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Herbal tinctures are an excellent way of consuming medicinal herbs and preserving your herbal medicine for a very long time.
I’m currently learning all about making tinctures, medicinal teas, and salves in Herbal Academy’s Introductory Herbal Course. When I was a kid, playing in the woods behind my house, I used to collect different stones, bark, ferns, etc. and combine them all together in a giant washpan filled with rain water. I knew even back then that plants and minerals held “magical” qualities. Now, taking this course, I’ve discovered that that childish play was what I was always meant to do.
I’m excited to start my herbal journey and share what I learn along the way with you.
But before we get into how to make an herbal tincture:
What Is a Tincture?
Plants contain constituents (a component or part) that are designed to help the plant grow. They have developed chemicals that protect themselves from predators, attract pollinators, or heal themselves. These constituents are powerful chemicals that humans have extracted for thousands of years in our own herbal medicine.
These constituents have been separated into two different classes: primary and secondary metabolites:
- Primary metabolites include the chemicals plants use to growth and maintain health, including starches, proteins, lipids and others.
- Secondary metabolites include the chemicals plants use to interact with the world around them. This includes both to repel predators and attract pollinators.
At the beginning of the 19th century, humans began picking apart plants and identifying separate chemicals and their affects on humans. William Withering, for example, identified a group of constituents in foxglove called Cardiac glycosides, and discovered their use in helping to regulate heart rate.
However, in this myopic view of the medicinal properties of plants, we lost the ability to see the big picture. Opium can be extracted from the poppy flower and, taken in high doses, can be deadly. However, the entire poppy flower has been used for thousands of years to treat stomach disorders, eye issues, and for pain relief. Many plants contain complimenting constituents that can temper their negative side effects.
Just something to keep in mind: identifying a single constituent that you’d like to extract does not nullify the other constituents within the plant.
Another thing to keep in mind when doing any herbal work is that combining two herbs does not always simply equal herb + herb. There is a magical synergy that happens when some herbs combine that creates a unique, unexpected effect. Play around with different combinations when making your herbal remedies and find the formulas that speak to you.
Keep notes of every tincture and formula you make so you can refer back to them to recreate, or tweak your recipes. I have a notebook like this one that I keep notes in.
A tincture is the liquid that remains after soaking an herb in a solvent to extract it’s desired constituents. This makes the specific constituents more readily available to our body for absorption.
What Do I Need to Make A Tincture?
In the very basic form, a tincture is composed of herb material and a solvent. Your solvent can be anything from water, to alcohol, to vinegar, but for the purposes of this post we’ll stick to using alcohol.
Using alcohol to make a tincture serves a few purposes: it will extract more constituents than something milder such as water or vinegar. For example, alkaloids, sugars, enzymes, essential oil, some minerals and vitamins are best extracted with alcohol.
Several different types of alcohol can be used, as long as it’s over 80 proof (or 40% alcohol by volume). If your vodka, for example, is 40% alcohol by volume, than it’s 60% water. Too much water opens your tincture up to the danger of mold, which will ruin any tincture.
While alcohols such as vodka, brandy and whiskey are all acceptable, the best alcohol to use for high-quality tinctures are organic grape or organic grain alcohol.
The quality of the herbs that you use is of special concern as well. Purchase from a supplier you trust, local farmer, or, even better, grow them yourself.
Additional equipment that will help in the process include:
- Wide mouth canning jars with lids
- Cheese cloth
- Bowl—one with a spout is extra handy!
- For mathematical tincture-making you will need a scale and a graduated cylinder.
- Small funnel
- Dropper or regular-topped single-serve amber-tinted bottles for storing finished product.
Folk Method of Making Tinctures
The folk method of making tinctures is the method I use most myself. If I were making tinctures for friends and family to treat specific conditions, I might be more concerned about the consistency of a specific formula.
