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Don’t know what happened to December, it just seemed to disappear. But I see in November I’ve made the cardinal blogging sin – saying I will post about something and then not doing it. Ooops.
There’s so much going on in nature at the moment, it’s hard to know what the essence of this month’s moon is, so I’ve gone with the obvious – it’s the first full moon after the summer solstice. The best weather is still to come in the later summer (Feb usually), but people are intent on holidaying now. Personally I find this time of year increasingly stressful and have decided that from now on I’m not going to try and get anything done to a time schedule from mid Dec to mid Jan (when everything seems to be either hyped up crazy or just shut down). Maybe it needs to be the chill out moon, or the hiatus moon.
There is a dilemma here – I have this idea that we’re meant to be having a break, but in terms of the natural world it’s a very busy time. Lots of harvesting from the wild to be done and the garden needs attention. If we were to be taking our cues from the land we’d give up the idea of a big celebration at high summer and do it in the middle of winter instead.
So in the spirit of easing stressful times here are two of my favourite herbs for helping me relax: St John’s wort and lavender. I made lavender oil today, and hope to get some vinegar put up this week too. I use the oil for massage anytime I am sore or stressed and need a bit of TCL. The vinegar I put on salads, but if lavender is too much like a toiletry for you to have in the kitchen it makes a wonderfully scented hair rinse (dilute first). You can read more about lavender medicine by New Mexico herbalist Kiva Rose.
I also made some SJW tincture this week and hope to do oil too. SJW (Hypericum perforatum) is popularly seen as an anti-depressant (and it can be very helpful for helping people with some kinds of depression), but the herb is used widely including as a liver support, menopausal support and as a nervine. I’ve used it mostly as a nervine – it helps heal pain especially the sharp, shooting kind (including shingles and neuralgia) and for easing sore muscles – but it’s also a good herb to help manage stressful times. It seems to both strengthen the nervous system and help it to relax.
SJW started flowering a month ago (which was early) and is peaking now. It will flower for another month I’d say, so plenty of time for harvesting, although I find the best medicine comes from the earlier flowers. Here’s a medium sized plant in flower and bud, with last year’s old seedhead in my hand.
I went back to the peach tree and made tincture. Here’s the harvest. See if you can spot the bee.
I chopped all that roughly, twigs included (but not the bee). Then I put it in a jar:
I’ve packed it in more than normal (and it’s popping out) because the petals are so light that when the alcohol goes in the bulk reduces down alot. Normally you fill to below the top with plant and then to the top with vodka.
Here’s the tincture after brewing for a couple of days. The colour is extracted out of the petals within the first few hours, and then the tincture gradually goes a deeper colour over days. The tincture starts to smell of almond in the first few hours too, yum.
There are some considerations about dosage with peach tincture, so please research this medicine if you want to try it out.
Menstruum is an old word meaning solvent, and in herbal circles it refers to the substance (usually liquid) you use to extract certain properties from herbs, thus making a medicine.
The two menstruums most people are familiar with are water, and spirit alcohol (tinctures and extracts you buy in a health food shop are made with alcohol). But you can also make medicines with vinegar, honey, or oil/fat. Here’s an overview, and I’ll do separate posts in more detail on each menstruum.
Water: used for making teas, infusions, or decoctions for internal use, and compresses or foments for external use. They are used as is or as the base for further medicine making. The terms are used interchangeably and contradictorily by herbalists, so it pays to check what any individual actually means. Water is good for extracting minerals, vitamins, and other water soluble parts like tannins or mucilage. Usually hot water is used, but sometimes not.
Alcohol: used for making tinctures and liqueurs, or liniments for external use. It extracts properties that water can’t, and tends to produce a stronger medicine than water.
Vinegar: used for herbal vinegars. It is excellent at extracting minerals, so can be used to make a mineral supplement. Can be used to make tinctures for people that avoid alcohol but is not as potent as alcohol.
Oil: herbal oils are for external use, either as is or for making ointments or salves. Fat is the traditional menstruum but many people now use a vegetable oil.
Honey: a divine menstruum, virtually any tasty herb can be put up in honey for pleasure, food or medicine.
It’s really simple. Fill a jar twice, once with plant and then again with vodka, put a lid on, let sit for 6 weeks, strain and voila!
And you can use the same method to make herbal vinegars and oils. It’s called the simplers method and doesn’t require specific calculations of ratios.
Here’s more detail:
1. Jars: you want glass, not plastic. Glass is clean and won’t leach chemicals into your brew, and is easy to sterilise. Use clear glass so you can see what happens as the tincture brews. I like jars with non-poptop lids, because the poptop ones always seem to seep. Keeping a range of clean jars at the ready is handy for when you find herbs unexpectedly.
2. Plant: take your freshly harvested herb or weed and chop and put into the jar. I tend to chop coarsely, unless I want a stronger brew. The finer you chop the herbs the stronger the tincture will be. It important to tincture the herbs as soon as you can after picking because plant starts to deteriorate, especially if it’s hot or wet. I quite often make the tincture right where I have picked the herb.
3. Alcohol: vodka is a good choice because it is plain, with no flavour. Use the highest proof* vodka you can get. In NZ, that’s usually 43% (Smirnoff blue). Duty Free have a Smirnoff blue that is 50%, so if you are returning from overseas, or know anyone, get some bottles. It’s alot cheaper too. 50% vodka is 50% ethanol and 50% water, so it will extract both water soluble and alcohol soluble parts of the plant. Most tinctures are fine made this way. If you can’t get any of these a lower proof will be ok, but you will get less of the more medicinal parts of the plant (that are extracted into alcohol).
*proof is roughly twice the ethanol percentage eg 100 proof is roughly 50% ethanol.
4.Shaken or Stirred: once the jar is full of plant and alcohol, get a chopstick and poke around to get as much air as possibly out. Put a lid on and leave overnight. The next day top up with vodka (the alcohol level will have dropped). Some people like to shake their tinctures regularly, to mix it all up. I don’t because it introduces air back into the brew. Sometimes, depending on the herb, the chopped plant can have a tendency to float up to the top of the alcohol. Keep an eye on it, topping up and/or pushing the herb under, until the herb becomes saturated and stays submerged. You can also make the tincture so it is nearly full of plant and then fill right to the brim with vodka, and keep topped up. That way there will be no space for the herbs to rise up.
5. Label: keep a record of the parts of the plant used, date, alcohol and percentage, place of harvest and any other relevant information. I write on glass jars with a marker pen, and then once the tincture is strained and bottled I use a white sticker to write on. I also write the same information in a notebook, along with longer observations about the harvest, season, locale etc.
6. Time: 6 weeks is what I learned and what alot of herbalist do. Some do less. It’s ok, good even, to leave tinctures to brew for long periods of time. As long as the plant material is completely covered with alcohol they won’t go off (and most herbs won’t go off above the alcohol level either as they are to saturated). I often leave tinctures in the alcohol until I need them, often months, sometimes years.
7. Storage: when you are ready, strain the tincture through a cloth and sieve, squeezing out as much alcohol as you can from the plant. Pour into a clean bottle made of dark glass. Label as you did the jar. Store in a cool, dark place to protect the tincture. Tinctures will keep a long time this way, usually years.