Category Archives: Formulation

How I Make Tinctures

I suppose I should start this out by saying that I am not mad about fluid extracts or tinctures. The term “folk tincture” bugs me because it implies that at some point “the folk” used tinctures when they are in fact, a standardized, industrial product of pharmacy.  In all the folk knowledge I inherited from my family and my first teacher, not once was the word tincture mentioned.

I much prefer getting herbs into my clients using methods that the folk used such as a hot diaphoretic infusion or a cold mucilaginous Irish moss lemonade.  I recommend broths, hydromels (syrups, cordials), oxymels (shrubs), or even just a good old-fashioned infused wine or a hot toddy.

Steams, chest rubs and poultices are the kind of medicine my people used. External preparations (especially those made with saturated fats) work better to bring relief to avascular parts of the body.

There are times though, especially in today’s, “take this pill and get back to work” society when these preparations are useful, especially for a clientele who are conditioned to TID type prescriptions and are unlikely to go to the extra work to make the medicines I have listed above.

Although even when I make a formula, my base is likely to be some sort of homemade syrup.  I am kind of known for my tart cherry cordial base. I make it with cherries I grow myself and its pretty damn good.

I mentioned my spreadsheet in a group the other day and then got kind of self-conscious about sharing it, because my tinctures are quite a bit different than a lot I see for sale at conferences these days.

This is partly to do with my early training away from the “herbal community” that I am a part of today and the fact that some of my teachers at school were trained in the UK.    So I thought I would just offer some background about my methods.

I am not at all invested in people agreeing with my approach, nor are people likely to change my mind about it.  It’s been working for me for a very long time.

Here in America herbal extract making is often approached with a “go big or go home” attitude which has been very much influenced by pharmacologists in the profession, such as the Eclectic physicians.

The goal of today’s apothecary is often to extract large amounts of the most biologically active constituent in a plant, but how can we be sure that in this process we aren’t missing out on the synergistic effects of a preparation that might capture a more complete chemical profile of the plant?

British tinctures aren’t quite as bracing. Take a barberry tincture made by Baldwins in England which starts with 45% alcohol and a 1:3 plant ratio.   A lot of Americans will tell you that a preparation of barberry (or goldenseal) made this weak is inferior, because it fails to extract as much pure berberine and of course pharmacists have isolated that constituent as being the one we “want” from the plant.

Most Brits seem to think their weaker preparations work just fine.  I should point out that they though they do use larger doses, which is more affordable when you use less booze.

I know its not as pretty, but the only way you will be able to get to my ratios is to grind your plant material as finely as you can.

Fluid Extracts

A fluid extract is a hydroethanolic extract made at a 1:1 ratio.  1 ml of a fluid extract  = 1 gm of the dried herb. Fluid extracts are useful because they are somewhat standardized and help to deliver large daily doses of plant constituents in a concentrated form.   You use equal amounts of dried plant material and strong ethanol.

Originally these were produced by cold percolation, although there is a cheater’s method I will mention below.  I sometimes dread making percolations because I think there is a lot of waste involved. I usually make fluid extracts with my percolation cone, and then press the marc out in my press when I am done.

My British physick garden curator friend who gets me all the fun seeds, says that hardly anyone in the UK makes percolations, probably because the process entails using stronger booze than they can easily get their hands on.   This is a cheat he taught me that I use sometimes, because I might harvest small amounts of a plant several times over the course of the summer.

 Cheaters Fluid Extract

Macerate 125 g of dried herb in 500 ml of alcohol. If you grind your herbs well and have a good press you won’t lose much. It is usually just short of 500 ml of 1:4 tincture. You can top it off if you would like. Use this tincture to macerate a further 125g of herb and you are at 1:2. Do this until at the end, you have macerated 500 g of dried herb in 500 ml of alcohol.

Why Tinctures?

So, if we have fluid extracts which deliver a uniform amount of concentrated plant constituents every time, what is the purpose, or usefulness of making tinctures?   I was taught that tinctures are useful in sampling a more complete profile of a plant. Making a tincture is a process that recognizes that we can’t catch all the useful constituents of a plant, with high-potency alcohol nor is it necessarily desirable.

Also, when I am making tinctures, there are a couple of tricks I use to save money on alcohol, while at the same time making more potent preparations.

Recycling Tinctures

You can use the previous year’s tincture as a menstruum for this year’s batch of tincture.  (You can do this with a percolation, for that matter.) This does not produce a uniform preparation from year-to-year. If the first year you have a 1:4 ratio, the second year you will have a 1:2 ratio.

So, you must keep good records to adjust your dosing strategies.  Most people don’t want to bother with this, but it can save money for people on a budget due to running a free clinic, or working on sliding fee scales.

Secondary Extracts

You can also use a spent marc to make a secondary extract that will be used as the menstruum for next year’s primary extract or for a percolation of the dry plant material if you run out during the winter.

If you are going to do this, I recommend getting a proofing hydrometer so you can test the potency of your preparation and bump it up if necessary, before using it.   Proofing hydrometers take so much math out of medicine making.  Another thing to keep in mind is that canning jars are not air tight, so if you are using them to store tinctures, your alcohol is evaporating away.

Proofing last year’s calendula tincture. It’s probably too far down to be bumped up again, but at least I know its still good!

I guess I take a kind of middle of the road approach based on what I learned in phytochemistry and years of fiddling around.  I work mostly with fresh herbs I’ve grown myself. Often, I fresh wilt my herbs for 24 hours because I can’t buy 95% alcohol in Iowa.

If you don’t see something on here it is likely because I only make it as a fluid extract OR I don’t make an alcohol preparation with certain plants such as marshmallow, astragalus, Irish moss, raspberry leaf and so on.

There are also some plants on there that you might be surprised to see.  I work with historical herbs,  I don’t advise that people without advanced training make these tinctures,  or use them.

That was a whole lot of talking to say here is a link to an Excel spreadsheet that you can download and take a look at.  Feel free to change it up and use it yourself.  It’s the one I give my students in my year-long program, so they have a little more background as to why I do some of the things I do, but it’s kind of self-explanatory.

I print this off as my Master Formula File list to keep in my lab log book.  For people who don’t have Excel you can look at that.