Maybe dusky pink heirloom tomatoes seduced you. Or perhaps it was a bourbon barrel stout with caramel notes, along with an organic kale and goat cheese pizza, that drew you into the craft movement. If you’re like me, you value things grown, thrown, baked and brewed by two hands and one heart.

But then flu season hits, and even the best farm-to-table junkies are catapulted to the nearest neon sign flashing “pharmacy.” Sometimes that’s required. But if you’re inclined toward a natural approach — better yet, preventing those sneaky bugs from taking up shop in your sinuses in the first place — why not craft your own medicines?

The ingredients could be as close (and free) as a weed patch in your backyard; we’re talking yarrow and stinging nettle. You might not be familiar with these medicinal herbs — much less be able to recognize them — but volunteer plants in sidewalk cracks and neighborhood parks are ready for a passerby to pluck.

Holly Bellebuono“Growing up in the suburbs and always having gone to the grocery story, it never occurred to me that you could go out in your backyard and eat a weed!” said Holly Bellebuono (at right), owner of Vineyard Herbs, Teas and Apothecary. “Even today, it’s kind of revolutionary for some people. From there, it’s just a hop and a jump to ‘Oh, they can be medicine.’ They can be very healing.”

Of course, you don’t need to forage for freebies. You can handcraft remedies by buying or growing herbs. Bellebuono said a lone pot on your windowsill can work wonders. Fill it with sage, thyme or lemon balm to make into a salve, steam or tincture. Or simply visit a natural foods store or discover the world's apothecaries from your laptop.

Brewing your own steamy potions will enliven your senses. The potency of fresh herbs is more reliable than store-bought capsules that might have languished for months in a warehouse. Bellebuono said making your own botanicals is often less expensive, and the feeling of self-reliance is priceless.

“Ridding ourselves of the fallacy that real medicine is found only in bottles packaged with expiration dates or wrapped in colorful cardboard boxes on a retail store shelf is the first step toward understanding the real value of healing,” Bellebuono writes in “The Essential Herbal for Natural Health.” “True healing is an organic experience that involves not only our senses of taste, touch, and smell but also our sense of purpose and of being fulfilled.”

That beats aimlessly roaming a sea of tiny boxes in fluorescent-lit aisles (as I did recently in a flu-induced stupor).

Book coverFrom her nook on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, Bellebuono has been harvesting and blending her own formulas for 20 years. She "wildcrafts" from patches of geranium and red clover dotting the island, while growing pots of angelica and ginkgo in her home garden. Bellebuono said the creative act of experimenting with herbs as food and medicine is a healing force in itself.

Of course, prevention is ground zero. Who doesn’t want to bypass piles of tissues? Pack your plate with immune-friendly herbs, such as cayenne pepper, thyme and oregano. Cook with ginger, braise with garlic. Act like a queen and sip tea all the livelong day! Fill your pot with peppermint, rose hips, echinacea and elderberry. Bellebuono said eating and drinking these tonics will boost your chances of staying well through the winter and usher away bugs more quickly if they do multiply.

So, are you ready to craft your own botanicals? Bellebuono has offered five favorites from her latest book, “Women Healers of the World,” and her recipe-rich guidebook, “The Essential Herbal for Natural Health.” Remember: There’s no magic bullet, and healing happens just in the making.

Elder Flower Syrup

Elder flower syrupSyrup can be a palatable way to entice children, and it’s pretty much yummy for all ages. Whip up this remedy to open a stuffy nose, soothe a sore throat and lower fever. Elder was once called the medicine chest of country folk for its ability to relieve everything from colds to constipation. The lacy white blooms have anti-bacterial, anti-viral and laxative qualities. For a warming, pungent syrup, substitute ginger for elder flowers.

Yields: approximately 1 cup


  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup packed fresh elder flowers (or a 3 inch piece of fresh ginger root, chopped, peel on)
  • 1/2 cup honey
  1. In a saucepan, bring water to a boil.
  2. Plunge elder flowers into the hot water and let them steep, covered, for 5 to 7 minutes. Take care not to steep the flowers too long. A short dunk will capture the tantalizing flavor and scent of elder flowers while preventing the syrup from getting too gooey. (If using fresh ginger, steep for 8 to 15 minutes.)
  3. Strain the mixture, pouring the liquid back into the saucepan.
  4. Add the sweetener, and stir over low heat until blended.
  5. Pour the syrup into a pint jar. Store in the fridge and expect it to last two to four months — unless you use it up beforehand!
Adapted from “The Essential Herbal for Natural Health” by Holly Bellebuono. Reprinted by arrangement with Roost Books.

