Planted in Alcohol

Making and Using Tinctures and Other Herbal Wonders

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis

This isn't a tincture, but needed to be mentioned here nonetheless because elderberry syrup is the thing to have on hand for when you feel a virus coming on and it is just about time for me to make a big batch. It is simple to make and scrumptious to consume as well. You will find as many, or more, recipes for elderberry syrup as there are people that make it. Mine includes a bit of sweet flag (Acorus calamus), my own personal touch. The sweet flag adds flavor, perhaps its own antiviral properties, and of course the mysterious wonder that it imparts on everything it touches. I love sweet flag. If you don't have sweet flag, don't worry about it. Your syrup will still be wonderful and maybe you can use it in your next batch.

Start taking the syrup when you feel a virus coming on, or even if it seems to have set in already. It will shorten the virus' duration or keep it from taking hold altogether. It will also just plain make you feel nice, which is something you need when you are sick. You can take a spoonful or two of straight syrup throughout the day, especially nice on a sore throat, or add a few teaspoons to a cup of warm water to sip until it's gone and you make another cup.

When gathering elderberries to make the syrup, look for any dark blue, purple, or black berries. Don't worry too much about species, the scientific name for elderberries is actually experiencing a bit of a shift right now anyway. The species in my area was just changed from Sambucus canadensis to the current name I have listed above. I like to keep on top of these things because of my background in botany, but I can't imagine the plants care a bit! Just stay away from red berried elders. Some people will tell you that they are poisonous, I think that they are probably as safe as anything as long as you cook them and have been known to make a fantastic red elder mead myself, but they don't necessarily have the antiviral impact that the blue/purple/black species do. Make sure that you have stripped all of the stems - even the tiny ones, off of the berries before you use them. Stems add an icky flavor to the syrup as well as, potentially, toxins that could give you an intense tummy ache. If you have never used elderberries before, don't be discouraged by their flavor raw (though don't eat a bunch of the raw berries either - they can also contain tummy aching toxins) their yumminess increases 100 fold when cooked, as in the syrup, or dried. If you do not have time to make syrup when you are collecting berries, they freeze really well, just don't wait until you are sick because you won't feel like making syrup then. If you find you are sick with lots of berries and no syrup, it's time to make juice (see below), which is also tasty and effective.

Start with as many berries as you have and add just enough water to keep them from sticking to the pan before their juices start to flow (maybe 1.5 cups water/qt berries, it will depend on the pan really) then cover and cook over low/medium heat until they have all burst and lost their fresh color. While cooking add 2 cloves, 1-2 small pieces (about 1/2 to 3/4 an inch of root all together) sweet flag, and about 1/6 of a whole nutmeg (cracked off the nut, not grated) per quart of berries. Then squeeze everything through a jelly bag (squeeze instead of just straining so you end up with thick juice). After squeezing, while the juice is still warm, add an equal amount of raw honey. I always try to use the darkest local honey available. Don't heat it any more after you add the honey to preserve enzymes and floral delicacies. If you prefer, you could add much less honey (a lot of recipes call for more like 4:1 juice:honey ratio) but it just doesn't seem like syrup to me that way and I really really like honey. The honey helps it keep longer too.

I have also made an elderberry juice that I add a bit of honey to when I (or my husband) am (is) feeling yucky. It works just as well for those times that you have berries but no syrup and it tastes a bit fruitier, which is nice sometimes. Simply add a few tablespoons of frozen berries, directly from the freezer, to a pint of water. Heat this until the water has taken on a lot of color from the berries and tastes fruity, strain, and add honey to taste. I have never actually simmered this preparation and I've never had any tummy ache issues such as those mentioned above because of it. If you are sick, it is best to get a loved one to make this juice for you rather than doing it yourself. I am sure that it increases the healing properties.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Sweet Violet

Viola odorata

The house that I currently live in (I rent) was selected in large part because of the vast patches of violets growing on the mowed areas of the property. So when I moved in last year I was completely aware of the common blue violet (Viola sororia) I had surrounding me. It wasn't until this spring that I realized that I also have some pretty significant areas of sweet violet (V. odorata) growing in abandoned garden areas around my home. For me, this was a very exciting realization. I immediately tinctured some flowers.

The first surprise was the tincture's pale yellow-green color. I know that the color of violet preparations is based on their pH, and I also know that 151 proof everclear has a very high pH, which should favor a greenish color, but it was still a surprise. After a few weeks of maceration I had completely colorless flowers, and a delicately fragrant pale green yellow tincture that I wasn't entirely sure what to do with. So, of course, I started tasting it.

