There’s nothing quite as empowering as harvesting your very own herbs and turning them into medicine, am I right? It’s that time of year now where plants are blooming, and you may see an abundance of some incredible medicinal herbs in your surroundings.
Here are some medicinal herbs that might be growing wild and in abundance (at least here in Edmonton, Alberta):
- Dandelions (harvest the root and leaves)
- Red Clover
- Wild Rose
- Shepherd's Purse
- Just to name a few!
Then there’s your garden! Here are some herbs you may be growing:
- Mint (peppermint, spearmint)
- Holy Basil
- And so many more...
I mean, truly, the list is a little bit endless! And of course, depending on the regional climate where you live, you may have access to a completely different list of medicinal plants.
An incredible way to preserve your plant medicine all year round (and for years to come), is to turn your herbal harvest into a tincture.
What is a Herbal Tincture?
Simply put, a tincture is an alcoholic extract of a medicinal herb. Essentially, you soak a herb in alcohol for a minimum of two weeks, and as it’s macerating, all of the medicinal constituents are pulled into the solution. This leaves you with an alcohol extract that is full of that plant's medicinal benefits. It tends to be fairly concentrated, which means that you need a lot less than when you drink tea. We’re talking 2-10ml daily, depending on which herb you tinctured, rather than 2-3 cups per day. It’s easy to take (although not the most pleasant tasting!), and makes for a great way to preserve your fresh or dried harvested herbs. The alcohol acts as a natural preservation agent, which makes the shelf life of herbal tinctures quite long! You can safely keep a herbal tincture on the shelf (ideally out of directly sunlight, in an opaque glass container) for 5 years, but many herbalists would argue that tinctures never *really* go bad. If anything, they just start to degrade over time...maybe.
What are the Benefits of a Fresh Herbal Tincture (Versus Dried)?
Because tinctures can be made out of dried or freshly picked herbs- the kind of tincture we’re going to be focusing on here is one made with fresh herbs. There are definitely some benefits to making a fresh tincture versus a dried one. To start, the material is so much more...well, FRESH! All of the essential oils and medicinal properties are present in the freshly picked plant material, making it a more vibrant medicine. For some plants in particular, you get a different medicine from the fresh extract. For example, Lemonbalm’s antiviral qualities come mostly from the essential oil. This can be super helpful to prevent herpes/cold sore outbreaks. However, once you dry any plant, the essential oil quantity diminishes. If you’ve ever dried lemon balm, you know that it emits a glorious smell into the air, which is heavenly! But that’s also an indication that essential oils are leaving the plant and evaporating into the air. This means that a fresh lemon balm extract is more effective at providing antiviral properties than a dried extract. As a general rule of thumb, the fresher the plant material, the more alive and vibrant it is.
Especially with today’s international herbal supply chain, herbs switch hands many times before landing in yours. They get exposed to light and air multiple times as they’re packaged and repackaged, which leads to more breakdown in medicinal properties along the way. All this to say- the fresher the herbs and the higher quality the product- the more potent medicine. Having said that, it isn’t always possible to have fresh plants on hand, so it’s important to remember that dried herbal material can still make really great medicine. When you have access to fresh, fantastic! Otherwise, don’t sweat it and stick with the highest quality dried plant material you can find (local & organic is always a preference in my books).
How Do You Make a Fresh Herbal Tincture?
Fresh tincture making is super simple, empowering and fun.
Here’s what you’ll need to make a fresh tincture:
- Freshly harvested plants and herbs
- 95-100% alcohol (Not to be mistaken with 100 proof, which only translates to about 50% alcohol)
- Mason jar & airtight lid
- Knife and cutting board (to chop up your material)
- Good vibes, gratitude & love to infuse into your medicine as you prepare it ;)
Pro Tip: When making a fresh tincture extract, always use 95% alcohol or higher! The reason for this is fresh plants have a really high water content compared to dried herbs (makes sense, right?). So as the tincture is being made, the water will be pulled into the solution which significantly dilutes the alcohol percentage of the final product. Anything below a final alcohol percentage of 25% won’t preserve well and you’ll end up with a tincture that goes bad over time. In order to make sure you end up with an alcohol percentage that will preserve your tincture long term, start with 95% or higher. There are a few exceptions to this rule, so look up the plant you’re tincturing beforehand, but as a general rule of thumb- high alcohol is the way to go for fresh extracts.
Step 1- Do You Even Garble, Bro?!
Ok, what does garble even mean? Garbling is the fancy (or funny) term in herbal lingo that means “to separate the medicinal part of the plant from the rest of the plant.” For example, stripping the leaves and flowers off of the stem (typically those are the medicinal parts, not the stems). Garbling can also involve removing random plants that have made it into your basket that don’t belong- like pieces of grass or other plants that aren’t intended to be a part of your tincture. This is step 1.
