Decarboxylation Part 2

Earlier we talked about the carboxylation process that plants use to make the organic compounds they create stable, and how we animals must break down the that carboxylic acid before we can use those compounds. Now we’re going to talk about decarboxylation as it relates to dried herbs, and most particularly to vaporization.

Now, you hear various terms for decarboxylating tossed around in the botanicals community. They’re all fine and good insofar as they get the idea across and we all kind of know what we’re talking about. “Decarbing” is in pretty common usage today, and it does a good job of communicating what’s going on without confusing the issue. “Extracting” is a word that comes up pretty regularly too, and while there certainly is some decarboxylation in extraction and the terms are related to each other, it’s confusing and not exactly the same thing. In the simplest terms, extraction removes the desired compounds from the herbs, to either concentrate or put them into something else. Decarbing activates them. 

The first step that matters to us is the drying of the cut plant material. Most of us don’t really think about drying as being part of the operation to create chemical availability. It seems more like a necessity before the stuff will burn or vape off, or the most natural way to prevent rot. Both of which of course it is, but that’s only part of it. Another thing that happens is that as the volatile hydrogen particles are stripped away, the carboxylic acids break down, and that makes some of the chemicals in the plants available to us. Some but not all. 

Something that most users of medicinal herbs learn for themselves is that you can’t just eat them to get the desired effects. You can get effects, some good and some… not very good. But if you prepare the herbs, perhaps by cooking them slowly in oil at moderate temperature, they become very effective indeed. That’s because after the drying is done, the best way to complete the action is to use heat.

Fire is another approach to accessing the natural compounds locked up by the plant. It’s very quick, but actually an unreasonably inefficient use of your botanicals. Fire will pretty instantly decarboxylate the desired compounds, and utterly destroy many of them along the way, turning them and everything else into smoke and leaving behind nothing but denatured ash. It’s traditional, but wasteful. 

We’ve mentioned before in this blog how vaporizers volatilize the lipids and acids present in herbs.The low steady heat of a vaporizer is also an excellent avenue to decarbing. Much quicker than cooking and vastly more efficient than burning, it is Aristotle’s golden middle path to accessing all the benefits of dried herbal therapy. In a sense it’s obvious, because the natural chemicals couldn’t do their job if they were merely made airborne and inhaled, because as we’ve already said, they must be somehow catalyzed to be useful to animals like us. But in another sense it’s wondrous that our little handheld portable vaporizers are capable of altering both the physical state and the chemical makeup of a plant’s essential oils.  It’s almost a form of alchemy, using technique and understanding to turn base materials into gold.

There is also one other efficiency built into the mechanics of vaporizing. Remember when we said that burning instantly decarboxylates and denatures everything present? Dry herb vaporizers don’t do that. In fact, what they leave behind after making a fine aromatic mist of the volatiles on the surface, is a nice little pile of fully decarbed and ready to use plant material that can be saved for later. It’s not really our thing, except maybe to help put more of it into the world, but there is a wealth of information out there on the web about ways to use this ABV (Already Been Vaped) stuff that you find with ease.

So, hopefully over the course of two blog entries we’ve given you a practical understanding of the what and why of decarboxylation as it applies to dried herbs. This should be a good first step toward learning different ways of using plants and knowing why we go through the steps we do in the preparation of botanicals.