Herbal medicine has long been considered “the people’s medicine” for its accessibility, safety and the ease with which remedies can be made. Commonly throughout history, if someone wanted a particular medicine, they needed only grow it in their garden or find a place where it grew naturally and could be gathered. Thoughtfulness was required about when to harvest the plant, and often the medicine used was a tincture, the recipe for which had been passed down for generations. These practices were environmentally and financially sustainable and remain a cornerstone of herbal medicine.
Those who want an alternative to conventional medicine often buy herbal products from their alternative health-care providers or the health-food store. The irony of this is that what was once medicine for the people now costs about $10 an ounce. Considering that someone who takes their tinctures religiously might go through 8 ounces in a month, that’s a hefty tab to pay for something that can be harvested in one’s back yard.
Making your own tinctures is a cost-effective, creative and empowering way to take control of your health care. It is perfect for the gardener who wants to use what they grow for healing, the nature lover who yearns to identify and sustainably wildcraft indigenous herbs, the crafter with the desire to turn the dried herbs from the farmer’s market into medicine, or the chronically ill patient who needs a regular supply of remedies.
Richo Cech, owner of Horizon Herbs in Williams, Oregon, and author of Making Plant Medicine (Horizon Herbs, 2000), notes there’s an added healing benefit to self-made remedies. “If you make your own tincture, you have a better connection with the medicine because it’s from your own bioregion, similar to the benefits of using local honey,” Cech says. “And you know exactly what’s in the tincture, which leads to more trust, which leads to faith, which makes it more effective.”
Don’t Let Math Stop You
Often, people are intimidated by the mathematics involved in making herbal medicines, which include careful measuring of both the herb and the menstruum (or solvent) to make sure they are in the proper ratio. Bert Norgorden, founder of The Plant Works in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who has been making tinctures since 1988, says it’s best to make tinctures according to ratios and weight, but if math is the difference between someone making their own tincture and giving up, there is an easier way.
The majority of herbs have a solvency between 40 and 60 percent, Norgorden says. In other words, most of their medicinal constituents can be extracted using a solution with that percentage of alcohol. “You can go out and get some 80 proof vodka, then go get your herb, put it in a jar, pour enough alcohol in to cover it and you’ll have a serviceable macerate,” he adds. With anything less than 80 proof (or 40 percent alcohol), Norgorden explains, you run the risk that the tincture will not be adequately preserved.
Norgorden notes that this method is not appropriate for tincturing myrrh, saw palmetto or usnea, which require more heroic measures, so these herbs are probably not the best ones to work with as a beginner.
If you want to get the strongest tinctures possible and are willing to break out your calculator, you might consider working with ethanol, also known as grain alcohol or Everclear. Its 95 percent alcohol content (195 proof) makes it ideal for mixing with distilled water to achieve a menstruum with the exact alcohol-to-water ratio used by medicine makers. These are the ratios that have been determined to extract the maximum amount of medicinal qualities from an herb and can be found, along with the recipes for a panoply of tinctures, in books like Cech’s Making Plant Medicine and James Green’s The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook (Crossing Press, 2000).
Regardless of how particular you decide to be with your measurements when getting started, try following the procedure (excerpted with permission from Making Plant Medicine) for how to make an easy tincture:
1. Chop the fresh herb or grind the dried herb.
2. Place the herb in a glass jar labeled with the current date and name of the herb.
3. Add sufficient menstruum (vodka or a specifically mixed ratio of ethanol to water, which will vary according to the plant) to cover the herbs.
4. Screw on the lid, put the jar in a dark place at room temperature and shake at least once daily (shaking ensures a strong extraction).
5. After two to three weeks, pour the contents of the jar through several layers of cheesecloth or unbleached muslin and express the liquid.
6. Allow the liquid to settle in a clean jar overnight.
7. Decant the clear liquid through a filter paper.
8. Store in correctly labeled, amber glass bottles, out of the light.
Fresh Versus Dried Herbs
Fresh herbs and dried herbs generally require slightly different handling. Because fresh herbs contain more water than their dried counterparts, they tend to require higher amounts of alcohol in the extraction process. For example, peppermint, spearmint and lemon balm are best extracted fresh with pure ethanol, whereas these same herbs, when dried, require only 75 percent alcohol. Chamomile likes 75 percent alcohol for a fresh tincture and 50 percent when tincturing the dried flower. It is also important to break down as much of the cell structure as possible as a means of increasing the surface area of extraction. This can be accomplished by chopping the plant material or by putting the herb into a blender.
To tincture the fresh aerial (above-ground) parts of such herbs as mullein, sage and skullcap, Cech says to finely mince the leaves and flowers on a cutting board before putting them in a jar and covering them with menstruum. Fresh roots, such as echinacea and goldenseal, are best sliced diagonally into thin sections with a knife — or pruning shears if the herbs are very woody — then put into a blender with adequate menstruum. You can use the blender method for any fresh herb.
“The best overall advice I can give,” Cech says, “is to use a blender if you have a mechanical press and to use the chop-and-cover method if you will be squeezing the tincture by hand.”
Norgorden delights at mentioning a gadget he recently discovered called a potato ricer. It can be used as a makeshift herb press and can be found at kitchen supply stores for less than $15.
When tincturing dried herbs, both Cech and Norgorden recommend dedicating a coffee grinder strictly for grinding herbs, lest you make tinctures with a faint coffee taste. You also can rub dried aerial parts through a screen until they’re reduced to a coarse powder. Some dried roots can be cut manually or run through the coffee grinder, while others are particularly unyielding. “There are roots and barks that are grindable in common kitchen things and some that are not,” Norgorden warns. “Why is stone root called stone root? Because it’s hard as a rock.” He says certain roots like osha can be put into a blender as long as they are cut beforehand with pruning shears into marble-sized pieces.
It is best to start with herbs that are easily obtainable and have many medicinal uses. Lemon balm, an antiviral and mood-elevating herb, can be tinctured fresh, right out of the garden using a ratio of 1 part herb to 2 parts pure ethanol. If you want to tincture the dried herb, use a ratio of 1 part herb to 5 parts menstruum containing 75 percent alcohol. These same ratios, both fresh and dry, are considered standard herb-to-menstruum ratios and hold true for peppermint, spearmint, lavender and many other herbs.
If you don’t want to consult a book for the specific recipes, you can assume the standard herb-to-menstruum ratios (1:2 for fresh and 1:5 for dried) and follow the procedure for making an easy tincture with vodka. Ultimately, making your own tinctures is about self-healing and a connection to nature. Nature is notoriously imprecise, so you don’t need to worry too much about the minute details.
Jennifer Rabin is a clinical herbalist and freelance writer. She lives, writes, practices and teaches herbal medicine in Portland, Oregon.