The most notable effect, of even the tiniest dose, of this tincture is the huge grin that appears on my face after taking it. This is followed by a happy sigh and a varying amount of time spent feeling very content and relaxed. Not the kind of content and relaxed that makes you sit and stare at the wall for three hours thinking there is nothing in the world that could possibly be more important than staring at the wall, but the kind that makes you consider the things you need to get done, select the thing that feels most appropriate at the time, and get some work done on it. No pressure.

I have also found that it helps me drift to sleep when my mind is racing, calms overwhelming negative emotions (especially anger), and helps me to function better in overstimulating environments. It also seems to have a gently regulating effect on the digestive system which makes it very helpful for people that get constipation due to stress. Violet also has a lot of traditional uses, such as in cancer treatment (though I believe that is more done with the leaf), and other lymphatic actions that I have not experimented with at all.

I was very excited about this tincture and I have given it to several people to taste. I have seen the same grin and eye sparkle on every person's face except for one, she said that all she could taste was the alcohol and that it was too strong. I think, however, that she was actually tasting the tingle imparted by the violet. I found that the very fresh tincture was actually harsher than the everclear itself. The harshness of the tincture has diminished somewhat now but it is still there and the feeling is hard to describe. I suppose it would be referred to as diffusive, but it is not quite like the other diffusive herbs I know, and it is very fleeting.

As I said this is only the first year I have made this tincture so I have only had about 4 months to play with it, but for some reason I felt like this was a tincture that I immediately knew what to do with. At least for me. It has very subtle flavors and properties, I don't think the tincture I have made will remain useful much longer - which kind of makes me feel like I am loosing a friend! Hopefully next year I will be able to figure out some method of tincturing that will allow it to last longer because I think that it would make a very useful winter companion for me. Maybe someone has some suggestions?

Oh yes, and please eat the leaf too. They're just so yummy, though for eating I prefer the common blue violet.

Sunday, June 25, 2006


Impatiens capensis

Jewelweed is one of those herbs that a lot of people who don't really know herbs know quite well. I imagine that there are two reasons for this. First, it is a beautiful and easily recognized plant, even when not in flower, and it tends to be pretty ubiquitous in the areas in which it grows. The second reason is that it is incredibly effective as an anti itch plant.

It's easy to use by just grabbing some leaves and stems and rubbing them over any place itchy. Perfect for mosquito bites, the plants love to live in stagnant wet mosquito type places. It also works well for nettle stings, poison ivy (sumac, and oak too), and any other random itch. If you put it on right after a bite or exposure, you usually never even feel an itch. Otherwise the itch will go away a whole lot faster than it would if you hadn't used the jewelweed, but not instantly.

So, jewelweed grows in a lot of places, but not everywhere. Because it is wonderful, but not terribly portable in its plant form, I like to try to create more portable forms. The decoction works very well, but spoils quickly when not refrigerated, so you can't just stick a little bottle in your backpack and have it when you need it. I was hesitant to tincture it because it seems like smearing alcohol on irritated skin would be bad. I finally tried it last year though, and it is decidedly good.

I use fresh jewelweed, the whole aerial plant at any stage of growth, and 100 proof vodka to keep the alcohol content on the lower side. (I really do usually use 151 proof, we'll get to one of those soon I am sure.) I have only ever used it topically. I don't know of any history of internal use for jewelweed, and it is sometimes described as poisonous if ingested. Though a lot of people eat the shoots as a spring green. I would eat it myself, but it just doesn't smell tasty to me and I have lots of other, tasty spring greens to choose from.

The tincture is as beautiful as the plant, a lovely deep brownish red, which is nice. It is, without a doubt, worth having on hand.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

White Sweet Clover

I made White Sweet Clover tincture last year, and I love it. I decided to discuss it right now because it is just about the right time to start making more of this tincture (at least in SW Michigan) and it isn't a really commonly used one for most herbalists. I wanted to let people know that if it isn't in their current repertoire, maybe it should be.

