Skip to content Skip to cookie consent
Skip to content


Production of medicines

The preparation of a medicine from a plant that contains a beneficial chemical varies according to the chemical and the plant. The most basic and common process for producing medicines is to use liquid and heat

2001 Available in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese

Footsteps magazine issues on a wooden desk.

From: Traditional medicines – Footsteps 48

A discussion about how to use traditional medicines safely and effectively

The preparation of a medicine from a plant that contains a beneficial chemical varies according to the chemical and the plant. Sometimes the chemical is extracted from the leaves by the use of boiling water. Sometimes the roots are dug up and ground. The most basic and common process for producing medicines is to use liquid and heat.

Here is a list of some of the varied processes that can be used. Pages 8 and 9 then contain examples of how these processes are used to produce medicines from just seven common plants. There are, of course, hundreds of beneficial plants that can be used. We have just selected a few which are widely known and have been tested, tried and researched scientifically.

Cold water extracts

This is used for ingredients that are destroyed by heat. Leaves should be cut into small pieces. Roots should be pounded. Soak ingredients overnight in cold water. Use within one day.

Tea (or brew)

Pour one litre of boiling water over a handful of herbs. Leave to stand and after 15–20 minutes filter through a clean cloth. Use within one day.



Boil one handful of herbs in one litre of water for 20 minutes. Filter through a clean cloth. Use within one day.


If the herbs taste too bitter, a syrup can be made. After preparing a tea or decoction, filter the liquid and add one cup of sugar to one cup of the liquid. Heat gently if necessary to dissolve the sugar. Use within three days.


Tinctures contain alcohol which helps to preserve the herbal extracts. Use good quality medicinal alcohol. Usually 100g of herbal mixture is mixed with one litre of an alcohol and water mixture (45–70% alcohol). The mixture is not heated but poured into a bottle and allowed to stand in a warm place for a week before filtering. The higher the alcohol content, the longer the tincture can be kept. With 20% alcohol, it should keep for two years: 40% or more alcohol content means that it will keep for five years.


Ointments use pure vegetable oil and wax. Good quality palm oil made from freshly gathered and processed oil palm kernels is very suitable. You can also use olive oil, groundnut oil or shea butter oil.

Dry the leaves and pound them into a fine powder. Mix one cup of this powder with nine cups of oil. Heat the mixture in a water bath made from two pots. The larger outer pot is one quarter filled with water and placed on the stove. The oil and plant material are placed in a smaller inner pot with a lid. Make very sure that water from the outer pot cannot enter the inner pot. Let the water come to the boil and simmer for 60 minutes.

Do not try and do this without using a water bath, as overheating spoils the oil. Filter the oil through a cotton cloth while it is still hot. Add one cup of warmed, clean wax (use beeswax, commercial wax or candles) while the oil is still hot, and stir for one minute.

Adapted from the book Natural Medicine in the Tropics, reviewed on Page 14. 


There are risks and side effects in using medicinal plants. Every herb, as well as every chemical substance, may have a range of effects; the main effect may be positive for one patient, negative for another and even dangerous for a third. For example, a plant that is good for low blood pressure, may kill a person with high blood pressure. In addition, the quantity of active ingredient in a plant can vary according to the variety, the season or the age of the plant. For this reason we cannot be held responsible for any results of using these herbal recipes. All we can do is encourage you to be careful and observant. 

Keep careful notes and records of all herbs, quantities, treatments and effects. Learn from your own experience, and keep in close contact with other practitioners, so that you also learn from their knowledge and experiences. When in doubt, seek help.

Share this resource

If you found this resource useful, please share it with others so they can benefit too.

Subscribe to Footsteps magazine

A free digital and print magazine for community development workers. Covering a diverse range of topics, it is published three times a year.

Sign up now - Subscribe to Footsteps magazine

Cookie preferences

Your privacy and peace of mind are important to us. We are committed to keeping your data safe. We only collect data from people for specific purposes and once that purpose has finished, we won’t hold on to the data.

For further information, including a full list of individual cookies, please see our privacy policy.

  • These cookies are necessary for the website to function and cannot be switched off in our systems.

  • These cookies allow us to measure and improve the performance of our site. All information these cookies collect is anonymous.

  • These allow for a more personalised experience. For example, they can remember the region you are in, as well as your accessibility settings.

  • These cookies help us to make our adverts personalised to you and allow us to measure the effectiveness of our campaigns.