Many people who use herbal products often don’t know what some of the terms they’re using mean. Do you know what a “tincture” really is? Can you define “herbal vinegar”? (Actually, that one is kind of easy.) How about a fomentation? (No, not about foaming at the mouth.) Or, just what is a salve?
Below I have put together some definitions of terms and products that will make it easier to understand what it is you are using or reading about in your herb books and on-line.
Let me know, in the comments section or by e-mail if there are any other terms you would like to know about. I will include them in later post.
Please note that these are my definitions and some of them may differ from those of other herbalists, books, or websites.
Compress: A cloth that has been dipped into a hot herbal tea or infusion and is applied topically. Also called a fomentation.
Cream: Often, a mix of an herbally-infused oil, an emulsifying agent such as beeswax, and distilled or flower water. Sometimes, just a firmer version of a lotion or a slightly more liquid version of a salve (infused oil and emulsifier, no water).
Decoction: An extraction of plant constituents in water, cooked or boiled on the stove for a period of time. Often used for woody plant parts or roots, or as the base for a syrup or elixir.
Elixir: A sweetened herbal syrup containing alcohol. The alcohol helps in the extraction and preservation of the herbal constituents.
Extract: A liquid containing herbal constituents that have been extracted from the herb. Often refers to a tincture, but can also refer to other herbal liquids, such as infusions or glycerites.
Fomentation: A cloth that has been dipped into a hot herbal tea or infusion and is applied topically. Also called a compress.
Glycerin: A sweet, balnd-tasting, somewhat thick and sticky liquid; a sugar alcohol. Used both internally and externally.
Glycerite: An herbal extract using glycerin and water to extract and preserve the herbal constituents. Naturally sweet, the glycerin extracts somewhat different properties than alcohol, though some are the same.
Herbal or Medicinal Vinegar: Vinegar that has been infused with one or more herbs.
Infused Oil: An oil, whether from a plant or animal source, in which one or more herbs have been infused and then strained out. The oil acts as both a carrier and preservative for the herbal constituents. Only used externally.
Infusion: A strong extraction of plant constituents in which boiled water is poured over the plant material instead of cooking it (as in a decoction). Often a lot of plant material is used and the steeping time can be from ½ hour to all day or overnight.
Lotion: Often, a mix of an herbally-infused oil, an emulsifying agent such as beeswax, and distilled or flower water. Sometimes, just a softer, more liquid version of a salve (infused oil and emulsifier, no water) or another combination of herbal liquids.
Poultice: Plant material, fresh or dried, that has been chopped up and sometimes mixed with boiling water (especially in the case of dry plant material), and applied topically.
Salve: A mixture of an herbally-infused oil with an emulsifying agent, usually beeswax, to give it some hardness, used to apply healing herbal constituents to the skin. Contains no water. Can also be called a balm or an unguent.
Syrup: A thick, water-based extract of an herb or herbs, usually sweetened. The sweetener acts a preservative and to make the extract more palatable.
Tea: An extraction of plant constituents using boiled water poured over the plant material. Usually, not much plant material is used and it is only left to steep for 5 or 10 minutes.
Tincture: An extract of an herb in alcohol and water. Often the ratio of alcohol to water is approximately 50:50. Tinctures contain a concentrated amount of plant constituents, and act to preserve them. The alcohol and water each extract somewhat different constituents from the herbs or plants.
Vinegar: A fermented liquid containing acetic acid, often standardized to about 6% acetic acid. Vinegar can be the end product of apple cider, wine, malt liquor or other juices or liquids. Acts to both extract and preserve plant constituents. Vinegar extracts somewhat different constituents than a tincture.