really like using them as a flavoring in teas or sauces or other foods as well.
My version of tonics are basically tasty cordials but with more of medicinal level of herbal concentration, still suitable for sipping but ~strong~.
All recipes make one pint of cordial or tonic.
Wild Canyon Cordial
- 3/4 C wild grape juice (I suppose you could use domestic but it will be much less intense and complex in flavor)
- 1/4 C prickly pear fruit juice (or several tablespoons of syrup)
- slightly less than 1 C of Scotch
- large splash (or two) of a good merlot or dry elderberry mead
- 1 tsp of cinnamon tincture ( you can use a couple pinches of powdered instead if you like)
- Mix together in pint canning jar, cap and ideally allow age and mellow at least a month before indulging. However, if you can’t wait that long (I never can), it’s good to know that the addition of the wine really smoothes out the flavor and makes it a lovely sipping experience from the get-go.
Southwest Sunset Cordial
- 1 C Strawberry-Rhubarb Sauce (I just use a jar of our home-canned, non-chunky sauce)
- 1 C Tequila
- juice of 1 Lime
- 1/2 tsp salt (no really, it’s perfect)
- sugar or honey to taste (depends on how sweet your sauce was and how sweet you like it, rose infused honey is an extra bonus here)
- Generous splash of chardonnay
Mix together in pint jar and shake well. Let age for at least month.
Chokecherry Heart Tonic
- 1/4 C Chokecherry bark or bark/flower tincture
- 1/2 C Chokecherry fruit concentrate or syrup (possibly more if your concentrate isn’t strong tasting, ours is very intense and flavorful but the stuff you get from stores is often tasteless and terribly sweet and just don’t work for this)
- 1 C Brandy
- Sugar/honey to taste (very optional, just depends on your syrup and sense of taste)
- 1/4 tsp of Cinnamon tincture (or a good pinch of powdered cinnamon)
- 1 tsp Ginger infused honey (or just add a good pinch of fresh grated ginger)
- Generous splash of Merlot or Elderberry mead (optional)
Mix together in pint jar and shake well, allow to age for at least a month. This stuff is strong and somewhat mind-altering (in a relaxing kind of way), so use in small doses. It’s an excellent heart strengthener for people with signs of inflammation, high blood pressure, heart palpitations and general heat symptoms.
Wild Rose Tonic
This is my most complex cordial recipe listed here. It’s not difficult, just multi-step. Well worth it in my opinion though.
First, make a half pint of infused honey with finely chopped, de-seeded fresh wild rose hips, plus 1 tsp grated fresh ginger, 1 tsp. grated fresh orange peel and 1/4 tsp cardamom. Let infuse for one month, do not strain.
- 1 C spiced Wild Rose hip honey (as seen above)
- 3 Tbs Wild Rose petal tincture (or more, as desired for flavor)
- 1 C Brandy or Cognac
Mix together in a pint jar and shake well, allow to age for at least one month. This cordial/tonic is relaxing, uplifting and wonderful as a heart tonic, nervine, anti-inflammatory and bioflavanoid rich blood tonic. For a real treat, make a small cup of half Chokecherry Heart Tonic and half Wild Rose Tonic.
~~~Infused Wines & Meads~~~
This is easy, it’s just good wine infused with herbs and spices. It can be made with just enough herbs to add a bit of flavor, or it can be made more medicinal strength with a higher proportion of herbs.
All recipes are make one pint of wine.
Sweet Summer Cherry Wine
- 2 tbs dried Chokecherry twigs, chopped
- appr 20 Hawthorn berries, fresh or dried
- 3 unsulphured dried Apricots
- small handful raisins
- appr 1 pint red wine or a dark mead like elderberry, blackberry or pomegranate. Alternatively, this is also quite good in apple wine.
Place together in a pint jar, and allow to infuse for at least one month before straining and using. Don’t forget to eat those apricots and raisins, they’re very tasty. This is another heart and blood tonic, great for strengthening the heart and building the blood, it’s also relaxing and a wonderful way to wind down.
