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Principles

No list of herbs, let alone how to make them into medicines, can ever be complete. This one focuses on two things. Firstly, it relates entirely to making tinctures from fresh herbs, (otherwise known as ‘specific’ tinctures) – as observed elsewhere, this a far more efficient way of converting herbs from the garden (or local foraging) into preserved medicines than drying them first. Secondly, a discipline is imposed that nothing will be detailed unless it is based on personal experience, and ideally the consequence of several seasons of observation and adaptation.

For newcomers to medicine making, the ‘Specific Tincture’ files are companions to ‘Making Herbal Medicines – Tinctures & Fluid Extracts’, which should be referred to for detail regarding methods and techniques. Making tinctures from fresh herbs is disarmingly easy – anyone can do it, and perhaps everybody should. However, there is never a universally ‘right’ way to do things – just the right way for you. Once you’ve got the hang of it, you are encouraged to work out you own adaptations and refinements, and apply the general principles to other herbs you have come to know and love which have not been listed.

Before proceeding, the approaches recommended vary considerably from mainstream manufacturing techniques. This is because large manufacturers are conditioned to conformity and standardisation – in fairness, their customers would often prefer to receive the same thing every time they order. This is not without problems as herbs, being a natural phenomenon, will always vary according to source and season. When legislation demands stringent standardisation, inevitably this is only possible at the expense of quality. By contrast, when we are making our own medicines for our own use, we can instead aim always for the highest possible quality – and soon settle down to the recognition that manufacturers can seldom if ever match our own efforts. There will always be small variations in quality from harvest to harvest, but if we have got to know our herbs intimately by growing and/or gathering them ourselves, by using organoleptic (sensory) assessment at every stage, and by tasting every sample before it goes on our dispensing shelves, we can adapt to these variations at the point of formulating our prescriptions. Herbalists who work in this way are usually amongst the most successful because they have such fine medicines at their disposal, and such an intimate understanding of them.

One also needs to be fully aware that growing and producing one’s own medicines is very hard work! However rewarding for both practitioner and patient, there are only so many hours in the day, so the recommended techniques do not demand painstakingly accurate measurements, specialised equipment or laboratory standards of cleanliness. Students and graduates of science-rich BSc courses are often taken aback by the ‘bish-bash-bosh’ approach to medicine making when it’s demonstrated to them, but soon learn to trust that it is nonetheless highly effective, safe, and necessarily labour-saving.

In the title bar for each herb you will find a formula:-

First appears the weight:volume ratio – for each kilo of herb (the ‘marc’), the number of litres of diluted alcohol (the menstruum). With the exception of ‘Schedule III’ herbs, this should be used as a rough guide only. The strongest possible recommendation is that you use only enough menstruum to cover the marc – this will vary not only according to the nature of the herb itself, but how finely you comminute it. It’s usually possible to achieve a 1:2 ratio (and in some cases even 1:1) if you go to the trouble of comminution in stages, finishing with food processing. But you may prefer to settle in the main for 1:3, easily achieved by passing through a good garden shredder or by manual secateuring or chopping. However, if you use the ‘just enough menstruum to cover’ approach you will clearly expect to achieve intermediate results, and ultimately may no longer feel the need to make this measurement at all.

There follows the recommended alcohol percentage, typically 25% or 45%. This does not need to vary if you are using the ‘enough to cover’ method unless 25% alcohol is recommended and you are trying to achieve a higher wt:vol ratio with a very watery or mucilaginous subject – in such a case it may be prudent to increase the alcohol content to 30%. Note that the alcohol percentages quoted relate to the menstruum at the start of maceration, not the final result. It’s not uncommon to find with fresh-herb tinctures that from a starting point of, for instance, 25% alcohol, it has dropped to as little as 18% in the end result – no matter, as only 17% is required to preserve it safely for a long shelf life.

Lastly is listed a recommended maceration time. This is the first time that such has appeared in any text on tincture making. Other references simply suggest an across-the-board 10-14 days. Whether or not this is really acceptable when making standard (dried herb) tinctures is open to question, but it certainly isn’t in the case of specific tinctures. Extremes are Lemon Balm, usually ready after a mere 4 hours, whilst the roots of Bistort may require a massive 6 weeks. Again, these are intended only as a guide, as both growing conditions and comminution methods will vary. There’s no substitute for observation and experience.

Detailed in the main text (under each listed herb) are:-

When to harvest: The suggested timing can never be more than approximate as it will vary in different parts of the country, different growing conditions, and the weather in any given year. The most important consideration is that, weather and time permitting, you harvest in optimum condition (e.g. in the case of aerial herbs, in full flower).

There follows details of initial preparation (pruning, stripping, uprooting, etc.) and finally comminution methods. Do take the opportunity to do as much of this outdoors as possible – a good garden shredder will make light work of an otherwise time-consuming process, equally becoming handy with a pair of good-quality secateurs will save hours of mess and tedium indoors with knife and chopping-board. There is the added advantage that the shredded or secateured herb can be delivered straight into the volatile-proof plastic bucket in which subsequent maceration is to take place. Throughout you will also find a variety of cultural notes, tips and supporting information we hope you will find helpful.

Finally, although this is a workbook on the making of specific tinctures, there are many circumstances when we may want to use our fresh herbs to make other forms of preparation such as syrups, oils or creams (or, despite it all, to dry them). If this is the case, the information on harvesting and preparation will still prove serviceable.

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