Tag Archives: herbal medicine

Herbal Tinctures: The Folk Method

One easy way to start working with medicinal herbs is to create tinctures. A tincture is simply a liquid extract of a medicinal plant. They’re a great way to preserve herbal medicine in season. They also help concentrate the active ingredients in a plant, allowing you to use an herbal remedy conveniently. You can take a drop of tincture rather than a cup of tea, or for those who struggle with it, having to swallow capsules. Today, we’ll cover how to create your own tinctures using the folk method.

***None of the information in this post is intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Consult your physician for medical advice.***

***When using wild plants, always be 100% sure of their identification before employing it in any herbal or edible preparation.***

History of Tinctures

There is an incredibly long history of tinctures in medicine. The Al-Qanoon fi al Tibb (The Canon of Medicine), an encyclopedia of medicine in five books compiled by Persian physician-philosopher Avicenna and finished in 1025, includes instructions for making tinctures!

It’s likely that the use of tinctures dates back much further and probably started shortly after the invention of distillation. What’s now China, Egypt, Turkey, and Israel may have been distilling alcohol and creating tinctures as far back as 2000 BC. 

Early distillation looked far different from what we know today. Writings from 4th century Greece credit the first modern distillation with an alembic to the western alchemist Maria the Jewess between AD 200 – 300.

Alcohol distillation didn’t occur in Europe until the 12th century, with alchemists primarily interested in creating elixirs. Slowly, the process became more widely used, as did tinctures and recreational alcohol. By the 1800s, tinctures were common in European medicine. 

Lemon Balm Leaves, Mason Jar, and KnifeWhat’s the folk method?

The folk method is likely how the first tinctures were made and is still in use today. It’s an easy and effective way to create tinctures without a scale or measuring cup. To use the folk method, pack herbs into a glass jar or container and cover them with alcohol. It’s as simple as that!

Alternatively, as you become a more experienced herbalist, you may want to learn to create weight-to-volume tinctures. These types of tinctures combine macerated herbs by weight to alcohol by volume. Often, fresh herbs are tinctured at a ratio of 1:2 with alcohol, and dry herbs are tinctured at a ratio of 1:5. The ratio may also vary with the type of herb.

We’ll stick with the folk method for this blog, but The Herbal Academy has an excellent weight-to-volume tincture guide you can read here.

What do I need to make a folk tincture?

You can make a tincture from nearly any herb you have on hand. You can use fresh herbs you’ve grown or gathered or dried herbs from a trustworthy source like local farms or Mountain Rose Herbs. In the past, we’ve featured posts on holy basil and goldenrod tinctures.

You may also want to create a tinctures and select herbs with a specific goals in mind. Below are a few herbs that herbalists will commonly tincture:

  • Echinacea
  • Coltsfoot
  • Holy Basil
  • Valerian 
  • Feverfew 
  • Chicory Root
  • Chamomile
  • Raspberry Leaves
  • Lemon Balm
  • Goldenrod
  • Mint
  • Skullcap
  • Lovage

***Always thoroughly research an herb before using it and consult your physician. Some herbs are known to cause adverse reactions when combined with prescription medications. Herbs may also cause allergic reactions or other illnesses when used in inappropriate concentrations.***

Alcohol

You’ll also need 80-proof alcohol. Many people choose to use vodka as it doesn’t impart much flavor, but you can choose to use others like brandy or gin. Byron Ballard, Appalachian urban farmer, witch, and author of Roots, Branches, & Spirits: The Folkways and Witchery of Appalachia, says she prefers rum as it adds a bit of nicer flavor. 

Other Supplies

Depending on the herb you’re working with, you may need a clean knife, scissors, or grater to prepare your herb. You also need a clean jar with a lid that seals well. An ill-fitting lid may let the alcohol slowly evaporate. 

Later, you’ll need a strainer or cloth to filter your aged tincture. You also need a clean container to store the filtered tincture in. Depending on the container you choose, a funnel may also be helpful.

