Herbal tinctures are helpful to easily and impactfully take advantage of the medicinal value of many different herbs. Making your own tinctures will not only help you save money, but it will also give you the opportunity to use many of the herbs found in your own backyard garden.
The following is an excerpt from “The Healing Garden” by Deb Soule, who is also the owner of Avena Botanicals in Rockport. “The Healing Garden” is available wherever books are sold on April 20, 2021.
Tinctures are concentrated liquid extracts made with a food-grade alcohol. They are easy to make and have a much longer shelf life than dried herbs. Tinctures are helpful for treating various first-aid or acute conditions, for travel and as donations for use at community clinics. Alcohol works well as a medium for herbs that you prefer taking as a tincture instead of a tea (goldenseal, valerian root, boneset) and for herbs that do not extract their medicinal properties into water (poplar buds, bee propolis).
If you live where fresh herbs are not available year- round, tinctures enable access to specific herbal medicine when winter lingers. Alcohol tinctures are not recommended for children under the age of two, people addicted to alcohol, or anyone who refrains from alcohol for health or religious reasons.
An alcohol tincture is quickly absorbed into the body, as it bypasses digestion and directly enters the bloodstream. The amount of alcohol in an individual tincture is based on the alcohol percentage used to make the tincture. For example, a dropper of tincture (made with 50 percent alcohol) contains less alcohol than the amount of naturally occurring alcohol in a glass of commercial orange juice or an overly ripe banana. The body, via the liver, has a pathway to detoxify alcohol and turn it into a sugar. The shelf life of most herbal tinctures when made well and stored in a cool, dark cupboard ranges from four to eight years.
We prepare most of the tinctures in Avena Botanicals’ apothecary with fresh herbs from the garden. Whether you prepare your tincture from fresh or dried herbs depends on your personal preference, which herbs you have available, and the unique biochemical and energetic qualities of each herb. There is no single right way to make tinctures. Record your recipes and experiences in a notebook and talk with other herbalists.
A 100 proof (50 percent alcohol) vodka (organic when possible) works well for most dried and fresh plants. When making tinctures from a resinous substance like myrrh, bee propolis, or Boswellia, a higher alcohol percentage is recommended (150 to 190 proof). If you use 190 proof alcohol for all your tincture making, you will need to dilute it with water when you need a lower alcohol percentage. For example, mix equal parts 190 proof alcohol and filtered or spring water to get the desired 100 proof (50 percent) alcohol for your menstruum (the liquid part of your tincture).
Dosage for herbal tinctures
A tincture’s dose and timing may depend on the type of herb; your age and weight; your alcohol sensitivity; and whether your condition is acute or chronic. Best to start with smaller doses (three to five drops) if you are new to taking a specific herb, and see how your body feels before increasing the dose. My thirty-five years of experience as an herbalist and herbal medicine maker have led me to believe that the standard dose the FDA requires tincture makers to put on our labels is too high. Start with a lower dose, and if possible (especially when working with an acute condition) stay in communication with an herbalist. (We need herbalists rooted in every community and integrated into the public health care system!) Herbs are not meant to overstimulate but to balance, strengthen, and heal us. So start with smaller doses and increase mindfully and skillfully.
The viscosity (thickness) of tinctures varies, depending on the specific herb used. Generally, one dropperful of tincture is around thirty to thirty-five drops or 1/4 tsp. (1.2 ml). A 1 oz. bottle contains 30 ml.
Acute dose for adults: 1/4–1 tsp. (1.2–5 ml), four to six times per day
Tonic dose for adults: 1/4–1 tsp. (1.2–5 ml), one to three times per day
Acute dose for children, ages 3–10: one drop of tincture per 5 lb. (2.3 kg) of body weight, four to six times per day
Tonic dose for children, ages 3–10: one drop of tincture per 5 lb. (2.3 kg) of body weight, one to three times per day
I use several herbs, including teasel root, blue vervain, and rose petal elixir, in smaller doses (three to ten drops total). Some herbalists refer to small doses as Spirit drops. Let the plants and your intuition guide your use of Spirit drops for shifting emotional and mental patterns, opening and healing the emotional heart, and uplifting the spirit. My friend Kay Parent, a wise and loving clinical herbalist, gives her clients a beeswax candle to light each time they take their herbs, inviting them to slow down and be present and mindful as they ingest their plant Medicines.
Preparing a fresh plant tincture
From left: Grinding fresh nettle into tincture; Freshly ground nettle tincture. Credit: Courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press
- After carefully collecting the plants, check them and compost damaged parts, such as rotten root sections or yellow or chewed leaves.
- Wash the roots. Leaves and flowers generally are not muddy like roots and should not be washed.
- Choose a glass jar that will accommodate the volume of herbs you gathered. I tend to place whole flowers in the jar, leaving a few inches of headroom, and then fill the jar to the top with a 100 proof (50 percent) organic alcohol. For leaves and roots, either chop them or grind them in a blender with the alcohol, then pour the mixture into a glass jar. Secure the lid tightly. I like to shake the bottle before placing it on the shelf—sometimes singing, sometimes saying prayers, sometimes just smiling and dancing around the room while gently shaking the jar.
- Label and date the tincture. Include the name of the plant and the parts used. If you weighed the plant before putting the plant in the jar or blender and/or measured the alcohol, record the weight and liquid measurements in your apothecary notebook. Include the place you harvested the plant and any interesting weather information or bird observations. Place the jar in a dark closet or cupboard and let it sit for four to eight weeks. Shake it regularly, at least a few times a week. My heart believes that singing, chanting, or carefully dancing when shaking a tincture adds healing energy. Enjoy watching the liquid take on a new color as the plants pass on their medicine. During the first week of extraction, you may need to top up your jar as the plants absorb liquid. This ensures that the plants stay completely covered in the liquid (menstruum) while tincturing.
- After four to eight weeks, strain the tincture through unbleached or organic cheesecloth. An easy way to do this is to place a stainless colander in a large bowl, drape the cheesecloth in the colander, and pour the liquid in. Tightly wring the cheesecloth, which contains the plant matter, to release as much liquid as you can. Compost the plant material.
- Pour all the liquid into a glass bottle with a tight-fitting lid. Label and date your tincture and store in a cool, dark place. Tinctures have a shelf life of approximately four to eight years. They will taste weak and smell funky if no longer viable.
Preparing a dried plant tincture
- Place 5 oz. (142 g) by weight of a coarsely chopped dried herb in a glass quart jar (for a pint, use 2 1/2 oz. [715 g]). A scale that measures grams, ounces, and pounds is a helpful addition to an herbalist’s kitchen.
- Standard tinctures use a weight-to-volume ratio of 1:5, though I prefer a 1:3 or 1:4 ratio. So the amount of 100 proof alcohol needed for 5 oz. (142 g) of dried herbs, at a 1:4 ratio, is 20 oz. (600 ml). Most glass measuring cups read in both milliliters and ounces, though they don’t measure as exactly as a glass beaker.
- Cover the herb with the measured 100 proof vodka. Pour into a blender and grind. If you don’t use a blender, just put a tight lid on your jar and label it. Follow the remaining instructions above for making fresh plant tinctures.
UPDATE: A previous version of this article said that “The Healing Garden” will be available March 30, 2021. The on-sale date has been postponed to April 20, 2021.