Old Ways Herbal, Juliette Abigail Carr

Vermont Herb School & Farmcraft Wisdom from Clinical Herbalist Juliette Abigail Carr


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January’s Garden Tip: Now is the time to plan!

Spread out on the rug in front of the fire with your gardening notebook, last year’s leftover seeds, your favorite seed catalogs (mine are Fedco, Richters, and Horizon Herbs), and a mug of tea of course.  Ideally, you wrote down what went where and how it did last year, and can now look through those notes and find ways to improve your rotation, soil fertility, use of microclimate, etc.  Eliot Coleman’s books are a useful resource for this.  If you didn’t take notes, turn over a new leaf this season so your skills can build as your garden grows!

Sort your seeds into annuals and perennials, time of year they’re planted, soil needs (rich vs. poor), microclimate needs (sun/shade/wet/dry/wind etc.), transplants vs. direct seeds, etc.  Do you see any promising combinations?  Perhaps your Arnica may like to grow together with St Johns Wort and Bee Balm, instead of in with the Marshmallows.

Make some lists:  What do you have?  What do you need to buy for next season?  What plants will you start indoors, and what will you direct seed?

Draw some diagrams: where was everything last year, and where are you planting each new friend?  How can you rotate your annuals around your perennials?  Some people like to use index cards or scraps of paper to do this so they can move them around easily.  I use a pencil in my notebook, that way I can refer back to my thoughts later.

This year, as you putter and tend and mulch and hoe and coax, draw pictures of your work.  The better your records, the easier it is to find ways to improve your garden’s vitality.

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Starting Seeds!

Starting seeds is a cornerstone of my herbal practice, not to mention my sweet sideline as homestead queen.  This article was first published in the spring issue of The Country Grind Quarterly, where I write a column about making and using herbal medicine.  Even though starting seeds is technically maybe a little off topic in that setting, I sent it in because it felt relevant for the spring issue.  It’s certainly involved in “making herbal medicine,” if higher on the food chain.  Also, it’s what I was thinking about at the end of February, and I was having trouble redirecting.  And now I will share it with all of you.  Pictures coming as I take them.

Tools:

  • Soil mix
  • Cells or pots
  • Quick-read or soil thermometer (optional but good)
  • Depth gauge, like a pencil or chopstick with a line drawn on it
  • Humidity cover or plastic wrap and duct tape
  • Heating pad
  • Grow lights or sunny window
  • Seedling watering can, or jar with a bendy straw

    You've got the moisture level right when the soil clumps in your hand.

    You’ve got the moisture level right when the soil clumps in your hand.

The basics are easy–it’s all about balancing light, water, and heat. Put the soil mix in a bucket and mix with lukewarm water until it clumps in your hand.

Let the soil warm up until it’s close to the seed’s germination temperature (use the thermometer). Fill the cells or pots and tap to settle the soil. Use the depth gauge to plant seeds to the right depth.

This pen is marked with 1/8", 1/4", and 1/2" so I can easily control how deep my seeds are planted.

This pen is marked with 1/8″, 1/4″, and 1/2″ so I can easily control how deep my seeds are planted.

Cover the tray and place on the heating pad. When seeds germinate, remove the cover and heating pad and put the tray in the window or under a grow light.

If you do that, you’ll be able to grow your own starts for most vegetables, flowers, and herbs. With a little more detail, though, you can get your germination rates close to 100% on almost anything you care to grow. Here goes.

Records, Resources, & Timing

Write stuff down—this process takes months and you don’t want to forget stuff or look the same info up repeatedly. Label flats with the name of the plant, date of sowing, and special considerations like “needs light to germinate” or “ideal germination temperature 60 degrees”. You think you’ll remember; you won’t.

Look through your seeds and identify cultural needs like stratifying, soaking, etc., as well as when to start them in your climate.  I often use the Fedco catalog, as their cultural information is relevant to us cold climate folks–also, they’re a worker-owned cooperative and deserve your money.  I also really like Eliot Coleman’s books.  For medicinal herbs, Horizon Herbs & Richo Cech’s book have a lot of great info, but if you live in a cold climate take things like “start in fall” or “overwinter outside” with a big grain of salt because Richo lives in a mild PNW climate and that type of thing doesn’t translate well for those of us with winter. Richter’s is a Canadian herb company that sometimes has helpful info for cold climates. I don’t know anything about warm climate resources, so if that’s you, sorry I can’t be of more help here–feel free to post your favorite resources in the comments, if you feel motivated.

