Notes on Keeping Track of Your Medicines

I’ve learned this one from hard experience, over and over again. I’ve more than once picked up a jar of neutral green tincture and discovered it had no label. So I open it and sniff, also neutral green (thank goodness so many plants have distinctive tastes and smells). Uh oh. The next step is tasting, which is great unless you’re not sure whether you have the jar of Plantain or the jar of Datura leaves. Dammit.

Sometimes this has happened because I failed to put a label on the jar, especially in the very beginning when I only had a half a dozen tinctures and could recognize each by the jar they were in. Sometimes the label fell off or got wet or had incomplete information, like the one that said “Skullcap, Fl. Tops, 75% alcohol, 6-30.” Great, June thirtieth of what YEAR, though? Oils have a different kind of problem in that if their labels get oily, say goodbye to all that detailed info you wrote down, and you’re left with a one pint jar of dark green oil that smells like olive oil and some random green plant. Sigh.

Over the years, I’ve slowly corrected the label issue and have come to the conclusion that the more information the better in most cases. I also think more tape is better when fastening the label to the jar, so I always put clear packing tape over every label so that they’re less likely to disappear on me. I also prefer to write down these particular facts on the actual label of the tincture (or oil etc):

Common Name
Latin Name (in cases where I can’t completely key it out, I’ll put Scutellaria spp. or Artemisia spp.)
Date Made – I prefer the exact date, and often the time, but even just the season and year will be helpful later. If it’s a dried plant preparation then also the date of harvest or purchase
Where harvested (if you bought it, just put down what you know, but if you harvested it, be specific, as you might want more someday, or if it doesn’t work out well, you might want to avoid that particular spot).
Weather and Conditions Harvested in – really important for picky, changeable plants like St John’s Wort or certain kinds of Sage. You’ll want to mention if there’s a drought or if it’s an unusually wet year etc. You can avoid writing this over and over if you make up a Master Inventory List (see below).
Percentage of alcohol: No, not the end percentage in the tincture, but percentage you USED. It’s too insane mathematically to bother with the former method. So, if you used Everclear, just put 100% (or 95% if you have a deep need for exactness). If you used brandy, write 40% (probably). And if you made a custom water/alcohol blend, then write down the percentage.
Proportion of plant to menstruum – You know, 1:2 for fresh plants, 1:5 for dried plants (usually). Plant matter by weight, menstruum by volume.
Fresh plant or Dried plant – Usually evident from the proportion, but ~assume nothing~, write it down.

If you’re a plant fanatic (like me), you probably harvest and process lots of plants every year and are slowly filling every available space in your house (and garage and shed and doghouse) with herbs and herbal preparations. No matter how big you think your brain is, you’ll never be able to hold onto all that information (I tried, and failed). So, that’s what you need a Master Inventory List for. Every year or season, depending on the volume of herbs you work with, start a sheet dedicated to the plants you harvest and process. You will want to include:

The weather conditions of that year.
Primary places you harvested from and notes about any unusual happenings in that area.
Plants harvested (which species and what parts)
Any notable changes about the health or amount of each particular stand of plants. It’s especially important to monitor the health of the plants you gather if you’re wildcrafting. If you primarily wildcraft I recommend using a field journal as described in From Earth to Herbalist by Greg Tilford or something similar. I have my own method for that, and I’ll post a sample at a later time.
Appr. how much harvested of each plant.

Then you make a tincture list and oil list and and dried plant list and so on, make sure you write the date and year on every piece of paper in case the records get separated. You write down the amount (2 gallons of Beebalm tincture, 1 quart Elderflower tincture etc), and the location of storage (bedroom closet, 3rd shelf up, on the left). And every time you use some or move it, write it down. This will save you from tearing the entire house apart looking for the last two ounces of Passionflower tincture that you really NEED RIGHT NOW (that you’ve somehow forgotten that you gave to a client three months ago). You also write down any notes on the life span of that preparation or plant so that you can keep an eye on what needs to be used up or checked on.

This kind of written organization will also force you to organize your plants better, and encourage you to move them from the plastic bags they were purchased in, into nice glass jars or similar. Things are much less likely to go bad this way, or get lost. And you’re less likely to lose your mind over that Passionflower tincture. Happiness all around.

12 Comments

  1. shamana flora
    Mar 12, 2008

    oh so true!
    dried plants are sometimes easier to ID when in the labeless jar, but so many times i’m left with a mystery. it’s even worse when you move around the country and things get taken out of jars into bags and back.

    *sigh*
    longing for a real pharmacy with organization.

    i have a nice binder like you’ve described to track all those things when making medicicnes. it’s invaluable.

    :D

  2. kate
    Mar 12, 2008

    I’ve started writing the info on the side of the jar with a permanent marker. Started because I didn’t have labels one day but then I just carried on. Seems easier.

    On the jar I write plant name (to species if needed), date, sometimes phase of moon, alcohol %, what part of plant, place of harvest, and sometimes a note about a bird that was around or what I learnt from harvesting about the power of that particular medicine. I keep a book that I write the other info in – more info on harvesting, where etc – and cross reference to the jar by date.

