Herbs can be preserved a variety of ways according to the nature of the herb and the intended use. We can easily imagine that the first herbal remedies were simply picked fresh, which remains an ideal method for many herbs. Drying herbs is naturally the most basic method of preserving herbs and has existed since the very beginning of herbalism. Drying is not always so easy, however, as humidity can create less than ideal conditions, contributing to degeneration of the herb and other problems like mold, and other requirements like time and space are not always so available. Furthermore, many herbs lose potency when dried, or over time after they have been dried. Pills and capsules, being made with dried herbs, have the same issues as dried herbs. Plus they have the additional obstacle to absorption in that they are bound together or encapsulated with some agent like gelatin. Many companies have created “gel-caps” in which the capsule contains a liquid extract, but this is not always the most efficient way to take a liquid extract.
There are several different ways to make liquid herbal extracts. The most basic is water extracts (“teas”), of which there are two basic types. Technically, tea is made from the Tea plant, Camellia sinensis. When herbs are prepared in the same manner, steeping the plants in just-boiled water, the result is an infusion, or tisane. When herbs are prepared by simmering the herbs in water, the result is a decoction. Infusions are generally preferred when more delicate plant parts like aromatic leaves and flowers are used, while decoctions are preferred when plant parts are hard and woody like barks and dried berries. For modern people, these preparations are sometimes too time consuming to be practical. Plus, they are not easily preserved, but are best prepared fresh.
The second way to prepare herbs is to extract them in alcohol. When distilled alcohol is used to make an herbal concentrate, it is called a tincture. Herbs can also be preserved this way by soaking in wine. Additionally, herbs can be preserved in vinegar and glycerin as tinctures. And they can be made into syrups and oils. Syrups are generally made with cane sugar or honey. Oils are made by infusing herbs in oil, which then can be used as is or made into salve, lotion, and the like (mostly for topical use).
Tinctures have remained one of my favorite ways to preserve herbs since my first struggles with drying herbs in rainy weather. It can be discouraging to grow or wildcraft herbs, arrange them on drying racks, watch them dry until almost ready for the jar, only to have a rainy day come along and the plant material re-absorb moisture from the air. Even if you manage to dry and jar the herbs, they might be past their prime months or years later when you get around to using them! With tinctures, you can pick the plant and immediately cut it up and cover it with alcohol. There is very little chance for spoilage if done properly. Further, it will last for many years after it is strained. The major drawback to tinctures is that their alcohol content is high. While this is not much of an issue for herbs used in low doses, it can prevent taking larger doses of herbs as tinctures. Wines still contain alcohol, but usually much less. Wines, then, can be taken in larger doses. A common dose might be about an ounce of wine.
I have tested my versions of the wines listed in Secret Shaolin Formulas for the Treatment of External Injury at the first signs of colds and sore throats and have been quite amazed by the results. One year I was working around many people who were sick with respiratory infections and the flu. That particular year people were getting hit hard, and repeatedly. On a few occasions I felt not just run down at the end of the day, but the beginning of a sore throat, and would take a gulp of medicinal wine before going to sleep and would wake up feeling great. This is a good example of why convenient preparations are important. If I were depending only on what was available outside, I might not have gone out to harvest White Pine and other herbs to ward of a cold at the end of a long day. But because the preparation was ready to use, I was able to follow though and avoid plummeting into sickness.