Elspeth MacLeod’s Herbal – Part One


To the Reader: While writing The Convenient I renewed my interest and research into herbal remedies.  My protagonist, Elspeth MacLeod, was trained to be a Healer before she went to Italy to study medicine.  All women were expected to be proficient at healing, spinning, sewing, cooking, brewing and a myriad of other tasks. The following might have been taken from Elspeth’s handwritten herbal. I will add to it often.



I am making this record for those who come after me.  Each of us must take care to use herbs cautiously and with the greatest care.  This is but a simple guide so that you may learn of what has been done in the past and determine your own course.



Preparation is the most important part of herbal lore. This is how I prepare and use my herbs and includes the common names used to describe the procedures. There are many ways to prepare herbs, and this is only my way.



Herbal baths lower fevers and anxiety levels. Foot baths are used for soaking tired sore feet, or in the treatment of tinea (ringworm), athlete’s foot and corns.  This is a soothing treatment for anyone with sore feet and angst.

Method: Put one cup of your herb of choice in cold water for 12 hours. Heat the infusion and then add it to the bath water. For a foot bath, steep 2 ounces of herb with the method above, and add to a bucket of water.   I especially like lavender, mint, and rosemary.



Compress (See Fomentation): When herbs are too strong to ingest, this method allows a smaller amount of the herb to be absorbed slowly by the body. Folded pieces of cloth of various sizes and shapes are contrived for use with a bandage, to apply pressure on any part of the body. The cloth may be used with liquids, ointments, or creams.

Method: Make an herbal infusion/decoction and soak a cotton cloth in it. Remove excess liquid and apply to the affected area.  I often use this method with spikenard (lavender) for soothing patients. 



Cream: A thick herbal based liquid or soft substance that is rubbed into the skin to make it softer or is used as a medicine for the skin. It is a water-soluble medicinal preparation and is absorbed easily. Dried or fresh herbs can be incorporated directly. An ointment differs from a cream in that it has more oil and tends to stay on the surface of the skin. 

Method: Melt two ounces of beeswax in a double boiler. Add one cup oil and blend. Add two ounces herb extract, tincture or fresh herb. For lighter cream, add a little water, mixing well. Simmer half an hour.  If you are using fresh herbs, pour through a strainer into your containers and cool.  Experiment with various mixtures.  



Decoction: Decoctions are solutions of herbal principles obtained by boiling in water. Use for woody parts like bark, seeds, nuts, etc. 

Method: Crush or chop the herb, place in water (two teaspoons of fresh or one of dry herb to one cup), cover and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.

Strain and give one cup, up to three times daily.  Decoctions can also be used for creating salves



Extract: Extracts are used to treat strained muscles, arthritis or inflammation. Extracts are like tinctures, but may be made using oil, vinegar or alcohol.

Method – Place 4oz of dried herbs or 8oz of fresh herbs in a jar. Add 1 pint of white vinegar, vodka or vegetable oil. Turn and agitate the jar twice a day for 3 weeks. Strain.



Fomentation (See Compress): A partial bathing by the application of cloths.

Method -   Dip cloths in hot or cold water or medical decoction and apply to affected area.

A dry fomentation might be a warm stone or brick, wrapped in soft cloth and applied to the area, or simply a heated cloth.



Honey – Included here as a more palatable way to take some herbs.  Honey is something you should always keep on hand.

Method: Use finely chopped fresh or powdered dry herb. Cover with honey, leave to infuse for a few minutes, then administer by spoon. This method can be used for essential oils, one drop to a teaspoonful of honey.  I often put ginger or mint into the honey for those with stomach problems.



Infusion: Infusion is the process of extracting properties from plants in solvents such as water, oil or alcohol, by suspending them in the solvent over a period. The process is distinct from decoction, which involves boiling the plant material.

Method: Cold Infused Oil (Maceration) Use for flowers and soft parts of plants. Pack the herb into a screw-topped jar and pour in enough oil to cover. Place on a sunny windowsill for five hands, shaking daily. Strain.


Hot Infused Oil (Maceration) Heat herbs gently in vegetable oil for three hours. Strain.