- Harvest the herb material or root that you want to use – removing all parts of the plant that are not desired. Chop or mash fresh herbs and grind dry herbs to exposure as much surface area to the solvent as possible
- Place herbs in a wide mouth mason jar
- Add your alcohol enough to cover the herbs by an inch or so and replace the lid
- Store your tincture in a cool, dark place and visit it daily to shake or mix up the plant material
- After 4-6 weeks, strain the mixture through your cheesecloth, squeezing out as much solvent as possible
- Optional: store in your brown amber tincture bottles and label with the type of tincture and date
If you prefer to be able to replicate your tinctures with better consistency, you’ll need to do a little simple math.
What you are looking to capture when making mathematical tinctures is the weight-to-volume ratio. The weight of the herb you are using to the volume of alcohol you will steep it in.
- Weigh your herbs on a kitchen scale once they’ve been picked and cleaned
- Chop or mash fresh herbs and grind dry herbs to exposure as much surface area to the solvent as possible
- Determine the ratio you desire. With this method, you compare grams to milliliters (mL) of solvent.
For example, if you want a 1:2 herb:solvent ratio, you’ll use 30 grams of dandelion root and 60 milliliters of alcohol.
Fresh herbs usually do well with a 1:2 or 1:3 ratio. Dried herbs are more concentrate (because the water has been removed) so are generally mixed with a 1:4 or 1:5 ratio. But experiment and see what works best for you.
A note on using ratios for those of us that have been out of school for awhile: a 1:2 ratio is roughly twice as strong as a 1:4 ratio. Just keep that in mind when you begin looking at your dosage.
4. Place herbs in a wide mouth mason jar
5. Add your alcohol enough to cover the herbs by an inch or so and replace the lid
6. Store your tincture in a cool, dark place and visit it daily to shake or mix up the plant material
7. After 4-6 weeks, strain the mixture through your cheesecloth, squeezing out as much solvent as possible
8. Optional: store in your brown amber tincture bottles and label with the type of tincture and date
The second number you’ll be concerned with when you are making mathematical tinctures is the alcohol percentage. Often you’ll see tincture dosing written like this: 1.5-2 mL of 1:5 in 60%. This means a tincture of 1:5 ratio of herb:solvent in a solution of 60% alcohol. Some herbs do better in a more delicate solvent, while others prefer the strong stuff.
For simplicity’s sake, you can always simply purchase an alcohol that is 120 proof (or 60% alcohol by volume). Math – done. However, if you have a stronger alcohol, you may need to mix it with water to get the percentage you need.
The basic formula to get your desired alcohol concentration is this: % of Grain Alcohol Used to Make Solvent = 100 x (Desired % Alcohol in Solvent ÷ Alcohol Content of Grain Alcohol)
Don’t run away! It’s easier than it looks!
If you need a 100 mL of a 50% solution, but you have 180 proof alcohol (95%), you’ll plug these numbers into the formula.
Desired % Alcohol in Solvent = 50
Alcohol Content of Grain Alcohol = 95
Plugging these numbers into the formula looks like this:
% of Grain Alcohol Used to Make Solvent = 100 x (50 ÷ 95) = 52.6%
This means that 52.6% of your solvent will be your grain alcohol, and 47.4% will be water. To keep things simple, if you need 100 mL of solvent, you’ll use 52.6 mL of alcohol and 47.4 mL of water.
Now you see why I use the folk method 🙂
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For more information on making herbal remedies, I highly recommend the Herbal Academy. I’ve taken several of their courses and am a proud affiliate. If you click their banner below and sign up for a class, I’ll get a small referral fee at no extra cost to you! A bonus for sharing something I’m already excited about!
If their lengthy courses aren’t in your budget, I highly recommend a subscription to their Herbarium. It’s around $45 a year (they offer discounts and sales throughout the year, so it could be even less) and they have great in-depth articles and monographs that tell you exactly what to use different herbs for, including the dosage information for each. Well worth the investment if you are a self-taught herbalist.