Mary Poppins may have popularized the phrase, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” but the idea itself is much older. So old, in fact, that the word for a sweetened herbal preparation, “electuary,” is believed to come from ancient Greek: ekleikton, “medicine which is licked away.” In short, an herbal electuary is a combination and honey and powdered herbs.
History of the Herbal Electuary
The practice of sweetening herbal preparations is believed to be older still, having traveled to Greece from Arab culture. In Making Medicines: A brief history of pharmacy and pharmaceuticals, Stuart Anderson credits the Arab nations for introducing “a number of sweet preparations including syrups, conserves, confections, electuaries, and juleps,” to the European tradition of herbal medicine.
Indeed, the oldest written preparation involving honey was preserved on a clay tablet from Sumer, circa 2,000 BC. It reads, “Grind to a powder river dust and … (here the words are missing) … then knead it in water and honey and let plain oil and hot cedar oil be spread over it.”
Mixing honey and herbs, however, likely emerged organically in cultures worldwide. “The ancient Egyptians were not the only people who used honey as medicine,” writes Laïd Boukraâ in Honey in Traditional and Modern Medicine. “The Chinese, Indians, ancient Greeks, Romans, and Arabs used honey in combination with other herbs and on its own to treat wounds and various other diseases.”
In Ayurveda, India’s 5,000-year-old medical system, honey mixed with cinnamon, taken daily, is believed to extend the lifespan and increase stamina and strength. Circa 400 BC, the Greek physician Hippocrates prescribed many herbal treatments, often mixed with honey or wine.
Boukraâ notes in Honey in Traditional and Modern Medicine that these preparations were tried again and again throughout generations, “passed down through the millenia simply because they seemed to be effective.”
What to Look for in an Herbal Electuary
- Raw honey
Herbal electuaries combine the health benefits of herbs with those of honey, including antimicrobial properties, antioxidant properties, and support for gut health. These benefits are largely exclusive to raw honey, as heat and processing are believed to destroy the phytonutrients. “Heated above 110° F,” writes Richo Chech in Making Plant Medicine, “honey is quickly divested of its innate medicinal virtues and fragrance.”
- High-quality herbs
As with food, the way herbs are grown and processed will impact their nutritional value and effectiveness. Make sure your herbal honey is made with herbs grown free of pesticides and ground just before being added to the honey. If you are purchasing from a company, check to see if they are transparent about their processes and where they source their ingredients. If they’re vague on sourcing, that could be a warning sign.
- Powdered herbs
Powdering the herbs allows for maximum extraction and palatability. Writes Kami McBride in The Herbal Kitchen: “Over the years, I have made many honeys where the herbs were just chopped or grated and not powdered. I found that the herbs really do need to be finely powdered for a pleasant honey-eating experience!”
Ways to Enjoy Your Herbal Electuary
Herbal electuaries can be used almost any way you would use honey.
- Stir a spoonful into tea.
- Slather some on toast.
- Top your oatmeal.
- Peanut butter and honey sandwiches, with an herbal twist.
- Add it to a smoothie.
- Enjoy it solo! As the roots of the name suggest, this preparation can simply be licked away.
- Share your love of herbs with a kid. As Michael Tierra writes in The Way of Herbs, “An electuary is an old-fashioned way of giving unpalatable herbs to children who need them.”
You can treat yourself and enjoy health benefits, too. The herbal electuary is an inspired way to add flavor and nutrition to everyday foods, or to use when you need the support of particular herbs the most.
Harvesting Vitality’s herbal honeys include immune and calming support for children. For adults, there are formulas to support the adrenals and energy, deep sleep, and the immune system — to name just a few. Check out our online shop for more, and take part in a pursuit of wellness that has remained a pleasure throughout the ages.