The most important consideration to bear in mind when making herbal preparations is to only use the best quality products you can find. Good quality oils and natural essential oils will combine to make a far superior product than that produced by cheap oil and chemical, synthetic oils. Natural products are far less likely to cause skin allergies, but it is always wise to test your finished product on a small patch of your own skin if not on that of the recipient.
Essential oils are produced from many different scented plants, using both the leaf and stalk, or flower, depending on the plant concerned. Although it is possible to extract these essential oils yourself, it is a long process and the fun of making some herbal beauty products as gifts is to have fairly instant results. If you find concocting potions really appealing, there are plenty of opportunities for further experimentation to be found in the many specialist books available.
As with every product, it is the packaging that gives the finishing touch and makes all the difference between something that looks home-made and slightly dubious or exciting and luxurious. If you keep your eyes open in antique shops and yard sales, you will discover that there are plenty of old and interesting bottles around. Thick glass bottles in a green or blue tone can look wonderful when decorated with a pretty satin ribbon and a few flowers. Sealing is probably best done with a cork, which can be trimmed to fit any size of bottle. Screw-top bottles are another possibility but they don't have the same old-fashioned appeal.
Another lovely idea is to buy a glass scent bottle with a ground stopper to prevent evaporation. The container could then be treasured and reused many times. Atomizers can give a marvelous feeling of luxury to some home-made scented waters. There are many unusual perfume bottles available and they make a stunning display on a pretty dressing table. As a complete contrast, there are also some promisingly shaped containers to be found in grocery stores and supermarkets; if you look carefully next time you are shopping, you'll be amazed at how many suitable shapes and sizes there are amongst the mustard pots, vinegar jars, mayonnaise jars or even bottles of squashes and cordials. You may have to cover the lid, or substitute a cork for the screw top depending on how attractive it is once opened, but nevertheless there is plenty of scope.
Always label your product carefully and add instructions if it should be kept in the refrigerator or in cool conditions. Giving a use-by date might also be a good idea if something has a fairly short life. Labels can be decorated by hand or stenciled and tied with a ribbon around the neck of the bottle. You could also use a sticky label and attach it to the body of the bottle. Several products can then be packaged together in a hamper or basket, with cotton wool balls or other packaging to fill the basket and prevent the bottles from breaking. Home-made pot-pourri makes a very good filler for baskets - you can carefully arrange a selection of bottles amongst the pot-pourri, then cover the basket with swathes of cellophane before decorating it with a pretty bow.
Nothing works more magic than a perfumed soak in a warm bath after a really tiring or stressful day. The smell of the herbal products can add a great deal to that relaxation and many bath preparations are very simple to make.
There are two main groups of herbs in these preparations - herbs to promote relaxation and those that help to revive you. The relaxing herbs include camomile, scented geranium, jasmine, lavender, neroli (orange blossom) and hops. The more stimulating and reviving herbs include basil, lemon verbena, rosemary, melissa and bergamot.
Although it is a tempting thought to strew freshly picked herbs across the waters of your calming bath, I wouldn't recommend that you try it! Speaking from bitter experience, it causes untold blockage problems in the plumbing and feels very uncomfortable when you sit on a particularly sharp stalk! The best way to use fresh herbs is to place them in a muslin bath bag.
Cut out some 9-inch diameter circles of muslin and place 2 tablespoons of roughly torn fresh herbs in the middle of each one. Dried herbs are just as successful. Gather the edges of the circle together and make into a small bundle, holding it in place with an elastic band. Then attach ribbons around the bundle to cover the elastic band, making a long enough loop to hang it from the taps so it will dangle in the water. A set of bath bags, with different colored ribbons to denote different herbs or mixtures of herbs, could be put together with a collection of other bath-time treats. Do write clear instructions on a label so they don't get mistaken for bouquet garni and put in a stew!
Oatmeal can be added to the contents of the bath bags. Use equal quantities of herbs and oatmeal, as it helps to soften the skin.
These are very simple to make and very relaxing. The oil base should be good quality - preferably almond for normal to dry skin or safflower for normal to greasy skin. The only oil that will completely disperse in bathwater is a form of castor oil called turkey red oil. However, it is not easily available in health food stores, unlike the others, and so I would recommend trying the almond or safflower oils instead.
Choose some essential oils that will relax or revive (see the suggestions above) and make sure they are good quality natural oils rather than chemical ones. Chemical fragrances are excellent for pot-pourris and products that will not come into contact with the skin, but it is safer to use natural oils for skin preparations, in case the recipient is allergic to the chemical ones.
To make the oils, add 5 drops of essential oil to every tablespoon of almond or safflower oil that you put into the bottle. Shake well before use. You can use just one essential oil, such as rosemary or lavender, or you can mix them - rose and lavender, or rosemary and orange are good blends. The possibilities are endless and the fun starts when you begin to choose your essential oils. These should be available at your local health food store or beauty shop.