    I’d like to get better at keeping even more detailed notes on things like weather and general notes on the season (for wildcrafting where I am only in that place say once a year), what other plants are doing etc.

  3. Kiva Rose
    Mar 12, 2008

    Hmm, that’s a good idea Kate, I’ve done that with sharpie’s on jar lids, but the ink still goes away sometimes. Maybe on the glass it works better.

    Sounds like you’ve worked out a lovely system, and put lots of thought and intent to it… I want to refine mine more, it’s very functional as is but not very poetic or pretty I’m afraid.

    The records, especially for wildcrafting, are SO helpful…. I’ve learned alot about the different ways the plant works through my records. In my field journal, I often write what plants are associated with the plant I’m harvesting and what phase they’re in at the time I harvest. Now THAT’S a useful record for a wildcrafter, since it’s easier and more useful to recognize a plant COMMUNITY rather than just a single plant, and that gives you a better idea of the health of the ecology too.

    Darcey, a binder is an excellent idea, I was just using a clipboard…. think I’ll switch now. I have a whole building just for medicines and it’s still not organized to my satisfaction. I hope your new house in TX will be better for that kind of thing!

  4. Kristena 'dreamseeds'
    Mar 15, 2008

    Heavens, this is an herbalist plight indeed! I too have had to train myself to get the label on things because you THINK you will remember, then several tinctures later, it all is a blob it seems and you are left scolding yourself because you knew better.

    Can you tell I have battled this one before?

  5. jim mcdonald
    Mar 18, 2008

    heh… SO TRUE.

    But, acknowledging my slackerness, I’d never be able to actually put all that info on a bottle – usually do plant name, location, maybe year, and strength.

    …and I’m supposed to be an anal details oriented capricorn (saved by a cusp).

    If I kept a binder I’d end up tearing out the pages to write grocery lists on (which I would forget when I went grocery shopping), then saed the severed pages in one of several dozen piles of loose paper. I’d always remeber where they were (or where they used to be, if the pile gets moved by someone other than me or maybe knocked over by the cat), but the chances of me actually referring back to such things, while possible and not to be ruled out, is unlikely.

    I’ve saved ALL my unlabelled bottles for the time when I can really sit down and figure them out. The hardest are unlabelled formulas…

  6. Ananda
    Mar 18, 2008

    Hi Kiva!

    I’d love an elaboration on the harvesting log :) I’ve always been good about labels and a recipe log book, but I am working on my regularity with the harvest journal.

    Love
    Ananda

  7. Siobhan
    Jul 26, 2008

    Kiva Rose,

    how do you work out how much of a tincture to use, especially if its a new plant you haven’t used before ? Up to now I have been using 100 proof vodka but am thinking of trying Everclear. Obviously the strength of the alcohol has a bearing but also the properties if the plants themselves too. Since I am a sadly mathematically challenged individual some sort of formula would be great if such a thing exists. But generally I would like some idea of how to work out how much of a particular plant one should use and how to change that based on the strength of the menstruum.

    Thank you so much. I LOVE your site-recently I’ve had quite a bit of time on my hands which I have spent reading up on your posts. Wish I lived closer to he SW so I could visit !!!!!!!

    Many blessings and thanks.

  8. Kiva Rose
    Jul 26, 2008

    Hi again Siobhan,

    So glad you’ve been enjoying my writings and I do hope that someday you might get a chance to venture out this way!

    You might try these two posts to answer you alcohol question, I think they might be what you’re looking for.
    Notes on Alcohol http://bearmedicineherbals.com/?p=303
    Introduction to Tinctures http://bearmedicineherbals.com/?p=304

  9. Siobhan
    Jul 26, 2008

    Hi Kiva Rose,

    I really don’t want to turn into a nuisance but what I was trying to ask was how to determine dosage of the tinctures. For example, Susun Weed recommends 1 drop echinacea per1 lb of bodyweight at 100 proof alcohol. Now how would one work that out-ie. how did she come to that conclusion? If you find a new plant that you have not worked with before and is not commonly used how do you decide the dosage ? Is this a matter of intuition or is there some basis for knowing how to use less or more ? I am sorry I wasn’t more clear the first time I asked. I wasn’t able to find the answer on Michael Moore’s site-or maybe I wasn’t looking in the right place !

    Cheers,
    Siobhan

  10. Siobhan
    Jul 26, 2008

    ps -oops-just realized I made a mistake there and want to correct it. Susun Weed recommends 1 drop Echinacea per 2lbs body weight. Sorry !

  11. Kiva Rose
    Jul 27, 2008

    I always start with a drop or two of anything new (once I know the plant is not toxic of course) and work my way up from there. When the plant is a good fit, somewhere in the range of five drops will often work anyway. If I’m aiming for a mostly physiological response from a less specific medicine I’ll sometimes use a larger dose, up to one dropperful. That’s still far less than what most books recommend. I’ll get around to a post on this subject eventually.

  12. Siobhan
    Jul 27, 2008

    Thanks Kiva. I’ll look forward to it.

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