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Last winter I did a post on how to tell the difference between the various chamomiles, mostly because both nursery chamomile plants and dried chamomile herb are rarely labelled by their botanical name when being sold and I wanted to be able to ID them so I’d know which one I was growing and using. But I also wanted to be able to ID the wild varieties of that family and learn which were medicinal. The most obvious of the wild ones here in NZ is the rayless chamomile, but while I have seen it off and on in the past I’ve not seen it locally and I’ve rarely seen it anywhere in abundance.

Then in December I couldn’t believe my luck when visiting a local organic farm I stumbled upon this beautiful swath of rayless chamomile in flower.

You can read about identifying the different chamomiles in the previous post, but the main keys for the rayless one are:

~ the absence of petals as the flower opens:

~ the finely cut leaves:

~ and the pineapple smell when the plant is crushed (it’s sometimes known as pineapple weed).

That last photo shows a lush and largish plant – most of the ones I’ve seen in the past are smaller than this and it can grow quite low to the ground in a spreading fashion.

I harvested some of the plants (leaves, flowers, stalks) last December, hanging some in bunches to dry and putting some up in vinegar. I’ve made tea a few times and found it interesting, with subtle chamomile flavour. There was a mild relaxing effect but not very strong (I’d like to experiment with a stronger infusion). But it was recent tastings of the vinegar that I had finally decanted that impressed me. The scent is strongly of the plant, and the taste is of the smell – distinctly chamomile with pineapple undertones, so those constituents extract well into vinegar.

I took 1 tablespoon of the vinegar in a glass of water one evening. Within half an hour I was yawning and barely able to keep my eyes open. This effect passed when I got up and moved around so it wasn’t so much sedative as strongly relaxing. I’ve had the same effect several times since. The vinegar is noticeably diuretic for me, so I’m not sure if it would make such a good sleep aid but your mileage may vary. I’d like to try the tea and tincture for the relaxing effect as well and will certainly be experimenting with this plant some more.

Chamomile resources:

It was one of Henriette Kress’ blogposts on using chamomile greens that tipped me off to the medicine of pineapple weed.

Kiva Rose’s plant monograph on chamomile.

The thing about herbal vinegars is that they are not culinary vinegars. Culinary vinegars place a small amount of a strong smelling/tasting herb (eg tarragon) in vinegar in order to extract the taste. Herbal vinegars place a large amount of herb in vinegar for a long time in order to extract minerals, vitamins, and other goodies that you don’t get from culinary vinegars. They also taste and smell wonderful.

Herbal vinegars are both food and medicine. You can use them as a culinary vinegar too.

Instructions

This is the basic fill a jar twice method that I use for tinctures, vinegars, oils etc:

* fill the jar once with chopped herb
* then fill again with vinegar.
* stir to release air and put a tight lid on
* label with date, plant, source etc and leave six weeks before decanting

Some tips

* use a plastic lid. Metal lids rust when exposed to vinegar. Metal lids with that smooth lining seem to be ok, but will rust if the lining is scratched.

* I use apple cider vinegar (acv) because it tastes good, is easily accessible and is made in NZ from NZ apples. ACV has a long history of folk lore use for health and healing. You can use other food vinegars. I’m leery of the more commercial non-apple ones, because they seem industrial to me.

* you can use raw (unpasteurised) vinegar, or pasteurised vinegar. Raw vinegar will smell more like a fermented product, pasteurised will smell just like vinegar and the herb you infuse. I like raw vinegar because it’s a live culture, but pasteurised is fine too. With raw vinegar you have less leeway – it is more likely to go off if you leave it too long or the plant sticks up above the vinegar. I don’t think I’ve ever had pasteurised go off. If you have problems with raw vinegar, try pasteurised until you get the hang of it and then try the raw again.

* put the infusing jar on a plate or other container to catch any seepage. Top up the vinegar as needed (check every day to start with, then once a week). It’s important that the herb stays completely submerged beneath the vinegar to prevent mould forming.

* some vinegars will form a ‘mother’ (in a decanted vinegar this will be a floating mass). This is part of the fermentation process and isn’t a problem.

What to do with herbal vinegar

* use it as a mineral supplement

* put it on salads or grains for a tasty, nourishing treat. Vinegar (along with salt and fat) aids digestion and increases availability of the nutrients in your meal.

* put 1 tablespoon in a glass of water and drink

* herbal vinegars can be used externally for medicinal compresses or soaks.

* some herbal vinegars make lovely cosmetics – I use lavender or elderflower dilute for a hair rinse.

* herbal vinegars are also good to clean with. Choose herbs that are antiseptic like pine, lavender, thyme, rosemary etc.

* herbal vinegars can be used as medicine. People that can’t take alcohol based tinctures sometimes use vinegar as a menstruum instead. Vinegar extracts different things from plants than alcohol (some medicinal herbs were traditionally extracted into vinegar instead of alcohol because of this), so they’re not direct substitutes, but vinegar and herbs in vinegar do have their own healing powers.