Note when your resources recommend setting out plants: as soon as the ground warms, late spring, after danger of frost, etc. Then count backwards to figure out when to start seeds, adding 1 week for hardening off. For really long season crops that might be hard in your climate—for me it’s habeneros and watermelons—count the “days to maturity” backward from your fall frost date, to make sure you get them going early enough.

Soil

You can make or buy a seed starting mix. There are a lot of ethical issues surrounding growing media like sphagnum, peat, and perlite, so chew that over before you buy the detritus of what was once mountains and wetlands. I’m not going to reprint recipes here but they’re easy to find. I use a DIY version of Eliot Coleman’s soil block recipe from New Organic Grower.

Humidity

Humidity covers mimic the rain cycle for better germination.

Humidity covers mimic the rain cycle for better germination.

 

Humidity is the combination of water and heat, and is essential to good germination rates.

Cover your seed trays with either a commercial cover or plastic wrap and a seal of duct tape. The warmth from the heating pad evaporates water in the soil, which then condenses on the cover and rains back on the soil.  This gives even moisture and nutrient dispersal across the seedbed and simulates the spring rain and dew cycles. You lose moisture and warmth when you remove the covers, so no peeking until you see green.

Temperature

Seeds: Seeds need warmth to germinate; look up the ideal germination temperature for your seeds. Heating pads really increase germination rates, and they sell ones specifically for seeds that are waterproof and don’t get too hot. That said, you can use a regular one, just be careful with water around it and know that it may get too hot. Test it first by putting it under an empty seedbed for 24 hours and then temping the soil.

This soil is nice and warm for my ashwaganda seeds.

This soil is nice and warm for my ashwaganda seeds.

Plants: In the beginning keeping trays warm can be a challenge, but as the plants grow they put off their own heat so make sure you have a way to cool down the room if necessary. A fan can prevent fainting on warm spring days. If you’re growing plants with different temperature needs, do it in stages: brassicas first, then move them to a cold frame as the nightshades start setting true leaves, etc.

Water

Seeds: Watering is risky: seeds can rot or get dislodged, or soil gets muddy and cracks when it dries so seedlings can’t push through. If the soil dries out under the humidity cover, use a spray bottle, or fill 1 cell with water to increase the humidity.

Plants: Once your seedlings have unfolded, remove the cover and give them a drink without knocking them over. Soil should be dry but not baked. Under-watering twice a day is better than overwatering once a day, to avoid damping off. More water is usually not the solution to any problem, unless the plants have bent over away from the light in a deep bow, in which case a little sip will perk them right up. Less is more with water!

Light

Seeds: Window light is enough for light-dependent germinators. If grow lights are turned on before germination, the soil can get way too hot.

Plants: When plants are up, remove covers and position lights several inches above seedlings so they don’t get leggy. If you’re using a window, back it with a mirror so the plants get light from both directions. There’s a lot of discussion about how many hours a day seedlings need to flourish, and the answer is it depends on the plant and the kind of light. I give them my day, because they’re going to have to make it in my climate anyway.

Simulating Natural Conditions

This is where it gets complicated. A lot of herbs, especially the at-risk ones, are fussy germinators—they just won’t grow under normal conditions, or you get a terrible germination rate. The key is to ask yourself what natural conditions the seed would be exposed to in its natural environment. Many resources have this information, but I’ve found that many seeds benefit from these treatments even if the books don’t mention it. Again, those of us in harsh climates do things a little differently than our more temperate counterparts.

Allow space for intuition: watch how and when wild plants grow, and build an understanding of their needs. The following techniques cover most natural conditions that can be a limiting factor in germination.

Stratification mimics the freeze-thaw cycle of winter and spring. For wet stratification, wrap seeds in a moist paper towel or rag, then put it inside a plastic bag in the fridge, away from high-moisture foods like tomatoes and apples (and then take your tomatoes and apples out of the fridge before you destroy the nutrients, goofball). For dry stratification—this is less common—put the seeds in a pot with a little soil, again in the fridge.

Stratify fussy germinators that are native to places with winter. Some seeds need a long time, like 3 months of wintery conditions. Others need multiple stratification: cold for a month, then room temperature, then cold again for a few weeks, room temperature, cold for 1 week, etc. to really simulate spring; I do this routine for our fussy woodland natives, as well as difficult-to-germinate cold climate natives from elsewhere. It’s generally the first thing I try if I don’t know what to do.