Warming Tea

This is no ordinary tea. Good for a cold or flu, it’s prepared as a decoction — liquid medicine cooked on the stovetop. Licorice and ginger soothe the throat and tummy. Peppermint and ginger get the blood moving. Yarrow fights germs. Bellebuono suggests heading to the health food store before something strikes, putting together a blend of these four power players and storing two cups in a jar or bag. Brew it up when you feel something coming on.

Yields: 1 quart


  • 2 tablespoons dried ginger (not powder)
  • 2 tablespoons dried licorice
  • 2 tablespoons dried peppermint
  • 1 teaspoon dried yarrow
  • Honey
  1. Place the dried herbs in a pot, except the yarrow. Cover herbs with 5 cups of cold water. Allow the mixture to sit for 1 to 2 hours.
  2. Turn on the heat and slowly bring water to a boil; immediately reduce to a simmer and cover the pot tightly. Simmer on low heat for 20 minutes.
  3. Remove the pot from the heat and add the yarrow. Allow it to sit, still covered, overnight.
  4. Strain the herbs, reserving as much liquid as possible. The tea will be bitter. If you wish to sweeten it, gently reheat, add honey to taste and drink it hot. Children should drink ½ cup every hour for a total of 1 1/2 cups. To reduce fever or as a cleanse, adults should drink 1 cup every hour up to 3 cups per day.
Adapted from “The Essential Herbal for Natural Health” by Holly Bellebuono. Reprinted by arrangement with Roost Books.

Warming Hand and Foot Salve

Book coverPart of handcrafting herbs 101 is that you don’t need an apothecary. “You don’t have to go out and learn 100 different plants,” Bellebuono said. “If you learn a handful of plants, you can really do a lot with just those few.” This topical formula made from fresh peppermint and ginger will improve circulation wherever you rub it. It’s nice on chilly feet at night. On the chest, oils evaporate to break up congestion in the nose and sinuses. Think natural vapor rub. Bellebuono said the salve will even clear up brain fog — and it smells refreshing, too.

Yields: 1 cup


  • 1 cup fresh peppermint, chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh ginger, chopped (including skin)
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup beeswax

When making herbal salves, use dedicated equipment, as the beeswax will never completely come out. Choose a stainless steel or enamel saucepan along with utensils that you use only with beeswax. The first step is to make an herbal oil, followed by the salve.

Making the oil

  1. Spread peppermint leaves and ginger root on a screen or newspaper to wilt for several hours or overnight. Make sure peppermint leaves are in a single layer and don’t overlap.
  2. Chop peppermint and ginger thoroughly with a knife. Place herbs in a clean, dry saucepan. Pour 1 cup olive oil into the saucepan and stir it into the herbs.
  3. Gently heat the mixture on low heat for 20 to 30 minutes, making sure the oil never bubbles or boils. (You don’t want crispy fried herbs!) You want to let heat suggest to the herbs that they release their goodness.
  4. Strain the liquid and press herbs firmly to extract as much valuable liquid as possible, being careful not to burn yourself.
  5. Measure the oil, then pour it into a clean, dry saucepan.
Making the salve

Beeswax can be purchased as “beads” at health food stores, but it is much better in chunks or blocks. Look for wax that has not been bleached or filtered. Wax straight from the beehive is best. Do not use paraffin or candle wax; these will ruin your salve.

  1. Chop or shave your beeswax into 1/4 to 1/2-inch slivers or chunks. In a dry measuring cup, measure 1/4 cup wax chunks for every 1 cup oil. For example, if you poured 1 cup oil into the saucepan, use 1/4 cup wax.
  2. Drop the wax into the saucepan with oil and heat them gently. As the wax melts, you may stir in essential oils if desired. For every 1 cup of oil, 5 to 10 drops of essential oil may be sufficient.
  3. Once the wax is completely melted, quickly pour the solution from the pan into a pouring container such as a (dedicated) clean glass measuring cup.
  4. Pour the salve into individual glass or ceramic containers. Add more essential oil if desired and cap the containers tightly.
  5. Allow the salve to cool. Don’t move the containers for at least an hour; they’ll cool from the bottom up and the color will lighten.
  6. Label the containers and store them in a cool, dry cabinet. The salve will have a shelf life of approximately 18 to 24 months.
Adapted from “The Essential Herbal for Natural Health” by Holly Bellebuono. Reprinted by arrangement with Roost Books.