Mary of the Sea Wine
- 2 medium sprigs (about 3 inches long each) of fresh Rosemary
- 1 tsp grated fresh Ginger
- 1 tsp grated fresh Lemon peel
- appr. 1 pint white wine or light mead.
Place together in a pint jar, and allow to infuse for at least one month before straining and using. This makes a lovely warming circulatory stimulant, digestive tonic and tasty addition to many recipes.
This is what most people (including myself, in the past) usually call glycerites. However, glycerites are creations generally beyond the scope of the home apothecary (think: lab), and what most people are making are properly named glycerine tinctures.
I’ve never liked the cloying taste of herbs tinctured in only glycerine, and that added to the facts that glycerine isn’t terribly shelf-stable and that it is a very highly processed product have just reinforced my original leaning away from glycerine.
For a while I was making some of my elixirs with glycerine (plus brandy or vodka, never alone) rather than honey, but despite my general avoidance of all sugars I have gone back to using honey in my elixirs again. It tastes better, your body recognizes it as food (with nutrients and everything) and it comes from beehive rather than a factory.
Glycerine tinctures are made similarly to alcohol based tinctures, preferably with dried plant material because the water content of fresh plants tends to cause the glycerine tinctures to go off rather quickly. Also, aromatic herbs are those generally best extracted with glycerine, like Lavender, Chamomile or Mint.
For dried herbs, fill the jar about halfway with plant matter ( a bit more if using flowers or fluffy plants a bit less if you’re using root, bark or other dense plant matter), then cover with a solution of 3/4 glycerine and 1/4 distilled water. Stir well to release air bubbles, cover and store in a cool, dark place for 4-6 weeks before decanting. Use within a year.
An elixir (from my perspective, anyhow) is really just a tincture with some honey added for flavor, property and preservation purposes. It’s a super easy and very effective way to work with many herbs and flowers and berries are often especially well suited to this method, although almost any aromatic plant is lovely as an elixir.
Elixirs are really my favorite sweet medicine and I’ve become a bit infamous for my constant rambling on about Elderberry and Rose elixirs. Here’s a few reasons why I’m so fond of this particular preparation.
- The sweet taste brings out the aromatic flavors and heart healing properties of many herbs.
- Honey actually adds to how well the herbs are preserved and increases the shelf-life of the tincture.
- Unlike most sweet medicines, it can be used in very small doses, thanks to the particular combo of honey and alcohol. This keeps it from having much of a blood sugar impact.
- Because it helps to bring out the flavor and aroma of many herbs, the herb’s nervine effects are enhanced, often in a significant way.
- They’re also extremely simple and intuitive to make, here’s an example recipe made with Honeysuckle, with a few suggestions for other herbs that make lovely elixirs.
- 2 C Honeysuckle flowers and buds
- 1/3 C raw honey
- app 1 pint of Brandy (or rum or cognac or scotch or whatever you like)
Fill a pint jar with Honeysuckle flowers and buds (pick a spp with very little or no bitterness), then add about 1/3 C of raw honey. Stir well so that the flowers are well coated. Now fill the jar with brandy, vodka, scotch, cognac or whatever you like. I actually prefer 60% alcohol with Honeysuckle Elixir, so I usually dilute some Everclear for this. Stir again, and then taste. If it’s not sweet enough tasting (it will initially taste mostly like alcohol so you have to guesstimate), add a bit more honey. Now cover tightly, shake well and then store in a cool, dark place (shaking occasionally to dissolve the honey properly) for 4-6 weeks.
This elixir makes a wonderful relaxing nervine, and is amazing for all kinds of hot, acute conditions including fevers, bronchitis and infections. It can also be used externally if needed.
Lavender, Tulsi (Holy Basil), Ginger, Vanilla (yes, Vanilla is an herb too), Cinnamon, Rose, Fennel, Anise, Mullein flower, Evening Primrose flower, Juniper berry, Borage flowers, Beebalm, Sage and so on… Nearly any aromatic plant, including most kitchen spices, make wonderful elixirs.
