This is an excerpt of a longer article originally published in Country Grind Quarterly about spring tonics and tincture-making. Much more info here about making weight-to-volume tinctures, and some gems here on troubleshooting tinctures. If you’re in Vermont, come to the tincture-making class in June! Info here.
Spring is the time to start making your own herbal medicine, or get way better at it, because you have the whole growing season ahead of you to screw up and try again. Almost over night, medicine is popping up out of the ground all over the yard and the woods and the roadsides—and at the same time, we’re antsy to get outside without the coveralls, snow boots, and wool we’ve been sweating in for the last 4-6 months.
Weedy spring medicines called spring tonics get a lot of attention this time of year. Their medicine is gentle and cleansing, helping us shed the sluggishness of fireside hibernation, too much sleep and too much booze and not enough fresh vegetables. These herbs stimulate and rejuvenate the liver, kidneys, digestion, blood and lymph system, energizing us for the growing season. Tonics should be taken every day for best effect. Common examples include dandelion, burdock, yellow dock, cleavers, chickweed, nettles, and many other early weeds, depending on where you live. We’ll cover nettles and burdock as examples and talk about how to preserve them in alcohol (tincture), because digging up a bunch of burdock doesn’t do you any good if you can’t use it.
One thing to note is that many spring tonics have high mineral & soluble fiber content, neither of which dissolves in alcohol. If you want the fiber or minerals, make tea, food, or tincture them in vinegar.
Like always, look up any herb you’re thinking of using to make sure it’s safe for you if you have health concerns, and make sure you’re harvesting the right plants.
Burdock is a cool, moist, calming anti-inflammatory rejuvenator. Use the tinctured root to stimulate sluggish digestion; cleanse the liver, gall bladder, kidneys, and blood; and relieve hot, congested skin conditions like acne and boils. It’s soothing to PMS symptoms with liver involvement, like acne and constipation, combined with a woman’s herb like black haw. Use it to cleanse the liver during recovery from substance abuse. Root tea (decoction) is used to relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, or as a gentle every day medicine against chronic urinary tract infections and kidney stones. The root is high in minerals and soluble fiber, so the tea is useful against anemia, to help recover from antibiotic use with probiotic foods, and to help neutralize high cholesterol and reproductive hormone imbalances with a woman’s herb. The root is good in soups and you get the effects of the tea. Seeds can be collected for a strong diuretic medicine, but in the fall so we’ll skip it.
Harvesting burdock Look for the 2nd year’s growth: the leaves will be larger, usually in an area that went weedy last year. Dig roots in the early morning during the new moon, within a day or 2 of rain for the best medicine.
Nettle is a cooling anti-inflammatory strength-builder that stimulates kidney function and cleanses the blood (alterative). It’s used in tincture, tea, or food for a wide range of conditions of deficiency. Use it for any deficient depression or exhaustion, when you feel dragged down, frazzled, and overwhelmed, with herbs for the nervous system (nervines). Nettle is a tonic against seasonal allergies and allergies that manifest in skin and mucous membranes (like sinuses). Use it for skin conditions related to stress, fatigue, or dryness. Nettles stimulate milk production in nursing mamas and protect against postpartum depression and exhaustion.
Because of its effect on kidney function, the tea is protective against chronic urinary tract infections and helps relieve symptoms of arthritis and gout with anti-inflammatory herbs like willow, and high blood pressure with a heart tonic like hawthorn. Tea and food are high in minerals, so nettle helps protect against iron-deficiency anemia, osteoporosis, and electrolyte deficiencies. It combines beautifully with other spring tonics like burdock for diuretic and mineral benefits. Cook the leaves like kale for springtime joy. Fresh seeds & roots are also collected for very strong medicine (not a tonic), as a diuretic and adrenal rejuvenator.
Harvesting nettle Harvest on a sunny day during the full moon. Wear gloves to cut young nettles off at an angle ½ inch above a leaf node (so you can cut again this season). Never harvest nettles after they bloom with tiny hanging green flowers from their armpits, they can have major effects on hormones. Hold the end of the stem in one hand and strip the leaves off away from you. Only harvest nettles from good clean soil, they uptake heavy metals.
Making Fresh Herb Tinctures
So in the original Country Grind article, this is where I talk about all the nitty gritty tincture-making details of ratios, concentrations, fresh vs. dried plant matter, solubility, and the rest. If you want those details, please read this much more detailed article on how to make tinctures. Otherwise, read on for the specific recipes.
To illustrate how to follow a recipe to make genuinely good tinctures, and in honor of spring: the nettle leaf tincture represents higher alcohol tinctures of delicate plant parts, and burdock root tincture represents lower alcohol tinctures of dense plant parts. This recipe can be applied to any herb you would tincture. I’m using fluid and solid ounces, but if you’re a metric user it works just as well in ml and gm.
You will need Grain alcohol; scale; measuring cup; knife and cutting board; clean canning jars; waxed paper or clean muslin; labels or scrap paper; packing tape. Eventually, a potato ricer or press.
1. Pick the ratio, 1:2 to 1:6.
2. Pick the liquid concentration, 40% to 95%.
3. Chop and weigh the herbs using ounces. This number is the 1st number in the ratio (the 1); let’s say the herbs weigh 4 oz.
4. Multiply the weight of herbs by the second number in the ratio. This number is the total volume of liquid.
Nettles: 4 oz nettles, 1:3 ratio, 4×3=12 oz liquid
Burdock: 4 oz burdock, 1:4 ratio, 4×4=16 oz liquid
5. Multiply liquid volume (the number you got in step 4) by the alcohol concentration you want. This is the volume of alcohol. We’re pretending grain alcohol is 100% instead of 95% for our sanity.
Nettles: 12 oz liquid x75%=9 oz alcohol
Burdock: 16 oz liquid x60%=9.6, let’s say 10 oz alcohol
6. Subtract the alcohol volume from the total volume of liquid. This is how much water you need.
Nettles: 12 oz liquid–9 oz alcohol=3 oz water
Burdock: 16 oz liquid–10 oz alcohol=6 oz water
7. Put herbs in jar, then pour alcohol and water over herbs. Mash the herbs down to keep them under the liquid.
Nettles: 4 oz herbs, 9 oz grain alcohol, 3 oz water
Burdock: 4 oz herbs, 10 oz grain alcohol, 6 oz water
8. Line the lid with waxed paper or muslin so alcohol doesn’t eat away the lining of the lid and put metal and BPA’s in your tincture. Label with plant, date, moon phase, harvest location, etc. Cover label with packing tape so it doesn’t disappear.
9. Let sit 6 weeks or more in a cool, dark place, shaking occasionally.
10. Strain, then squeeze the herbs in a potato ricer to extract the last, strongest part of the tincture. If you don’t have a potato ricer you can use 2 plates but the potato ricer works better. Feed the herbs to your chickens or the compost.
11. Store in a glass jar or bottle in a cool, dark place. Dosage is different for different herbs, but for these 2 recipes try 1-3 droppers (1-3 ml) daily. Tinctures last for years.