Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Ancient Art of Tincture Making

“A magical, intangible process, healing is an art, not a science.”
 –Rosemary Gladstar

A Wise Woman Tradition

Herbal medicine-making is an ancient practice that has been passed on for centuries in all cultures, from East to West. In European history, such herbalists were often wise, intuitive women who passed down their favorite tried-and-true remedies from mother to daughter. These medicine-makers were rooted in the garden and the forest, creating healing potions from the fruit of the Earth herself. Alas, during the rise of the Roman Catholic Church in the fourteenth century, such female healers were persecuted as witches. Thousands of our wise women ancestors were tortured and killed as a result of this widespread fear of the healing power they possessed.

Now, the herbalist’s battle is with the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, which greatly altered Western society. Herbalism was cast aside by cold, hard allopathic medicine that replaced all kinds of holistic healing. However, herbal medicine is enjoying a cultural comeback, and both men and women can practice without fearing a witch-hunt. As a highly intuitive art form that engages Mother Nature at her finest, herbal healing can be considered a feminine tradition, whether it is practiced by men or women. As we pick up the caduceus and begin our paths as herbal healers, we reclaim the Wise Woman tradition that has managed to survive persecution and trivialization.

The Excellence of Extracts

Nothing empowers the inner “witch” more than concocting a potent potion. Tinctures are extracts made by soaking herbs in a mixture of alcohol and water. Sometimes they contain other substances such as apple cider vinegar or vegetable glycerin. Tincturing has many benefits, including potency, longevity, and time and cost efficiency.

The basic idea behind tincturing is to extract specific healing components from the plant in a form that will remain shelf-stable for years. Because the plant’s constituents are pre-extracted, your body can make better use of the medicine. With herbal capsules, the body must process the herb; consequently, much of the medicine is lost before being absorbed. Infusions are better, but many people don't take the time to make tea on a daily basis, and some herbal compounds are not water-soluble.

Because tinctures effectively extract the medicinal properties of plants, they are very concentrated, and dosage can be a matter of drops. Plus, alcohol acts as a natural preservative, allowing tinctures to remain potent longer than dried herbs, which tend to last for only about a year or so and take up much more shelf space. Tinctures are easy to make, easy to store, easy to carry, and easy to administer. The convenience of dropping a few drops into your mouth or drinking water makes this powerful medicine accessible in today’s busy lifestyle. 

Picking Your Plants

To create your own tincture, fresh or dried plants can be used. Usually, fresh plants are preferred in order to capture the spiritual essence of the plant and provide the best taste. However, some herbs may not be locally available, so ordering the dried herb also works. 

When picking your own herbs from your garden or the wild, be sure to choose high-quality plant matter. Do not pick leaves or flowers that are yellowed or dried. If wild-crafting, be mindful not to pick plants that grow along roadsides, as they may have absorbed pollution from traffic. In general, pay attention to the environment and pick herbs from rural areas with little pollution. (For more information about wild-crafting see my post on wild-crafting basics).

A bit of research will determine which part of the plant to use. Perhaps you already know from seeing dried Calendula flowers, Red Raspberry leaf, or Dandelion root for sale in stores. For herbs such as Calendula and Lavender, the flowers alone are the most potent part. Other times, the leaves are the preferred portion, as in the case of Sage and Tulsi. Sometimes, you can harvest the top few inches from a plant, picking down to where the stem is still tender, like with Catnip. In some cases, different parts of the plant have different medicinal actions. For example, flowers from an Elder tree help calm allergies and drive out fever, whereas Elder berries are used to build the blood and boost the immune system. 

For the timing of your harvest, it's helpful to think of where the plant’s energy is concentrated throughout the season. If you are only harvesting leaves, it is better pick before the plant flowers. Once blossoms form, the herb focuses its energy on creating flowers, so the medicine begins to fade from the leaves. Harvesting the root of a plant is usually done in the fall, when the above-ground portion dies back and the plant’s energy is concentrated within the root. Early spring is the second-best time to dig roots; avoid doing so when the plant is in full bloom. 

