Medicine Making: Please read and bring your questions to our next (and future) gatherings
There are many ways to extract, preserve, and consume herbal goodness for health and healing. Often what we use as our menstrua depends on the benefit we are hoping to achieve. It also depends on the plant, the constituents, time of year and part of the plant harvested. And the menstrua we use can depend on personal preference.
A note about alcohol:
Although I do cover a lot regarding tinctures made with alcohol in the Primer, we also make a variety of other remedies that are perfect for people who want, or need, to avoid alcohol. It is important to always let someone know if a remedy contains alcohol before offering it. Even if a certain constituent is not well extracted by methods other than alcohol, there is still a great benefit to be had whatever method you choose.
One of our mottos at CMHS is getting the medicine to the people in a way they enjoy taking it! Part of the healing includes feeling good about what you are taking!
These can vary considerably! I have provided approximate times it takes for your remedy to be ready but it will depend on many factors including the menstrua being used (percentage of alcohol, water, vinegar…), the plant/constituents being extracted and plant part (barks, root, berry, leaves, flower…), time of hear harvested, how well you prepared your plant materials, where it is being stored, how often you shake/turn it…this is a continuous learning process as you work with plants from season to season and remedy to remedy.
One of the most helpful things when knowing if a remedy is “ready” is to be familiar with what it smells and tastes (and looks) like. I encourage you to be observant throughout the maceration process. Smell and taste your medicine at different intervals and note how it is changing. I try to provide samples and descriptions in classes so students know how to determine when it is time to strain their medicine 🙂
Keep in mind that Traditional Folk Herbalism methods are SLOW MEDICINE! Part of the learning is patience and trust in nature and in our selves to make exquisite medicine. Slowing down causes us to be more in tune with the rhythms of the earth and seasons, to plan ahead, to demonstrated care and intention with the plants. Often what is ready to harvest in the now is what will be needed when it is ready to be used. So, timing is perfect!
Let’s take a look at some choices for remedy making.
A tincture uses alcohol (or a combination of alcohol and water) as a menstruum (liquid solvent) in which the herb is macerated (steeped) and the plant constituents preserved in solution.
Alcohol is an effective solvent and preservative for many plant constituents. Tinctures remain viable for a long time. Alcohol can also be added to other preparations to increase shelf stability or as a preservative in other medicines.
Because alcohol can only hold so much in solution, flavored alcohol is not used for tinctures as it will not effectively extract the herb constituents fully.
Alcohol is used to extract and preserve plant constituents such as: Alkaloids, terpenes, resins, glycosides, balsams, bitters, tannins, and polyphenols, among others. Alcohol does NOT extract mucilage.
The percentage of alcohol is a factor in proper extraction and preservation. The following percentages apply primarily to fresh plants. Dry plant preparations usually need a higher water percentage.
- 40% to 50% alcohol by volume (80 to 100 proof alcohol) is suitable for most dried or fresh herbs with a low water content. It also provides effective extraction of water-soluble constituents-best of both worlds. This is my preferred ratio for willow bark or mullein tincture.
- 75% alcohol by volume (151 proof alcohol) extracts volatile aromatic properties, herbs with higher water content. Higher alcohol concentration extracts more of the plant cellular liquids. This is an ideal ratio for fresh milky oats, nettles, or hawthorn.
- 95% alcohol by volume (190-proof grain alcohol) dissolves resins, essential oils and Not as effective for extracting water-soluble constituents. Resinous plants like calendula, rosemary or cottonwood buds are best extracted with this percentage. Very wet plants, like fresh cleavers, are also best extracted with this amount of alcohol.
Folk Method-Fresh Plant
- Fill a jar about 7/8 full (not too packed-with some headspace at the top) with fresh, very finely chopped plant material. With fluffy herbs like mullein you will want to pack the jar firmly in order to get enough constituents in solution.
- Add alcohol to the top of the jar, making sure the plant material is covered.
- Screw the lid onto the jar and give it a good shake.
