Old Ways Herbal, Juliette Abigail Carr

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


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Solubility in Medicine Making

Solubility: The Basics

Something is soluble if it dissolves in a particular liquid: picture stirring sugar into hot tea (soluble) versus cold water (not). Plant compounds that we use for medicine have to dissolve in the water/alcohol/honey/oil/etc. for medicine to be a thing.

Many plant constituents are polar, meaning they have a positive side and a negative side.  The different sides are attracted to their opposites, so they can be pulled apart (dissolved) in a liquid that is also polar.  The cliche chemistry rule is “opposites attract, like dissolves like.”  Polarity is a continuum of different strengths: water is extremely polar; alcohol has both polar and nonpolar bonds (so call it “medium”), oil and wax are nonpolar.  There is a lot more to this, but this is enough fluency for medicine-making. (Please don’t write me hate mail full of ionic and covalent bonds!  If you do I will dip it in alcohol and it will dissolve!)

All plants contain both water-soluble and alcohol-soluble constituents. The question is how the medicinal compounds that you want extract best. The plants have a preference for the ideal balance to get the most well rounded medicine; make water-preferential or alcohol-preferential medicine based on what results you want (i.e. burdock tincture versus burdock vinegar).

Most plant medicine is best with a balance of both: dandelion, nettles, holy basil. Some really extract best in one or the other: slippery elm, marshmallow, echinacea. Remember that vinegar extracts water-soluble compounds (and in the case of minerals, is better than water at it) and oil extracts alcohol-soluble compounds.

How to Tell

Intuition, observation, and practice!

Where it’s growing, how it’s growing, when it flourishes: intuition from experience.  Does is grow on the banks of a river?  On a wind-swept prairie?  Does it bloom only when it’s very hot and sunny?

What worked last time? How does that season compare to this one? Is there a drought, or a late snow storm, or did the river jump its banks last fall and deposit fertile silt in your garden?

Taste, smell, & feel

Mucilage, berberine, tannin, resin: plants often directly tell you how to make medicine with them.  Gooey demulcent mucilage is water-soluble, but sharp tingling berberine is alcohol-soluble.

Precipitate

The goop at the bottom of a tincture is the plant matter that didn’t dissolve in the tincture.  Think about the goop at the bottom of a burdock or elecampane tincture–that’s the stuff that can’t dissolve in alcohol.  Actually, it’s mostly fiber, which does for plants what bones and fat do for people (structure & food storage).  Burdock and elecampane are both examples of herbs that tincture best at lower alcohol concentrations so their water-soluble compounds can play too.  If there’s way more precipitate than there should be, it often means your tincture had too much or too little alcohol in it.  That said, most high alcohol tinctures, especially of roots, will have precipitate, since plant matter always contains water-soluble constituents (see up, second paragraph).

Look it up in a good herbal reference

I recommend the works of Michael Moore and Lisa Ganora

Energetics of Solubility

These are generalizations meant to give you a place to start, not definitive truths for all plants.  I’m developing a graphic for this but it’s not ready for the internet yet!

Plants that have very water-soluble medicine are often extremes on the wet-dry continuum:

Marshmallow                                                        Willow

Slippery elm                                                      Witch Hazel

Plants that do well with high alcohol tinctures are usually more in the middle of wet-dry, but on an extreme of hot or cold:

Echinacea                                                    California Poppy

Cayenne                                                                Skullcap

Remember, most plants make good medicine in both water- and alcohol-based preparations, but the individual effects still follow these basic guidelines.

For example:

Burdock tea: water-soluble medicine, benefits are dramatic on the wet-dry continuum with kidney & lymphatic actions
Burdock tincture: alcohol-soluble medicine, benefits are dramatic on the hot-cold continuum with liver & digestive actions

 

But wait!  How do I apply this extremely interesting nerdiness to medicine-making?

Now that you understand the background, here is a full, in-depth exploration of tincture-making that includes applied solubility!

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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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Nettles, Burdock, & How to Make Tinctures That Actually Work and Don’t Taste Like Death

This is an excerpt of a longer article originally published in Country Grind Quarterly about spring tonics and tincture-making.  Much more info here about making weight-to-volume tinctures, and some gems here on troubleshooting tinctures.  If you’re in Vermont, come to the tincture-making class in June!  Info here.