Essentially, a paste of powdered herbs and a sweetener, in this case honey. These are intense and very flavorful. In the past, they have often been used to hide the flavor of bitter or unpleasant tasting herbs. My recipes are meant to be used in small amounts, usually I just roll a little ball out of the some paste (about half the size of a marble) and suck on it slowly, but it can also be spread on foods or taken straight by the spoonful.
They’re especially good where the whole herb needs to be taken (instead of extracted with a solvent like alcohol) and where coating the throat and GI is an important part of the medicine. An especially lovely and elegant way to treat sore throats, bronchial irritation or sinus congestion. Just don’t overdo it, this is medicine not candy.
Here are a few recipes with proportions and usage suggestions and directions at the end.
Winter Cherry Nourishing Electuary
- 2 parts Ashwagandha
- 1/2 part Nettle Seed
- 1 part Tulsi
- 2 parts Elm
This makes a lovely moistening adrenal tonic very helpful in times of stress or depletion, providing energy while relaxing the nervous system and body. It’s fairly temperature neutral, and generally gentle enough for anyone.
Wild Rose Electuary
- 1 part Rose
- 1/2 part Sage
- 2 parts Mallow
A great throat soother and excellent for calming down belly stagnation and heat. Powdered Evening Primrose flowers is very nice in this as well.
Basically, just mix your finely powdered dried herbs together in the desired proportion. Then, add enough slightly warmed honey (just warm enough to flow, not hot) to create a thick paste. Stir well, to make sure all powder is integrated. Check your texture and adjust as necessary, I like mine to be thick enough to roll into little balls but soft enough to be pliable. Using a mucilaginous powder as a primary part of your powders will help it all stick together better and will add a soothing, healing quality to the preparation. An electuary can be used right away, but I prefer to give mine a couple weeks to age and mellow a bit.
~~~Infused Herbal Honeys~~~
Beebalm Flower Infused Honey
- 2 cups of freshly harvested Beebalm (Monarda spp)
- appr 1 pint of Raw (preferably local) honey.
- pint canning jar with lid
So easy and delicious, making this herbal honey is as simple as filling a pint jar with your Beebalm flowers and then covering with raw honey. Next, stir the bubbles out (chopsticks work good for this), top it off with more honey if needed and then cover and store in a cool, dark place for 4-6 weeks. Very often, I don’t even decant my Beebalm honeys I just use (or eat) it, flowers and all. It’s a spicy-sweet ambrosia that will drop you dead in your tracks in open-mouthed amazement at the taste of it.
A lovely diffusive nervine and relaxant diaphoretic, Beebalm honey has a wide realm of application, from sore throats to tension headaches to fevers. This is one of the world’s best wound and burn dressings as well, often working to heal even stubborn bedsores and longterm infections.
A wonderful beverage of herbs infused in vinegar and honey. It is acidulous and sweet at the same time, and especially good for remedies relating to the lungs and GI as it is by nature expectorant and stimulating to the digestive tract. It is generally very cooling because of the sour taste, unless you really spice it up with warming herbs. I prefer apple cider vinegar for most of my oxmels but red wine vinegar or others may be used in its place.
Basically, we just combine an infused honey and an infused vinegar together and violá, amazingly tasty Oxymel! If you use molasses (in which you can decoct herbs) instead of honey, you have Switchel.
Recipes online will have you make a sugar syrup and cook the whole oxymel, but I prefer a cold infusion which seems to result in purer, more refreshing taste with less of that syrupy flavor.
Mint Sekanjabin is a classic Arabic cooling drink to enhance digestion and is very tasty too!
Mint Infused Vinegar
Fill a jar with fresh mint, cover with vinegar. Cover and store in a cool, dark place for 2-4 weeks before decanting.
Mint/Lemon Infused Honey
Fill a jar with fresh mint, then add two tsp of grated fresh lemon peel and the juice of one lemon then cover with honey.
Add 4 parts infused honey to 1 part infused vinegar to a jar and mix well. Now you just add a teaspoon or two to a glass of water, stir and yum!
Other herbs that would work well here include Basil, Holy Basil, Lemon Balm, Sweet Clover, Peach leaf and even Rose. Add spices to taste (orange peel and Ginger is great with Rose etc) and enjoy.