- Label the jar with the botanical name and specific plant part used, date, location, alcohol percentage. You may also want to add who or what you intend to use it for and dosage or directions for use.
- Let macerate for about 4 weeks, depending on the plant and plant part being used. Shake often. Resinous plants take longer to fully dissolve/extract.
- Strain solid plant parts, also known as the marc, using a fine sieve and press out as much liquid as possible.
- Pour into a clean bottle or jar, if there is a lot of sludge you may want to decant or filter the tincture before storing it. And maybe next time consider adding glycerin if it is due to the precipitation of constituents out of solution.
- Store out of sunlight in dark jar, cool room up to 5 years +
- ALWAYS shake well before using.
Honeys are a lovely (and delicious!) way to preserve a variety of herbs and are a wonderful way to increase the likelihood that a person will actually take their medicine! Honey itself is medicine! It is antimicrobial and can be used to dress a wound or burn. Honey also contains beneficial enzymes, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants as well as organic and aromatic acids.
Modern wisdom cautions us to never give honey to children under 1 year of age.
Aromatic herbs (rich in volatile oils) work especially well as infused honeys. Honey is hygroscopic (draws water to it) through a process called osmosis.
Use local, raw, liquid honey (not spun) to get the full benefit of using something that is part of your ecosystem. And to support your local pollinators and bee-keepers!
To make: Fill jar ½-¾ full with fresh, finely chopped plant material. Fill the jar to the top with honey – add more after it settles until the jar is full. Let sit for about 4-6 weeks (8+ weeks for resinous plants such as cottonwood, sometimes as long as 6 months!). To strain, gently warm to no more than 98 degrees F (if necessary), then run through a fine sieve or mesh strainer and press out all liquid.
No need for refrigeration, unless it has berries or herbs with a lot of water content.
Honey itself is a preservative and will remain viable for a long time.
An elixir is roughly equal parts alcohol and honey, and a delicious extraction!
To make: Fill jar ¾ full with fresh, very finely chopped plant material
Add alcohol first – halfway up the jar ▪ Add honey to the top of the jar – add more after it settles until the jar is full, better yet, thoroughly combine alcohol and honey ahead of time before pouring over the herb.
80 proof brandy is what is typically used for an elixir but I am loving a good bourbon whiskey theses days! Remember, it is about preference, too!
Let sit for about 4-6 weeks and strain. When stored in a dark, cool room, it will typically last about 2-3 years.
Herbal vinegar extracts are a versatile and effective (and nutritious plus delicious) way to benefit from vitamins, minerals, phenols, volatile constituents, mucilage, bitters, and alkaloids.
Acids assists in uptake of calcium and iron into our cells – good for arthritis, anemia, and bone loss. Vinegars also have an affinity for the respiratory system and the immune system.
To Make: Use organic, unpasteurized, unfiltered apple cider vinegar (not distilled vinegars) with the mother.
Park jar tightly with fresh, finely chopped plant material and fill to the top with ACV. Use a plastic lid or place parchment paper or plastic wrap between the jar and metal lid. Let sit for about 3-4 weeks and strain. Good for about 1 year.
Oxymels are an ancient medicine that are part acid, part honey. They extract the medicine, minerals and nutrients and are delicious! They work especially well with pungent and aromatic herbs.
To make: Fill jar ¾ full with fresh, finely chopped plant material. Combine equal parts honey and vinegar and pour over the herbs. Use a plastic lid or place parchment paper or plastic wrap between the jar and metal lid. Shake vigorously to combine. Let sit for about 4 weeks and strain. Keeps for about 2 years, but you will probably use it up well before then!
Someone asked about book recommendations soI want to share that information here also. A couple of my favorite reference books are Making Plant Medicine by Richo Cech and The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook by James Green. Also you can’t go wrong with any of the books by Rosemary Gladstar or David Hoffmann. If anyone has other recommendations please share them with us!
I am happy to compile a list of resources for everyone!
I will also provide you with a more detailed document on herbal medicine making later in the Primer that you can print out 🙂