Spring is the time to start making your own herbal medicine, or get way better at it, because you have the whole growing season ahead of you to screw up and try again. Almost over night, medicine is popping up out of the ground all over the yard and the woods and the roadsides—and at the same time, we’re antsy to get outside without the coveralls, snow boots, and wool we’ve been sweating in for the last 4-6 months.

Weedy spring medicines called spring tonics get a lot of attention this time of year. Their medicine is gentle and cleansing, helping us shed the sluggishness of fireside hibernation, too much sleep and too much booze and not enough fresh vegetables. These herbs stimulate and rejuvenate the liver, kidneys, digestion, blood and lymph system, energizing us for the growing season. Tonics should be taken every day for best effect. Common examples include dandelion, burdock, yellow dock, cleavers, chickweed, nettles, and many other early weeds, depending on where you live. We’ll cover nettles and burdock as examples and talk about how to preserve them in alcohol (tincture), because digging up a bunch of burdock doesn’t do you any good if you can’t use it.

One thing to note is that many spring tonics have high mineral & soluble fiber content, neither of which dissolves in alcohol. If you want the fiber or minerals, make tea, food, or tincture them in vinegar.

Like always, look up any herb you’re thinking of using to make sure it’s safe for you if you have health concerns, and make sure you’re harvesting the right plants.

Burdock is a cool, moist, calming anti-inflammatory rejuvenator. Use the tinctured root to stimulate sluggish digestion; cleanse the liver, gall bladder, kidneys, and blood; and relieve hot, congested skin conditions like acne and boils. It’s soothing to PMS symptoms with liver involvement, like acne and constipation, combined with a woman’s herb like black haw. Use it to cleanse the liver during recovery from substance abuse. Root tea (decoction) is used to relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, or as a gentle every day medicine against chronic urinary tract infections and kidney stones. The root is high in minerals and soluble fiber, so the tea is useful against anemia, to help recover from antibiotic use with probiotic foods, and to help neutralize high cholesterol and reproductive hormone imbalances with a woman’s herb. The root is good in soups and you get the effects of the tea. Seeds can be collected for a strong diuretic medicine, but in the fall so we’ll skip it.

Harvesting burdock Look for the 2nd year’s growth: the leaves will be larger, usually in an area that went weedy last year. Dig roots in the early morning during the new moon, within a day or 2 of rain for the best medicine.

Nettle is a cooling anti-inflammatory strength-builder that stimulates kidney function and cleanses the blood (alterative). It’s used in tincture, tea, or food for a wide range of conditions of deficiency. Use it for any deficient depression or exhaustion, when you feel dragged down, frazzled, and overwhelmed, with herbs for the nervous system (nervines). Nettle is a tonic against seasonal allergies and allergies that manifest in skin and mucous membranes (like sinuses). Use it for skin conditions related to stress, fatigue, or dryness. Nettles stimulate milk production in nursing mamas and protect against postpartum depression and exhaustion.

Because of its effect on kidney function, the tea is protective against chronic urinary tract infections and helps relieve symptoms of arthritis and gout with anti-inflammatory herbs like willow, and high blood pressure with a heart tonic like hawthorn. Tea and food are high in minerals, so nettle helps protect against iron-deficiency anemia, osteoporosis, and electrolyte deficiencies. It combines beautifully with other spring tonics like burdock for diuretic and mineral benefits. Cook the leaves like kale for springtime joy. Fresh seeds & roots are also collected for very strong medicine (not a tonic), as a diuretic and adrenal rejuvenator.

Harvesting nettle Harvest on a sunny day during the full moon. Wear gloves to cut young nettles off at an angle ½ inch above a leaf node (so you can cut again this season). Never harvest nettles after they bloom with tiny hanging green flowers from their armpits, they can have major effects on hormones. Hold the end of the stem in one hand and strip the leaves off away from you. Only harvest nettles from good clean soil, they uptake heavy metals.

Making Fresh Herb Tinctures

So in the original Country Grind article, this is where I talk about all the nitty gritty tincture-making details of ratios, concentrations, fresh vs. dried plant matter, solubility, and the rest.  If you want those details, please read this much more detailed article on how to make tinctures.  Otherwise, read on for the specific recipes.