Strainer, tincture in mason jar, mason jar with herbs, lemon balm leavesMaking a Tincture with the Folk Method

  • Prepare your herbs. Roots should be scrubbed and chopped or grated, and it’s best to remove large stems from herbs. You may also want to chop up leaves and flowers to help speed up the process.
  • Place the herbs into a container. You may want to pack light, fluffy herbs down gently.
  • Cover your herbs with alcohol. Press the herbs down a bit so that the alcohol covers them completely.
  • Place a tight lid on the container and store it somewhere dark for a minimum of two to six weeks. 
  • Check on and shake your container every few days, especially in the beginning. Press the herbs down or add alcohol as needed to keep them covered.
  • Strain the plant material out of your finished tincture. A wire strainer may do for larger pieces, but you may need a finer filter, like a clean bandana, for fine herbs.

Can I make a tinctures without alcohol?

While a tincture is technically defined as an ingredient dissolved in alcohol, other ways exist. Increasingly, herbalists are using the word tincture to refer to herbs in vinegar or glycerin for those who need or want an alcohol-free option. Learn how to make herbal glycerites from The Herbal Academy.

Storing Tinctures

After you strain your tincture, you want to store it somewhere cool and dark. If available, brown glass bottles are ideal for tinctures as they block some of the light. Small bottles with droppers can be handy, especially if you want to take your tincture regularly.

Generally, I use and then replace tinctures within two years. However, tinctures may keep for up to 3 to 5 years.

Using Your Tincture

How you use your tincture largely depends on what it is. Herbalists generally may make recommendations by the drop or dropper full, referring to those small bottles with droppers. 

Tincture recommendations vary widely by herb and purpose, from taking a dropper full when you’re feeling anxious to taking 30 drops up to three times a day when you’re experiencing cold and flu symptoms. Again, appropriate research and consulting a physician can help you determine what’s best.

Folk tinctures are a great way to get started with herbalism and connect with new plants. Whether you’ve grown and gathered herbs this season or are ordering them online, this guide will help you create your own tinctures using the folk method.

5 Unusual Medicinal Herbs

Herbalism is a wonderful way to explore cultural traditions and history. It can also help you support a healthy lifestyle and improve your knowledge of plants. Maybe this year you started your first herb garden, planting some easy-to-grow herbs, or perhaps you’ve been practicing herbalist for years crafting teas, tinctures, and other natural products to promote wellness. Wherever you are on your journey, adding a few unusual medicinal herbs to your herb garden can be fun. While most of these plants have been used in herbal medicine for a long time, they tend to be less common in modern gardens.

Unusual Medicinal Herbs Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)

Also known as Chinese Milk Vetch or Huang Qi, Astragalus is a traditional Chinese herb that herbalists have used since ancient times to increase and tonify qi. Herbalists believe the plant to be an adaptogen and deep immune system activator. 

Astragalus is a perennial legume with a spreading, reclining growth habit. It does best in a sunny location with well-drained, fairly dry soil. The foliage dies back each fall and regrows in the spring. For best results, soak your Astragalus seeds overnight before planting.

Typically herbalists harvest a portion of the roots when the plant is well established and at least four or five years old. Wash, cut up, and dry your roots for use in teas, tinctures, and other preparations. Dried roots may also be powdered. 

Unusual Medicinal Herbs SpilanthesSpilanthes (Acmella oleracea)

This unique, vibrant flower is widely used and known by many names. You may have heard it called eyeball plant, buzz buttons, or toothache plant. When eaten raw, edible leaves and flowers cause a tingling sensation in the mouth. Practitioners of Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, and western folk medicine have used Spilanthes for various ailments, including upper respiratory illnesses, minor pain, and various mouth and dental issues. 

Spilanthes is a beautiful, low-growing, spreading plant. The cone or hive-shaped flowers are composed of hundreds of tiny yellow, red, and orange-hued flowers. These cones are often compared to eyeballs giving the plant one of its common names. Here in Virginia and farther north, it is grown as an annual but is a tender perennial in warm climates. It prefers areas with full sun, and the seeds require light to germinate.