Choosing the Alcohol

For beginners, the easiest way to tincture is with good-quality brandy or vodka. Brandy tends to bring out the sweet qualities of an herb, creating a delicious brew. Made from grapes, brandy also helps circulate the medicine throughout the body. Vodka also makes a nice, strong tincture. Because it is clear, the vibrant colors of the herbs come through beautifully. Both brandy and vodka contain a certain percentage of water that is conducive to tincturing, so no further dilution of the alcohol is needed.

For more advanced medicine making, you can use alcohol containing a much higher proof. This should be bought from a company that creates the alcohol specifically for tinctures, so that you are sure to get high quality. If possible, buy organic 190-proof alcohol (my favorite company to buy alcohol from is Alchemical Solutions). Then, you can dilute it to control the ratio of alcohol to water. 

As your herbal knowledge grows, you can start to learn which components of plants are alcohol versus water soluble, and this will help determine what percentage of alcohol to use. In the meantime, Michael Moore's Herbal Materia Medica provides a list of his recommendations for alcohol percentage for tincturing various plants. Some herbalists also add vinegar or glycerin in order to extract specific constituents of certain plants.

Macerating the Magical Potion

“Maceration is floating time, when the alluring qualities of the liquids have their way with the herbal solids; the waters and alcohols of the menstruum gently coax the essence of the plants into solution.”
–James Green, The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook

Once you have the plant matter and the alcohol of choice, the process of maceration can begin. This simply means soaking the herbs in the liquid for a certain amount of time. The liquid used for tincturing is referred to as the menstruum, a word that hearkens back to the Wise Woman tradition. As James Green suggests, this is where the alchemy of medicine-making lies. The mixture of water and alcohol begins to absorb the essence of the plant material, so that neither the liquid nor the plants remain the same.

The first goal is to get the herb into as fine a material as possible. If using dried herbs, it is best to purchase powdered herbs for tincturing. If powdered herbs are not available, you can put the cut herbs into a blender or coffee grinder to chop them finely. If picking your own, chop the plant material into small pieces.

Again, there are basically two ways to macerate: the folk method and the more precise method. Depending on which herbalist you ask, both have a lot of value. The folk method does not require much equipment and can be done by beginners who want to get started on their home apothecary. A more precise method is available for those who may want to market their herbal products and need to know more precise dosages for clients and customers.

Using the folk method, simply place the chopped herb into a glass jar and cover it with the vodka or brandy. Viola—you have the miracle of maceration! To avoid oxidation and browning, try to make sure the herbal material does not stick out above the liquid. You can always place a stone or quartz crystal on top of the mixture to press down any stubborn leaves.

If you wish to make a precise or professional tincture, some measuring is involved. You will start by weighing the herb using a scale that can measure ounces or grams. Once you know the weight of the herb, you can determine what volume of liquid you will need. For all fresh plant tinctures, the standard ratio of herb to menstruum is 1:2. In other words, for every ounce of fresh herb, you would add two ounces of menstruum. 

Using this method is sometimes challenging, because the fresh plant material will almost certainly rise above the level of liquid in your jar. This is when weighing down the plants with a stone or crystal comes in very handy. Another way to avoid oxidation is to choose a jar that you can completely fill to the top with the herb and menstruum, so that very little air remains in the jar. To get rid of stubborn air pockets, stick a butter knife in your maceration and gently tap around to release the bubbles. 

For dried plant tinctures, the typical ratio used is 1:5 or sometimes 1:10 for very potent plants. This is because dried plants have no water content and are more concentrated, so more liquid is needed to make a tincture.

Honoring Sacred Cycles

Now that we’ve got the technique of maceration down, let’s talk about the magical nature of tincturing. There are energetic layers to this ancient art form that go beyond science and into the realm of energy and spirit. The timing of maceration can be based on the cycles of the moon, adding another layer to the feminine nature of medicine-making. Starting a tincture on the day of the new moon imbues the potion with the energetic potential of new beginnings. Following this natural cycle, pressing a tincture on the day of the full moon bestows a sense of fullness and completion. The tincture then contains the resonance of the natural cycles of birth, death, and rebirth, which are instrumental patterns in healing.

You can press a tincture after only two weeks, but I recommend waiting another moon or two before completing your potion. I typically wait until the following full moon, 6 weeks later, before pressing my tinctures. According to Rosemary Gladstar in Herbal Healing for Women (1993, p. 66),

“In Chinese herbology and several other more indigenous traditions, herbs are left to macerate for months, even years. I have found that the longer the herb is allowed to tincture, the better. I like to steep them for at least six weeks.”