To illustrate how to follow a recipe to make genuinely good tinctures, and in honor of spring: the nettle leaf tincture represents higher alcohol tinctures of delicate plant parts, and burdock root tincture represents lower alcohol tinctures of dense plant parts. This recipe can be applied to any herb you would tincture. I’m using fluid and solid ounces, but if you’re a metric user it works just as well in ml and gm.

You will need Grain alcohol; scale; measuring cup; knife and cutting board; clean canning jars; waxed paper or clean muslin; labels or scrap paper; packing tape. Eventually, a potato ricer or press.

1. Pick the ratio, 1:2 to 1:6.

Nettles: 1:3

Burdock 1:4

2.  Pick the liquid concentration, 40% to 95%.

Nettles: 75%

Burdock 60%

3. Chop and weigh the herbs using ounces.  This number is the 1st number in the ratio (the 1); let’s say the herbs weigh 4 oz.

4. Multiply the weight of herbs by the second number in the ratio.  This number is the total volume of liquid.

Nettles: 4 oz nettles, 1:3 ratio, 4×3=12 oz liquid

Burdock: 4 oz burdock, 1:4 ratio, 4×4=16 oz liquid

5. Multiply liquid volume (the number you got in step 4) by the alcohol concentration you want.  This is the volume of alcohol. We’re pretending grain alcohol is 100% instead of 95% for our sanity.

Nettles: 12 oz liquid x75%=9 oz alcohol

Burdock: 16 oz liquid x60%=9.6, let’s say 10 oz alcohol

6. Subtract the alcohol volume from the total volume of liquid.  This is how much water you need.

Nettles: 12 oz liquid–9 oz alcohol=3 oz water

Burdock: 16 oz liquid–10 oz alcohol=6 oz water

7. Put herbs in jar, then pour alcohol and water over herbs. Mash the herbs down to keep them under the liquid.

Nettles: 4 oz herbs, 9 oz grain alcohol, 3 oz water

Burdock: 4 oz herbs, 10 oz grain alcohol, 6 oz water

8.  Line the lid with waxed paper or muslin so alcohol doesn’t eat away the lining of the lid and put metal and BPA’s in your tincture. Label with plant, date, moon phase, harvest location, etc.  Cover label with packing tape so it doesn’t disappear.

9.  Let sit 6 weeks or more in a cool, dark place, shaking occasionally.

10.  Strain, then squeeze the herbs in a potato ricer to extract the last, strongest part of the tincture.  If you don’t have a potato ricer you can use 2 plates but the potato ricer works better.  Feed the herbs to your chickens or the compost.

11.  Store in a glass jar or bottle in a cool, dark place. Dosage is different for different herbs, but for these 2 recipes try 1-3 droppers (1-3 ml) daily. Tinctures last for years.


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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!


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Making Weight-to-Volume Tinctures

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.

First, Some Basics

 

Marc: solid matter in a tincture; the plants

Menstruum: liquid in a tincture; the alcohol and water (or vinegar, glycerin, honey, etc.)

Solubility: whether or not something dissolves in a particular liquid.  Think of sugar in tea–soluble–versus sugar in cold water–insoluble.

Constituents: compounds that combine into a plant’s chemical makeup

Precipitate: solid or goopy stuff that settles out at the bottom of your tincture

Demulcents: herbs that moisten mucous membranes, like the lining of your mouth and throat

Mucilage: a gooey compound that acts as a demulcent

 

Weight-to-volume tinctures are made by carefully considering two aspects of balance: the balance between the weight of the marc and the volume of menstruum, and the balance of alcohol and water in the menstruum.  We write this balance as a ratio and a percent, like 1:2 75%, which is basically a shorthand recipe letting everyone know how we made the tincture.  You’ve probably seen something like that written on tinctures you’ve bought in the past.

Weight-to-volume tinctures have a couple of advantages over folkloric tinctures, including:

  • You can be sure what the dosage is
  • Recipes are easy to replicate, time after time; strength will still vary from year to year based on the plants themselves, but within a predictable margin
  • You can use dose-dependent medicines without hurting anyone.  Dose-dependent medicines make people sick in large doses, so they’re not safe in folkloric preparations.  Examples include poke and lobelia.

