Wise Woman herbal medicines: making your infusions and tinctures

Baskets of medicinal herbs gathered for tinctures and infusions

When I was in college, I rode my bike by expansive fields of red clover every day on my way to and from school. I felt called by the lovely flowering herb, but didn’t know what to do. Could I eat red clover? Make tea? Or tincture?  It turns out with red clover, I could do all three, and I did!

Today, infusions and tinctures are my favorite ways to receive the health benefits of the medicinal herbs (besides eating them as wild foods, of course!).  Infusions are a daily drink in my kitchen–a water based preparation that extracts many nutritive properties, and lasts just a few days in the fridge. Tinctures are a medicine chest staple, as handy alcohol based preparations that preserve medicinal constituents of herbs for years.  

The Wise Woman Tradition approach to herbs

In the Wise Woman Tradition we first turn to common abundant herbs–often considered “weeds”–for our medicines. Is red clover growing abundantly around you? Don’t overlook this gem, known as the “queen of the blood purifiers.” Or who else is abundant at your doorstep . . . maybe dandelion, chickweed, or violet? We live in the same ecosystem as the plants around us–the same soil, same air and same water.  As they thrive in that environment, they support our thriving as well.

Using the folk medicine techniques described below, making medicine is also very easy!  Choosing the method of preparation is often determined by the medicinal use you intend–that is, the type of constituents you’re going for.

Water-based herbal infusions

If you want to extract nutrient-rich constituents like vitamins, minerals and chlorophyll, water-based infusions from dried herbs are the way to go. Infusions are a wonderful way to nourish and tonify your body on a daily basis.

While you’ll get some medicinal benefits from using a tea bag, you’ll receive manyfold the nutrients and medicinal constituents from preparing dried herbs as an infusion–essentially a strong medicinal tea.

To make an infusion from dried herbs

  1. Place one ounce (about a cup) of dried herb into a quart mason jar. 
  2. Fill with boiling water, cap it, this traps in all the volatile oils
  3. Let steep for 4-10 hours
  4. If you like, you may add a pinch of mint for flavor. 
  5. Then strain out the plant material, compost it, and enjoy one or more cups of the liquid daily.
  6. Refrigerate the remainder to prevent spoilage.

Infusions keep for several days in the refrigerator. A standard dose of infusion is a pint a day, although I often find myself enjoying twice that! You can drink it warm or cold, sweetened with honey, or flavored with mint…

Infusions are best made with dried herbs. While I always prefer to make tinctures from fresh herbs, the tinctures have 6 weeks to extract the plant constituents into solution (more on that below). With infusions you only have 4-8 hours (it would spoil if you let it sit for weeks!).

And the catch is that the cell walls of plants are very thick and difficult to penetrate. During the drying process the cell walls of the plants break down to release the water.  Later when the dried herbs are submerged in water, those constituents will become available.

So if you have fresh plants–say stinging nettle–and you prepare the fresh herb as an infusion, the water will just turn a light brownish green, whereas the infusion from dried nettle is a deep emerald color. If you have fresh nettles, by all means, cook them and eat them! (Don’t worry, they lose their sting after 10 minutes of cooking.) When you make stinging nettle soup, you’ll receive the benefits of both the broth and the plant material. (See also my Nettle Soup article

Favorite infusion herbs

My favorite infusion herb is Nettles, which is nourishing for the adrenals and kidneys, as well as, the hormonal and immune systems. Drinking nettles over time supports sustained energy levels.  When we drink nettles we’re nourishing our adrenal instead of stimulating the adrenals, as caffeine does, which can lead to adrenal exhaustion.

My next favorite infusion herb is Oatstraw. This is actually the straw of the oat grass, which is nourishing for the nervous systems and supports sleep.

For a concise reference on making infusions and other herbal preparations–including other favorites of mine–you may want to check out my handy Wise Woman Medicine Making Chart

Alcohol-based tinctures 

When you are looking for a fast-acting herbal extract, appropriate for many first-aid situations and acute ailments, tinctures are the way to go. They are handy, quick, and long long-lasting, from 3-5 years or more.