This exciting plant adds a unique flavor to soups, sauces, sorbets, cocktails, and salads. You may use it fresh or dried in teas and external applications.

Unusual Medicinal Herbs Echinacea pallida
Photo by H. Zell

Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea Pallida)

Echinacea or coneflower, is one of the more commonly known medicinal plants today. You can probably even find it in immune-boosting teas and supplements at your local grocery store. However, most of these are one species, Echinacea purpurea. While I love Echinacea purpurea, it is just one of the ten species of Echinacea, all of which are medicinally important. 

All species of Echinacea are frequently used to boost the immune system. Several pharmacological studies have demonstrated immuno-stimulant, bacteriostatic, and anti-viral activity.

Native to open woods and rocky prairies from northeastern Texas to central Illinois, Echinacea pallida flowers typically feature rosy purple long, dropping petals and a purple-brown flower disc. Occasionally, flowers may be pink, purple, or white. This drought-tolerant plant has long, narrow leaves and grows 18 to 36 inches tall. 

Echinacea pallida can be a bit more tricky to start from seed than its more common counterpart, Echinacea purpurea. You need to stratify the seed for 60 days at 40°F. Then you can start it indoors and transplant or direct seed it in an area that receives full sun. It’s perennial in zones 3 through 9.

All parts of the echinacea plant can be used in herbal preparations. Wait until the plant is well-established before harvesting leaves. Wait until the plant is at least three years old to harvest roots. 

Unusual Medicinal Herbs SoapwortSoapwort (Saponaria officinalis)

Soapwort is a non-native herb brought from Europe and is naturalized in much of the United States. It’s a valuable herb because the plant contains natural saponins and produces a lather when soaked or heated in water. It’s terrific for making a non-irritating skin cleanser, shampoo, or soap for delicate fabrics. 

More tolerant than some herbs, soapwort will thrive in full sun to partial shade with moist to slightly dry soil. The seeds require light to germinate and can be transplanted or direct seeded. Soapwort is perennial in zones 3 through 10 and may spread.

Wait to harvest soapwort until it’s at least a year old and you have an established patch. For the highest saponin content, harvest the leaves and blooms when the plants are in full flower. They may regrow and bloom again that season. Harvest roots in the fall.

Unusual Medicinal Herbs LovageLovage (Levisticum officinale)

While not widely used today in the US, lovage would’ve been common in many medicinal and kitchen gardens of medieval Europe. The ancient Greeks were probably the first herbalists to employ lovage, chewing the leaves to relieve gas and aid digestion. Throughout time it became more popular for its medicinal and culinary uses. In the kitchen, it’s used as a salad green or in the same fashion as celery. In modern herbalism, tea is often made from lovage for its carminative or diuretic effects.

Lovage doesn’t always germinate well, so be sure to sow extra. Start your lovage indoors. The seeds require darkness to germinate. It will tolerate full sun to partial shade and is perennial in zones 3 through 10. 

The leaves, stems, roots, and seeds of lovage are all useful. Once lovage is established, you can pinch off the leaves and stems and use them as needed. Harvest seeds in the fall when they mature, and harvest some of the roots in the fall from plants that are two to three years old. 

An herb garden should be as unique as the gardener. When you’re planning your garden this winter, consider your goals and your needs, and always consider trying something new. Hopefully, one of these unusual medicinal herbs will find a place in your garden and bring you wellness and joy in the coming season!

Fire Cider: An Herbal Tradition

It’s the season for colder weather, holidays, colds, and flu, so it’s time to make fire cider! Fire cider gets its name from its spicy ingredients like horseradish, garlic, hot peppers, and the main liquid ingredient, apple cider vinegar. The mixture is left to ferment for at least several weeks, creating a warming tonic rich in vitamins and antioxidants. It’s a fun recipe to share and make because it’s easy to add your own spin on or just work with ingredients you can get easily. 