Brigitte has one of the best tutorials I’ve seen on making the vinegar itself.

Which herbs?

The list of plants you can put up in vinegar is almost endless – if you can eat a plant then you can probably make herbal vinegar from it.

Warning: there is a kind of bug you get when you make herbal vinegars, where you end up putting up every interesting plant you come across. Be prepared by hoarding jars and assigning extra storage space in your cupboards.

Here’s some of my favourites:

From left to right:

1. dandelion blossom ~ made in the spring from the flowers, but you can use any or all parts of the dandelion.

2. yellow dock root ~ I prefer yellow dock seed vinegar, but missed the ripe seeds this year. The root is best harvested once the plant has died back and after the frosts have started. Rumex crispus (yellow or curly dock) or R obtusifolia (broad leafed dock) are both fine for seed or root. I’ve not done the leaf, but am sure it would be interesting.

3. elderberry ~ berries might still available in some areas (just) if you get to them before the birds. Elderflower is a beautiful vinegar too, I like it for a hair rinse.

4. milkthistle/variegated thistle leaf ~ this should be around at the moment too.

5. plantain ~ best picked when leaf is lush and before seeding. I haven’t done this but I suspect you also could use the whole plant (leaf, seed and root, depending on the time of year). Both varieties are fine, this one was the broad leafed one. I love the subtle, dusky pink colour.

6. hawthorn berry ~ a good one to make up now. Leaf and flower in the spring would be good too.

7. fennel seed ~ also an autumn vinegar. I’ve made leaf vinegar in the past too, but prefer the stronger seed brew.

8. fat hen ~ I made this in summer from the whole above ground parts (leaf, stalk, seed). I was a bit sceptical about it, thinking it might be a bit boring, but it’s now one of my favourites.

9. shiitake ~ an imported plant! I make this from dried shiitake stalks left over from using whole shiitake mushrooms in cooking. Shiitake is an excellent immune assistant, and this vinegar is one of the tastiest.

10. feijoa ~ another import for down here but up North they’ll be ripe soon. I made this originally to see if the delightful fragrance of feijoa persisted (it does but mildly). I used the skins (because the fruity pulp had to be eaten), but if you had alot you could make some with the whole chopped fruit.

11. dandelion root ~ late autumn or winter vinegar (after the frosts and before the plant puts on its spring growth). The white colour is from the inulin in the root, a complex sugar that has many health benefits [link]

If you’re completely insane you can make Fire Cider.

Further reading on herbal vinegars and minerals:

A good overview from Black Toad herbals on which herbs have what vitamins and minerals in them.

Susun Weed’s articles on making herbals vinegars and which plants make good mineral supplements.

Brigitte’s post on Herbal Minerals has a list of minerals, some of their functions, and the herbs they can be found in. You could make herbal vinegar from most of those.

The fennel in my garden is aphid ridden so I was very happy to find some very large, lush fennel in seed in a friend’s garden today (and even happier that he let me pick it). Fennel seed vinegar is a favourite of mine and I got to make more than enough today for the year and for giving away. Here’s what I did:

1. The seed needs to be ripe. This means treat it like a fruit, not like a seed you want for sowing. So you don’t want it dry or brown or shrivelling. Fennel seeds are plump when ripe and still green.

2. Chop the seed heads into a measuring bowl. This will tell you roughly how big a jar you need. I got just under 2 litres, which when compressed a bit fit into a 1.5 litre jar.

3. Once the jar is filled with seed, fill it again with apple cider vinegar. Put the lid on (plastic, as vinegar will corrode metal) and shake a bit to loosen any air trapped in the seeds. There will be more air to surface, so check daily for the first week, and then weekly after that, and top up as needed. It’s important that the plant material stays submerged under the vinegar, especially if you are using unpasteurised vinegar.

4. Label the jar with plant and part of plant, date, menstruum (in this case raw apple cider vinegar), and place of harvest.

5. Let sit for 6 weeks, and then strain into a dark glass bottle.

6. Take as 1 tablespoon in a glass of water, or sprinkle on salads, grains, etc. Fennel seed vinegar tastes divine (if you like fennel), so prioritise it for dishes where the taste comes through.

Fennel seed is a lovely aromatic digestive aid. It has volatile oils in it, which make it warming and stimulating to the digestion. If you find bitters too cooling, the aromatic herbs can be a good choice for digestive woes. Fennel seed is mild, nutritive and easy to use regularly. New Mexico herbalist Kiva has an in depth article on the medicinal aspects of aromatic herbs especially in relation to digestion.

Fennel is a member of the Umbelliferae family, which includes many plants we are familiar with eg carrot, aniseed, caraway, dill, coriander, parsley, celery, parsnip, angelica, lovage. The flower and seed heads form umbels (like an umbrella shape) hence the family name.

