By Colin Eldridge
Hello there, my name is Colin Eldridge and I am one of the new interns here at Ashevillage Sanctuary. Since getting here in early August, I have been helping with many different projects: harvesting and processing edible and medicinal plants, amending soil, creating hugelkultur mounds, and transplanting seedlings, to name a few. Every step along the way is a learning experience. So far my favorite learning experience was a bitter tincture making workshop that I attended last Thursday. In the workshop, Taylor Anne Finch (an amazing folk herbalist), taught us about the power of bitters for general health and longevity. This hot, rainy time of year is perfect for harvesting lots of medicinal bitters, which grow in abundance in our gardens here at the Sanctuary.
Taylor taught us about the wonderful world of bitters, from their energetic to medicinal to edible properties. I learned that bitter is a quality of flavor that can occur in many foods and medicinal herbs. Even plants that you wouldn’t think are bitter may share bitter properties in conjunction with their other tastes. Mint is a good example of a plant that you wouldn’t think has bitter qualities, but does. We learned that the action of bitters is to open up the gut to receive nutrients, and to aid with digestion by expelling gas and toxins from the body. Medicinally speaking, many bitters are considered to be carminative, diuretic, tonics, and nervines. Such properties are not exclusive to bitter herbs, but many herbs with bitter qualities share these characteristics. Additionally, many herbs that are not considered bitters may have these properties because they have energetic elements of the bitter taste that are more subtle.
In the worlds of both Ayurveda and Chinese Herbal Medicine, the tastes are very important for determining the medicinal and energetic actions of certain plants. Bitter is not only a taste in our food and medicine, but it has an energetic quality to it. In our workshop, we talked a lot about the vibrational, scientific, spiritual, and medicinal properties of the bitter taste, and how those elements inform our herbal practice. We learned about the doctrine of signatures, and how the physical characteristics of an herb (including touch, taste, smell, and appearance) can resemble or indicate the parts of the body they will treat. Examples include the insides of carrots, which look like irises, or kidney beans, which are good for the kidneys.
I learned that the doctrine of signatures can include the surroundings and environment around a plant. Taylor Anne taught us that an herb’s surrounding environment may affect its vibrational qualities. For example, a patch of mint growing in a moist bed next to some mugwort may have slightly different energetic (and therefore medicinal) qualities than a patch of mint growing in compacted soil next to some dandelions. The mint growing next to mugwort (the mother of all plants), may have a softer, more mental quality to it. While some mint growing next to some dandelions (a detoxifying bitter plant for the liver) may be “rougher”, with more healing bitter action on the digestive system. This is all just speculation, though. We have to trust our intuition and listen to the plants.
Through the lens of folk medicine, these vibrational teachings may seem a little woohoo, or crazy, to an outsider. But to me, it makes perfect sense. I try not to separate the spiritual and the scientific too much; I actually think they are the same. So, it would make sense that a patch of mint growing in moist soil with some mugwort would have slightly different properties than mint growing in compacted soil near dandelions. And here’s why. Scientifically and ecologically speaking, different plant communities grow in specific niches of minerals, nutrients, soil types, and moisture zones in an ecosystem. Therefore, mint growing in two different conditions may have certain minerals in it from the surrounding soil. Variations in nutrients, minerals, sunlight, water, and other biotic and abiotic factors could cause slightly different ratios of medicinal compounds within a plant. The way other species (including humans) interact with plants can affect their vibrational/medicinal qualities as well. Scientific studies support that talking to plants may affect their growth patterns and overall health. All of these environmental factors certainly affect the vibrational properties of a plant and therefore its medicinal effect on the body when we consume it.
Intention and preparation method are important when preparing the medicine. “It’s important that we think about what we want to receive from the medicine, and put intention into healing what our body needs,” Taylor said. It is also important to think about how our preparation will accent certain medicinal properties that we want to cultivate from an herb. For example, fresh and dried herbs might have the same medicinal actions, but might perform slightly different manifestations of that medicine in our bodies. In the world of bitters, a fresh bitter herb might work well to nourish the body, because the nutrients are still fresh and abundant. The same dried bitter herb might be better at releasing old toxins because the herb has had time to age and the medicinal detoxifying properties are locked in the plant. The way we prepare our medicine affects its properties, energetically and scientifically speaking.
