Herbalists talk a lot about their favourite medicines, menstrua and methods, but it is my unsolicited opinion that herbal honey doesn’t get near the attention it deserves.
I have recently been turned on to the joy of medicine-making with unpasteurized honey through my herbalism apprenticeship with Jessy Delleman of Fireweed Farm. She’s a(n) herbal honey master. She makes medicine go down a whole lot easier, teaspoon of sugar be damned! Seriously. Take her classes, peruse her herbs, buy her tinctures, order her herbal honey—you will not be disappointed.
Over the last couple of months I’ve made medicinal herbal honeys with red elderflower, grand fir tips, nettles, wild rose, linden, lavender & yarrow, grindelia and pineapple weed. I have big plans for Queen Anne’s Lace, mint, elecampane root, and Douglas Fir…
So, why do I have such a thing for herbal honeys. Well, first of all…honey. It’s the stuff of ancient magic. While fossils of honey bees date back a good 150 million years, the first recorded reference of beekeeping is from the first Egyptian dynasty. The Egyptian sun god Ra was believed to have created bees and humans from his tears. Temples kept bees to make offerings of honey to the gods in honey as well as to make medicines and ointments for ailing, well-to-do mortals. However, our relationship with bees predates the written word by thousands of years. Bronze Age hives made of straw and unbaked clay have been found near Jerusalem. In Spain, a 15,000 year-old cave painting depicts a figure bravely dipping past a swarm of bees and into a beehive and Neolithic Spaniards worshiped a Bee Goddess. From the “Queen Bee” Aphrodite and her Melissae, to ancient Celts (mead was believed to be a drink of the gods therefore, bees were legally protected in Ireland), our ancestors worshipped and worked with bees to harvest honey. And we’ve been adding herbs to honey for just as long. Remnants of mead (a fermented honey drink made with herbs) was found in a burial site from 1000 BC in Fife. Scottish Highlanders infused honey with Ox-eye daisies to treat coughs & wounds. And Indians have been creating Ayurvedic medicine using purified honey and herbs for the past 5000 years. I’ve barely even touched on the long, spiritual history of honey—it’s a story that could fill tomes. However, I encourage you to do some research. It’s fascinating. Here are just a few online resources: andrewgough.co.uk | mirrorofisis.freeyellow.com | thequeensbeesproject.wordpress.com
And lest we forget, honey is medicine. Raw, unpasteurized honey is antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and anti-allergenic. It helps build blood and actively promotes the healing of tissues. And according to Stephen Buhner,
“Honey contains (among other things) a complex assortment of enzymes, organic acids, esters, antibiotic agents, trace minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, hormones, and antimicrobial compounds. One pound of the average honey contains 1333 calories (compared with white sugar at 1748 calories), 1.4 grams of protein, 23 milligrams of calcium, 73 milligrams of phosphorus, 4.1 milligrams of iron, 1 milligram of niacin, and 16 milligrams of vitamin C, and vitamin A, beta carotene, the complete complex of B vitamins, vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin K, magnesium, sulfur, chlorine, potassium, iodine, sodium, copper, manganese, high concentrations of hydrogen peroxide, and formic acid… and the list goes on. Honey contains more than 75 different compounds! Many of the remaining substances in honey are so complex (4-7 percent of the honey) that they have yet to be identified.”
All this and we haven’t even added the plant medicine.
Also, herbal honeys are delicious and so incredibly pleasurable to make. Everything about the process is sensual and glorious, if a bit sticky (this is why we have tongues and window shades). There’s nothing quite so beautiful as honey lit up by sunshine. Combine that with the colours and scents of fresh herbs and you’ve got yourself a bonafide experience. Take your honey in tea, on toast, use it to make medicinal syrups or liqueurs or just eat it off the spoon.
Depending on the herb you choose, there are a couple of ways to make yourself an herbal honey—cold or warm infusion. More delicate plants like wild rose or elderflower do better with a cold infusion, while “tougher” herbs like rosemary or grindelia need heat to extract the flavour and medicine. Fresh herbs are much preferable to dried. I think the only dried herb I’d try would be maybe wild rose? But even then…I probably wouldn’t. Using fresh herbs allows you to harness much more medicine, flavour and magic. A good rule of thumb is a 1 parts herb to 12 parts honey for a cold infusion and 1 part herb to 5 parts honey for a warm infusion. You want more honey in a cold infusion as you won’t be evaporating off the plant waters with heat. More honey means less chance of spoilage.
