Herbal Tonic Syrups

Easy to make and store, herbal syrups can be both a remedy and a nourishing tonic.

Do you have loved ones who refuse to try herbal remedies because they don’t like the taste? For several years, I shipped herbal teas, tinctures, and oxymels to my elderly mother only to discover that she didn’t use them because she didn’t like the taste. My mom suggested that if I made them sweet-tasting, she would be more likely to try them. It turns out that Mary Poppins was right when she reminded us that “just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” I headed to the kitchen to explore the world of herbal tonic syrups. There are a variety of sweeteners that can be used with herbal syrups (this article offers more information on the benefits of each).

Herbal syrups have a fascinating history: Dioscorides, a Greek physician who served in the Roman army, prescribed herbal syrups for stomach aches and coughs. Medieval monks utilized the preservation powers of honey and alcohol to create medicinal herbal elixirs which were an alcoholic form of syrup. During the 19th century, syrups were a common type of patent medicine sold in traveling medicine shows throughout the US. These remedies often targeted vague ‘female complaints’ or claimed to be a cure-all for just about every condition. The reputation of syrups as beneficial remedies may have tarnished as a result of this darker side of herbal medicine’s history. It’s time to bring them back as a powerful and delicious way to enjoy herbs.

The patent medicine era reveals how women were depicted as frail and sickly
The patent medicine era reveals how women were depicted as frail and sickly. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Syrups offer many benefits to the family herbalist: easy to make and store, accepted by even the pickiest person in the family, and convenient as both a remedy and a nourishing tonic. Elderberry syrup and herbal cough syrup are two of the better-known herbal remedies but syrups can also be used as tonics that nourish our body’s systems and bolster our overall health.

How to Make Herbal Syrup

The process of making syrup starts with your selected herbs and water. I recommend using dried herbs to reduce the potential for bacterial growth. If using roots, bark, twigs, fruit skins, or whole spices then you want to make a decoction first. A decoction is a liquid preparation made by simmering herbs for a longer period of time than infusions. Decocting is the preferred method for extracting herbal constituents from hard and woody plant parts that have been chopped into similar-sized pieces. 

Add your measured amount of herb to a pot, and then add the recommended amount of cold water. Partially cover the pot and bring the ingredients slowly to a boil. Once boiling is evident, reduce to a simmer and cook until the liquid is reduced by half. An easy way to measure this is to insert a wooden ruler into the filled pot before decocting to note the level and then identify what half of that amount would be on the ruler. Reducing decoctions usually takes 30-45 minutes: the more water you start with, the longer it takes to reduce.

If your recipe includes softer plant materials like dried and cut leaves and flowers, add these after removing the completed decoction from the stove. Keep covered and let sit for 10-20 minutes.

Cool the decoction for a bit, then strain and press on the herb marc to wring out all moisture, saving the marc for reuse in tea or composting it. Tiny particles of plant matter will remain and will appear as sediment in the bottom of the syrup containers. Use a coffee filter to strain again if desired. 

Sediment will remain after straining and will not affect the syrup but you can do additional straining with a coffee filter.
Sediment will remain after straining and will not affect the syrup but you can do additional straining with a coffee filter. Photo by Jordane Mathieu on Unsplash

Return the strained decoction to the pot. Add the specified amount of liquid sweetener to the decoction and using a whisk, stir until it is fully integrated. If using sugar heat the decoction again and add the sugar, stirring until it is dissolved. Allow to cool.

Preservation and Storage

Syrups can be preserved for longer periods by adding additional sweetener, typically matching an equal amount of sweetener to the amount of the herbal decoction (e.g., 1 cup of honey to 1 cup decoction). This will produce a very sweet syrup that will last for months in the refrigerator. I am not a fan of overly sweet anything, so I make small batches and use a smaller amount of sweetener. 

Another way to help with preservation is to add a ¼ cup of alcohol like brandy or vodka.  Want to boost the medicinal power of your syrup? Add a ¼ cup of an herbal tincture (that supports the herbal blend used) after the decoction has cooled. 

After completely cooling the syrup, pour into bottles or jars. Include the preparation date on the label and if giving as a gift, include all of the ingredients. Syrups without alcohol will last about one month, and those with alcohol will last about six months. All syrups should be stored in the refrigerator. Discard any syrup if mold develops. 

How to Use Herbal Syrups

Depending on the herbs being used, most herbal tonic syrups can be taken by teaspoon several times a day. They can also be added to hot tea, stirred into water or carbonated water, added to smoothies, yogurt, or drizzled on pancakes, oatmeal …even ice cream!   

