Last week I came across some Internet sites about herb-based first-aid kits.
In addition to standard items such as scissors, bandages, and sterile gauze pads, most sites recommended packaged dried herbs for tea, a collection of essential oils, herbal creams and salves and a few alcohol tinctures.
Serendipitously, although I’m a teetotaler, I was heading for town that day to buy a bottle of vodka to make a few tinctures to supplement my own first-aid supplies. Herbal tinctures are really easy to make.
A traditional herbal tincture is made by steeping herbs in high-proof ethyl alcohol (sometimes vinegar) to extract and concentrate their medicinal constituents—molecules that plants have manufactured for self-protection and that we humans expropriate for our own medicinal use.
Ethyl alcohol tinctures are generally intended for internal use. Herbs tinctured in rubbing alcohol (isopropyl), witch hazel, or oil are called liniments, and are intended for external use only.
Although you can tincture leaves or needles, flowers, roots, and barks, either fresh or dried, I make mine mostly from fresh leaves harvested from my gardens, lawns and nearby wild places. Today, I'm gathering burdock leaves and flowers, the plantain running amok on the lawn, and the lemon balm beckoning from the herb garden.
The advantages of tinctures
Depending on the condition being treated (or prevented) , medicinal herbs can be brewed into teas or simmered into decoctions, mashed into poultices and salves, smoked (so their medicinal constituents enter the body through the lungs), or extracted into tinctures. Tinctures are generally taken internally a few drops at a time, several times a day, often in tea or juice. Some tinctures work well applied directly to wounds or skin infections.
Tinctures offer several advantages over other herbal formulations:
- Alcohol generally extracts and concentrates more of the valuable medicinal compounds than water extracts (e.g., teas, infusions, tisanes).
- In such concentrated form, tinctures are fast-acting.
- Alcohol tinctures made with at least 80-proof ethanol don’t spoil, and they maintain their potency for a long time if properly stored. (Tinctures made with wine or vinegar won’t extract as many active phytocompounds, and they won’t last as long, although they can be enjoyed in salad dressings and marinades.)
- Tinctures are portable and easy to tuck into a purse or traveling bag.
Before you start
- You’ll need to learn something, preferably a lot, about how, why, when, to use a particular plant tincture, and in what dose. Read books and articles, attend workshops, consult with local herbalists.
- You need to be 100 percent certain you’ve properly identified the plant you plan to use. Do invest in some wild-plant field guides or join one of the local wild-plant identification workshops offered in your area.
- Tincture only those plants you know haven’t been treated with pesticides.
- Don’t use plants collected around the edges of commercially farmed fields or close to roadsides.
What you’ll need
- The plant parts you plan to tincture. To avoid diluting the alcohol with water, don’t wash them. (Roots are the exception; you may need to rinse or even scrub them lightly before chopping.) If the plant parts are already wet, lay them out and blot gently with a clean towel to dry them off. Discard any diseased or damaged material.
- A bottle of 80-proof (or higher) ethyl alcohol. Many herbalists prefer vodka, because it’s relatively colorless, tasteless and odorless.
- A glass jar with a tight lid. You don’t need large bottles for making an alcohol tincture; a tincture is a potent plant medicine administered only a few drops at a time. Start with small containers such as pint canning jars or empty peanut-butter or jam jars.
- Some small, dark bottles for storing the decanted tincture(s). Storing them in the dark helps protect their potency.
A simple process
Chop large leaves, flowers, or roots; leave delicate leaves and flowers whole. Then fill the glass jar loosely with the plant material, and add enough alcohol to cover the plant materials. Seal the jar tightly.
Label and date the jar. Include the plant parts tinctured and the type of alcohol used. Set the jar in a cool, dark place for a month or longer, shaking or stirring occasionally and adding more alcohol if needed to keep the plant materials covered.
Strain the tincture over a clean cheesecloth into a glass or ceramic container twisting the cloth to remove as much of the tincture as possible. Funnel the tincture into dark glass bottles and cap (or cork) tightly. Label and date each tincture and store in a cool, dark place.
You can increase the concentration of a tincture by straining out the original plant materials and adding fresh material.
Like any healing agent, herbal remedies in any form can pack a lot of power, which includes adverse reactions. Learn as much as possible about the herb you’re using before you try it. Your homemade tinctures don’t offer a standard “dose.” Begin with a new tincture by trying a few drops in warm water or tea, and work up slowly until you experience the desired results.
If you’re pregnant, nursing, taking prescription medicine, or suffering from a chronic illness, don’t start on an herbal remedy without consulting a health professional. Always include your use of herbs in the information you provide to your medical and dental professionals.
Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.