The only real disadvantages to weight-to-volume tinctures are that it takes effort to learn how to make them properly, and it helps to have a good book or website to guide you.  The alternative is to make folkloric tinctures, which you don’t measure.

Understanding Tincture Ratios

The ratio of marc to menstruum is written as a mathematical ratio, like 1:2, 1:3, etc.  That means for every 1 part of marc you use 2 parts (or 3 parts, or 4 parts) of menstruum.  We measure “parts” in ounces, and here’s where it can get confusing:

  • Marc is measured using ounces of weight, like on a scale
  • Menstruum is measured using ounces of volume, like on a measuring cup
  • Liquid and solid ounces are different!

So to make a 1:2 tincture, we will use 1 ounce of marc on a scale for every 2 ounces of menstruum in a measuring cup.  If you have more than 1 ounce of marc, multiply the weight of the marc by the 2nd number in the ratio.  For example:

  • If I have 5 ounces of an herb and I want a 1:2 tincture, I will use 10 ounces of menstruum, because 2 x 5 =10.
  • If I have 5 ounces of an herb and I want a 1:3 tincture, I will use 15 ounces of menstruum, because 3 x 5 =15.

General Rules One of the biggest hurdles for students is learning how to choose the “right” ratio.  Honestly, if you make a tincture at the less-than-ideal ratio, nothing bad is going to happen and your tincture will still be useful–it might be a little stronger or weaker than you’d hoped for, but it’s not going to explode.  That said, there’s certainly a method to the madness, although the only way to really learn this stuff by heart is to experiment and practice with your own tinctures.  An easy way to think about ratios is to consider your marc’s density and soak-up-ableness:

  • Delicate plant parts like leaves and flowers are tinctured at a close ratio like 1:2 or 1:3, because they don’t weigh much but still pack a medicinal punch.  They don’t soak up all that much menstruum, so you don’t usually have to add menstruum to keep the marc submerged.
  • Dense plant parts like roots and barks are tinctured at a farther ratio like 1:3 or 1:4, because they weigh more–they’ve got all that structure to carry around, all those heavy plant bones.  They can soak up a lot more menstruum into that fiber, which will make your marc stick out of the top if you don’t put in enough menstruum.

The closest ratio you want to tincture at is 1:2–1:1 isn’t really possible in your kitchen, although you can get that done with fancy equipment but there’s no real advantage for the home medicine maker.  The farthest ratio I recommend is 1:6, which is absolutely appropriate for dried barks and such like that.  Past 1:7 your medicine starts to get pretty weak and the dosages get high, which are probably the #1 and #2 reasons your family doesn’t want to take your medicines (“it doesn’t work” and “half an ounce of grain alcohol is disgusting”).  It ends up being a waste of herbs and alcohol.

A Useful Tip If you find yourself with a tincture that keeps soaking up menstruum and you don’t want to add more at the expense of your ratio–good examples include fresh hops, fresh milky oats, and many dried barks–put the whole tincture through the food processor.  The marc gets nicely crushed up into the menstruum and the whole tincture lays down much more quietly in the jar.

Understanding Alcohol Concentration

The second aspect of balance you have to figure out to make a weight-to-volume tincture is the balance between alcohol and water in the menstruum.  We write the alcohol content as a percentage, with the remaining percentage out of 100% as water: 40% means the menstruum is 40% alcohol, 60% water.  The concentration of store-bought alcohol is easy to figure out because it is half of the proof, which is written on the label.  For example, 80 proof vodka is 40% alcohol, and the remaining 60% is water.  This balance between alcohol and water affects how much medicine will dissolve into your tincture, a concept known as solubility.