Herbal syrups can be used with children provided you have knowledge of the medicinal herbs you are using. The FDA warns against giving honey to children under the age of one year old.

Many of the syrups from the patent medicine era contained high amounts of alcohol.
Many of the syrups from the patent medicine era contained high amounts of alcohol. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Ginger Syrup

Ginger syrup is a consistent resident in my refrigerator. In the kitchen, it is delicious sprinkled over a fruit salad, added to a vinaigrette or marinade, stirred into smoothies and stir-frys, yogurt and oatmeal, drizzled over ice cream, and as the base for a ginger soda. It can also be used for cocktails like the Moscow Mule.

Medicinally, ginger syrup can soothe upset digestion including symptoms of gas, bloating, and intestinal cramping. Ginger is well-known for its use with nausea including morning and motion sickness.

Have a sore throat? Add a splash of the ginger syrup to a cup of hot ginger tea and drink throughout the day. Ginger’s antimicrobial action will help fight against infection while offering warming relief to an inflamed throat. Easy to make and store, ginger syrup is one of the best remedies in your kitchen.

A local farmer grows ginger in her greenhouse and I buy several pounds of it each year. Recently harvested ginger bursts with a light citrusy but still spicy flavor.
A local farmer grows ginger in her greenhouse and I buy several pounds of it each year. Recently harvested ginger bursts with a light citrusy but still spicy flavor.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup thinly sliced raw ginger root (dried ginger will work but it will be far spicier)
  • 1 cinnamon stick (optional)
  • 5 whole cloves (optional)
  • 2 cups water
  • ½ – 1 cup raw honey

Directions

If the ginger root was grown organically, you can leave the peel on. If not, peel and then slice. Combine ginger, cinnamon stick, cloves (if using), and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer until the liquid has reduced by half, about 15 minutes. Strain out the ginger and spices. Let the syrup cool to room temperature, then stir in the honey. Store in a glass jar in the fridge. The syrup will keep for a month. Yield: about 16 ounces (Safe for children over the age of one year old.)

Chai Immune Tonic Syrup

Our immune systems benefit from extra support, especially during the colder months and seasonal transitions. For this delicious syrup, the adaptogenic herb, astragalus, is added to bolster the immune system and promote overall health. The addition of Chaga, a parasitic fungus, adds additional support to our immune systems.  (Note: Chaga grows slowly and its popularity has risen dramatically, setting up this fungus for endangered status. Always harvest sustainably or purchase from those who do so). Reishi, a mushroom with similar medicinal attributes can be substituted.

Take 2 teaspoons each day, add to smoothies, yogurt, tea, pudding, or drizzle on breakfast grains or pancakes.

Directions

Using a mortar and pestle, lightly crush the following whole spices:

  • 15 green cardamom pods
  • 1/4 cup of cinnamon chips or broken sticks
  • 2 teaspoons fennel or anise seeds
  • 2 teaspoons coriander seeds
  • 2 teaspoons black peppercorns
  • ½ – 1 teaspoon whole cloves
  • Optional: 1-2 star anise, 1-2 allspice

Heat a dry skillet and add the crushed spices, toasting for a few minutes to release their aromatic oils.

Chai recipes vary tremendously, often adding and substituting different herbs. My own chai recipes change almost every season. This photo shows one of my recipes where I added Douglas Fir needles.
Chai recipes vary tremendously, often adding and substituting different herbs. My own chai recipes change almost every season. This photo shows one of my recipes where I added Douglas Fir needles.

Transfer toasted spices to a saucepan. Add the following herbs:

  • ¼ cup of dried ginger chips (or for a lighter, fresher taste use 5 tablespoons of fresh, chopped ginger)
  • ¼ dried and cut astragalus root
  • 2 tablespoons ground chaga (sustainably wildcrafted) or reishi mushroom

Add 3 cups of water and partially cover.  Bring to a boil and reduce heat to simmer until reduced by half. Remove from heat to cool, allowing herbs to continue steeping. Once cooled, strain herbs (can reuse for a pot of tea). Add ½ -1 cup of raw honey (or use homemade date syrup with this recipe).

Pour into a glass bottle and refrigerate for up to a month. This recipe makes approximately 16 ounces.  

NOTE: Chai recipes vary so feel free to eliminate or substitute spices. Do not use powdered herbs. The chai decoction will taste strong but you can add water to dilute it.

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