This seems to point to another lesson in healing that is much-needed in Western society. By taking the time to slow down and honor the sacred cycles of life, we can better heal ourselves and others. When you are ready to press the tincture, pour the liquid through a fine cheesecloth, catching the liquid in a jar or measuring cup. Squeeze out the remaining liquid as best as you can--a process which can take some effort and patience. Compost or discard the spent herbs, which are referred to as the marc.

Once you’ve finished pressing the tincture, pour it into a colored glass bottle and store in a cool, dark place. It should last three years or longer; taste will help you determine if your tinctures are still potent. 

Enjoying Your Elixir

Dosage will depend largely on which herb you’ve tinctured. Before using any herbal medicine for the first time, research its level of potency and toxicity. A standard material dose is typically around 20-40 drops (about one dropper-full) given 2-4 times per day. Some herbalists use much smaller doses, however, depending on the circumstance. For example, Matthew Wood tends to use very specific remedies based on signatures and archetypes, so he is able to find precise remedies for people and only use 1-3 drops at a time with powerful healing effects. When it comes to unknown herbs, try to start low on the dosage scale and remain attentive to subtle changes in your body, mind, and spirit.

To connect with a plant energetically, you might place a single drop of tincture on your tongue and sit quietly, noticing the subtle effects of the medicine. This is called a drop dose or spirit dose. While meditating with the medicine, you can ask yourself questions like: Does this feel warming or cooling? Where does it travel in my body? How does it make me feel? Does it bring up any images or memories? This process is a great way to hone your intuition, and get to know your medicines on a personal level.

Above all, the most important thing is to enjoy yourself while making and using tinctures. A combination of medicine and cooking, tincture-making is certainly an art form that varies greatly depending on the artist. As arguably the best way of administering herbal medicine, tincturing is an invaluable tool. Making medicine allows us to literally take our health back into our own hands. By doing so, we honor the wise, intuitive aspect of our psyches that lives within all of us.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Wildcrafting Basics: How to Reap the Healing Bounty of Mother Nature

So, you want to start using the abundant medicines of Mother Nature? To herbalists, the practice of harvesting wild plants and fungi is called wildcrafting. This can be a long trek through deep woods or a quick step into your own backyard. It counts as wildcrafting as long as the plants sprung up independently--in other words, they weren't grown by people.

Wildcrafting is a great way to get your herbal medicine for a few different reasons. For one, the plants are very fresh and rather inexpensive (by which I mean free). Wildcrafting is also a way to get in tune with the wild world and appreciate the bounty that grows all around us. It’s a practice that brings us back to our roots, literally and figuratively. Long before our ancestors farmed, they were hunters and gatherers, counting on what they brought home in their baskets to keep them alive. Even now, we too can return to nature and rediscover the life-giving plants that our ancestors used. 


Yarrow Leaf
The single most important aspect of wildcrafting is learning how to properly identify the plants--it can mean the difference between medicine and poison. Get yourself a good field guide for your area and start with what’s in bloom--flowers are by far the easiest way to identify plants. Even better, take a class with an herbalist, or find a trusted person who knows the local flora and go on a plant walk together. 

Before harvesting a plant, do some research to find out if it has any poisonous look-alikes. Queen Anne’s Lace is a notable example here, as its look-alike Poison Hemlock can be fatal when ingested. The two plants have several notable differences; for example, Hemlock has purple blotches on a smooth stem, and Queen Anne's Lace has a furry, green stem. But, every year a few people perish from picking Poison Hemlock by accident. (For more information on identifying these two plants, here's a more in-depth comparison.) When in doubt, don’t take any chances—especially with mushrooms. (Our fungal friends can provide delicious food, powerful visions, and deep healing...but they can also melt your insides. Identification is tricky at best, so be certain that you're certain.) Better safe than sorry!


When taking plants from nature, respect is crucial. Humanity in general must learn to revere rather than pillage our planet, and although herbalists are usually nature-lovers, the same is true when it comes to medicinal plants. Some herbs have become endangered due to over-harvesting, and it is the responsibility of each of us to ensure that these plants stay on the planet for future generations. 