Congestion-Opening Respiratory Steam

Child using herbal steamIts name reveals this simple steam’s secrets. But simplicity can be just as potent as complexity in herbalism. Inhaling herb-infused vapors will help unclog lungs and sinuses, and kill germs in those hidden passageways. A steam can lead the way to a good night’s sleep, a morning of clear breathing or the end of a nagging cough. Use fresh herbs, dried herbs or essential oils. If you’re picking your own herbs, feel free to substitute varieties that grow nearby. It’s great for children with stuffy noses. Offer to venture under the towel with them to show it’s safe and comforting. Pretend it’s a mini field trip to a steamy meadow. You don’t have to go further than your kitchen table.


  • Method 1: 2 to 3 handfuls of fresh herbs, such as yarrow, sage, rosemary, eucalyptus or peppermint leaves.
  • Method 2: 4 to 5 teaspoons of dried herbs. Choose one or more of the following: yarrow, peppermint, spearmint, eucalyptus, lemongrass, rosemary, sage and hyssop.
  • Method 3: 20 to 30 drops of essential oils. Choose 1 to 3 of the following oils: lemongrass, eucalyptus, tea tree, balsam fir and pine.

Method 1: Fresh herbs

  1. Chop the fresh herbs on a cutting board and add to a wide, shallow bowl.
  2. Fill the bowl with very hot water and immediately lean your head over the bowl, pulling the towel over your head to capture the steam. Be sure to close your eyes!
  3. Breathe through you nose, mouth or both for about 10 minutes or until the water cools. Listen to music or visualize the fragrance of the herbs flowing freely through your respiratory system.
  4. Add more hot water as needed and remain under the towel for 5 to 10 minutes at a time. Drink a large glass of room-temperature water afterward.
Method 2: Dried herbs

Prepare these dried herbs in a blend to keep on hand when you get congested. Blend them together in a glass jar, label, and store in a cool dry pantry. When ready to use, place 4 to 5 teaspoons of dried herbs in a wide, shallow bowl. Follow the instructions above.

Method 3: Essential oils

Most health food stores sell a good selection of essential oils, which are concentrated volatile oils from fragrant plants. Choose 2 or 3 essential oils and add 20 to 30 drops to a wide, shallow bowl. Follow the instructions above.

Don’t throw the water out! After your steam, strain and repurpose the herbal water for a foot soak or bath.

Adapted from Holly Bellebuono's, newest book, "Women Healers of the World: The Traditions, History & Geography of Herbal Medicine.” Reprinted by arrangement with Skyhorse Publishing/Helios Press.

Kelp Spirit Bath

Seaweed bathThis remedy can transport you to the sea, sans the travel, cold surf and sandy mess that may not be appealing (or possible) when you’re home sick. If you happen to live near the ocean, you can pick fresh fronds from the shoreline. “The experience is kind of like swimming with the seaweed,” Bellebuono said. For the landlocked or bedridden, dried seaweed works wonderfully, too. Steam from the warm water will open your sinuses, and seaweed will pull waste out of your body and down the drain. It’s a nice detox to do anytime, really, and it will make your skin shine.


  • Several fresh kelp or dulse fronds, or 2 to 4 tablespoons dried flakes.
  • Fresh fronds: Place fronds in the tub while water is running as hot as possible. Remove fronds before draining water.
  • Dried seaweed: Fill a large pot of water on the stovetop and bring to a boil. Add the seaweed strips or flakes and simmer for at least 15 minutes. Pour hot seaweed water in to the bathtub, straining if necessary. You can bathe with larger pieces of seaweed for a more sensory experience. Just fetch them out before they escape down the drain!
Adapted from Holly Bellebuono's, newest book, "Women Healers of the World: The Traditions, History & Geography of Herbal Medicine.” Reprinted by arrangement with Skyhorse Publishing/Helios Press.

Photo credits:

Bellebuono: Eli Dagostino

Book covers: Courtesy of the Bellebuono

Elder flower syrup: aliasemma/Shutterstock

Herbal steam: Teresa Kasprzycka/Shutterstock

Seaweed bath: Karen & Kerry Nicholson/flickr

5 herbal remedies to help you through winter
A quick trip to the backyard (or store) can yield the right plants to create healing concoctions at home.