Starting Your At-Home Herbal Apothecary
I love the idea of a home apothecary. Rows of jars and bottles with various leaves, roots, and flowers hiding inside. Extracts and oils, tinctures, flower essences with handwritten labels. Something about having a home apothecary feels empowering. I know that I have the power to care for myself and my family with these remedies. It's also just incredibly witchy and feels like something my ancestors have been doing for thousands of years, so it's a natural inclination that I might want to stock up on plant medicine for my home.
I've put together a guide to move through if you are curious about starting your own apothecary, or inspiration for building out your own collection of medicine. These ideas are things I've thought about and gleaned on my own journey of becoming an herbalist.
I N S P I R A T I O N
Before starting it can be helpful to pin down inspiration to guide you in creating your home apothecary. Like any project, getting inspiration for shelving set ups, bottles, and labels can give you ideas for what you like and help you plan your next steps. Pinterest of course is a great place to pin down ideas, but even sketching it out and having a place to jot down notes can be helpful. I have a few boards dedicated to herbalism on my pinterest here.
L O C A T I O N
Think about what you’ll be using your apothecary for. First aid, cooking + tea, medicine making, skin care? It might be a good idea to start there, then plan out a space. A kitchen apothecary can be seamlessly interwoven with your kitchen, so consider clearing off some room in the pantry. A tincture shelf might need to live adjacent to the kitchen - glass bottles can take up a lot of room and you don’t necessarily want to put them in a high traffic area for fear of knocking them. I’ve been a fan of using wooden armoires with decorative glass fronts. These are pretty common finds at thrift stores and make a beautiful decorative place to display tinctures, jars, and old herbal books. Plus, something about ornate wood and handles makes your apothecary feel so witchy - which I love!
In my house I have several “stations” if you will for how I keep and store my herbal medicine and supplies. This changes often and I’m still figuring out the best flow for my own needs. In general I have:
Kitchen tincture shelf: I found a small shelf while taking a neighborhood walk, someone had left it out and it was the perfect shelf to fit my 1 and 2 oz tinctures. I nestled it in a corner of our kitchen on the counter and it holds several medicines I might take regularly or need in a pinch. An example of some of the tinctures on my shelf right now:
Nervines: Rose Colored Glasses, Milky Oats, Chamomile, Tulsi
Allergy: Cleavers, Grindelia, Nettles
Digestive: Bitters, Neutralizing Cordial
Immune: Throat spray, Kick That Cold
Flower essences: Queen Anne’s Lace, Hibiscus, Apocalypse Potion
This little shelf is handy because these are the tinctures + remedies we reach for most often, and I don’t want to necessarily go digging in a drawer to find one (especially if I need it in a pinch!) I also have some small crystals to decorate and cohabitate with these remedies.
Loose herbs shelf: We have limited cupboard space - so I decided to order this wooden shelf to hold my loose herbs. We also have a cupboard dedicated to spices and boxed teas, but I knew I needed more room and that cupboard has since quickly filled up. It’s also nice to have a dedicated space for loose herbs- I just love the way they look. I have around 20 jars here of my favorite herbs to use. Most of these are great for tea blends, but can absolutely be used for other medicine making projects. I ordered some of them from mountain rose, and others I got from local shops that carry them in bulk. Some of them include: rose, chamomile, tulsi, marshmallow, peppermint, raspberry leaf, calendula, lavender, elderflower, rosehips, gotu kola, hops, elderberry
Pantry: I have three drawers in my pantry dedicated to various herbs + supplies. One drawer holds back stock loose-leaf herbs in large bags (since it’s often more cost effective to get them by the pound if ordering online) another drawer holds medicine making supplies: 95% tincturing alcohol, glycerin and empty bottles that I repurpose such as dropper bottles, spray bottles, cream jars, etc. The last drawer holds some essential oils I use in skincare formulation and tinctures I might need only every once in a while - like supplements for a UTI.
Tincture Shelf: Located in our home office/ work space, this is where I keep everything in amber glass bottles that I don’t use too often. This is the backstock for our kitchen tincture shelf - most of the bottles are 4 oz size or larger. Many of them are simples (single herbs) so that I have the option to mix formulas on demand. I also keep infused oils here and some medicine making supplies: empty dropper bottles, mason jar funnels, and glass graduated cylinders.
Skin care lives in my bathroom. Like herbs, spices, and kitchen medicine - skin care and herbal medicine meld into one another seamlessly. I might use an infused oil for cooking, only to turn around and use it on my dry skin. As rosemary gladstar says:”If you don't know what something is or what it does, don't smear it on your face.” I don’t hold hard and fast to that rule *gestures wildly to shelf of glossier products* but I do love making my own herbal products for skin and hair.
This cute little shelf holds some of my skin care products like calendula infused oil, hydrosols (floral water used for toning the skin!) my favorite perfume in the world (with notes of jasmine, cardamom, and hinoki) this salve for chapped skin, bath soaks, essential oils I love, and flower essences. Similar to the kitchen shelf, I love decorating with flowers and crystals to add a touch of magic and to infuse these remedies with some crystal healing.
I’ve been immersed in this work for years, so it makes sense that many corners of my house would be little apothecaries in their own right. Herbal medicine doesn’t need to live in a tight little box, it’s a lifestyle that can be seamlessly interwoven in the food we eat, the lotions we put on our skin, and how we help ourselves feel better after a tough day or week (or year!)