Scarification mimics the physical breakdown of the seed coating in an animal’s digestive tract. Just sand the seeds a little, or if they’re big enough, nick them with a knife. Think about which plants rely on animals to spread their seeds, as well as seeds that have really thick, impervious coatings, so they can last a long time in the soil before germinating. Usually scarification is combined with a second treatment, like compost or soaking.

Fire is pretty specific to prairie natives, although I bet there’s a bunch of plants that would like this treatment out on the West Coast where they have all those forest fires–I don’t know because I don’t grow any, but if you do, let me know if fire improves your germination! Anyway, spread the seeds on a baking tray or something else that won’t catch fire and use a grill lighter to burn them (gently! gently!).  Some people plant the seeds first and then burn the soil, or even build an actual fire on top.  This is often followed by soaking—if you’re Echinacea pallida, your spring routine is ruled by flood and fire.

Soaking is probably the most common and combines well with most other treatments. It mimics rain and spring flooding, a biological alarm clock, and softens hard seed coatings, making it easier for the seedlings to poke through. Use non-chlorinated water and soak the seeds for a day or so. If you really have to use chlorinated water, let it sit on the counter for 24 hours before you put the seeds in.

Compost gives a nutrient boost to seeds that have to pass through an animal’s digestive tract before germinating. It’s almost always combined with scarification. Put a little compost in the bottom of the seed tray with your regular soil mix on top. The water cycle within the seed tray will disperse the nutrients slowly and make them accessible to the seedlings. Most seeds do not need this, and in fact can be burned by compost, so only do it if it’s actually necessary.

Overwintering is appropriate for cold climate natives, if you get to it in the fall. It provides the benefits of stratification and soaking that so many plants need. Prep fertile garden beds in the fall, direct seed, and mulch well—think dead prairie grass or goldenrod, really protective. In mild climates, people overwinter seeds outside in pots, but in cold climates that’s unreliable because there’s no natural insulation that the ground would normally provide. I’ve had this work occasionally, but really only with plants that are actually native to a place that routinely has 4+ feet of snow. A shed can work, but then you have to remember to water it in the spring.

Good luck, hooray for spring, and send me your success and failures!


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Homegrown Tea

As the snow piles up and icicles grow from the eaves, tea becomes a central part of my life. Drinking a steaming, fragrant cup of last summer’s bounty in front of the woodstove on these long winter nights is a cold weather ritual that resonates to my bones. I love the seasons; I love how the most basic ways I spend my time change throughout the year in perfect rhythm with the world around me, and how just when it starts to feel a little stale—say, April snowstorms—the earth is changing to its next phase, as the earliest plants push their way towards the sun. But now it is only the beginning of the season, when the smell of woodsmoke and the silence of a snowstorm feel like coming home after too long away. In honor of this season of joyful homebodiness, of planning next years’ crops and spinning wool by the fire late into the night, here is an explanation of how to make a truly beautiful cup of tea.

tea

A Good Start Tea is the backbone of herbal medicine and it is often the easiest way to get herbs into your daily life. If you have wanted to fiddle with herbs but are having trouble finding the rhythm to actually do it, try drinking a cup of herbal tea every night after supper, when the day’s tasks are complete and you can relax with a book or guitar and just be. This practice helps put the days’ worries to rest, soothes us after overeating at supper, makes up for that last beer, and settles our minds for sleep. It’s surprisingly effective at giving us a good start tomorrow, and it’s an easy stepping-stone to inviting herbs into your life.

Many folks who drink medicinal tea as part of their daily routine like to make a large amount at once to drink throughout the day.  To do this, make a quart jar or 2 of tea, let it cool, and refrigerate. It’s good for 24 hours.

Healing Ritual The ritual of drinking tea plays a powerful role in healing and maintaining health.  Tea as a medicinal form is a full sensory experience that can be extremely soothing.  That deep breath of fragrant steam when you first lift the cup contributes to relaxation, promoting health and healing. As all the yoga folks will tell you, deep breathing engages the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing our bodies time to ruminate and heal from the hectic go-go-go of our cortisol-fueled lives. Taking the time to make and drink a cup of tea can be very grounding, a short break from our obligations and to-do lists.  The ritual of tea drinking is a powerful one that can’t be discounted in any conversation about tea.