Here’s how you make yourself one of each:
Cold Infusion: Wild Rose (Rosa nutkana) Honey
Slow ‘n easy (2-4 weeks)
This method is a make and leave it sort of thing. Good for those of us with things to do in life.
The swoony scent of roses comes from delicate and very volatile oils, therefore it does much better in a cold infusion. A warm infusion would simply evaporate all that good stuff away. Medicinally, rose is high in vitamin C and acts an antidepressant, nutritive, mild astringent, mild laxative and mild diuretic. Wild roses carry the strongest rose energy for healing and love, and are associated with protection, love, emotional healing, warding, grounding and fairy blessings. In short, they definitely live up to the hype.
Weigh your fresh rose petals and multiply that amount by 12 to come up with the amount of raw, unpasteurized honey needed. For example: 50 grams of roses calls for 600 ml of honey.
Chop up your roses, place them in the bottom of a jar, pour in the honey and stir. Place the sealed jar in a warm place out of direct sunlight and allow to infuse for 2-4 weeks. For a milder herbal honey, start tasting at 2 weeks.
Quick & dirty (2 days)
Perfect method for us impatient types who can commit to 2 days of gentle honey-warming.
Follow the above directions, but instead of stashing the jar away—place the sealed jar in a hot water bath to speed up the infusion process. Gently warm the honey over a couple of days. I put the honey jar in a larger bowl and fill the bowl with boiling kettle water several times over 2 days. Works a charm. Never heat your honey over 60 degrees celsius or you’ll pasteurize it thus denaturing all those brilliant enzymes. Now if this happens, don’t chuck your infusion! You’ll still have extracted all that herbal wonderfulness and it will still be delicious—you’re just out some honey magic. Not the end of the world.
Once your infusion is complete (slow or quick), warm your honey until it’s nice and liquidy and pour through cheesecloth, pressing out your marc (rose petals) into a sterilized jar. And don’t throw out those honeyed petals! Toss them into hot water for tea or throw them in cake batter. Or…just eat them. Use your wild rose herbal honey in everything from lemonade to baklava. Or treat yourself to a spoonful daily. It IS medicine, after all.
Herbs best suited for cold infusions:
And now, let’s heat things up a little…
Warm Infusion: Grindelia (Grindelia squarrosa) Honey
Grindelia squarrosa, also known as Gumweed, is an amazing plant. The squarrosa found mostly around here on Vancouver Island is found growing on sunny seasides, sand dunes and beaches and is easily identified by it’s brilliant yellow blooms brimming with sticky, resinous medicine. Internally it acts as an expectorant, antimicrobial, antispasmodic and diuretic. It’s also useful in treating asthma, nervousness and anxiety. Externally grindelia heals rashes, minor wounds and relieves irritation from poison ivy. Best harvested in the warm sunshine when the resins are pooling in the barely opened buds and flower centres, grindelia makes THE most delicious honey. Hands-down, my favourite. And I’ve personally had success in staving off asthma with warmed honey in tea.
Chop up and measure out 1 parts grindelia to 5 parts raw, unpasteurized honey. For example: 50 grams of grindelia to 250 ml of honey.
Place your chopped herb and honey into the top of double boiler and gently warm off and on for 3-5 days. Again do not heat your honey over 60 degrees celsius to avoid pasteurizing your honey.
Keep warming off and on until the plant waters have evaporated off and the mixture returns to a proper honey consistency. I’ve left rosemary honey on the stove for two weeks—mostly because I didn’t always remember to turn the heat on everyday…
Heat the honey up one last time and strain and press out your marc (grindelia) into a sterilized jar. Again, keep those honeyed grindelia blossoms. They make the most incredible sun tea. Grindelia has a certain Mediterranean flavour that I can’t quite describe. It’s like drinking high summer. Just the right about of bitterness counteracted by a certain warming richness. I really and truly love it. And since grindelia is absolutely thriving in this year’s drought-like conditions, I’ll be able to make enough herbal honey to last the year. Bravo, me!
Herbs best suited for warm infusions:
Grindelia, Fir tips, Lavender, Yarrow, Thyme, Rosemary, Wild Bergamot, St. John’s Wort, Balsam root, Holy Basil, Sweet Basil, Calendula
Your honeys should keep indefinitely if you store them out of direct sunlight. So far I’ve been successful in removing excess plant waters and haven’t had any of my batches go off. Of course, that could be the happy result of gluttony. Who am I to question? Herbal honeys make a wonderful gift and make a perfect host or hostesss gift.
And a quick note: leave some blossoms for the bees! Forage responsibly, take only what you need and plant flowering herbs for our pollinating pals.