Inhaled solutions are used to improve breathing and lung function, and to alleviate the symptoms of chronic respiratory issues, such as asthma, bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Method: Put desired herbs into simmering water. Container may be left on stove or hearth and steam allowed to fill the room. A basin may be filled with the hot liquid, and the patient may lean over the basin, and inhale the steam. A cloth placed over the head, extending to the basin, will contain the steam longer.



A medicinal preparation applied to the skin. An ointment differs from a cream in that it is primarily oil based, as opposed to being more water-soluble.

Method: Use hot or cold infused herbal oil and beeswax. Melt beeswax gently in the oil while stirring, over lowest heat.  NEVER overheat herbs.



A poultice is made from warm mashed herbs, which are applied directly to the skin. Poultices are used for inflammation, bites, boils, abscesses and similar problems. Before applying protect the area with a layer of oil. 

Method: Macerate ingredients, place on a clean cloth and apply to area.  Hold in place with a cloth bandage. Repeat if needed. Poultices are often heated before application.


A soothing adhesive ointment to be applied to wounds or sores.  It is composed of various ingredients, depending on what it is to be used for.

Method: Basic composition of salves is two parts oils to one-part beeswax, with added selected herbals. Heat oils gently, just warm enough to melt the Beeswax. Never overheat herbs. When adding essential oils, put them in after you remove the salve from the heat, before pouring into containers.

There are no absolute rules about making salve. Add more beeswax to make a very firm salve or use less to make a soft salve. Healing salves are usually firmer.



Syrups are used for coughs, congestion, sore throats and carriers for the less flavorful herbs.

Method: Make simple syrup of sugar and water and add herbal extract desired.  Simple syrups are composed of equal amounts of water and sugar. Bring to the boil. Remove from heat, stir in tincture. Three parts syrup to one-part tincture. (3 parts syrup to 1-part tincture)



A solution of herbal substances in alcohol or diluted alcohol, prepared by maceration or digestion. Tinctures and extracts are used with syrups.

Method: Alcohol and water are used to prepare a more concentrated extract. Use vodka which is clear and has almost no taste of its own.  The ratio for herbs is one-part herbs to five parts vodka. Some of the vodka may be replaced with water. Place in jar, seal tightly, and agitate once a day for three weeks. Strain.



Herbal Wine: Herbs of choice, mixed with wine.

Method - Use a sweet red wine with high alcohol content. Cover four ounces of herb(s) with three cups of wine. Leave for a week before straining.

Part Two of Elspeth’s Herbal lists many herbs she used and their uses.



Elspeth’s Herbal Part Two


The definition of an herbal is a book, often illustrated, that describes the appearance, medical properties, and other characteristics of plants used in herbal medicine.  Although an herb is classified as “a flowering plant whose stem above ground does not become woody” most herbals reference various other pungent, aromatic plant substances, such as cinnamon or nutmeg, which are valued for their medicinal properties, flavor or scent. Minerals, animal and insect by-products are often included in herbal recipes.


The earliest known herbals were the 3rd century B.C works of Diocles of Carystus and those of Krateuas from the 1st century B.C.  Records of Greek and Roman medicinal practices, were preserved in the writings of Hippocrates (e.g. De herbis et curis), and Galen (e.g. Therapeutics). The compendium of Pedanius Dioscorides (De Materia Medica) remained the authoritative reference of herbalism into the 17th century.


In The Convenient my character, Elspeth MacLeod, was educated in Italy and is “A Woman of Salerno.” Her education was equal to or better than that of most Scottish physicians, but she was a woman, and by law, could not practice medicine in her own country. She could deliver babies, do surgical procedures and diagnose illness. She would have been instructed in the use of herbs as they were understood at that time. The study of Botany was essential to the practice of medicine and was taught in medical schools.  The new Physick Garden at the University of Glasgow would have been of great interest to her. She would have used the herbs that will be listed. She would have prepared her own herbal and been familiar with those written by others.


Much of my research involved primary sources from ancient writings, to those of the early nineteenth century. These sources reflect the knowledge of the period as it was understood at the time.


The use of plants as medicine predates written human history. Ethnobotany, the study of human uses of plants, identified 122 compounds used in modern medicine which were derived from “ethonomedical” plant sources, such as aspirin, digitalis, quinine and opium.


