Summer has come to the northern hemisphere. In the span of just a couple of weeks, the trees have fully leafed out and the fields are blooming with flowers.
For foragers and herbalists, June is a sweet spot in the year; many spring plants are still around, and those that thrive in the warmer months are just emerging.
Now is a really good time to get outside, enjoy the sun, and gather stuff.
One of the ways herbalists preserve the plants they harvest is by tincturing them. If you've dipped your toes into the world of herbal medicine, you've probably got an idea of what a tincture is. But just in case, let's do a quick refresher on what they are and on some of the terms herbalists use when talking about them.
Tinctures are made by steeping a marc (plant material) in a menstruum (solvent - alcohol in this case) to produce a potent extract of the plant. The menstruum pulls the active constituents (alkaloids, flavonoids, terpenes, etc.) out of the plants and leaves you with a concentrated solution.
If you don't do alcohol, vinegar extractions and glycerites could be a good alternative - but that's a whole other post in itself!
Because alcohol is the menstruum, tinctures can last, if stored well, for years. And because they are so potent, they can be taken in small amounts. As someone living in a cold climate with a short growing season and limited space for drying and storing herbs, I really appreciate that tincturing a small amount of plant material can yield years' worth of a concentrated medicine that can be easily stored in small bottles.
Another thing I love about tinctures is how simple they are to make. Anyone can do it - you don't need any special training or equipment to produce really great, effective plant extracts to have on hand for yourself and your family. So let's get into the basics.
Choosing a Menstruum
Choosing the right proof of alcohol can make a big difference in the potency and effectiveness of your tincture. Generally, the higher the proof of alcohol you use, the stronger the medicine will be, but you also have to consider the part of the plant being tinctured as well as whether it is fresh or dried.
Many home herbalists use easy to find alcohol like 80 proof (40% alcohol) brandy, vodka, or gin. This is fine for dried herbs and plants with delicate leaves and flowers, because this concentration of alcohol can easily break down their cell walls and pull out the constituents.
If you're tincturing fresh plants that are a bit more substantial, such as hearty mints with lots of aromatic oils, herbs with a high water content like chickweed, or finely chopped bark and roots, opting for 50-70% will yield better results. You can achieve these percentages by getting some high proof alcohol, such as Everclear, and diluting it with water.
Ultimately, if you want to be sure you're getting the best concentration of constituents possible, it's a really good idea to look up how to tincture the particular plant you're working with. There is a lot of nuance and a lot to know - more than I can cover in one blog post (for instance, there are some plants - like marshmallow - that you shouldn't even try to tincture, because their active constituents aren't soluble in alcohol). A really thorough and easy to understand resource for this is The Modern Herbal Dispensatory by Thomas Easley and Steven Horne. If you want to get good at making all sorts of herbal preparations, it's worth picking up a copy.
The Folk Method
There are a few different tincturing methods, but the folk method is the most common, by far the simplest, and requires equipment that you've probably already got around the house.
All you need is:
- A mason jar
- Plant material
- Cutting board and knife
- Something to stir with
- Labels and a pen
- A fine mesh strainer and/or cheesecloth
- A funnel
- Glass dropper bottles
1: If using fresh herbs or roots, give them a fine chop - the more surface area the better. Dried herbs are typically already crumbled into very small pieces, so I don't usually do anything to process those. If you've got a good spice grinder, you can run your dried roots through to break them down a bit more.
2. Pack the herbs into a jar. If using fresh material, loosely pack the jar about 3/4 of the way. If you're using dried herbs, fill the jar about halfway (this is because many dried herbs are typically more potent, and you don't need quite as much as you do fresh).
3. Pour alcohol over the herbs, filling until they are covered. Give the mixture a quick stir and make sure the herbs are submerged (you might have to top it off a bit more in the coming days, as the plant material may absorb some of the liquid).
4. Cap the jar and write the name of the herb, date it was tinctured, and the menstruum used on the label.
5. Store the tincture in a cool place out of direct sunlight for at least a couple of weeks (I usually give it about six). Give the jar a shake every day or so to be sure the herbs are moving around and staying submerged and to top it off if needed. Another option is to use a clean, mostly flat rock to keep the marc submerged while it macerates.
6. When the tincture is ready, strain out the marc. I like to catch it in cheesecloth and give it a good squeeze to make sure I'm wringing out every last drop. I've heard of herbalists using a potato ricer as a tincture press, and though I've never tried it, it sounds like a pretty great idea if you've got one.
7. Siphon some of the tincture out into a small glass dropper bottle (remember to label that too!) so you can easily grab some from my cabinet and add it in drop doses to your tea or juice. You can store the rest in the mason jar and top off your dropper bottle as needed. Tinctures should keep for years if stored in a cool dark place. Pay attention to the taste, smell and texture of your fresh tincture so that you'll be able to tell when it's started to go a bit off.
Because the tinctures I make are just for family and friends and don't have to be held up to rigorous potency standards and testing (and because sometimes I'm literally tincturing things out in the field), this is the method I often use. I find it makes good medicine for my purposes, and doesn't require anything beyond the most basic equipment.
The more you get to know the specific plants you're working with, the better an idea you'll have of what amount of herb to use and what type and strength of alcohol works best with which plant.
The Ratio Method
If you want or need to know exact ratio of marc to menstruum in order to get more consistent results and a clearer idea of the potency (and therefore suggested dosage) of a tincture, the ratio method is for you.
In this case, many of the steps are the same, but the measurements are more exact.
Usually, tinctures vary from 1:2 down to 1:10 in potency. The first number is the weight of herb, or marc, and the second number is the volume of menstruum.
Many of us herbalists use the good old metric system, so we measure in grams and milliliters. So, a 1:2 tincture would be made with 1 gram of plant and 2 milliliters of alcohol. If you want to use ounces, that's fine - what matters is the relative proportion of plant to alcohol.
The best ratio for a tincture depends on the plant being used and whether or not it's fresh or dried. This is where having a good medicine making guide (as I mentioned above) or herbal where you can look up the typical ratio used with a certain herb.
Herbs should be measured by weight using a good digital scale. You can measure out the alcohol with a measuring cup.
Once you've measured out your ratios, you can use the same methods for macerating, straining and storing as I've outlined above for folk tinctures. Make sure to include the ratio on the label, too.
Whatever method you choose, I hope you'll give tincturing a try. Gathering and preserving plants for yourself or your family and friends is a great way to be more self sufficient and to take advantage of the green gifts that grow freely all around us.
Never forget that herbal medicine is the medicine of the people.
And the necessary statement: Before you harvest a plant from the wild for consumption, be 100% sure you have a correct ID. If you're not sure, leave it alone. All the statements made in this post are strictly for educational and informational purposes and are not meant to treat, cure, or prevent disease. Always consult a physician before taking herbal products, especially if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or have underlying conditions.