'Tis the season to be overwhelmed with the herb harvest.
I only actually harvest and preserve a fraction of my family's food and most of our medicines but this time of year I fall into bed at night so exhausted that I don't even dream. I suppose this comes of having several other "jobs" besides growing and preserving things but it still makes me wonder how so many cultures manage to have extravagant harvest festivals.
The result of all this harvesting (both in the garden and in the world of books) is that I haven't written as much on Practical Herb Lore as I hope to. However, I have to post this because this is what you most need to know at right now at this time of year, if you want to make your own herbal medicines.
Yes, you can dry herbs to make tea and some teas can be very effective medicines. Salves are also good and I'll get to the first step in making those next week. But one of the best ways to make potent herbal medicine is with good old 40 percent alcohol. Being based in Eastern Europe, I use vodka but anything that is around 40 percent (80 proof) will work. When you brew herbs in alcohol in order to extract their medicinal compounds you are making tincture.
Why make tincture?
Herbalists know that many of the plants most people think of as weeds contain powerful medicinal compounds. One such herb is Ecchinacea. I recently had a lengthy debate with a doctor friend over Ecchinacea and the fact that several recent studies found little or no benefit in terms of the prevention of upper respiratory infections in people who took tablets of freeze-dried Ecchinacea. The studies were well controlled and large enough to matter. My doctor friend was convinced that this should bring into question generations of herbalist use of Ecchinacea as an immune support, herbal antibiotic and flu remedy. But there is one thing overlooked in this argument. All of the unsuccessful Ecchinacea trials used freeze dried Ecchinacea. None used fresh Ecchinacea or Ecchinacea tincture.
My own humble experience doesn't constitute a study but I have used both store-bought tablets containing dried Ecchinacea and my own home-made Ecchinacea tincture. In both cases, I probably subconsciously expected the Ecchinacea to work. But the tablets never did. The tincture, on the other hand, has good anecdotal results.
The fact is that the chemical compounds in herbs that produce medicinal effects are often very volatile and herbs are almost always best used fresh. Because we have to prepare for winter in my part of the world and sometimes because we need to concentrate an herb's effects, we often have to process herbs. One of the most reliable methods for capturing those volatile compounds and preserving their beneficial effects is to make tincture. Not every herb is appropriate for this but I'll give you a quick list of the best ones.
Which herbs are good for tincture and what do they do?
Here's my shortlist of must-have tinctures to survive the winter:
Ecchinacea - Traditionally many herbalists have used the root of Ecchinacea but you need stronger alcohol to extract the medicinal compounds from roots and I have had better luck with the flowers so far. Ecchinacea tincture is good for general immune support and prevention when there are colds and other infections going around. Some herbalists have concentrated Ecchinacea to the point where they use it as an herbal antibiotic but I haven't personally experimented with that.
Yarrow - Yarrow flower tincture makes a great anti-inflammatory for pulled muscles, strained backs and menstrual cramps. It is also one of the few herbs credited with slowing internal bleeding.
St. John's Wart - In my extended family, St. John's Wart is probably the most commonly requested and used tincture. We pass around little bottles of the stuff like a treasured family secret. That's because St. John's wart is both an effective anti-depressant and a good remedy for seasonal mood disorders but it is also specifically anti-viral. Those little yellow flowers seem to capture the warmth and healing energy of the sun and store it in their amazing red juice. We take one teaspoon daily for depression (for no more than three weeks at a time) and three teaspoons daily for viral infections (for no more than one week at a time). Oh, we also use it externally as a disinfectant. When I have to go on a trip and pack light, St. John's wart is the one tincture I always take with me.
Thyme - Thyme tincture is one of the things my husband swears by for fixing the chronic cough that no establishment medical specialist was able to fix in several years of trying.
Marshmallow - Marshmallow is the other tincture that my husband uses for his coughs. Together they have worked a virtual miracle in soothing a chronic cough that used to last from October to April each year.
Elderflower - Elderflower has the miraculous ability to clear up excessive mucous like nothing else I have ever seen outside of some of the more dangerous stuff at the drug store. I just got over a terrible cold in which I went through several boxes of handkerchiefs in two days. Thanks to elderflower tincture, the thing didn't last more than those two days.
Lemon balm - For those of us who are a bit high strung and can have a hard time going to sleep the night before some big event, lemon balm is can be a life saver. It is calming and can make you pretty drowsy. The other thing about lemon balm is that it is specifically active against the herpes virus. I prefer to use lemon balm salve to deal with cold sores but a dose of lemon balm tincture would probably do the trick as well, and it would certainly help with the stress that usually accompanies cold sores.
Plantain - The Czechs have a saying about another herb/alcohol mix, "What it touches it heals." They mean this mostly about the buzz you get from drinking a shot of hard alcohol, but with plantain tincture it is literally true and you don't have to drink nearly enough to get a buzz. Just remember that whatever part of your body will come in direct contact with the undiluted tincture can be effected. Plantain's effects appear to be specific to cell repair. So, it can be used on external wounds after disinfection for added speed in healing. It can be used for coughs and sore throats if the throat and bronchial area is raw and irritated. It is excellent for stomach problems where the lining of the stomach is irritated. I've seen plantain work on some stubborn skin infections that even synthetic antibiotics had not cleared up.
How to make tincture
Okay, not that I have visions of your own powerful herbal medicine chest dancing in your head, lets'get down to the nitty gritty. Fortunately, it is quite simple.
- Chop your herb into small pieces about a half an inch long. If you can, use a ceramic knife.
- Pack the chopped herb into a glass or ceramic jar.
- Pour 40 percent (or stronger) alcohol into the jar until it completely covers the herbs.
- Poke a knife into the jar to release air bubbles and top off the alcohol again.
- Close the jar tightly.
- Label clearly with the name of the herb, the word "tincture" and the date.
- Place in a cool, dark place.
- Let brew for four to six weeks.
- Strain the herbs through cheese cloth. Wring out the bundle of herbs in cheese cloth firmly and catch the tincture in a glass or ceramic bowl.
- Store the tincture in small dark glass bottles, ideally with dropper lids. Label carefully.
That's it. That's all you need to make potent herbal medicines that last up to five years if kept out of direct light.
- Please note that tincture is "real medicine." You should treat it just as you would treat ibuprofen. Keep it out of reach of children. Be watchful for allergic reactions. Use with care and don't exceed dosage recommendations for the particular herb you choose. Let you doctor know if you are taking tinctures regularly. I am not a doctor and my notes are not medical advice.
- Be aware that tincture contains significant amounts of alcohol. The end product usually contains about 20 percent alcohol. You usually only take a teaspoon or two of tincture at a time, so most people should not have a problem with this. However, children and recovering alcoholics should avoid tinctures. You should also refrain from taking tincture directly before driving, if for no other reason than that the while you wouldn't take enough to show up in an alcohol blood test, it might show up in a breath test for some minutes after taking the dose.
- Be particularly careful with labeling tinctures. Some tinctures can have adverse effects if taken regularly for long periods or if taken in dosages that would be fine for another type of tincture. Also some tinctures may have the wrong effect for the situation at hand. I once mislabeled a tincture and instead of taking Yarrow tincture for cramps, I accidentally took comfrey tincture, which is extraordinarily potent. The result was one of the worst headaches I have ever experienced.