An Introduction to Tinctures
Note: I made a correction to my fresh plant tincture example in the last paragraph of the Standard method section, that should have been 10 ounces not 25. Thanks for spotting that, Susan!
To make a tincture, you need only a few ingredients: an herb, a menstruum and a container with airtight top. Optionally you might want a three beam scale and a glass measuring cup. Some herbalists like to have all kinds of fancy stuff, like beakers, industrial grinders and tiny funnels (very nice to have). I have a weird menagerie of tools that include a turkey baster, several different sized funnels and some chopsticks but I keep it pretty simple. Tincture presses can also be nice, but they are another subject for another post.
Processing the Plant
For fresh plants, just chop it up good first. For dry plants with leaf or flower matter, chopping is easy too. For roots, they usually come cut and sifted if you buy them commercially. If you harvest your own roots, you should remember to chop them up when they’re fresh if you know they’re going to get hard (like Redroot, which is herbal steel when dried). Some people insist that you must grind your dried herbs to coarse powder before tincturing to expose more surface area, but I don’t like ground up herbs much, and they get powdery stuff in your tincture that can be annoying to get out. It all depends on how precise you need/want to be. Being a folk herbalist, don’t see/fee much need to get too worried about it. My tinctures work as well or better than most commercial tinctures I’ve bought.
Simpler’s Method for Fresh Plant Tinctures
This is the easiest method and probably one of the most common for folk herbalists. Basically, you fill a jar with chopped fresh plant matter, then you cover it with alcohol of some kind (whiskey, rum, brandy, vodka etc depending on who you learned from and what part of the world/country you’re from). Cover it with an airtight lid, let sit for 2-6 weeks and then decant, reserving the liquid. It’s that easy.
I know that there’s a method of preparing dry plant tinctures this way too, but I only learned with fresh plants.
Standard Method for Fresh and Dry Plant Tinctures
This method is a bit more exacting. You don’t have to do it this way, but it’s useful if you’re working with a new plant or one with delicate constituents that you want to be sure to extract. And if you happen to enjoy math, then it can be kind of fun too. I like playing with the scale, but I usually do an herb by the book one time and then approximate the next time.
Now, glance at a basic herbal. They will tell you that you will use a ratio of 1:2 for fresh plant tinctures and (usually) a ratio of 1:5 for a dry plant tincture. It’s generally accepted in Western herbal medicine that it is most ideal to use 95% alcohol for fresh plant tinctures and varying percentages (with an average of 50%-65%) for dry plant tinctures depending on the constituents in the plant and the kind of medicine you want to make.
So, what exactly do these ratios mean anyway? They are weight of herb to volume of menstruum. That means that if you are preparing a dry plant tincture with a 1:5 ratio, and you have 1 ounce (by weight) of dried herb, you’ll want five ounces (by volume, in your glass measuring cup) of menstruum (alcohol or alcohol/water). If you are preparing a fresh plant tincture at a 1:2 ratio and you have 5 ounces (by weight) of fresh herb then you will need 10 ounces (by volume) of mentruum.
It’s easy to get confused by this in the beginning, and think they mean something like filling your jar a fifth of the way up with herb and filling it all the way up with alcohol/water. I’ve seen/heard that quite often, and remember being confused by it myself when I was younger.
Another issue is mass of plant to weight of plant. Some herbs are rather bulky and fluffy and very very light. Trying to smush enough herb into the jar to get the proper ratio can be mind boggling and sometimes impossible. If that happens, you have two basic choices: learn to percolate or just get over it. I’m not really excited about the math of percolation, so I usually smush as much as I can in and then just see how it works out. So far so good, and haven’t made an inert or uselessly weak tincture yet.
Step by Step
So, here’s a step by step tincture. You have some dried Yerba Mansa root and you want to make a tincture. This is what you can do:
1) Weigh the Yerba Mansa and discover you have about two ounces.
2) Look up or mentally note that dried Yerba Mansa makes a good tincture at a 1:5 ration and 60% alcohol.
3) Measure out ten ounces of menstruum (60% alcohol and 40% water) in a measuring cup.
4) Place plant matter (you can bang it around in a mortar and pestle too if you think it needs to be broken down more) in suitably sized jar (you want to avoid have much air space in the bottle when everything’s in).
5) Pour alcohol over plant matter.
6) Seal jar with airtight lid.
7) Store in cool, dark place for two to six weeks. I have variously decanted an herb at three weeks and once, two years later. Both tinctures worked well
8 ) Being a dried plant, shake once every day or so. Fresh plants when tinctured with a high percentage of alcohol do not need to be shaken, they will simply be automatically deprive of all of their liquid bits by the alcohol.
9) At the end of the designated time, decant (and squeeze squeeze squeeze all the tincture out of the plants) and reserve the liquid.
10) Store in an airtight container in a dark, cool place. Don’t open unless you need to as air exposure seems to speed up breakdown time. And don’t forget the LABEL, where you want to include what the plant is, usually both botanical and common names when you’re first starting out so you’re not confused later on because you only used some obscure folk name found in a book and now you don’t know what it is. You’ll also want ration, alcohol percentage, date you began the tincture, and perhaps date/location of harvesting. If you didn’t harvest it yourself, then the name of the place/date you bought it.
So there you have it, a fully functional and very useful tincture. There are further variables of course, like if you’re using an herb with lots of tannins you might want to add some (usually 10%) glycerine to the menstruum in order to enhance extraction and avoid precipitations of said tannins. Or you could also add an herbal honey for flavor and medicinal value and so on. There’s also various exceptions for the standard ratios like doing a fresh plant tincture of Lobelia at 1:4 instead of 1:2.
I love medicine making, and I value simplicity and straight-forwardness a great deal, so I keep my medicines basic for the most part. I only tincture one plant at a time (with rare exceptions), I don’t use percolation (there’s nothing wrong with it of course, I just haven’t gone there) and I’m not real concerned about things like fluid extracts or other super concentrated forms of medicine. I like herbal baths, simple tinctures, teas, decoctions, honeys, vinegars, oils/salves, nourishing infusions and FOOD as medicine. For me, good medicine is about integration and our individual journey towards wholeness. Healing should happen on every level and in every aspect of our lives. It’s not relegated to just a dropperful of tincture in the morning or a couple of capsules with lunch, it’s in every motion and word. Our intent to heal -to be well and whole- is most effective when it permeates each and every moment.