There are some poisonous plants in this family, in NZ notably the hemlock, so it’s good to be certain you know what plant you are picking. Fortunately fennel in seed is distinctive by its fennel smell, which is pleasant, and hemlock has an unpleasant smell and other distinctive features. And generally they’re easy to tell apart once you see them:

fennel leaf

hemlock leaf

We have some native Umbelliferae plants in NZ, including a celery, several aniseeds, and the wild spaniard.

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.

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.

After a hard week I asked myself what I needed. I’m running out of herbal vinegars, so it makes sense that when nourishing food and something to ground me was at the top of my need list, making burdock root vinegar came to mind – a walk, digging in the dirt and producing great food.

I set off in the sunny morning, hoping to keep ahead of the coming snow storm. I went to my favourite burdock haunt only to find it had all gone to seed and was now spent. Burdock is a biennial, which means it flowers and seeds in the summer/autumn of its second year of growth and then it dies. By that time all the energy and nutrients in the roots are spent. If you want biennial roots you need to harvest them in the autumn of the first year, or the spring of the second year (i.e. before they flower and seed).

I find with biennials that often there is a population of only one year at a time. So there were no first year plants alongside the old seeded ones. I went to a friend’s farm who I knew would know where burdock was if he had any. We walked his place but apart from one or two very small first year plants there was nothing. On to another friend’s place where burdock grows in the driveway. Normally I wouldn’t harvest from a drive with lots of car traffic but in the absence of plants elsewhere I’ll sometimes go with the not ideal. No plants in the drive either.

I wonder if all the rain we’ve had in the last 8 months has made it a poor year for burdock. I’m used to seeing them growing in rocky places so maybe they like well drained soil?

On my burdock search I did pass the milk thistle paddock, full of lush first year plants.

A few words on names of plants: common names are notorious for being used for several plants that have no relation to each other. ‘Milk thistle’ is used for both Silybum Marianum (a thistle) and Sonchus spp (a relative of the lettuce) known in NZ as puha. They are of the same family (Asteraceae), but they are not closely related enough to be used interchangeably as medicine, although there are some similarities. This is why it’s always good to ID food and medicine plants by their Latin name.

In New Zealand ‘milk thistle’ means puha (aka sow thistle or Sonchus spp). In the US to herbalists it means Silybum Marianum. Silybum marianum in NZ is usually called variegated thistle. What I was looking at in the paddock was Silybum marianum, the variegated thistle. Clear as mud!

Silybum is a commonly used plant in herbal medicine. Both traditional use and modern research know it as a potent liver herb. The seeds are generally used for this, but I remembered something about being able to eat the leaf. I dug three plants, roots and all. They came out very easily (all that rain in the soil!), the roots being off white and rather short for the size of the plant. I’ll have to look again later in the year to see what the older plant roots are like.

At home I tasted the plant, being careful to cut the spines from the leaf edge. The leaf is crunchy like lettuce but tougher. Definitely a green taste, bland at first. There is an increasing taste of the bitterness that you would expect in a thistle but not overly so. The stalk, fibrous and juicy, is reputed to be more bitter but I found it more bland than the leaf. I’m sure growing conditions would affect this alot. Bitter is common in liver herbs. It stimulates digestion in the stomach and production of bile.

The root is interesting, not strong but a unique flavour – earthy, a bit reminiscent of burdock but milder, and with an almost peppery undertaste, like a very mild radish. Both leaf and root are definitely palatable.

I could find only two references to silybum edibility. Richard Mabey (UK) said all parts have been eaten traditionally. Tim Low (Australia) says the leaves are still eaten by tribes in Israel and North Africa.

IMG_0011 copy

I washed and coarsely chopped the whole plant and filled an agee jar once with the plant and then again with apple cider vinegar. Note the white markings on the leaf, a key to IDing Silybum, that’s the variegated bit.

I wrote on the jar the name of the plant, parts used, menstrum (vinegar in this case), place of harvest and date. I’ll let it sit for at least six weeks and then decant to use the vinegar on salads, greens and grains, or just a tablespoon in a glass of water.

Vinegar is good at extracting minerals and other valuable nutrients so herbal vinegars make a good mineral supplement. I have no idea what the nutrient content of silybum leaf and root is but am usually game to make vinegars from edible plants to see what they are like. I’ll be interested to see what it tastes like.

IMG_0009 copyHere’s a close up, showing an interesting red ring appearing in the root cross section.

Maybe that bigger root would be more peppery than the one I ate.

The next day I check the brew, stirring with a chopstick to get any remaining air out and topping up with more vinegar so the plant is completely covered. It reminds me of globe artichoke vinegar which I make from whole, green artichoke heads. Artichoke makes a fantastically flavoured vinegar and I find it very beneficial to my liver function, producing a definite relaxation in the digestive organs.

Globe artichokes and silybum are fairly closely related. Silybum flower heads can be eaten like artichokes, although I’d guess they’d be more fiddly to prepared. The silybum vinegar smells of the plant now, and I can see the  potential for it being a similar food type ally for the liver.

(Did I mention that burdock is a kind of thistle?)