V E S S E L S
Some of my favorite moments when visiting a fellow herbalists home are when they show me their herbal apothecary. Often it’s a patchwork of various sized and styled bottles. Amber, glass, clear, mason jars with screw lids. I think it’s really up to your preference for what you want. I’m a huge fan of reusing and repurposing what you already have. I save almost every bottle I use. It’s fairly simple to clean (a bottle brush helps!) then I just stash it for the next time I need it to bottle something up. Amber is useful to keep light out of a medicine - especially for tinctures which can degrade when exposed to light. If using a tin or jar to bottle up some lotion or a salve - be mindful that the paper cover in the cap can harbor bacteria. It’s usually best to toss it out. While I personally love the mismatched jar look, I also love a very clean and minimal look when it comes to my core herbs and simple tinctures. It helps me focus and really just soothes my soul when I see an ordered shelf with every jar the same. So I opted to go for a simple clear jar with a white lid for my tea shelf, and classic amber bottles with screw caps or dropper lids for my tincture shelf.
L A B E L S
I’ll never forget when we had a guest teacher come for a weekend when I was at herb school. In the opening of his lecture he was explaining all of the different paths one can take through their herbalism journey. He said some of us would become farmers, some would be drawn to medicine making, some would be called to be practitioners, and some of us might spend our whole careers just making labels. I almost laughed out loud because he hit the nail on the head. It sounds silly, but I knew that I was the latter. I loved (and still do) creating labels for my medicine. Early in my herbal journey I was enamored with hand-drawn illustrations and the aesthetic just gave me a warm feeling of why I was drawn to this field. Beautiful plants grown from the earth, harboring all of this love and care, and when we interact with them we can experience that. It was simple and soothing, and as a visual learner I am called to that (drawn to draw if you will.) So I’ve accepted my calling, and while I don’t spend all day making labels - a big part of my job allows me to learn and create and design things that inspire people to live in connection with nature.
All that to say, for some it’s as simple as slapping on a piece of tape and writing with a sharpie. For others (ahem) it’s a sort of ornate dance to plan and design and implement the perfect matching labels across all jars. You’ll know which category you fall into pretty quickly. For the latter group, a printer is a good start. I’ve done all manners of label designs. I’ve printed simple labels and taped them on with packing tape. That works pretty well and the tape creates a water resistant barrier. I’ve purchased labels from office supply stores (this I’ve liked less, depending on the label they can be hard to remove and are not always waterproof.) Hand-drawn though time consuming is also a beautiful gesture. I have fond memories of the kitchen apothecary in the home I lived in for years. A two tiered communal shelf that lived above the spices and coffees, each jar had its own hand drawn design and label made by people who had lived there over the years. My latest foray into label making involves a cricut, vinyl, and tiny hand printed lettering that is applied using transfer tape. My honey laughs at me as I often use this project to “unwind” after a long day where I just want to listen to a podcast and focus on repetitive menial work. It sparks a weird feeling of joy to see the perfect simple lettering come together to create a minimal collection of labeled herb jars. Although I like a minimal label, it’s still so important to have the information needed to use this medicine in the future. This includes: (at minimum) ingredients (both common and scientific names are important here) and the date created. Ingredients will include plants but also whatever menstruum (liquid used to extract) which could be alcohol, oil, glycerin, honey, or vinegar. You can also include where you harvested or sourced ingredients from. This is important not only to ascertain what is in this bottle, if it’s a simple or a formula, but also the shelf life. In general tinctures are shelf stable for about 5 years, oils and vinegars for about 1 year. It’s not so much that they will spoil, as much as they will lose potency and become less effective.
L I B R A R Y
Along with your herbs, it’s useful to collect books to help you on your journey and to start building your reference library.
Body into Balance by Mariel Groves
The herbal medicine makers handbook by James Green
Medicinal Herbs: A beginners guide by Rosemary Gladstar
Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West by Michael Moore (though I don’t live out west any more, I referenced this book often and highly recommend any book by Michael Moore, one of the few herbal offers that makes me laugh out loud when I read)
Old herbals can not only add a touch of magic, but have wisdom to glean as well. A tattered copy Nicholas Culpeppers herbal written in 1602 is one of my favorites to flip through for inspiration.
S T A R T S M A L L
What started with one tea strainer and a bag of loose leaf raspberry tea for me, turned into drawers and shelves full of remedies I love. So I would say if your overwhelmed - start small with one herb or remedy you love. Whether it’s a simple (one plant) or a product you purchase that draws you in, what invites your curiosity is the most important thing. Find a special place in your home where that remedy can live and let it grow naturally from there.
When I started my herb journey, I was really drawn to about 5-7 plants that I was familiar with, but wanted to know more about. After several years of taking a deep dive studying plant medicine, countless camping and foraging trips, hikes, classes, and a year long garden apprenticeship - I still come back to those 5-7 herbs and they make up the majority of the remedies I use regularly:
Between these plants I have most of my herbal actions covered. I can calm my anxiety, ease digestive upset, relieve a headache, promote restful sleep, increase brain function and memory, stop a minor bleed, ease menstrual cramps, boost immunity, provide relief if I do get sick, promote beautiful skin and hair, and make a daily nutritive tea to provide minerals, vitamins to boost energy and stress resilience over time. I grow many of these in containers on my patio, and many of them have ties to my personal ancestry (scottish & english herbalism) which feels even more special.
When deciding which herbs to carry in your home apothecary - it doesn’t have to be a huge repertoire of every herb under the sun. A small group of herbs can have a host of actions you might need to have on hand. Pick a few that you are curious about and invest time to study and experiment with these in cooking, skin care, tea, and medicine making. Maybe even try your hand and growing some of your own remedies!