Some of the frequent questions I hear from students and friends is “why doesn’t my tincture look/taste like yours?” I have spent many years making wonderfully potent tinctures and making horribly disappointing mistakes. So here are my lessons learned. But first…
A note on menstruum, marc, and other words used to describe tincture making. The art of making herbal tinctures comes with its own vocabulary. The vocabulary words aren’t necessary to the process, so if you aren’t interested skip down to number 1. If you are interested, read on. The first word is menstruum. The menstruum is the solvent liquid that is used to extract the plant constituents. Solvents are liquids that the medicinal constituents of a plant will dissolve into. The menstruum can include the following liquids: alcohol, vinegar, water, vegetable glycerin, oil, or wine.
Generally, the word tincture is referring to an alcohol extraction. A tincture made with glycerin is usually referred to as a glycerite. Other extractions are often referred to by the type of menstruum used, such as vinegar extractions. The plant you want to make the tincture from determines the menstruum. For example, if you are making an extract of a plant like Stinging Nettles, that is high in minerals, consider making a vinegar extraction or using a higher water to alcohol ratio. Vinegar and water extract minerals better than alcohol does.
If you want a tasty extraction that is safe for children or people with alcohol sensitivities consider using vegetable glycerin (note that glycerin is often sourced from soy). Glycerin can also be used for plants that are high in mucilage (slimy constituents that help heal mucous membranes and other tissues, such as Marshmallow and Mullein. Plants that are high in resinous constituents like Pine or Balsamroot require a higher alcohol content or can be extracted in oil. The marc is the plant material that remains after the extract is removed by pressing or squeezing. The marc can be put in the compost. Two other important words are standardized and folk method.
Standardized vs. Folk Method
Tincture making with alcohol usually follows one of these protocols. Standardized tinctures adhere to the protocols established by a conference held in Belgium in 1902, “Conference Internationale pour l’Unification de la Formule des Medicaments Heroiques.” This protocol was adopted by the US Pharmacopoeia in 1906. Making a standardized tincture involves weighing the plant material and then preparing the menstruum at the appropriate ratio. Different ratios were established for dry plant vs. fresh plant and for varying potency. For example, a dried plant is prepared at a ratio of 1:5, 1 part dried plant in grams to 5 parts menstruum in milliliters. If you want to learn more about standardization, pick up one of the following books:
The folk method is far less complicated but in my experience often yields similar results. Start by thoroughly garbling your plants (this is described below under number 2. I choose a container that I think that all of the plant material will fit in once it has been cut into small pieces.
Fill the jar about 1/4 to 1/3 with your menstruum. Start placing the plant material in the jar before you begin cutting it. As you place the plant in the jar, chop it up as small as possible with scissors. You will be cutting the plant up in the jar directly into the menstruum. (I describe this more in number 3 below). Keep cutting and adding more of the plant and menstruum (if needed) until the jar is full.
Make sure that the menstruum covers the plant material. Put a lid on tight. Now maceration begins. The process of maceration has two parts time and agitation. The recommended time is two-four weeks. Agitation means shake it. Shake it as often as possible but at least two or three times a day.
The shaking helps distribute the plant material so that pockets of air and water don’t stagnate and cause your extract to rot. After the two weeks is up, strain, press, or squeeze the liquid out of the marc. Put your extract into a dark colored bottle and store in a cool dry place.
Note: the above methods are for alcohol extractions. To learn more about using other menstrua, get one of the books mentioned above.
And now for my lessons learned…
1. My tincture just tastes “green.” Usually what they mean by this is that it tastes ambiguously vegetative. This effect usually occurs when certain plants are grown in or near vegetable gardens. Plants create various chemicals as part of their survival strategy. Certain types of stress cause plants to create their own protective chemicals in response.
A few years ago I had a group of herbalists sitting on my front porch. We each had our own yarrow tincture (I had at least 3 from different places). So we did a taste test. We found that the yarrow that grew in the high desert near the Columbia Gorge in Oregon surpassed all the others in complexity and potency. Those places included the Rocky Mountains, the bluffs along Lake Erie, and a hayfield in northern Wisconsin (and perhaps others I’m forgetting).
I’ve also tasted yarrow tincture made from a plant grown in a garden in Portland, OR and found that it had that ambiguous and bland green taste. It doesn’t mean that you have to travel to eastern Oregon to have a good yarrow tincture. But, if you have the option, choose the plant that lives under some duress. That said, avoid plants that look diseased or inhabited by tiny critters, unless you know that the chemicals created under that stress are the ones you are looking for.
2. “My tincture isn’t as strong as yours.” This usually occurs when the garbling process is overlooked or under appreciated. Garbling is the process of removing dead leaves, dried up flowers, woody pith that comes off when peeling barks, and other parts of the plant that contain little to no medicinal constituents. This will add more time to the process but as you can see in the picture of the two St. John’s wort tinctures, it matters. And really, why wouldn’t you want to take the time to make the best tincture.
Another thing that can happen is that the plant is not processed soon enough, especially when the plants being used have volatile oils that evaporate quickly. Timely processing captures more of the potency. Although I often lose some of the bulk of the plant while garbling, I often leave out stems unless they taste nearly as strong as the other parts I’m using. Which is a good reminder: taste the plant before you make the tincture. That’s what your tincture should taste like. If your tincture tastes different, something went wrong, and usually it’s the problem I describe in number 4 below.
Another aspect of potency is knowing when to gather plants. And I will say right now that there are many different theories about this. Some believe that the phase of the moon is critical. Others will say that time of year matters. Others emphasize the age of the plant. I will leave it at that because I believe each herbalist should find their own way as they develop direct relationships with the plant.
3. “My tincture isn’t as dark as yours.” This often happens when plant is cut on a cutting board. If you do this, take a look at your cutting board next time and notice whether the cutting board turns the color of your plants. You could be losing your color and potency on the cutting board. Instead weigh your garbled plant material and measure the appropriate amount of menstruum. Begin adding the plant to the alcohol while using scissors to chop it up in the alcohol. You will also increase the potency because you will likely end up with smaller pieces. You might be tempted to throw it all in the blender. Some herbalists do this and others don’t. Those that don’t say that the blender breaks down the plant material at a cellular level compromising the tincture quality.
4. “My tincture smells or tastes funny/different/weird.” The first question I ask the person that says this is, did you shake it with real commitment? The process of letting the tinctured plant soak and shaking it is called maceration. This process is vital especially if you are working with fresh rather than dried plant material. If it isn’t shaken, air and water bubbles could be trapped and lead to rot. Rotten tinctures are not good tinctures. There was a time when I had a chance to gather some important plants but then I had to travel. They were all lost. So if you can’t do it, find someone that will.
Remember that intention is the most important part of the tincture-making process. Be mindful while gathering plants with good wishes for community and personal healing. Be mindful of where you are and your methods of wildcrafting – some of our most precious plants are listed at-risk of endangerment by United Plant Savers (unitedplantsavers.org). Take time to learn some basic principles of ethical wildcrafting. I will share my ideas on this website after I present a workshop on ethical wildcrafting in August at the Planting the Future Conference (http://www.unitedplantsavers.org/content.php/374-Planting-the-Future-Wisconsin-2013).