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By Harriet Behar
First published in the MOSES Organic Broadcaster, Nov-Dec 2006
Added November, 2008. Herbal medicine includes the use of many types of preparations made from plants including teas, poultices, and tinctures. Learning herbal medicine is a lifelong journey, but there are many herbal medicines that can be made and used safely by novices. I will not discuss the specific herbal uses in this article, but there is a listing of books on this page which can be a starting place for you to learn more. Instead, I will teach you the basics of how to make herbal tinctures for your own use, in your own home. There is something special about taking the time to learn about the various benefits that these plants offer us, and especially to make them in your own home and sourced from your own land.
Herbal tinctures are used both for human health and for livestock health management It is fun and interesting to grow or wild harvest the common plants used in tinctures. This is something the whole family can be involved in. You learn to appreciate the many plants naturally growing around us, as well as enjoy growing small patches of any more exotic herbs you may want to tincture. For livestock farmers, as you learn the various qualities of the various herbs, it is fascinating to pay attention to what different herbs your animals eat in the pastures, depending on the time of year and the needs of the animal.
Tinctures are an extract, made by steeping ground-up fresh or dried herb in a liquid (usually alcohol, glycerin, water or olive oil). Depending on the plant, the parts used may be the flowers, the stems, the leaves, the roots or some combination of these items. In this article, when I refer to herbs, it could be any part of the plant.
Alcohol is used most frequently as the liquid in a tincture, since it both extracts most of the desired constituents of the herbs, and works as a highly effective preservative for the finished tincture. The active ingredients in the herb, such as alkaloids, are better suited to being extracted from the herb in alcohol. Vodka, Brandy, or Grain Alcohol (190 proof, Everclear is one brand name), can be used as the alcohol base. Food grade glycerin can be used in place of alcohol, especially for tinctures used for young children. However, the amount of tincture consumed for each dose is only between 5 and 15 drops, so most people and animals can tolerate alcohol tinctures. Oils are used as the liquid base for specific herbs, such as bloodroot or St. Johnswort. Wines and vinegars have also been used in making tinctures, but this article will discuss the making of alcohol tinctures, since these are the most common.
Both fresh and dried herbs can be used when making tinctures, with fresh herbs generally making the most potent tincture. In November, most of our green herbs are no longer growing and are resting for the winter (although there is still time to dig medicinal roots!). You can still buy dried herbs now, make tinctures for the winter, and plan to grow or wild harvest the herb for next summer’s fresh plant tinctures. Personally, I prefer to make my tinctures from fresh plant matter, rather than dried, but sometimes you do not have a choice. Also, if you want to tincture an herb that does not grow in our region, buying dried herb is the most reasonable solution.
Since when using tinctures you do not consume much of the product, making small amounts (1/2 pints or less) of tincture is fairly easy to do and will not use a lot of plant matter nor alcohol.
Whatever part of the plant you are using will need to be cut up into little pieces. Roots, flower heads and stems can be quite tough, so you may need to use pruning shears or a heavy knife to chop up these fresh herbs. Scissors are just fine for leafy items. Roots should be washed clean, making sure you get off all of the dirt lodged in the tight spots. The above ground parts of the plant do not need to be washed, unless they are dirty. If you are harvesting roots, don’t forget to include the very bottom of the stem where it meets the root, since this area sometimes has the active ingredient as well and is considered part of the “crown” of the plant. For dried herbs, you can powder the herbs in a blender or mortar and pestle if you wish.
You should put as much of the herb as possible in a glass jar with a tight fitting lid that will not have direct metal contact with the tincture. The jar should be filled to the top, so if you want to make just a small amount, then use a small jar, not a large jar only filled halfway. If you wish, you can follow the calendar, making the tincture at the new moon, and keep it in the jar until the following new moon. Otherwise, between 15- 30 days should elapse before you strain out the herbs. I have only done one type of herb at a time, and if you want to blend tinctures, you can do this after they are finished.
After you have filled the jars with herb, pour the type of alcohol you wish to use over the herbs, making sure the herb is completely covered. Put the lid on tightly and set in a cool, dark place. Put a label on the jar, with the type of herb, the type of alcohol and the date you started the tincture, to help you keep track of when you may want to strain it out. After 12-24 hours, check the tincture and add more alcohol if some has been soaked up by the herb and the liquid is not completely covering the herb in the jar. There should be about ¼ inch of alcohol above the herb. This is a basic recipe, with some herbs not needing to be completely packed into the jar, some herbs or tinctures better with Everclear or with a lowered alcohol content and best mixed with some water. A listing of Herbal Medicine books at the end of this article can lead you to more specific information.
Every few days, shake the jar of tincture, to encourage the constituents of the plant to release into the alcohol (hence the need for a tight lid!) After the 15-30 days, then strain out the herbs from the alcohol and bottle the tincture.
There are a variety of ways to “decant” the finished tincture, including straining through a cheesecloth. Any way that you can squeeze out more of the alcohol from the herbs, the better the tincture will be. There are a variety of presses available from home beer and wine making supply companies. I have a stainless steel press that cost about $70, which holds 1.5 quarts of tincture and is like a very small apple cider press, with a small basket with holes that holds the herb and tincture and flat piece of stainless steel that screws down into this slotted basket. The most potent tincture will be that which is imbedded in the herb, so whatever you can devise to press out the herb will work. Commercial presses are made from hydraulic jacks, so you can try to devise something on your own. If you only use your hands, you will still get a serviceable tincture. I put cheesecloth or a jelly cloth inside my press, to hold back any dirt that might be in the herb, and to give me a clear, not cloudy, tincture.
Put this tincture in a blue or brown jar, preferably one with a glass dropper, so you can then easily take doses of a few drops. Keep the bottle out of direct sun, but you do not necessarily have to keep it in a totally dark place. It is a good idea to write the name of the herb, the type of alcohol you used, and the date that you pressed out the tincture on a label, just to keep track of your various bottles of product.
So, the items you will need include:
Here is a listing of some of the more common tinctures
and the parts of the plants that are used:
Three items that are commonly made with an
olive or sesame oil infusion are:
For these oil infusions you cover the herb with oil in a jar and put the jar in a paper sack in the sun so they are warm for about 10 days. Then press out the herbs and store in a cool dark place. Don’t be alarmed if the oil from the St. Johnswort turns a blood red, that is what it is supposed to do!
Harriet Behar is the MOSES Outreach Director. She raises herbs, organic bedding plants and vegetables and makes tinctures at her farm in Gays Mills, WI.
Posted: to Organic Production on Sat, Nov 1, 2008
Updated: Sat, Nov 1, 2008