Unique Medicine Some health conditions can be best served by tea, as hot water has its own medicinal attributes in addition to whatever herbs you add.  People who use herbs to help with anxiety find the ritual of tea drinking very soothing, and it is a safe, reliable ritual to engage in (as opposed to the ritual of smoking cigarettes, for example).  The same can be said of herbs to enhance sleep: the tea itself is relaxing.  For cold and flu, tea soothes sore throats and rehydrates us, in addition to whatever medicinal stuff you threw in there.  The heat of tea is wonderfully soothing to belly aches.  For folks concerned about chronic kidney stones (did you drink Beast Ice for 10 years?) or urinary tract infections, the more you pee the better, so take your herbs in tea.  The list goes on, but the point is to consider how hot, fragrant, medicinal water can benefit your health when you are deciding how to take an herb.

Drying and Storing Herbs

It’s obviously the wrong time of year to be drying herbs for tea, but it’s the right time of year to be planning next year’s garden. As you consider companion plants, culinary herbs, and general bounty, think about what herbs you might add for tea.

Drying herbs is easy. For most herbs, hang them in bunches or dry them flat on screens or stretched pieces of lace or muslin. Some herbs—the very dense, resinous, or gooey herbs like mullein, calendula, and comfrey—are harder to dry without molding, but there are tricks like using a fan, leaving them in the sun for a few hours before bringing them in, etc. that can be found online.

Store dried herbs in resealable bags, containers, or jars, in a dark, cool place. I have a ton of dried herbs, so I store mine in bags inside of those giant light-tight plastic containers (there are 6, and they’re alphabetized…) but if you don’t have too many, jars in a cabinet works great. Just don’t store them over the stove or fridge, where they’re exposed to heat and humidity, or they’ll get stale or moldy.

If you’re a gardener, storing your own herbs is effortless and rewarding. Blending your own tea is a natural extension of consuming your garden’s bounty that will continue throughout the year. If you’re not gardening, you can buy dried herbs online or from a local herbalist and still blend your own tea.

Choosing Good Tea Herbs

Taste There are some herbs that taste truly terrible. Don’t torture yourself. You get 0 points for suffering through a cup of valerian, kava kava, and spilanthes. If it tastes gross, make a tincture (see Country Grind #1 or my blog for instructions if you don’t know how).

Solubility Tea is appropriate for herbs with water-soluble medicine (constituents).  That means the medicine comes out in water, as opposed to alcohol.  All plants contain both alcohol- and water-soluble constituents; it’s just a matter of the best way to extract the medicine you’re trying to use.

Picking water-soluble herbs is easy—just think of what you’ve drank before. Any of the herbs that are generally sold in commercial tea blends are high in water-soluble constituents, for example mint, hibiscus, chamomile, dandelion, rosehips, oatstraw, raspberry leaf, and holy basil.  Any herbs that are gooey (demulcent) when you taste them are high in water-soluble constituents, too, like violet, mullein, and borage.  Likewise, very aromatic herbs do great in tea, like ginger, elecampane, lemon balm, hyssop, prickly ash, and licorice. Also, food herbs such as nettles, burdock, and chickweed are high in water-soluble constituents. Right there is a reasonable list to get you started and I bet you can name half a dozen more off the top of your head.

Composition of the Perfect Cup

teapot

Blending your own tea seems a little daunting, but it’s really pretty straightforward—and then you have fresher, higher quality tea tailored to your needs, and at a fraction of the store price. What Celestial Seasonings knows and most of us don’t is essentially just balancing flavors in an intentional way. A knowledge of herbal energetics really helps with this, but that’s a little complicated for now—suffice it to say there is more to this that you can learn if you want.

It’s totally okay to throw one herb in your cup and call it good; mint tea is a standard for a reason. But if you want to do some blending, choose a few herbs using these general guidelines, or make up your own. What it really comes down to is activating all your senses and taste buds at once.

Purpose What is your tea for? Emotional balance, digestive problems, immunity, overall health? Start there and think of a couple herbs you could use. Try to identify if they are warming or cooling, drying or moistening in your body, and use that to narrow down your choices based on what you want.

Use All Your Senses The fragrance and appearance of the tea have a huge impact on how much you enjoy drinking it. Bright colors glow among clumps of green leaves, so think of fruits like rosehip, schisandra, prickly ash berries, and tiny dried flowers like lavender. Large dried flowers will open in the cup to be little bright surprises, like calendula, rose, and red clover. This is in addition to the medicinal qualities, taste, and fragrance they add.