Solubility Something is soluble if it dissolves in a particular liquid.  In herbal medicine, we talk about alcohol-soluble and water-soluble constituents, plant compounds that dissolve in either alcohol or water.  It’s an either-or thing: an individual constituent can’t be both alcohol-soluble and water-soluble, it’s one or the other.  All plants contain both alcohol-soluble and water-soluble constituents; the question is whether the medicinal constituents are soluble in alcohol or water.  The herbs have a preference for the ideal balance of alcohol and water to get the most well-rounded medicine, which determines the tincture ratio: make water-preferential or alcohol-preferential medicine based on what results you want.  In some herbs, like echinacea, the medicine is mostly alcohol-soluble; in other herbs, like willow, the medicine is mostly water-soluble.  However, in most herbs the medicine is a nice mix of both alcohol and water soluble constituents; think about all those good medicinal tea herbs that also make nice tinctures, like holy basil, nettles, and dandelion.  Those herbs are in the middle of the water-alcohol solubility spectrum.

You can tell that an herb has a lot of compounds that aren’t soluble in alcohol if a lot of stuff settles out at the bottom of your tincture, or precipitates.  Think about the goop at the bottom of a burdock or elecampane tincture–that’s the stuff that can’t dissolve in alcohol.  Actually, it’s mostly fiber, which does for plants what bones and fat do for people (structure & food storage).  Burdock and elecampane are both examples of herbs that tincture best at lower alcohol concentrations so their water-soluble compounds can play too.

Love details?  Here’s more information about Solubility in medicine making!

Water-Soluble Herbs For an herb that is more water soluble, you want to use a lower alcohol concentration like 60% for a fresh tincture and 40% for a dried tincture.  I really like low alcohol tinctures of most roots, like the aforementioned burdock and elecampane, as well as plants that famously love water like willow.

Alcohol-Soluble Herbs For an herb that is more alcohol soluble, you want to use a higher alcohol concentration like 80% for a fresh tincture and 60% for a dried tincture.  Herbs that contain berberine or volatile oils as well as herbs that don’t have a lot of fiber in them fall into this category, along with many other constituents.  Rosemary, echinacea, holy basil, lemon balm, spilanthes and motherwort are good examples here.

Alcohol Selection Grain alcohol is the highest alcohol concentration you can get at 190 proof, or 95%.  If you use straight grain alcohol in a tincture, just pretend it’s 100% alcohol when you’re measuring it out–there’s no need to torture yourself by trying to add 5% water by volume.  Really, 5% of 12 oz (a common size for a tincture) is 0.6 oz, so it’s pretty negligible whether it’s in there or not.  Straight grain alcohol (95%) is only appropriate for fresh plant tinctures, and even that is arguable.  This is because dried plants have no water in them (obviously), so the water-soluble constituents in a dried herb tincture will not dissolve into a pure alcohol menstruum.  In fact, water soluble constituents in a fresh herb tincture don’t dissolve in a pure alcohol menstruum either–which is why I don’t make tinctures at 95%, but many people do so I’m presenting the option here, as you are an intelligent human and are capable of deciding such things for yourself.

General Rules The lowest concentration you should make tinctures from is 40%, and that’s only for dried herbs.  Fresh herbs have a lot of water in them, which reduces the actual percentage of alcohol in your tincture and leave you open to mold and spoilage–anything below 40% is at risk of going bad on you.  Vodka, gin, and most other varieties of liquor can be found at 40%, or 80 proof; just remember to make sure it’s not 40 proof, which is 20% alcohol and not worth making medicine with.

Personally, I use grain alcohol to make almost all of my tinctures, adding water to get a lower concentration of alcohol based on what herb I’m tincturing–instructions on how to do this are in the recipe at the bottom of the article.  I like the control of being able to choose exactly what my concentration is.  You can always decrease the alcohol concentration by adding water, but you can’t increase alcohol concentration, so I start high and decrease as needed.  I like the flexibility of being able to make high alcohol tinctures when I need to, which you can’t do with the lower proof alcohols.  Also, I make a point of choosing alcohol concentrations I can figure out in my head, like 60% and 75%–no need to make myself crazy trying to make a tincture that’s 71.25% alcohol when the plant matter itself is going to put an indeterminate amount of water right back into the tincture and mess up my careful exactness.