St. John's Wort
United Plant Savers is an organization committed to this goal, and they have compiled a list of at-risk plants (click here to check it out). If your desired herb turns out to be rare and endangered, it’s best to leave it alone in the wild. You can often find suitable alternatives, as many different plants can be used to treat the same condition. But, if your favorite at-risk plant is simply irreplaceable in your eyes, believe me--I get it. Each plant has its own unique personality and spirit, and sometimes only the one you want will do. 

In this case, consider buying it from a sustainably-grown source--or learn how to grow it yourself! While growing at-risk plants like Goldenseal can be a challenge, it can also be an empowering experience, in which you also foster your own growth. In this way, you enter into a deeper relationship with your beloved plant and give back to Mother Nature. But I digress--back to wildcrafting!

Permission and Gratitude 

Sarah with Grandfather Pine

In keeping with the spirit of respect, it’s nice to practice gratitude when harvesting plants. Although many herbalists view the plant kingdom as simply a body of useful materials, those who are spiritually-oriented feel that each plant possesses a consciousness and a spirit. To honor this spirit, it’s best to ask permission from the plant before harvesting. Express your intention to harvest, and wait to receive a response; it could be an answer in your mind or simply a feeling. Plants are natural givers, so it’s likely that permission will be granted. If not, there is probably a good reason for it--perhaps the plant is trying to protect you from a nearby patch of Poison Ivy, for example. I've also heard stories from herbalists who've asked permission to harvest and heard a distinct "No," only to walk a few more feet down the path and discover a much bigger, better stand of plants waiting for them. Trust the guidance of the plants, and trust your own intuitive senses to receive their guidance.

During and after your harvest, give thanks to the plant. Be especially mindful when harvesting roots, for this usually requires taking the life of a plant. Many herbalists leave ceremonial offerings in return for their bounty. A bit of tobacco or cornmeal are traditional, but you can also leave a wooden bead, a lock of hair, or even a song—the important thing is that it has meaning for you.

Picking Potent Plants

Red Clover Harvest

When you’re ready to harvest, there are several tips that will help you pick healthy plants for your medicine cabinet. 

  • For starters, be mindful of the area: Is there much pollution? Is there a chance of contamination from chemicals? Tempting though it may be, it’s best to avoid roadsides. I know it's exciting when you see gorgeous medicinals on the side of the road--they seem to call your name, saying "Pick me! I'm right here!"  But consider all of the road trash, car exhaust, oil, and herbicides that land in those zones. Do yourself a favor and find those same plants elsewhere. Similarly, if you’re picking Dandelions from someone’s lawn, be sure they don’t use chemical fertilizers. In general, the more remote your location, the more pure the plants--with the exception of chemicals used in conventional farming. Avoid the edges of fields that are sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. Again, I know this can be a tempting prospect, as many medicinals grow in border zones. But trust me--you want to make healthy medicine to use and share with your family and friends.
  • This may go without saying, but choose plants that look healthy, vibrant, and lush. Pick leaves that are green, not wilted, spotted, or browned. Use common sense--if a plant looks unhealthy or diseased, leave it alone. 
  • Consider your timing, as the rhythms of Nature are a crucial aspect of plant life. It helps to understand that each herb puts its energy into different parts of the plant at different times of the year. Spring is the best time to harvest leaves, because the plants are putting all of their vital energy into their green growth. After the plant begins to flower (the timing will vary depending on the plant), the leaves will lose some of their potency, as the energy has moved into the blossoms. Roots are best harvested in the fall, after the top portion has died back and the plant has pulled its essence underground. This may mean deferring gratification—perhaps you spot a bunch of Burdock in mid-summer, but wait until fall to harvest the roots. In today's society of instant-gratification, a little patience is a welcome lesson from our green friends.

With these tips in mind, you’re well on your way to a happy and healthy wildcrafting session. If you keep your eyes and heart open, you can discover the joy of providing yourself and your loved ones with healthy medicines straight from the wild heart of Mother Earth.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

How to Make Your Own Herbal Throat Spray

Antibacterial and antiviral compounds create an uninhabitable environment for all kinds of viruses and infections. - See more at:

Sore throat? Ugh--we all know what that's like. If you're like me, the throat is often where a cold first takes hold. It starts with a feeling of dryness or a tickle. Then it progresses into actual soreness. If I'm not careful, I might end up with a full-blown head cold--but not if I catch it early enough and use herbal remedies (along with rest) to fend it off.
Antibacterial and antiviral compounds create an uninhabitable environment for all kinds of viruses and infections. - See more at:

Herbal throat spray is a big part of my strategy when it comes to preventing colds. I can often fend off a cold or flu by keeping throat spray in my purse and using it throughout the day at the first sign of a sore throat.

