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Herbal Preparations

 

Teas (for fresh or dried herbs)

Steep an arbitrary amount of an herb in an arbitrary amount of hot (not quite boiling) water for an arbitrary length of time.  Strain & drink.

 

“Nourishing” Infusions

These preparations should be made from nutrient rich "food herbs" such as Oatstraw, Nettles, Red Clover, and the like, and probably not when using plants with a more overtly "medicinal" action. 

 

Pour  water just off the boil over dried herbs in a mason jar in the following proportions:

 

Roots & Barks

1 ounce of dried herb to a pint of water; steeped for 8 hours.

Leaves

1 ounce of dried herb to a quart of water; steeped from 4 to 10 hours.

Flowers

1 ounce of dried herb to a quart of water; steeped 20 minutes to 2 hours.

Seeds & Berries

1 ounce of dried herb to a pint of water; steeped for 30 minutes.

(If using fresh herbs, use 2 ounces)

 

Cap the jar while steeping and be careful!  The jars will get hot.  Nourishing Infusions can be made before bed and consumed throughout the next day, rather than making them in the morning and having to wait up to 10 hours to drink some.  Discard any leftovers after one day.

 

Decoctions (for dried or fresh roots, barks, berries or seeds)

For a more concentrated preparation, add 1 ounce of herbs to a quart of water.  Slowly bring to a boil, and reduce volume by about half.  Strain, cool & drink.  Not a good choice for aromatic roots and barks (like sassafras or wild cherry)

 

Cold Infusions

Some herbs are impaired or otherwise rendered inferior by heat, and should be prepared as a cold infusion: suspend the herb via a strainer or piece of muslin in cool to cold water, and allow to soak for several hours (proportions really do depend on the herb).  Wild Cherry bark needs to be prepared by cold infusion.

 

Steam Inhalations

Steam inhalations are great for breaking up sinus or lung congestion.  Simply fill a pot with water and, say, Sage, cover and bring to a boil.  Remove the pot from heat, and lean over it with a towel over your head to catch the steam.  Inhale slowly & fully, and be careful!  The steam will, of course, be hot.

 

Infused Oils

Solar Infusions: Pack a mason jar as tightly as possible with a fresh herb of your choice (St. John's Wort, for instance).  Pour Olive Oil into the jar and then press the herbs with a clean spoon or something to squeeze out as much of the trapped air as possible.  Repeat until you can't get any more air bubbles out, then cap the jar and set it directly in the sun for a month or two.  Then strain the oil through cotton or cheesecloth, squeezing as much from the wet herb as possible.  Let the strained oil sit for two or three days.  Any water in your oil will settle to the bottom.  Slowly pour the oil into a clean jar being careful not let any of the settled water come along with it.  Cap and store in a cool, dark place.

 

"Kitchen" Infusions: Combine dried or fresh herbs and Olive Oil in a crock-pot or double boiler.  Herbalist James Green recommends using a yogurt maker, which heats the oils to a lower temperature than your average crockpot. Sometimes I use a ratio of seven ounces oil to every once of dried or two ounces of fresh herb, but I will also often just eyeball it.  Heat over the lowest heat possible for several hours - the longer the better (sometimes I've steeped for days).  Strain into clean mason jars, and if using fresh herbs, separate the oil from any water as described above.

 

You can add some Vitamin E Oil to act as a preservative.

 

Salves

Infuse salve ingredients in oil as described above.  Heat the oil, and to every ounce of oil add 1-2 teaspoons of grated beeswax (or, if you've got chunks of beeswax, figure about an ounce of wax for every five ounces of oil).  You can drop some of the molten salve onto a piece of wax paper and let it harden to check the consistency.  If too soft, add more beeswax; if too hard, add more oil.  When you're happy with the consistency, pour into clean jars. Four once mason jars are ideal, as are old lip balm containers.  A touch of lanolin in the mix can do wonders.

 

Liniments

In a mason jar, pour rubbing alcohol over the desired herbs.  For Dry herbs, 5 ounces of alcohol per ounce; for fresh herbs, 2 ounces of alcohol per once.  Let sit for two weeks, shaking daily, then strain into clean bottles.  Because liniments use rubbing alcohol, make sure they are labeled "FOR EXTERNAL USE ONLY!"  Rubbing alcohol can be fatal if taken internally.

 

Poultices

This is an external application of bruised fresh or brewed dried herbs.  For example, bruise a handful of fresh plantain leaves (or chew them to make a "spit poultice" for greater bio-activity) and apply to a wound to facilitate cleaning and faster healing.  For a dried poultice, steep some dried chamomile and apply to raw, enflamed skin.  Tea bags make very good poultices. Cover and let it soak in for to a few hours, or overnight.