A fun experiment for nerdy kitchen witches You can magnify the energetics of the medicine you make by using different kinds of alcohol.  For very warming tinctures made from dried herbs I recommend brandy or scotch, because the liquors themselves definitely add heat–go ahead and make a prickly ash brandy tincture, then tell me you disagree.  Likewise, cooling tinctures of dried herbs go nicely in gin (which is also a tincture, incidentally).  I strongly recommend getting creative with this, it’s very satisfying to magnify the effect of your medicine simply by your choice of menstruum!  Those of you who have made cough medicines with honey and mineral tonics with vinegar, you know what I’m talking about.  You feel like the queen of kitchen witchdom and you tell other people about it and they look at you like you’re green and melting, but that’s okay, because you can make medicines that work, and that’s one of those things you carry around with you.

Putting it Together

Fresh Herbs Fresh plant matter is tinctured at a higher alcohol concentration and a closer ratio, because it already contains water.  A good general rule of thumb is 1:2 to 1:4, based on how dense the plant parts are, and 60% to 80%, based on whether the medicine you’re trying to make is more alcohol soluble or more water soluble.  It’s totally appropriate to make a fresh tincture of the above ground parts of an alcohol-loving plant like echinacea at 1:2 80%, and the menstruum would then be 20% water.  It’s also totally appropriate to make a fresh tincture of the bark of a water-loving tree like willow at 1:4 60%, and the menstruum would then be 40% water.

Dried Herbs Dried plant matter is tinctured at a lower alcohol concentration and a farther ratio because it doesn’t have any water and needs some in there to extract any water-soluble compounds.  The range I use with dried herbs is generally 1:4 to 1:6 and 40% to 60%.  Again, the high end of the spectrum is for delicate parts of alcohol-loving plants, so a dried echinacea tincture would be 1:4 60% (with 40% water).  The low end of the spectrum is for dense parts of water-loving plants, so a dried willow bark tincture would be 1:6 40% (with 60% water).

Guessing at Solubility Intuition, observation, and experience are the most important tools you have to decide if a new herb is more alcohol-soluble, water-soluble, or in the middle somewhere.  Where does the herb grow–on a dusty, windswept hillside, or on a shady riverbank?  If it’s growing in a wet place, like willow does, it’s sending a pretty clear message about its preferences.  Echinacea is native to dry prairies and flourishes where folks still burn their prairie, which is a great example of a dry-loving plant that tinctures at high alcohol concentrations.  Another clue is what’s it growing near?  St Johns wort and bee balm both grow alongside echinacea.  Taste and smell are important indicators of solubility, too.  If it’s slimy when you taste it, like marshmallow or violet, you’re tasting that demulcent medicine, that water-loving aspect of the plant.  If it makes your mouth go numb and tingly like spilanthes, or smells really fragrant when you crush it like anything in the mint family, most likely that plant will do well in a high alcohol tincture.  Of course there are plenty of exceptions to all of this and every medicine maker has their own personal preference—this is where experience comes into play: observe your herbs, intuit what you think they’ll like, and then give it a whirl and see what happens.

Just Try It The best way to learn is to experiment–tinctures are loose, estimate and adjust as necessary.  In the beginning, make several batches at the same time to gain experience of the different character of the medicine: I often will make 3 or 4 little tinctures of a new plant at different ratios and concentrations to get a sense of what I like the best.  When it comes down to it, there’s no right or wrong here so figure out what you and your family think works the best–just be sure to write it down!  If you’re in doubt, you’re working with a new plant, or you want more plant-specific guidance on solubility, check out Michael Moore’s tincture ratios at http://www.swsbm.com or Lisa Ganora’s work on phytochemistry Herbal Constituents (I love this resource but it’s a difficult read, even for the science-minded).

When Not To Tincture

The main situation where you really shouldn’t bother making a tincture is if you want an herb for its demulcent or mucilaginous properties.  Demulcents are herbs that moisten mucous membranes like the lining of your mouth and throat; mucilaginous herbs contain mucilage, a gooey compound that acts as a demulcent.  In these herbs, the medicine is in the goo, and goo doesn’t dissolve in alcohol so tincturing them at any concentration wastes both the herb and the booze.  Some of these herbs can be tinctured for uses not related to their prowess as demulcents–burdock tea is a great gooey tonic for the gut, but tincturing it does very nice things for its property as a liver tonic.  So if you’re planning to take burdock to make your skin glow, by all means, tincture away (1:3 65% fresh).  However, if you want mullein or violet to moisten a dry cough, try drying them for tea or cooking them up in honey because they won’t give you that nice cooling gooyness in a tincture form.

