Decoctions are strong medicine and form the foundation of care in Southern and Appalachian Folk Medicine and in the Western Herbal Tradition. Traditionally, the herb(s), either dried or fresh, are placed in a pot of water and cooked for a lengthy amount of time, anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours. The resulting tea is a strong, dark brew. A stainless steel or glass pot is used to keep the decoction as free from impurities as possible.

In the process of decocting, the volatile oils are released and are not the medicines being sought. Instead, during this alchemic process, the deeper medicines locked in the plant are brought forth during cooking. The prolonged heating of the plant releases its strength. Sometimes the herb needs to cook for an extended time, sit and soak without heat, and then be cooked again to release its full strength.

Good taste is not the primary goal of decoctions which often taste strong or bitter. The purpose of a decoction is to draw out the most medicine from the plant for use in healing in a timely manner. Traditionally in folk medicine, decoctions of simples or single herbs were used to influence an organ system or to offset a pattern of dysfunction assessed by the herbalist. Decoctions can be used short-term for acute situations or taken long term for chronic problems.

Remember, in a decoction less of an herb is initially needed because of the heating process. My favorite decoction for strengthening the kidneys is a combination of marshmallow, sumac, hydrangea, yucca and lady’s thumb. To prepare this mixture: Combine the herbs and bring to a boil in a gallon of water. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for about 30 minutes. Let sit until cool. The mixture can be refrigerated for about 3 days.

One of my favorite simple decoctions is chickweed. Using either dried or fresh chickweed, bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes. You are in for a unique experience! Even though dried chickweed can appear brownish, once it starts cooking and releasing, the plant perks up and changes color.