I will begin with the fact that Melilotus spp. contain Coumarin, which scares off a lot of people because they believe it to be a dangerous chemical. It is true that coumarin is a blood thinner precursor, and that white sweet clover should be handled carefully because of this, but it is not true that white sweet clover is a danger to all who might ingest it. As I said, coumarin is a blood thinner precursor, not a blood thinner itself. While there have been cases of livestock poisoning from eating (poorly handled) dried sweet clover, I do not believe there are records of this happening to humans. When a certain mold grows on sweet clover, it breaks coumarin into dicoumarin (or possibly it is called dicoumarol) - which is a blood thinner. For this reason, I only use sweet clover immediately after harvest. I do dry it, but only in a dehydrator, and then I tincture it right away. Drying brings out the sweet coumarin scent of the plant and I think that it adds some therapeutic value to the tincture, though I prefer to tincture most plants fresh. I think that this handling of sweet clover means I end up with a very safe tincture. There are some days that I end up taking several doses of this tincture, usually during my period. Between working on a farm, where I get a lot of cuts and scrapes, and using sweet clover during my period, I have a lot of opportunity to see whether it has any kind of blood thinner action. I have found that it does not. However, several sources say that coumarin is a mild blood thinner. I honestly think that such statements come from a misunderstanding of the plant, but I would still hesitate to give it to someone with blood clotting issues or a person taking prescription blood thinners.

I am sure that there are many herbalists that would be happy to jump down my throat for saying that I do not think that White Sweet Clover is a danger. For more info on coumarin see

I prefer White Sweet Clover over Yellow (currently they are both considered to be Melilotus officinalis, which mystifies me, White used to be Melilotus alba) but it is worth trying yellow as well. I just think the white is a more pleasant plant.

To make my tincture I began by collecting the entire aerial portion of a few white sweet clover plants just after they started to flower, dried them in my dehydrator, cut them into fine pieces, and covered them with 100 proof vodka. Since then I have switched to using 151 proof Everclear almost exclusively, but this tincture turned out so well that I will probably use 100 proof every time I make it in the future.

When I made the tincture I had no idea how I was going to use it. I just liked the plant and have a lot of it growing around my home, so I went with it. Sweet clover is listed in many sources as a carminative, meaning that it helps the body expel intestinal gas, so that seemed like a place to start. After making the tincture, I tried it in this capacity, but it didn't help much and I have many other effective carminatives, so I kind of forgot about it for several months (maybe eight - an important point here because it means that the plants sat in the alcohol for longer than usual, which may make a difference in the final product). I have a few theories about why the plant might be considered a carminative even though it is not, but it isn't so important here. It is entirely possible that it just isn't the best carminative for me. Try it yourself and report back to me what you find if it strikes your fancy.

When I found it again in the back of my herb cupboard, I began to wonder what other things it might be useful for. Somewhere, unfortunately I can't remember where, I came across a few lines stating that it is useful for relieving menstrual cramps. I happen to have endometriosis, so every time I come across such a statement my heart skips a beat. I began trying the tincture during particularity bad cramp fests and it worked very well for me. Basically, I take a few (3-5)drops of tincture when the cramps are in their upswing, and it keeps them from getting as bad as they normally would. This may not sound so groundbreaking but for an endometriosis sufferer it is heavenly. Unfortunately it requires another dose every time the cramps start to get bad again, but it is worth it, tastes nice, and over the course of a day seems to require less and less frequent dosing.

After this success I decided to try it for other issues. Following the pain theme, I started taking small doses when I felt headaches (migraine or stress mostly) coming on and, low and behold, it helped those too. This use requires only one or two doses to stave off a headache entirely. So far I would say that it works about 90% of the time, as long as I catch the headache early on. It will not stop a headache that has already set in fully as far as I can tell, but it doesn't make them worse either so I will probably continue some experimenting with this to see if it at least shortens the headache or makes it less severe.

So far I have only had the chance to try these things out on myself. But I have a few friends that I am going to give it to, and I will be continuing to look for other uses for this lovely herb.

Friday, June 23, 2006

My Tinctures

Generally my tinctures are made using the simpler's method. Essentially this means that I stuff a jar full of plant material, then fill it with high proof alcohol. I almost always use fresh plants, but there are a few things that I prefer dried. Especially sweet clover. So far I have used either 100 proof vodka or 151 proof Everclear for my tinctures. 151 is the highest proof that you can get in Michigan, though I know many herbalists that get 190 proof Everclear out of state. I think that 151 proof is good for my needs. I really like the simpler's method of creating tinctures because it feels good and works very well, but for quality control purposes I will likely start using a more scientific method soon. I am also going to begin experimenting with Paracelsian tinctures very soon. By very soon I mean as soon as my current batch of nettle tincture and I are ready to do some experimenting. If people actually start looking at this blog, I would like to begin a tincture exchange system in order to help myself and others broaden their tincture knowledge.