I also love fire cider because it has become an example of community overcoming attempts to commercialize an important piece of culture and wellness. Just like SESE stands for everyone’s right to save seed, the folks using fire cider had to fight to ensure everyone was allowed continued access to this cultural resource. 

Fire Cider: Beginnings

Famous herbalist Rosemary Gladstar first coined the term “fire cider” in the 1970s. She has noted that using apple cider vinegar in conjunction with honey, cayenne, or other herbs has a long history in herbal medicine. Like many other herbalists, Rosemary Gladstar used what she knew of old folk remedies and combined them with the herbs she had at hand and her personal touch.

This recipe quickly became a favorite, and Rosemary freely shared it with other herbalists and students, never realizing how popular it would become. The recipe was often included in herbalism and wellness classes. It also appeared at farmers’ markets, co-ops, and Etsy shops across the country as herbalists began providing bottles of fire cider, often with their signature twist. Rosemary believed that fire cider should and would always be free for everyone. 

The Fire Cider Three

Unfortunately, in 2012 a company called Shire City Herbals trademarked the name fire cider. They sued three herbalists Kathi Langelier of Herbal Revolution, Mary Blue of Farmacy Herbs, and Nicole Telkes of Wildflower School of Botanical Medicine, for $100,000 in damages for using the name. Quickly after Shire City trademarked fire cider, another company trademarked a popular remedy called Four Thieves Vinegar, even though herbalists have used it for centuries! 

Thankfully, these three herbalists went to bat for fire cider, believing that these herbal recipes needed to be “open-source” and available for all to use. They earned the nickname “the fire cider three.” They worked with Rosemary Gladstar to found two organizations, Tradition Not Trademark and Free Fire Cider, to help educate the public about the trademarking of herbal resources. Finally, in 2019 after years of court battles, the fire cider three won a precedent-setting case declaring that fire cider cannot be trademarked. 

Fire cider ingredients and jarWhat Do You Need to Make Fire Cider?

Many herbalists develop their own take on fire cider. You may try to create one you think will taste good, one that includes helpful herbs for your situation, or use what’s most available. Here are a couple of recipes and a list of optional ingredients to get you started.

A Traditional Fire Cider

  • 1 medium or large onion diced
  • 1/2 cup chopped horseradish root
  • 1/2 cup grated or finely chopped ginger
  • 1 fresh cayenne pepper chopped
  • 10 cloves of minced garlic
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • 1/4 honey

Citrusy Fire Cider

  • 1 medium or large onion diced
  • 1/2 cup chopped horseradish root
  • 1/2 cup grated or finely chopped ginger
  • 10 cloves of minced garlic
  • 1 orange sliced
  • 1 lime sliced
  • 2-3 sprigs of fresh lemon balm
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh turmeric or 1-2 tsps of dried turmeric
  • 1-2 sliced jalapeños
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • 1/4 honey

Other Optional Ingredient Ideas

  • Roselle 
  • Echinacea
  • Cinnamon
  • Hot peppers
  • Rosemary
  • Thyme
  • Maple Syrup
  • Black Pepper

How to Make Fire Cider

Prepare all of your fresh ingredients. Place your fresh and dried ingredients in a large jar. Fill the jar with apple cider vinegar until all of your ingredients are covered with liquid. 

Place your fire cider somewhere cool and dark for about one month. It’s a good idea to give it a shake every day or so. 

After a month, use cheesecloth or another fine filter to strain out all of the solids. Squeeze any liquid you can out of them!

Then add honey or sweetener to taste. Stir until the sweetener is fully mixed with your clean cider.

Using Fire Cider

Many fire cider devotees take 1 to 2 teaspoons of fire cider daily, especially during cold and flu season. You can also take some when you feel a cold coming on.

Fire cider is also quite tasty. It’s lovely to add to salad dressings or sprinkle on tacos, rice, or roasted vegetables.