 

Tinctures

People are so intimidated by making tinctures.  It figures, as almost every book describes this process differently, and for those of us who want to understand the process, it is good to know why we are doing what we are doing. On the most basic level, a tincture is made from a fresh or dried herb that has been soaked in an alcohol/water solution (called a "menstrum").

 

Because there are so many assumptions made about alcohol, and the mere mention of consuming it can cause the most liberal of people to get the "heebie-jeebies", let me take a moment to explain why it is used and why it is, in almost all cases, not a need for concern:

 

Plant constituents are extracted into an herbal preparation because they are soluble (they will dissolve into) in the menstrum used by that preparation.  If you make an infusion of Black Cohosh, for example, only the constituents of the Black Cohosh that are soluble in water will be included in the infusion.   There remains; in the left over plant material, other constituents that contribute to its total overall effect.  If you were to prepare an alcoholic extract, using a menstrum of water and alcohol, you would extract a more complete spectrum of the plant's overall medicinal virtues.  Also, the alcohol acts as a preservative, and the extract will keep for years . . . almost indefinitely, really.  Although nonalcoholic extracts can be made using apple cider vinegar and glycerin; these do not extract as well or keep as well as alcoholic extracts, and many herbs are only extracted well using alcohol. 

 

For those concerned about the alcohol intake involved in the use of tinctures, I offer the following information:  A full dropper bottle of tincture is usually one ounce, and an average of 50% alcohol… the equivalent of 1 "shot of" 100 proof vodka.  Of this, a usual dose of tincture is approximately 30 drops, so imagine that shat glass filled with just 30 drops of vodka, only half of which is alcohol.  This is approximately the same amount of alcohol contained in 1-2 ripe bananas (Yes, bananas do contain alcohol!).  This is a relatively insignificant amount of alcohol… and tinctures are so benevolent they can be given during pregnancy with no ill effect (providing, of course, that the herb used is safe for pregnancy).  Of course, this is your decision to make.  No one can account for all sensitivities or allergic reactions a given person may have.  Contrary to herban legend, adding a tincture to hot water or tea while it is infusing or decocting does not remove the alcohol.

 

That being said, it is my opinion that making and using your own tinctures is one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself.  It will nurture your health, your spirit, and save you a ton of money if you've been buying them commercially (I estimated that a large batch of sinus medicine that I made for a cost of $30-$40 yielded what would have cost well over $300 to buy).  By following recipes learned from herbals or taught here, you should be able to establish a "home apothecary" that will be available to address many of life's common traumas and inconveniences.

 

Many herbalist prepare tinctures simply by filling a jar full to the brim with an herb, and then filling the remainder with 50% (100 proof) alcohol.  This is called the "simpler's" method.  While you can make fine tinctures this way, the arbitrary nature of the preparation leads to inconsistencies between batches and individual extracts... one batch may be stronger or weaker than another, so 30 drops of one is not equivalent to 30 drops of another. 

 

It’s only a bit more complicated to make extracts using "weight-to-volume" ratios.  Following this process means that I can count on the consistency and quality of the extracts I produce, and that the strengths of individual extracts will be balanced for use in formulations.  The process is simple:

 

For Dried Herbs

Dried herbs are tinctured at a ratio of 1:5, that is, for every 1 ounce of dried herb, 5 ounces of menstrum are used.  We want our menstrum to contain the percentage of water that was originally in the plant when it was fresh, therefore returning it to its original balance.  This information can be found via Michael Moores's Materia Medica, obtainable through his web site at www.swsbm.com.  If you do not have access to the Internet, try the library since this information is worth the trouble to get.  In a pinch, you can try going to a health food store, looking at the label on a bottled liquid extract, and using that figure.  When in doubt, use 50% alcohol.  If you are not meticulously inclined, you could probably use 50% alcohol for all your extracts, though oily & resinous herbs are ideally extracted in higher alcohol contents.  The herb is coarsely ground as needed, put in a mason jar (make sure the jar is big enough!), and the alcohol/water menstrum poured over it.  It is then capped, left for at least a couple weeks in a cool, dark place, shaken daily, and then strained for use.

 

As an example, suppose we have chosen to make a Black Cohosh tincture from 4 ounces of dried roots.  At a 1:5 ratio, this means we will need 20 ounces of menstrum (4x5=20).  Consulting Michael Moore's Materia Medica, we see Black Cohosh needs an 80% alcohol (the 20% water is assumed) menstrum.  This equates to 16 ounces of alcohol and 4 ounces of water.  We chop the Black Cohosh into a course powder, put it in a mason jar, and pour the menstrum over it.  Cap the jar, put it in a cupboard and shake it daily.  After two weeks it is ready for use.  Strain and bottle.