There are a couple of herbs that are so extremely water soluble that there’s no point in making a tincture from them at all, like slippery elm (which is at-risk anyway, so please stop using it) and marshmallow.  In these cases, if you make a tincture you’ll realize pretty quickly that something’s wrong because they form a disgusting little ghost baby of gooey fiber in the jar, instead of dissolving nicely.  If you’re not sure if your herb has water soluble properties but still makes a good tincture like burdock, or if your herb only has water soluble properties like slippery elm, look it up in Michael Moore’s list (link above), your favorite book, or any of the many fabulous free online resources that exist in the future we inhabit.

Weight-to-Volume Tincture Recipe

Throughout this recipe, we’re going to use a running example to illustrate how to put the numbers together.  The example could be the fresh above ground parts of any alcohol-loving plant, so pick one to picture as we go through this.  I’m picturing bee balm.  If you’ve got imagination block at the moment, try picturing St Johns wort or goldenrod,  either of those will do.

You will need: Fresh or dried medicinal herb of your choice, clean and ready to use; grain alcohol; kitchen scale; measuring cup; knife and cutting board; clean canning jars; waxed paper or clean muslin; labels or scrap paper; packing tape; depending on your herb, you also might want a mortar & pestle or food processor.

1.  Decide what ratio you want to use, between 1:2 and 1:6

Example: I’m choosing 1:3

2.  Decide what concentration of menstruum you want to use, between 40% and 95%

Ex: 75% (now we have 1:3 75%)

3. Finely chop or crush herbs and weigh them on your kitchen scale using the ounce marks.  This number is the 1st number in the ratio (the 1)

Ex: My bee balm weighs 4 oz on the scale

4. Multiply the weight of your herb by the second number.  This number is the volume of menstruum you need.

Ex: 1:3 is the ratio, I have 4 oz of bee balm.  4 x 3 =12 oz menstruum

5. Multiply the total volume of menstruum by the concentration of alcohol you want.  This number is the volume of alcohol (if the alcohol is grain alcohol).  If the alcohol is not grain alcohol, you are probably using it at it’s bottled strength so you don’t need to add water.

Ex: 12 oz menstruum x 75% = 9 oz alcohol

6. Subtract the volume of alcohol from the total volume of menstruum.  This is how much water you need.

Ex: 12 oz menstruum – 9 oz alcohol = 3 oz water

7. Put it all together!

Ex: 4 oz by weight of herbs, combined with 9 oz grain alcohol and 3 oz water

8. Measure the alcohol and water in a measuring cup, using the ounce marks

9. Put the herbs in the glass jar and pour the water and alcohol over them.  Don’t forget that herbs take up space when you choose the jar!

10. If the menstruum doesn’t cover the herbs, mash them down.  If they still don’t submerge, add 1 more “dose” of menstruum

Ex: our tincture is 1:3, so we can make it 1:4 by adding another 4 oz menstruum (3 oz alcohol and 1 oz water) for a total of 16 oz menstruum at 75% alcohol

11. If the herbs still don’t fit, or if you don’t want to lower your ratio (say, because you’re doing a root tincture and you’re already at 1:6), put the whole works in the food processor

12.  Line the lid of the jar with a square of waxed paper or muslin so the alcohol doesn’t eat away at the lining of the lid and put metal and BPA’s in your tincture.  Clearly label with plant, date, moon phase, harvest location, etc.  Cover label with packing tape so it doesn’t disappear.

13.  Let sit for 6 weeks or more in a cool, dark place, shaking regularly

14.  Strain the marc out of the tincture using a mesh tea strainer.  Then squeeze the strained marc in a potato ricer to extract the last, strongest part of the tincture.  If you don’t have a potato ricer you can squeeze the marc between 2 plates but the potato ricer works way better.  Feed the marc to your chickens or the compost.

15.  Store in a clearly labeled glass jar or bottle in a cool, dark place.  Tinctures last for years.


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Making Folkloric Tinctures

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.

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 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.