While it might be tempting to reach for a conventional over-the-counter sore throat spray, these merely mask the symptom of pain are inferior for a couple of reasons. First, they only mask the symptom of soreness. They make your throat feel better for a while, but there is no real healing element in these sprays. In fact, it's just the opposite. They often contain artificial colors, flavors, and other chemicals--the last thing your body needs when its immune system is already compromised!

Herbal throat sprays are a great alternative, because they are full of antibacterial and antiviral ingredients that help soothe your sore throat while also creating an uninhabitable environment for all kinds of viruses and infections. And because you end up swallowing the mixture, it will also give your immune system a boost.

Throat spray also comes in handy even when you don’t feel sick. When you’re traveling, it can ease a dry throat caused by hotel rooms and airplanes. It’s nice to use before all kinds of performance, from speaking engagements to concerts. And if your voice gets hoarse during the show, you can use it again afterwards to get your voice back more quickly.

Antibacterial and antiviral compounds create an uninhabitable environment for all kinds of viruses and infections. - See more at:
While there are several fine natural throat sprays on the market, it's far less expensive to make your own. It's also quite easy, provided that you can make a tincture. (Need some help with that? Here is a nice article that will teach you how.) Plus, the process fosters a deeper connection with your medicine. When you get involved with your own healing process, you create a strong intention for health that works with the mind, body, and spirit to foster healing on multiple levels.

Fresh, Homegrown Goldenseal Root

Choosing the Herbs


There are many plants with medicinal qualities to heal a sore throat and boost the immune system. I will list several so that you can pick and choose based upon your needs and what is available in your area. If you’ve never made a tincture before and are starting from scratch, it’s easiest to choose 2-3 plants to start out with. As you continue to dabble with herbalism, you can always add more plants to your brew. Of course, you can also purchase pre-made tinctures, but that will add more cost to your throat spray.

  • Sage: Specific remedy for sore throat; antimicrobial and antioxidant.
  • Thyme: Highly antiseptic, anti-fungal and expectorant.
  • Echinacea: Superb immune-booster that heals all kinds of infections; anti-inflammatory to ease pain; also cleanses blood and lymph for detoxification.
  • Red Root: Specific for sore throat, even severe conditions like mononucleosis, tonsillitis and pharyngitis.
  • Goldenseal: Antibacterial and antifungal; eases chronic inflammation of the throat and pharynx. (This is a strong remedy as well as an at-risk plant, so use it sparingly in your formula.)
  • Horehound: Treats hoarseness and laryngitis; expectorant.
  • Marshmallow: Has a soothing and softening effect; especially useful for dry throat.
  • Elderberry: Tasty and sweet; antiviral and anti-inflammatory.
  • Elderflower: Opens the throat for speaking and singing; also good for cold, flu and fever.
  • Tulsi/Holy Basil: Antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antiviral remedy that adds a pleasant flavor.

Other Ingredients

With a blend of herbal extracts as your base, now it’s time to add two more (optional) ingredients:

  • Tea Tree essential oil will really enhance the antiseptic qualities to nip any infection in the bud. Start with just a couple of drops and increase to tolerance.
  • To sweeten the deal, stir in a bit of honey. A supremely healing substance on its own, honey has natural antiseptic properties that will heal and soothe a sore throat. It also greatly improves the taste of your throat spray, which can be strong and bitter depending on which tinctures you add.

Final Tips

A 1-ounce glass spray bottle is a great way to keep your throat spray handy and portable. If you make a larger batch, put the rest in an airtight glass jar, label it, and store it in a cool, dark place. Alcohol, essential oils, and honey are all natural preservatives, so your remedy will keep for a long time (we're talking years).

It’s as simple as that! Herbal throat spray is a wonderful tool that will help keep you healthy everywhere you go. It also makes a nice homemade gift for family and friends.