 

For Fresh Herbs

When tincturing fresh herbs, we use a ratio of 1:2; for every 1 once of fresh herb, 2 ounces of alcohol are used.  Because fresh herbs contain water, we do not have to add water to our menstrum..  95% grain alcohol (Everclear) should be used.  Don't worry; the alcohol will also extract the water from the plant, diluting it to a less potent percentage.  Chop up the herb, put it in a jar, pour the alcohol in, steep, shake, & strain in 2 weeks.  You now have a high quality fresh plant tincture.

 

As an example, suppose you dig up 5 ounces of fresh Echinacea root.  After cleaning the roots and chopping them into small pieces, put them in a jar and pour 10 ounces (5x2=10) of grain alcohol over them.  Cap and let steep for an at least 2 weeks in a cool, dark place, shaking daily.  After 2 weeks, strain and bottle.

 

A Note on Straining

This can be the greatest frustration involved in making tinctures (hence the word: "Strain")... you've made your tincture, and you want to get every last drop out of it.

 

First, you don't need to strain your tincture after two weeks.  I most often leave things steeping much longer, filling up dropper bottles from the jar as needed, and strain when this becomes difficult.  When you get to the straining, traditional processes tell us to pour the extract through "several layers of cheese cloth" into a jar, and then to squeeze out as much of the extract as possible.  My experience says that you will find that far, far to much of your extract is stuck in the cheese cloth and the leftover plant material to make this acceptable (imagine getting only 10 of your 20 ounces of tincture…).  As a small scale herbalist, I've discovered a few tricks to make this straining more effective.  The first is an Oxo brand potato ricer ($20), which is essentially a large, stainless steel garlic press type thing.  Empty your spent herb into the chamber and squeeze away.  You may wish to line the chamber with muslin to catch fine particles. 

 

Another method is to get 2 Ball mason jars, one wide mouth pint and one tall pint jelly jar, that fit into each other.  Put the spent herb into the large jar, and then insert the smaller jar.  Put both into a large Tupperware dish and press out the juice (try bouncing on them to make use of gravity).  One should be cautious, though… glass breaks.  I used to use a cutting board to press the jars, protecting me from the potential of injury.

 

Now that you've "strained", you may wish to filter out the finer sediments.  Pour the strained tincture into a measuring cup, and let it settle (don't watch it, it will take longer).  Prepare a mason jar with a coffee filter, or a bit of muslin, inserting it into the jar and using the lid-band to secure it.  When you extract has settled, slowly and delicately pour off the clear tincture into the Mason jar.  Try to get as little of the sediment in as possible.  If the filter clogs, carefully remove it and squeeze out the "stuck" tincture.  Repeat as necessary.

 

Take your time, try not to get to mad when you spill something, when your filter tears, when you can't squeeze out more than half (or less!) of what you put in, ect…  At the same time, don't admonish yourself when you do get frustrated, your tincture won't curdle if you swear.  Just take a break and look at mistakes and accidents as an offering to the learning process.  When you're done, you will have created good medicine.

 

One last note regarding tincture making...

 

It is not uncommon for people to feel intimidated by the idea of making their own tinctures.  This is usually associated with the belief that the process is more difficult than it actually is, or that it would be ruined if some part of the "recipe" was not followed exactly.  Perhaps it even comes down to the belief that "it can't be that easy".  In actuality, it is that easy. 

 

If you feel intimidated by tincture making, start by only using dried herbs and 100 proof vodka.  Despite that the process I've outlined earlier requires calculating alcohol percentages, this is mostly due to my own preferences, and there are very few instances in which using 100 proof vodka would detrimentally affect the quality of your tincture.  Simply follow the "7 step plan" below:

 

   1.) Put 4 ounces of dried herb in an adequately sized mason jar

   2.) Add 20 ounces of 100 proof vodka

   3.) Cap the jar, and store it out of the light in a cool dark place

   4.) Shake daily for at least two weeks

   5.) Uncap the jar

   6.) Pour out the tincture, and squeeze out the wet herbs as best you can

   7.) Filter the tincture through cheesecloth, cotton, muslin and/or a coffee filter

 

And there you have it, that's all it takes.  Of course, you'll want to make sure that your hands are clean, that your mason jar doesn't smell like pasta and that you cheesecloth/cotton/muslin hasn't been used to wipe up spilled milk, but that's rather obvious, isn't it?

 

What you'll get in return from this is the gratification of knowing that you made your medicine, that you saved a ton of money, and the rather nervous, uncertain looks from the more conventional members of your family when you tell them:

"Of course it works... I made it myself out of dried weeds and vodka!"

jim mcdonald

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