Balance Your Blend Now pick an herb that is very fragrant, an herb that is tangy or sour, an herb that tastes great, an herb that looks beautiful, and an herb that is sweetly mild tasting. That last one is essential: it will give your tea depth of flavor and provide a backbone for everything else; it’s the central element that holds everything else together.

Like So…Okay so maybe my beautiful herb is red clover, fragrant herb is hyssop, tangy herb is rosehip, incredibly delicious herb is holy basil, and mild herb is oatstraw. I’ve made a blend that will increase overall health, tonify my endocrine system, lessen depletion or adrenal exhaustion, balance my cycle, protect me from toxins, nurture my nervous system, mood, and sleep cycle, protect against sickness and infection, and is high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. I can make a month’s worth of this tea for the cost of a few days supply of good loose tea at the store, if I buy dried herbs; considering I have these herbs dried from my garden, it will be free. It will also look, smell, and taste wonderful—which is really the point, anyway.

Actually Making Tea

There is more to life than teabags. If you separate your tea ingredients into infusions and decoctions, you will have much stronger medicine and fuller flavors, as tough plant parts need more oomph in their boil than delicate parts (this is true of people too).

Infusions

An infusion is usual tea: hot water, herbs, done.  We make infusions of delicate plant parts like leaves and flowers—think chamomile, mint, lemon balm, etc. They’ll fall apart to mush and shreds if you boil them.

To make an infusion, boil water in the kettle. Crush dried plants between your hands or chop fresh plants to release the fragrance and increase surface area for the water to do its thing.  Use 1 to 2 Tablespoons of dried herbs or 2 to 4 Tablespoons of fresh herbs per cup of water, adjusted for taste and strength. Or use a pinch of this and a dab of that, which is how I do it.

Pour boiling water over herbs.  Cover and infuse until it cools to a non-tongue destroying temperature; the longer it infuses, the stronger the medicine will be.  Strain and consume in massive quantities.

Decoctions

A decoction is when herbs are simmered, as opposed to having water poured over them.  Decoctions are used for denser, tougher plant parts, which need more time and bubbling power to extract the deep goodness.  These include roots, barks, fruits, and seeds, like ginger, burdock, fennel, elderberry, and black birch.

To make a decoction, simmer water in a small saucepan.  You want to add a little extra for evaporation.  Chop or grate fresh herbs.  Crush dried herbs between your hands.  Use 1 to 2 Tablespoons of dried herbs or 2 to 4 Tablespoons of fresh herbs per cup of water, adjusted for taste and strength (or a pinch and a dab).

Add herbs to the simmering water, reduce heat, and cover.  Allow herbs to toil and trouble until the room is fragrant and your tea is a rich, dark color, 10-20 minutes, then strain and feel really good about your herbal prowess.  Be careful not to burn decoctions or you’ll have to start over due to unavoidable grossness.

Have a beautiful winter and happy kitchen witching.

This article originally appeared in The Country Grind Quarterly. 


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What Are You Searching For?

When I check the stats on this site, I see a ton of hits from people using search engines.  Sometimes I can see the terms, like “hops recipe,” yesterday (I can help you, hops fan), but usually I can’t see the terms.  Personally, when I search for really specific knowledge online, I usually end up wading through pages and pages of sales sites (“find hops recipe for less!”) and bogus yellow pages and background check sites (“did hops recipe go to your high school?  find hops recipe now!”) and other utter garbage.  It’s obnoxious.  If you’re searching for a recipe, growing info or whatever related to medicinal plants and you can’t find the info you want, just leave me a comment (preferred, so others can see it), put it on the facebook page, or drop me an email.  I love this stuff and I’m happy to help if I can.  And hops fan, come back!  I have recipes!  I will tell you them!


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Echinacea Tinctures From Your Garden

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.

 

Uses

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.

 

Safety

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.

 

Harvesting Echinacea

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:

For tincturing:

  • 80-proof vodka
  • Glass jar
  • Kitchen scale
  • Measuring cup
  • Wax paper

 

For straining:

  • Mesh strainer or colander lined with cheesecloth
  • Potato ricer (recommended)

Instructions

  1. Wash roots gently. Chop finely and weigh in ounces.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 


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Milky Oats Tincture: What’s the Secret?

