Old Ways Herbal: Juliette Abigail Carr, RH (AHG)

Women & Children's Herbal Clinic, Vermont Herb School, & Ramblings on Family Herbal Wisdom


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!


Folkloric Tinctures and Infused Vinegars

This article is part of the series “Basic Recipes for Kitchen Witches,” which is in response to students’ requests for me to post recipes online.  The goal of these articles is to give you the how-to-ness, the essential mechanics of creation,  as a basis for your own future creativity.  You can let your little light shine all on your own from there.

From an accessibility standpoint, folkloric tinctures are the best thing ever.  There’s no need for measuring and weighing and doing arithmetic–and you don’t have to study the intricacies of weight-to-volume tinctures to make something truly fabulous.  Provided the plants you’re tincturing aren’t poisonous in any dose, you’re good to let your kitchen scale gather dust while you experiment to your heart’s content.

This is my favorite method for making infused vinegars: folkloric tinctures using vinegar instead of alcohol.  I like using apple cider vinegar raw because it’s almost impossible to heat it and maintain all the awesome probiotic magic, but some people prefer making a vinegar reduction when they infuse vinegars.  I have great results that yield strong, complex medicines using this method, so I see no reason to boil vinegar in a misery of stinging steam, but please make your magic where you find it.

That being said, if your plants are poisonous at all, you could potentially make someone really sick–so be sure your medicines are benign.  Dose-dependent medicines should not be made into folkloric tinctures because there’s no way to be sure of the medicine’s strength and concentration.  Also, you can’t replicate the medicine from batch to batch.  So, with those warnings in mind, here follows a basic recipe for a basic tincture.

  1. Fill a glass jar with finely chopped herbs
  2. Cover with the alcohol, vinegar, or glycerine of your choice
  3. Clearly label with plant, date, moon phase, harvest location, etc.  Cover label with packing tape!
  4. Let sit for 6 weeks or more in a cool, dark place, shaking regularly
  5. Strain plant matter out of tincture and squeeze strained herbs between 2 plates or in a potato ricer to extract the last of the tincture
  6. Store in a clearly labeled glass jar or bottle in a cool, dark place

A word on alcohol choice:

Since we’re intentionally not concerning ourselves with solubility here, you’re free to do whatever you want with the myriad choices of alcohol in the world.  (That said, if you’re going to use grain alcohol, organic or otherwise, please consider making weight-to-volume tinctures with it because otherwise you’re just pouring your money down the drain with your liver function.)  I’ve found in my classes that there seems to be two ways folks react to the announcement that they can use whatever they want: half of you reach for the bottom shelf, plastic bottle vodka, and the other half reach for the certified organic…vodka.  I see where you’re coming from with this, I really do: vodka is cheap, it has very limited flavor, and it’s also cheap and relatively flavorless.  In a lot of circumstances I prefer flavorless alcohol for tincturing because taste is an important part of medicine: phytochemicals trigger brain activity which in turn triggers physical responses like salivating or increasing metabolic rate.  Like you, I don’t want to obscure the herbs in the alcohol.  However, there’s as much culinary alchemy in successful tincture making as there is nerdy plant science, so I challenge you to branch out from the blank canvas of vodka and consider the ways different flavors of alcohol can enhance the alchemy of medicine making.  Brandy makes a lovely complement to warming tinctures, and gin (a tincture itself) heightens cooling traits.

In the near future I’m hoping to write an article on this subject, but for the time being, start there and experiment yourself–I think you’ll be surprised with your success.