This article appeared in the fall issue of Green Living Journal. It is a very basic explanation of tincture making. For a more in-depth exploration, please see the article Making Weight-to-Volume Tinctures.
Throughout New England, gardeners treat themselves to the charming long-season blooms of echinacea, or purple coneflower as the ornamental cultivars are sometimes known. Folks often wonder if the echinacea in their garden bed is the same as the famous immune-boosting herb. The answer is simple: probably! Most echinacea cultivars contain the same medicinal properties as the official medicinal variety; tasting the flower will tell you for sure.
Echinacea is one of the most heavily studied medicinal herbs, with dozens of scientific studies exploring its therapeutic uses. Although its exact mechanism of action is not fully understood, research indicates that echinacea preparations decrease the occurrence, duration and severity of acute infective illnesses by stimulating our bodies’ immune function. Most studies have examined echinacea’s use against colds, the flu, and upper respiratory infections; however, it is also commonly used to boost the immune system against many other types of infection, including urinary tract infection, ear infection, sinusitis, and more. Echinacea is also useful as a topical antimicrobial against infected wounds, athlete’s foot, etc.
Echinacea won’t make you feel better right away—there are other herbs to help alleviate that stuffy nose—but it may help you get better, faster. Start taking it when you feel the first tickle in the back of your throat, and you may shorten or even avoid a spell of illness. For greater success, combine echinacea with another immune-boosting herb like elderberry, or with herbs to help relieve individual symptoms such as hyssop or bee balm.
People with a rare allergy to chamomile or other plants in the Aster family should avoid using echinacea.
How to Use Tinctures
Tinctures are medicinal herbs extracted and preserved in alcohol, which draws out alcohol-soluble medicinal compounds. Echinacea is high in alcohol-soluble compounds, so echinacea tinctures pack a powerful medicinal punch.
Tinctures are typically diluted in water, juice, or tea to make them easier to swallow, although this is not strictly necessary. Take less if you’re trying to prevent coming down with something, if you are generally sensitive to medicines, or if you are underweight. Take more if you’re already sick, if you are generally impervious to medicines, or if you are overweight.
Adults, give ½ to 1 teaspoon, every 4 to 6 hours.
Children, give ¼ to ½ teaspoon, 3 to 4 times per day. Decrease frequency as they get better.
Species Several species of echinacea are used medicinally, but Echinacea purpurea is the most commonly found species (this is the “purple coneflower” ornamental). The research on E. purpurea is extensive and indicates a high medicinal benefit, and the plant is easy to grow at home. Other species (E. pallida and E. angustifolia) are threatened in the wild and difficult to grow, so please avoid wild-harvested products to help preserve the biodiversity of our native plants.
Taste it Almost all echinacea cultivars are medicinal. To make sure, simply taste a flower or a bit of the root. If your mouth goes tingly and floods with saliva, it’s medicinal. If not, that plant lacks important medicinal compounds and should not be tinctured.
Plant Part An echinacea root tincture is a good place to start your practice as a tincture-maker, as it is simple to make and contains the plant’s strongest medicine. In time you may decide to try your hand at a whole plant echinacea tincture, which provides a more thorough, complex set of medicinal compounds. Whole plant tinctures require advanced planning, however: tincture young leaves in the spring, flowers and buds in the summer, and roots in the fall, then combine the tinctures.
Harvest Dig echinacea roots in the fall when the nights are chilly, the leaves are starting to turn, and the plant is going dormant. Gently loosen crowns from the soil. Divide crown into several sections to replant, making sure each section has roots and small dormant buds at the base of the stem. You can put aside a section of roots to tincture or cut pieces off the sections you will replant. Replant all sections except what you will tincture so your plants will come back next year.
Recipe for Fresh Echinacea Root Tincture
This is a weight-to-volume tincture, which means the ingredients are carefully measured and put together in a specific ratio. This allows us to predict the strength and decide on an appropriate dose.
The best tinctures are made with watered down grain alcohol, not vodka; however, grain alcohol is harder to find, so this recipe calls for ubiquitous 80-proof vodka. If you manage to get grain alcohol, do not use it at its full concentration. Instructions on tincturing with grain alcohol can be found here.
You will need:
- 80-proof vodka
- Glass jar
- Kitchen scale
- Measuring cup
- Wax paper
- Mesh strainer or colander lined with cheesecloth
- Potato ricer (recommended)
- Wash roots gently. Chop finely and weigh in ounces.
- Multiply the weight of the roots by 4; this will give you the volume of vodka you need. For example, if I have 2 ounces (weight) of echinacea, I need 8 ounces (volume) of vodka.
- Combine chopped root and vodka in a glass jar. Mash echinacea down to help the alcohol get inside the roots. Cover the mouth of the jar with wax paper (to prevent the alcohol from deteriorating the lid), then screw on the lid.
- Clearly label with the plant name, date, location harvested etc. and store for 6 weeks or more, shaking daily. If you need it sooner, you can start dipping into the jar after about a week, but it won’t have reached its true strength yet. If you forget to shake it every day, give it extra time to steep before you strain it.
- When the tincture is strong and dark, pour it through a mesh strainer, then squeeze strained roots in a potato ricer to extract the last, strongest part of the tincture. Store in a labeled glass jar or bottle in a cool, dark place.
Give it a whirl and let me know how it goes for you! I love hearing your kitchen-witching successes and failures.