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Nature’s medicine cabinet September 15, 2009

Posted by broomegirl in Uncategorized.
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Plants can yield an amazing wealth of medicinal or cosmetic properties – if you only know how to open nature’s medicine cabinet. Over millennia, in cultures around the world, plants have been used to heal, help or harm, while more recently the special properties of plants have been studied in laboratories and often synthesised to create pharmacuticals or popular cosmetics.

Kimberley plants in the transformation process

Kimberley plants in the transformation process

Broome resident and SKIPAS member Robyn has always loved plants, especially Kimberley natives, and it was curiosity about their uses that has recently taken her life in an unexpected direction.

“I knew boab pith was edible and I wondered if I could use it in another way. So I blended the pith with clay to make a face mask – and it worked,” she said.

Robyn’s interest was piqued and in the past two years she says she’s been on a huge learning curve on Kimberley plants, moving from food plants to those which have cosmetic and medicinal properties. She’s now working with several Aboriginal communities through the Yirriman project to harvest and process native plants into a range of creams, lip balms or lipsticks, ointments, tinctures and lotions.

Robyn holding jars of acacia gum, raw on the left and dissolved in water on the right.

Robyn holding jars of Acacia gum, raw granules on the left and dissolved in water on the right.

Robyn shared some of her knowledge with SKIPAS one Tuesday evening at the TAFE horticultural compound. Her practical presentation focused on getting the goodness out of plants and the five common methods of plant extraction which she uses.

1# Using Water

Gum, extruded from trees such as Acacia or Bloodwoods, are water soluble. You may be familiar with the old fashioned Gum Arabic, a glue used to for stamps and the like. Soaking seeds in water can make them more productive; the Soap Wattle Acacia colei benefits from soaking and become as nourishing as a soya bean. (Robyn says you can roast the A. colei seeds and adds them to shortbread biscuits.)

2# Infusion

Using hot water to extract plant goodness is pretty well what you do every time you make a cup of tea. The sun can also be used to help infuse plants. This method produces a more delicate result than decocation.

3# Decoction

Boiling fruit, berries, bark or leaves, either directly in distilled or spring water or using a double boiler.

4# Maceration

Covering leaves or flowers in oil, like sweet almond, jojoba, coconut or olive, and letting them soak for up to several months.

#5 Tincture

Using alcohol, vinegar or glycerine to extract the desired plant compounds. Leaves, fruit or flowers are covered and left for more than a month, then strained.

Robyn mentioned there are other methods, such as using animal fat or heating the plant on hot coals.

“I look at the bush in a whole different way now,” she said. “In the late afternoon the bush twinkles as the setting sun hits the gum and I’m off.”

She demonstrated how simple it was to make a syrup which she uses for coughs and a bit of a pick-me-up. She had dried the fruit of Noni (Morinda citrifolia a tropical tree exotic to Australia) and the native Marool Terminalia petiolaris and in the pot added lemon peel, clove and star anise.  Using distilled water the mixture was boiled and reduced before several large chunks of rock sugar and a solution of Acacia gum was stirred in. It is then strained into small bottles and kept in the fridge. A teaspoon of the warmed syrup tasted like the rich, dark fruit your grandmother used to make Christmas mince pies with, but with a curious exotic note of spice and Noni.

Robyn brought a portable kitchen-chemistry lab with her for the SKIPAS demonstration

Robyn brought a portable kitchen-chemistry lab with her for the SKIPAS demonstration

On the topic of infused Christmas-like flavours, Robyn brought out a jar of wattle flowers from her garden that she had soaked in Brandy for a few weeks. The flowers were soft and melted in the mouth but not before your nostrils were ablaze with the alcohol!

Experimentation is a key part of Robyn’s learning curve. She uses ratios rather than precise measurements (eg percentages instead of recipe-tablespoons) and has read extensively about different methods of extracting plant materials and creating plant-based cosmetics. She keeps detailed notes on each method of extraction and blending so that she can pinpoint what works and what doesn’t in each product created. Different ratios of oil, wax and water would create different consistencies, while each oil has unique properties as does the plant itself. There can be huge variation.

Robyn keeps jars and bottles filled with various oils and leaves or flowers, topping them up when required or setting them out in the sun, and experiments between natives and exotics with medicinal properties, like lemongrass and Noni.

In fact once you realise how simple it can be to make your own face cream or body lotion you will resent paying big bucks for tiny jars of whipped and scented beauty products.

The first product Robyn showed us how to make was an ointment using the oil from macerated Eucalytpus brevifolia, Acacia monticola, A. bivenosa and A.hilliana. To the oil was  added beeswax and Lemon Myrtle essential oil. The mix was warmed on the stove and stirred until blended and poured into small pots to set. It is useful for small bites or cuts or even as a lip balm.

She pointed out there are different grades and types of beeswax which can affect the finished product or if someone did not want to use animal products in their costmetics then a plant wax or thickener would need to be substituted.

If an ointment is basically infused oil and wax, a cream has up to 90 per cent water, with oil and a wax as the emulsifer. Creams also need a preservative because of their water content and plant based ones can be difficult to source.

The cream we created used Boabab oil (from Africa, where pressing the seeds into oil is a big industry and has potential in the Kimberley), Acacia colei macerated in almond oil, shea butter, beeswax, a vegetable based preservative and distilled water, with a few drops each of carrot seed oil and chamomile essential oil which are good for ‘mature skin’. This concoction was measured out in ratios, the wax/oil mix heated seperately to the other ingredients, and then when both jugs of heated mixtures reached the same temperature they were whisked together. And the transformation was magical, as suddenly the cream became as white and thick as mayonnaise. Us girls promptly slathered ourselves in it!

Crystal like grains of gum from Acacia hemignosta

Crystal like grains of gum from an Acacia

Robyn says a new world has opened up to her since she began exploring the wonderful cosmetic properties of Kimberley plants.

“I’m more in tune with the seasons and will watch specific plants as they change, as they flower and set seed. I have one Acacia in the garden that’s been like seeing a child turn into a teenager when it set seeds.”

It was a fascinating evening and gave us the opportunity to look at the bush with new eyes and possibly crack ajar nature’s medicine cabinet.