To understand why, let’s take a quick look at the chemistry behind tinctures.  The specific medicinal properties of plants are often contained in the alkaloids.  Alcohol extracts alkaloids from the plants better than other menstruums (the type of liquid we are using to extract medicine), so it is the ideal base. 

I make tinctures in 100 proof alcohol which means it has 50% alcohol and 50% water–proof is based on a scale of 200.  This allows us to extract properties that are soluble both in alcohol and in water. 

While you can make tinctures from dried herbs, I prefer to make tinctures from fresh plants. Making our own medicine is a powerful act in itself, and the tinctures we make are usually even more potent than those we might buy from a large herbal company.

As is well known in the herbal field, The quality of the medicine depends on the quality of the plant material–and the quality of the plant material depends on how close it is to the source. That means tinctures made from fresh herbs we picked from our yards this morning are actually made from higher quality plant material than a big company that gets dried herbs shipped in from all over the world.

So when you dig up dandelion roots in your backyard this fall, wash them, chop them and put them directly into a jar and cover with 100 proof alcohol. That’s as close to the source as it gets!

Do it yourself ~ making tinctures at home

The Wise Woman, or folk method of making tinctures is to pack a jar tightly with your plant material, leaving about a half inch of headroom at the top.  Then fill your jar again with the alcohol.  It is as simple as that.

If you want to measure the amount of plant material, you are going for about a 1:2 ratio of the weight of the plant to the volume of the alcohol. So if you have 6 ounces of dandelion roots, you will use about 12 fluid ounces of alcohol.

When making your own tinctures, it’s best to brew them for 6 weeks to allow the constituents to extract into the alcohol. Again, this will make more potent medicine because the industry standard for large herbal companies is to brew for only 2 weeks.  At the end of your brewing time, strain out the plant material and pour your tincture into a dropper bottle. 

My favorite herbs for making tinctures

Some of my favorite tinctures to have on hand for herbal first aid in the family medicine chest include:

  • Echinacea
  • St Johnswort (aka St Joanswort)
  • Wormwood
  • Motherwort

Other popular tinctures include these long term tonics:

  • Vitex berry for menopausal support
  • Dandelion root for supporting the liver
  • Hawthorn berry to nourish the heart and circulatory system 

If you are concerned about consuming alcohol you can put your tincture into a cup of warm tea when you take it.  Alcohol has a lower boiling point than boiling water so it is released in the steam. However, note that the amount of alcohol is minimal–a "dropperful" has about as much alcohol as a ripe banana!

When taking tinctures it's best to dilute in water or juice. One “dropperful” equals about 25-30 drops (when you squeeze the rubber bulb, the dropper fills about halfway up).

Wondering about how and when to make herbal tinctures, infusions, vinegars, salves or oils? Get the scoop with my concise chart, the Wise Woman Medicine Making Chart.  You'll reference  it over and over for the why's and how's of using and making herbal infusions, tinctures, vinegars, salves, and oils.  

Summary

Using these folk method techniques, making medicine the Wise Woman way is easy and fun! When deciding which method to use, consider what constituents you want to extract and what use you have in mind. For drawing out nutrients and minerals, infusions are the way to go. For fast acting medicinals to stock your medicine cabinet, alcohol based tinctures are my first choice. I encourage you to take look around outside–in your yard, garden, or along the paths you walk–to see which common abundant herbs are making themselves known to you, ready to support your thriving.

Corinna Wood teacher of the Wise Woman Tradition for 30 years–from herbs to self love

"I became an herbalist in the Wise Woman Tradition at the tender age of 22, initiated by Susun Weed and a beloved patch of nettles. Today, I support women with earth-based, woman-centered tools to ground you in your own innate wisdom, needs and desires. My teachings draw on earth wisdom of our foremothers–the shoulders on which we stand–to navigate the challenges we face as women in the world today."

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