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Spring means many wonderful things, but it also means (sigh) spring cleaning. One of those jobs that I want to put off and put off, dreading the mess that will ensue before order is restored—even more so now that I have a toddler and must measure out my chores in naptimes (he’s not quite old enough that he can help yet, unless by “help” you mean throwing things at random, stuffing anything-not-nailed-down into his mouth, etc.).

This spring, high on my to-do list is taking inventory, organizing, and relocating my medicinals. I keep a lot of my herbs in tincture form because it has a much longer shelf-life and takes up less space than bulk herbs. Having tinctured here and there since 2008, my medicinals have been kind of crammed in odd spaces as I finished them. Thank goodness I at least had the presence of mind to label them (herb, menstruum, date) so I could figure out what I was finding. I’ve also just begun Aviva Romm’s Herbal Medicine for Women course, so knowing what I have on hand in advance and getting it all in one place will be really helpful as I move through the course material.

After dredging bottles, bags, and boxes out of the bottom of the kitchen pantry, the back of a couple cabinets, and the upstairs closet (I hope I didn’t miss any hiding places!), I gathered all the herbies together, made a list of what they were, how much I had (by volume or weight, as appropriate), and date. I then stowed them all in roughly alphabetical order in one place in the kitchen where they will be kept dry and in the dark—and much more easy to access than their previous hiding places. The inventory list (with room for notes, additions, etc.) will be posted inside the door to the herb cabinet for quick reference.

herbal pantryAs you can see from the picture, my tinctures are stored in various and sundry glass jars. Some are the wonderful flip-top bottles, others in different sizes of canning jars, others in re-used glass juice bottles—a decidedly un-fancy hodge-podge, but whatever works. I fit my few bags of bulk herbs, oils, etc., in where I could. Doubtless I’ll need to find a bigger space for them down the road, but for now, this will suffice. As a special reward for my archeological dig herbal inventory, I unearthed a half-dozen bottles of homemade t’ej in assorted flavors—watermelon, lemon balm, mulberry, apricot, etc. YUM.

What are your spring herbal chores?

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This is the line I kept repeating in my head Thursday afternoon.

I like to start my tinctures on the new moon—that’s how I was taught—and since the new moon was Friday, Thursday found me at the ABC store running cost analysis on the cheapest bottom shelf brandy and vodka—lowest cost, highest proof, which bottles I can reuse, you know. I show up at the register with four or five huge bottles of booze, and not the kind anyone would proudly display in their liquor cabinet. The lady at the cash register looks at the selection, looks at me, and then shakes her head, pursing her lips. I’m serious. And I know that face. It’s the same face my mom used to make when she saw what I planned on wearing for an evening out *grin*

And I start trying to explain that it’s for tincturing herbs, get as far as, “Oh, it’s not for drinking, well, not really…” and then I notice that everyone in the store is either staring or pointedly not looking at me. Then, never one to miss a thrifty opportunity, I asked if they had a case discount. Ummm, no. At which point I grabbed my [very heavy and sloshy] bags and swervily made my exit.

And then couldn’t stop laughing. Herbs are fun. 🙂 Oh, and for those interested, the new batch is now happily steeping away: passionflower, eleuthero, damiana, ginger, nettle, and milk thistle.

Thai Basil

Thai Basil

Herbal vinegars are a wonderful, healthful, and easy way of preserving herbs. The two primary reasons to use vinegars are to preserve fresh herbs that don’t retain their flavors/qualities as well after drying (as in the case of Thai basil, shown in the pictures, whose flavor is lost after drying) for flavorful culinary use later. The second reason—and somewhat more relevant to the focus of this blog—is for tincturing herbs when alcohol is not desired. This could be for a number of reasons. The person taking the tincture may have a sensitivity to alcohol, be a recovering alcoholic, or may be taking large enough doses where alcohol would not be a desirable menstruum. In any case, the acetic acid in vinegar acts as a solvent similar to alcohol

An added bonus of tincturing in vinegar is that vinegar is incredibly nutritious and beneficial in and of itself. And, as always of importance to me, it tastes good. You can take it straight by the dropperful, as with a tincture, or use as an herbal vinegar condiment, drizzling over salad or steamed veggies, mixing into gazpacho, etc. As a rule, never use chemical/synthetic vinegars for tincturing—apple cider vinegar is best, and of the varieties available commercially, I prefer Bragg’s.

The instructions for making vinegar tinctures are the same as those for making alcohol tincture—click here for the full instructions. Please note though that the proportions of herb used are different for dried versus fresh and root/seed versus leaf, so be sure to read all the directions.

Thai Basil filling jar for herbal vinegar

Since I was running low, this weekend I made tinctures of both Echinacea root and Vitex agnus castus. One of the great things about tinctures is that they are simple to make, and these strong medicinals have a very long shelf life – depending on whom you ask, anywhere from two to ten years, allowing for good storage conditions.

Here are some pointers on making tinctures for your own use at home (these are not “industry standards,” but general guidelines for your personal household apothecary).

Echinacea root for tincture

For tincturing from dried plant material, brandy is a good tincturing menstruum. Decide how much tincture you want to make – a pint, a quart, etc. – and fill that jar 1/4 full if using dried root, 1/2 full for all other plant materials (leaves, flowers, berries, etc.). Regular canning jars are fine for this – just be sure to use undamaged lids and rings to prevent leakage. Next, add brandy until the jar is completely full to the brim; you want as little air in the jar as possible.

Echinacea tincture, filled to brim with brandy

The dried herb will absorb some of the liquid overnight, so be sure to come back the next day and top off the jar with additional brandy, as necessary. Steep your tinctures for six weeks in a cool, dark place, turning every one or two days to continue mixing the herb in the menstruum. I like to start my tinctures at the new moon, finishing them at the second following full moon – a good, traditional way of tracking the time and working with the natural cycles.

Echinacea and Vitex tinctures - rotate every one or two days to mix.

If you’re tincturing dried berries or seeds, such as a Vitex  (chaste tree) berry tincture, you will want to strain off the berries after a week or two, mash them up a bit in a food processor or mortar and pestle, and then return the berries to the menstruum to continue steeping. Again, this just ensures that you are extracting as much medicine from the plant as possible.

After six weeks, strain off your tincture from the plant material, using a piece of cloth to squeeze as much liquid from the herb as possible. You can compost the leftover herb. Label your tincture clearly (including the date), and store it  in a tinted glass container in a cool, dark place. Congratulations! You’ve made a tincture!

If making a tincture from fresh plant material, there are a few differences to the process:

  1. Fresh plant material needs to be dry on the outside, no residual raindrops or dew sticking to the flowers or leaves, so make sure the herb is harvested when conditions have been sunny and dry and after the dew has lifted.
  2. You need to consider the water content of the plant material – if it has a high level of moisture, you may want to use a menstruum with a higher alcohol content, such as vodka or grain alcohol.
  3. Chop your herb finely and fill your jar almost to the top with the plant material.

Do you have any experiences or advice about home tinctures that you’d like to share?

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