Part One of Elspeth’s Herbal was about methods of preparing the herbs which we will be referencing. Preparation is the most important step in utilizing herbs. The traditional methods of preparing and using herbs apply to all those included here. 


Herbs are best if used in the fresh state but can be dried to ensure a constant supply throughout the year. When using dried material, use half the amount called for in the fresh version recipe. 


After choosing the plant to use you must obtain the active ingredient from it. The method depends on the part of the plant used, the active ingredient, or the mode of administration.

The simplest way to use a plant, is to crush part of it, and apply the juice directly.  Think aloe.  Some type of preparation is usually required for most herbs.



I have divided the herbal information into three parts: Definition, Legend, and Use. They will be discussed in alphabetical order.  Elspeth would not have access to much of the herbal information that follows, but she would have known how to use them as they were understood at the time.  The other information is both educational and entertaining.  I hope you will learn a few things you did not know as we progress.




Apricots are the fruit of the Prunus Armeniaca of the Linnaeus.  When ripe they are easily digested and are considered as a pleasant and nutritious delicacy.

The word apricot comes from the Latin praecocia meaning "precocious" or "early ripening." It first appeared in English print in 1551. It is a member of the rose family, along with peaches, plums, cherries and almonds.

The apricot flower symbolizes “doubt” in the language of flowers.

Records show that the apricot has been known in China for more than 4,000 years, where it was discovered and cultivated on the mountain slopes. By 600 BC apricots were a major fruit staple in China, eaten fresh, dried, salt-cured or smoked.



Many legends are associated with the apricot. It is speculated that the apricot had already migrated to the Middle East before the Old Testament and that the apples described in the Garden of Eden in Genesis were apricots.  Like other fruits with stones, the  apricot has been used to symbolize female genitalia.




Legend of the Apricot Tree

“Once upon a time, there was a huge apricot tree. The shade from its leaves covered a wide area of the ground below. Two genii, Tra and Uat Luy had chosen it as their home and mercilessly exterminated all the demons and phantoms in the entire area. Because of this, people living near the tree, were protected from the demons. When the end of the lunar year came, Tra and Uat Luy were required to offer their respects and good wishes to the Emperor of Jade, which left the people at the mercy of the evil spirits. They knew that the spirits were deathly afraid of the big apricot tree which was the home of the two genii, so each family picked a branch from the tree and placed it on their door to scare the bad spirits away.”  

Since that time, apricot branches have been used to frighten off evil spirits.


I was fascinated to find that in Chinese, “Apricot Forest” is another term for the medical community. Medical professionals often call themselves “persons of the Apricot Forest.”

“Apricot Forest” originally came from Dong Feng, a highly skilled doctor in the period of the Three Kingdoms (220 – 280 A.D.).  There is a lovely legend associated with his Apricot Forest.



The fruit, kernels, oil and flowers of the apricot have been used in medicine for centuries.

Eaten raw or dried, the fruit is good for anemia due to its high iron and copper content.


Warning: Apricot seeds can be toxic.


Flavoring. Your “Pure Almond Extract” is not what it seems.

There are three ingredients in most “Pure Almond Extracts” used in foods:  Water, alcohol, and bitter almond oil.  Almond oil is extracted from almonds or other drupes (stone fruits) such as apricots, peaches, plums and cherries.

The almond flavor is from benzaldehyde, a substance found in the kernels of drupes.

Apricot seeds were used against tumors as early as AD 502.

The tree was first brought to England in 1524, to Henry VIII, and was used against tumors and ulcers in England in the 1600s, perhaps as a result of its use on Henry’s well documented leg ulcer. It has since spread to many other countries, and is valued for its ease of care, fruit, and lovely flowers.


The oil is extracted by crushing the seeds, using the cold-pressed method.

It is a demulcent (demulcere "caress") and is used to form a soothing film over an inflammation.

As a salve, it can be used for skin eruptions, scabies, eczema, sun-burn and itching of the skin due to cold exposure.

In liquid form it is often used for asthma, cough, constipation, bleeding, infertility, eye inflammation, and spasms.

Its softening properties are especially good for soaps, skin creams, and perfume preparations.