Step 2- Weigh Out Your Plant Material
This part is super simple. Once you’ve garbled your way to a pile of beautifully sorted medicinal plant parts (flowers, leaves, roots), you’ll want to weigh them. This is important because it’ll allow you to determine the amount of alcohol you’ll need to add in order to reach a specific ratio (I’ll explain in a second).
Step 3- Cut Your Plant Material Into Smaller Pieces & Put Into Mason Jar
Again, pretty simple. This allows you to increase your surface area. Once you add the alcohol in, it'll be able to contact the plant material on more surfaces, ultimately extracting more medicinal properties (which we want!). If you have roots, chop them into little bits. If you have leaves, a good trick is to bunch them all together in a big handful and then use a sharp knife to cut them into little pieces, like you would parsley or cilantro. You don’t need to get crazy here and cut them into microscopic bits. Just enough to break up the bigger pieces into smaller pieces. Once you’ve cut your herb up, place it into a mason jar.
Step 4- Determine the Amount of Alcohol You Need
This may sound complicated, but stay with me. In order to determine what dose you should take of the tincture you're making, you’ll need to know the ratio. When you look up “how much to take” of any given tincture, you’ll find that it’s listed in relation the ratio of plant material to alcohol. If you’ve ever bought a tincture, on the label it’ll list something that looks like this- 1:2, 1:3, 1:5 etc. This ratio explains the weight of the herb used, in relation to the volume of alcohol used when making the tincture (also known as a weight to volume ratio). A 1:1 ratio means that for every 1g of herb used, there was 1ml of alcohol used. The smaller the ratio, the more potent the extract. A 1:1 or 1:2 extract is more potent and concentrated than a 1:5, for example. This means you need to take more of a 1:5 to get the same medicinal benefits, if that makes sense.
Generally, for fresh tincture extracts you’ll aim to have a 1:2 or 1:3 ratio. This means that if you have 100g of your fresh herb, you’re going to add 200ml of alcohol, leaving you with a 1:2 extract. If you have 100g of fresh herb and you add 300ml of alcohol, you’ll have a 1:3 extract. See how this works?
Remember the weight of your fresh herb from step 3? Now is the time to put it to use. You’ll want to multiply it by 2 to get your alcohol amount, if you want a 1:2. For a 1:3, multiply it by 3. Once you’ve determined how much alcohol you want to add, pour it overtop of the herbal material you put into your mason jar in step 3.
Remember, you're using a 95% or more alcohol for this step! Vodka, brandy or any alcohol that is less than 95% will become too diluted once the plant's water content gets extracted, leaving you with a final product that will likely go bad quickly.
Pro Tip: One thing to keep in mind is you always want the plant material to be submerged in the alcohol to avoid your plant material from rotting as it sits in the jar (see step 5 below). I always start with a smaller ratio (1:2, for example) so that I can get the strongest extract whenever possible. But if I notice that there isn’t enough alcohol to cover my plant material after I’ve pushed it down, then I add enough alcohol to make it a 1:3. Example: If I have 100g of herb, I add 200ml of alcohol to make a 1:2...but once I weight it down, I notice that’s not enough alcohol to cover all the herb. So in order to make a 1:3, I’d need 300ml total. Because I already added 200ml, I’ll add another 100ml (300ml total), to make a 1:3. And now the alcohol happily covers all of my plant material, which is perfect!
Step 5- Weigh Your Plant Material Down
One you’ve poured your alcohol over your herb, you’ll want to weigh your plant material down so it’s fully immersed under the alcohol. This will prevent the herb from being exposed to air and rotting while it sits in the jar. You can get creative with how you weigh it down: rocks, crystals, glass tincture bottles can all work well! Once your plant material is happily submerged under the alcohol, with none of it exposed to air, tightly screw on your lid, and voila- you’ve made a fresh herbal tincture!
Pro Tip: One of my amazing students taught me that when you’re using a wide mouth mason jar, you can insert a smaller mason jar inside (it’ll fit!) and it will effectively push down your plant material to the point that the alcohol is happily covering all of the herb. I don’t know how I just learned about this after years of medicine making, but I’m so happy to know this trick now!
Step 6- Leave Your Tincture to Macerate for 14 days Minimum
Once you have your tincture, make sure you label it so you don’t forget what you did. On the label- Include the ratio, the herb name, the location of harvest, the date and the percentage of alcohol, as well as all your positive energy! (I always put hearts on my labels. I’m a little obsessed with hearts and have been since I was a kid!). I’ve left my fresh tinctures a lot longer than 14 days, but this is the bare minimum in order to give the alcohol time to pull out all of those medicinal properties.