It seems like folks have a hard time making a really good milky oats tincture.  When I teach advanced tincture making, we always discuss past “failures” or at least tinctures that didn’t turn out how students expected, since there is more space to learn from our mistakes than from easy successes.  Milky Oats is one that comes up often (along with milk thistle, turmeric, hops…), so I’m going to explain the little tricks to growing it and making medicine.

Oat (Avena sativa) is beloved as a restoring, nutritive nervine tonic (medicine whose effects build slowly over time).  In women’s health we cherish oat for its properties as a mineral rejuvenator and protector against adrenal exhaustion–goodbye postpartum depression!  Hello restful sleep, coping skills, and an end to feeling stretched too thin, exhausted, and sapped of vitality.  As an antidepressant nervine it has a grounding, moistening effect for folks who feel burnt out, dried up, and frazzled.  It is a nurturing rejuvenator to the nervous system, stress response, and adrenal glands; the minerals your body needs for your heart, muscles, bones, and nerve transmission to work well; kidney and liver function; and it bestows a feeling of general well-being to those of us lucky enough to bask in its welcoming green glow.  As is common, the tea is a gentler, more long-term builder known for its mineral-related actions, while the tincture is stronger and more known for antidepressant and nervine actions.  I think that’s enough rhapsodies about it–here you are, reading my blog and being internet savvy, which means you are able to follow these links to more information about the medicinal uses of Milky Oats so we can get down to business on how to make medicine with it:  7Song’s articleKiva Rose’s article, Jim McDonald’s article, Henriette Kress’s blog

Planning Ahead

Milky Oats tincture must be made from fresh herbs–a tincture of dried herbs is just an oat tincture.  “Milky” refers to the whitish goo (latex) that comes out of the fresh, unripe seed when you squeeze it.  The goo is only there for a short time as the plants mature, so you have to check it regularly once the seeds appear and be ready to tincture.  I think this is the biggest barrier to making a Milky Oats tincture: where do you get fresh Milky Oats?  The answer is pretty simple–either grow them yourself, talk a friend into growing them for you, or buy them fresh from a local herb farm.

I usually buy oat seed from Fedco Co-op, but you can also get it at your local farm co-op and I’ve done that in a pinch before.  Often it’s sold by the 50 lb sack or other incredible amount that you will probably not be able to use, but both times I’ve had to go that route I was able to talk the nice person behind the desk into measuring me out less.  The usual heirloom seed companies may have oats available too, I’m not sure but it’s worth looking around–I’ve been very happy with Fedco and haven’t felt the need to try other companies.

Growing Tips

When to Plant Oats

Oat is a short-season, cool weather crop.  Once the weather gets hot it does its baby-making thing and goes to seed, which means you missed the milky stage.  I planted mine last week, but I’m in Vermont so if you live in a warmer climate you probably missed out for this spring.  Oat is direct-seeded as soon as the ground can be worked, which in my climate is April but for many people is March.  I often plant oats the day I plant peas or soon after; the minimum soil temperature for germination is 45 degrees F, and in the mid 50’s you start to get poor germination and you’re likely to run out of time to get your oats to the milky stage before hot weather hits.

If It’s Too Late To Plant If you missed planting for this season, don’t despair!  You can try again for a fall crop, which is harder to time but still works.  Plant your oats in a spot that is shady in early fall but sunny in late fall, like immediately north of your corn.  You can also hang up some burlap to help provide some shade, then take it down when the weather cools.  Again, your soil temperature should be between 45 and 55 degrees F for germination, so hang up your burlap before you sow if you’re doing it that way.  Mulching heavily with straw helps keep the soil cooler.

Where to Plant Oats

Cover Crop Oats make a great spring cover crop, so consider planting them in a spot that went weedy last year, or in an area new to cultivation.  Oat is in the grass family (Poaceae) and it does reasonably well against all the nasty invasive grasses I’m always fighting to get out of the gardens.  I think of it as an in-and-out crop, like peas or radishes, in that it’s there and gone before my heavy hitter crops like corn and tomatoes are even a twinkle in the season’s eye.Round Barn Garden

Microclimate Oats are kind of tall so you can use them to create interesting microclimates for early season crops.  I plant short-season Brassicas north of the oats, because it’s sunny when the weather is cool, and by the time the oats are tall enough to cast shade over the Brassicas, the weather is warm enough that without a little shade I’d be fretting about the broccoli bolting before it sets nice florets.  Avoid this for the long-season Brassicas like cabbage and brussels sprouts because the oats will be cut down long before those crops are ready.