Washballs and Soaps
Washballs date back to Elizabethan times and so are traditional shapes of soap. Making soap at home can be rather time-consuming, so I have included a recipe that uses a pure, fragrance-free ready-made soap to speed up the process. Traditionally, soap is made with tallow, which is rendered or melted animal fat. It should be available from your local butcher and you can melt it in a heavy saucepan over a low heat and then strain it into screw-top jam jars for storage. Take care when making soap as the caustic soda that is used can burn your skin, so do wear rubber gloves and handle it with care.
Lavender and Rose Washballs
2x5 oz bars plain Castile soap, finely grated
8 fl oz rose or lavender water
5 drops lavender essential oil
5 drops rose essential oil
Heat 3 fl oz of the rose or lavender water and pour it over the soap. Let is stand for about ten minutes. Mix well and then incorporate the rose and lavender oils. Leave to harden for two days. Then make the mixture into small balls, each one about the size of a table tennis ball or slightly smaller, and leave to dry in a dry airy place. When the washballs have completely hardened, you can polish them with cloth moistened with the rest of the rose or lavender water, or alternatively wet your hands with the rose or lavender water and rub the balls between your hands. Allow to dry out before packaging.
Floral Vinegar for the Bath
Floral vinegars can soften the skin when used in the bath and are very refreshing if kept in the fridge and dabbed onto a fevered brow in moments of stress! Cider vinegar has a delicate apple scent and so makes an excellent base.
There are several herbs and flowers that can be mixed with the vinegar. The main consideration will probably be which ingredients are easiest for you to obtain. Successful plants include jasmine flowers, rose petals, lavender flowers and stalks, scented geranium leaves, lemon balm or lemon verbena leaves and rosemary.
Place a large handful of mixed flowers and herbs or a single variety (rose and lavender with a little jasmine works well, or scented geranium and lemon verbena) in a glass bottle and fill up with cider vinegar. Replace the lid or seal with a cork and place in a sunny spot for a couple of weeks. Then strain the vinegar, making sure that you release as much moisture from the herbs as possible, and pour into a measuring jug. Half-fill a bottle with the scented vinegar and top up with spring water. One bottle of vinegar will therefore fill two bottles of the same size with the floral vinegar. To use, pour a generous quantity into the bath with the taps full on.
Orange Blossom Bath Salts
8 oz baking soda
1 lb coarse sea salt
1/2 fl oz neroli (orange blossom) essential oil
Stir together the baking soda and sea salt, then add the essential oil and store in a sealed jar. Food coloring may be added if you wish. Use three tablespoons per bath.
Lemon Verbena Bubbles
12 oz pure soap flakes
3/4 pint spring water
1/4 fl oz lemon verbena essential oil
1 fl oz vodka
2 fl oz glycerine
Heat the water and dissolve the soap flakes in it. In another container, mix the essential oil with the glycerine and vodka. Combine these two mixtures and add a drop of yellow or green food coloring if you wish. Store in a wide-mouthed jar with a sealed lid.
Orange and Cinnamon Soap
4 fl oz spring water
2 tbsp caustic soda
4 oz melted tallow
1 tsp neroli (orange blossom) essential oil
1 tsp cinnamon essential oil
4 fl oz safflower oil
Wearing rubber gloves, pour the water into a large heat-proof glass bowl. Add the caustic soda and stir well with a wooden spoon. Add the melted tallow and stir vigorously. Then add the safflower oil and the neroli and cinnamon essential oils. Beat well and pour into plastic molds. Leave to set. Once they are set, ease the soaps out of the molds and leave in a dry airy place for two weeks.
Cucumber and Mint Soap
4 fl oz spring water
large bunch of fresh mint, any variety
2 tbsp caustic soda
4 oz white vegetable fat, melted
6 drops mint essential oil
8 fl oz almond oil
Liquidize, or place in a food processor, the mint leaves and spring water. Pour into a bowl and leave for a couple of hours. Liquidize (or process) the cucumber. Strain the spring water into a large heat-proof glass bowl, discarding the mint leaves, then add the caustic soda (making sure you are wearing rubber gloves). Stir with a wooden spoon then add the melted vegetable fat. Add 4 tbsp of cucumber puree, the almond oil and mint essential oil. Beat well and then pour the mixture into plastic molds. Small soaps can be made in shaped ice cube molds or larger ones in yogurt pots or similar containers. Leave to set for two days.
Gently ease the soaps out of the molds and then leave in an airing cupboard or other dry airy place for two weeks before using.
Note: It can help to line the molds with cling film as this may overcome any problems in removing the soap once it has set.
To find out how to grow and use herbs, visit the authors blog. http://www.plantingherbs.net
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