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