Succession Planting Oat is a great tool for succession planting, as it lays down a beautiful nitrogen-rich weed-free layer of mulch for your hot season crops.  I always plant my hottest hotties in the oat patch in June–last year it was watermelon, and let me tell you it was BEAUTIFUL not having to weed the watermelon.

How to Plant Oats

I recommend tilling the ground in the fall for a few reasons: 1. you can get your seed in the ground literally as early as possible in the spring, mud be damned; and 2. it buys your crop a head start against last year’s weed seeds, especially grass.

If you didn’t till in the fall, know that you will most likely have to make a decision in March or April to either prep the bed by hand or wait until the ground dries out enough for the tiller–but then you’re gambling on the soil temperature for germination, which is often well into the high 50’s by the time the soil dries out, around here anyway.  To prep the bed by hand, turn the soil with a shovel, weeding as you go; when the soil is as turned as it’s going to get, follow instructions below.

1. Before planting oats, use a scuffle hoe or stirrup hoe to make the soil as level and fine as you can get it, even if the soil was recently tilled.  The more level and fine your soil is, the better your oats will germinate.  If you don’t have the right hoe you can use a hard rake, but then please get yourself a good hoe with your tax refund.

2. Sow your seeds (your cultivated oats, I suppose) by scattering them thickly across the surface of the soil using both hands or a seed spreader.  The birds are going to eat some of your seeds, so really, spread them thick.

3.  Use a hard rake or your hands to spread the oats as evenly as possible.  Sowing Oats

4. If you’re sowing a large area, walk across it gently to ensure good contact between the oats and the soil.  If it’s a small area, you can pat them down with your hands.  You don’t have to bury the oats, they’ll germinate just fine on the surface as long as they are pressed into the soil.

Consider a scarecrow, bells, or old CD’s on strings to keep the birds out of the oats, although there’s a certain amount of seed that the seed-eaters will take as their due for their brethren who eat pest bugs, mice, rabbits, etc. and protect our gardens.  Once I scared a fawn out of my oats, where her mother had hidden her for the day.  That was neat, even with the crushed plants.

Medicine-Making with Milky Oats

How to Harvest Milky Oats

The oats will be “milky” when the young unripe seeds have emerged but before they’re ripe (in other words, before they’re viable seeds).  You know it’s time when the white goo (latex) comes out of the seed when you squeeze it.  I will try to post a picture of this next month when it happens, but in the meantime check out Juliet Blankespoor’s beautiful pictures or just search for it.

To harvest the seeds, you can either slide your fist up the stalks to pull off just the seeds, or use pruners or a scythe to cut the oats just below where the seeds start (this is faster but higher impact).  Leave the greens standing so you can harvest oat straw later in the month (which you will harvest by cutting it down with pruners or a scythe, then dry for tea or tincture fresh at 1:2 75% for your future happiness and health–instructions on tincture-making here).  If you’re lucky and the spring is long, you are likely to get a second cutting of Milky Oats in a few weeks.

How to Tincture Milky Oats

Please see my article on tincture-making for an explanation of tincture ratios, alcohol percent, solubility, and a general how-to on the process.

Tincture Milky Oats at 1:2 75% to get a little of that mineral goodness, or you can go as high as 1:2 95% if you are all about the antidepressant-ness and don’t care about the minerals at all.  Remember that minerals are not soluble in alcohol, only in water.  See the link above if I’ve lost you here.

The secret trick to Milky Oats is using a blender, food processor, or mortar (last resort) to get the plant matter (marc) to stay submerged under the liquid (menstruum).  If you absolutely must, you can chop it by hand, but you lose a lot of the juicy goodness to the cutting board and it’s hard to get it smooshed up fine enough without extra help.

To process the oats, hold a bunch in one hand and strip the seeds off by sliding your other hand down the stalks (save the greens for tea).  You may have already removed the seeds, depending how you harvested them.  Weigh your plant matter, then put it in the blender with the appropriate amount of alcohol and water and grind away.

That’s it, congratulations, your tincture is going to be stronger and smarter and prettier than all its predecessors, and you and your family will have healthy nervous systems and a feeling of general well-being.  Hooray!