Seeds & Berries

Only a few indigenous seeds and berries are used for tincture-making, but they form a therapeutically indispensable resource, generally being highly nutritive. Angelica and Lovage are usually used for their roots, but the seeds are usefully carminative and may be harvested in all respects the same as Fennel seed.

Celery seed, Apium graveolens 1:2 60%, 14 days

The seeds of the wild celery are collected in late summer of the plant’s second year, just before they start to brown off. The whole umbel is removed and as much of the stalks as possible stripped off and discarded.

Should you find a cultivated celery running to seed, allow the seed heads to mature and prepare the same as Wild Celery. The result may be slightly inferior but still well worth having.

Chillie Peppers, Capsicum frutescens – 1:2 60%, 3 weeks

Chillies are easily grown in a greenhouse, polytunnel or even a warm sunny border provided they have been raised from seed under heat early in spring. A plant or two will yield a surprisingly good harvest. Handle with care at all stages, perhaps wearing gloves. Wait until the peppers are fully ripe (i.e. a deep, even red) and comminute the whole pepper including seeds finely, ideally in a food processor. Handle with care! If ripening is uneven, add to waiting menstruum in batches.

Capsicum minimum is quoted in nearly all herbal texts, but if it ever existed, you’ll never find it in a seed catalogue! No matter, C. frutescens, C. annuum in any number of cultivars abound in vegetable seed catalogues – simply choose a good red variety that scores high on the Scoville scale or the catalogue’s own ‘heat’ scale. Some compromise may be needed as the hottest chillies may take longer to grow and ripen than you are able to accommodate.

Echinacea seed, Echinacea spp. – 1:3 45%, 2-3 weeks

Echinacea seeds are less stimulating but more nutritive to the immune system than the root. Collecting them will not interfere with subsequent root production. Wait until the ray florets (outer petals) of the flowers fade and become papery in early autumn, and pluck off the whole head complete with calyx. Do not delay, as in the UK there is a risk of the seed heads becoming mildewed beyond this point. They will need to be passed through a garden shredder or at least quartered with a knife or secateurs before macerating.

In commerce the seed heads are not harvested separately – instead the whole aerial herb is harvested in flower: Echinacea is an expensive subject and this practice achieves a lot of ‘make-weight’ from the leaves & stems, although these parts have little or no therapeutic value. Echinacea purpurea yields the best results in the UK, but E. angustifolia, E. paradoxa, & E. pallida are all viable and near-identical as specific tinctures. (See also under Echinacea root).

Elderberries, Sambucus nigra – 1:2 35%, 14 days

Elderberries are usually ripe by late August. You’ll be lucky to find them ripening evenly – even on a single pannicle you may find both green berries and over-ripe, shrivelling ones, whilst any given tree may sport pannicles in varying states of maturity. It’s best to remove whole stems from the tree and strip each pannicle one at a time (the traditional tool for doing this is a dining fork), stripping off as much stalk as possible and discarding under- or over-ripe fruits (ripe ones are plump and purple). Elders usually fruit abundantly enough to get all you need in a single picking, but if the supply is limited there’s no harm in harvesting every few days to add to a waiting bucket or jar of ready-prepared menstruum, macerating for a fortnight after the last addition.

Elderberries are often used to make syrups or ‘robs’, or may be incorporated in a variety of syrup & linctus mixtures for coughs & colds. Elderflowers are also detailed in the ‘Flowers’ section. The bark or the leaves of Elder are sometimes used in external preparations, whilst an infusion of the leaves provides a useful insecticide.

Fennel seed, Foeniculum vulgare – 1:2 60%, 14 days

Fennel seeds are harvested in late summer just before fully ripe (i.e., before any significant browning off of the seeds is evident). The whole umbel is removed and as much of the stalk as possible pulled away and discarded. Fennel often produces a proportion of “blind” umbels, the seeds of which do not fully develop – avoid these.

Fennel leaves are also used occasionally.

Hawthorn berry, Crataegus monogyna – 1:1 or 1:2, 45%, 14 days

Hawthorn berries are harvested in late autumn when fully ripe. Ideally the deep red berries will have developed a distinct purple hue, will squash on squeezing and the flesh will have a pronounced sweet taste. They can be picked by the handful – a few leaves coming away with the berries will do no harm, but pick through before macerating to remove debris or anything that is blemished.

The tincture can be used to macerate Hawthorn flowers the following spring for a more concentrated and balanced product (or equally the flower tincture can be used to macerate the berries). Crataegus oxycanthoides is always quoted in textbooks but this is the old name for the relatively rare woodland Hawthorn, C. laevigata. You are more likely to encounter the ubiquitous C. monogyna in hedgerows. However, all species and even garden cultivars appear to yield satisfactory results.

Horse Chestnut fruits, Aesculus hippocastrum – 1:2 25%, 14 days

The fruits of the Horse Chestnut, none other than the ‘conkers’ of everybody’s childhood, are gathered from the ground, and the outer (green and prickly) casing removed. The fruits should have ripened to a chestnut colour (of course!) but should not have been lying around long enough to have become darkened and tough. Wash the ‘conkers’ thoroughly. The only comminution necessary is to ensure that all the fruits have been split open – the easiest way to achieve this is to place them in an old pillowcase, sack, or some such, and pound with a club hammer.

There is no discernible difference between the fruits of the red- or white-flowering Horse Chestnuts, but the fruits of the Spanish (‘Edible’) Chestnut are not used.

Juniper berries, Juniperus communis – 1:2 45%, 14 days

Alas, the demise of the gin industry has left few Juniper shrubs in southern Britain, but they can be found, whilst they remain more abundant in the North and Scotland. They are dioecious so berries are only found on female shrubs. Juniper berries ripen slowly so can be harvested at any time of year, though it’s usually done in autumn. Ripe berries are plump, purple and squash on squeezing. Obviously avoid immature berries or those that have started to shrivel. Go carefully – you may wish you were wearing chain-mail gloves as the spines of Juniper are vicious and yield their berries reluctantly.

Milk Thistle, Silybum marianum – 1:2 25%, 14 days

The seeds of the huge and hazardous Milk Thistle are harvested in early autumn as the seeds ripen. You can either slice the whole seed heads and pass them through a garden shredder, or you may prefer to transfer them to a warm place for a few days and then shake the seeds out. Either is a risky business unless wearing thorn-proof gloves.

Milk Thistle is commonly known as ‘Carduus’ to many practitioners in deference to the old synonym of Carduus marianus.