I learned how to preserve and prepare bitter herbs. The most simple way to prepare an herb is a water infusion. A water infusion can be as simple as making tea, or putting chopped fresh or dry herbs in water to sit for several hours. The next preparation we talked about was decoctions, where you simmer down herbs in water into a more concentrated form. You can preserve a decoction with honey, oil, alcohol or vinegar, which stop bacteria from colonizing the mixture. A great example of a decoction is Elderberry Syrup with honey and brandy. Lastly, we discussed making tinctures with alcohol, which is the method we used to preserve the bitters in our workshop. Tinctures are basically the same as a water infusion, but using alcohol instead. Tinctures can take up to several weeks to fully absorb all the medicinal properties of an herb, so it’s important to shake up the mixture every few days. Each preparation method will accentuate unique properties of an herb, depending on which constituents dissolve in which solutions. For example, a high alcohol mint tincture will extract more of the soothing aromatic properties, whereas an infusion with more water will extract the digestive bitter properties.
After our informative session, we moved into the garden to harvest herbs for our tinctures. We were able to harvest fennel, burdock root, dandelion, motherwort, mugwort, and yellow dock. Once we had our materials, making the tincture was pretty simple. We filled wide-mouth quart mason jars about half to ¾ of the way with fresh herbs, or ¼ to ⅓ of the way with dried herbs that we had already prepared. We also chopped up some fresh ginger and found some leftover oat tops which we put in another jar. We were tempted to mix and match herbs to make dynamic blends, but Janell reminded us that it’s better to make individual tinctures and then make mixtures from the completed products.
Once our jars were filled with fresh chopped and dried herbs, we simply topped them off with 151 proof (75.5%) grain alcohol. We used everclear, but you can use any grain alcohol or vodka. When making alcohol tinctures, you generally don’t want your alcohol content to be less than 25%, because too much water in your tincture will reduce its shelf life. 40-50% alcohol is the standard for most alcohol tinctures. If you are using fresh plant material, you want a higher proof (at least 60%) because the water in the plant will eventually seep into the solution. We used a 75.5% grain alcohol because higher proof alcohol is excellent for preserving the tincture, it draws out more of the fresh plants’ juices, and it activates the most volatile and aromatic properties. I suggested that we use a higher proof alcohol, but research showed that 85-95% alcohol is really only necessary for extracting gums, resins, and essential oils from plant material. Different alcohol vs. water ratios work better for different plants, depending on which medicinal properties you want to accentuate. Doing some research into the medicinal plant you want to tincture is worthwhile before deciding your alcohol percentage.
Overall I feel grateful for the knowledge I gained and the experience of creating bitter medicine. Setting my intentions around healing myself and others helped make the experience more meaningful. As I made the tinctures, I thought about my own body and how the bitters could provide me with a long overdue detoxification. I also thought about how bitter is the medicine that our society needs right now. Bitter is probably the least utilized flavor in American society, and I think that contributes to a lot of our health problems. Our bodies are so saturated in toxins because of environmental pollution and unhealthy food, and bitters can help us get rid of that.
Here’s a tangent, but I think it’s vital to learn for any aspiring herbalist. Poor nutrition and environmental pollution are huge issues in the U.S. that disproportionately affect communities of color. Lack of access to fresh produce (and therefore bitters), is a rampant issue in U.S. food deserts. It’s no surprise that bitters often grow in abundance in low-income neighborhoods. Just look at an abandoned lot in any urban area and I guarantee you will find at least 3 bitter medicinal herbs growing there (in addition to air purifying plants and other medicinals). Plants are intuitive and they know where their medicine is needed. It’s just a shame that the knowledge of these plants has been largely abandoned and replaced by western medicine over the centuries. The process of colonialism has taken away natural medicine from the people who have been practicing it forever. That’s why it should be the duty of every herbalist to work towards making the earth’s abundant medicine accessible for everyone, not just people who can afford it.
There’s so much wisdom and knowledge around herbalism that I have yet to gain, and so many resources out there to help. Below are readings that Taylor recommended which provide excellent knowledge around medicinal plants and medicine making. If you want to go a little more in-depth around tincture making, I’ve also provided some additional links below. Lastly, I provided a resource for those looking to learn about their medicinal practice in a historical and political context. Happy medicine making, folks!
Readings & Resources:
The Gift of Healing Herbs by Robin Rose Bennet
Making Plant Medicine by Richo Cech