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A few years ago I decided to make Echinacea tincture. I buy a lot of Echinacea tincture to use at the first sign of a cold. I spend $15 on little bottles of Echinacea at the health food coop, but I have Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea) growing right in my own herb garden. This is silly, I thought. I can do this. I can make my own Echinacea tincture. I have heard it is easy to make.
I bought a book about medicinal herbs by Rosemary Gladstar and read all about the easy ways to capture the potency of herbs into easy remedies, such as tea, salves and tinctures. I enjoyed reading and dreaming about it, but it still felt like magic. I thought about it for year. I put it on my to-do list. I thought about it some more. My to-do list included “make tincture” for months, with no practical application of it.
Maybe I need to break down the process. I started writing on my list “dig echinacea herb”, thinking that would do the trick. I’d surely get it done now.
It didn’t happen. For months it didn’t happen. A bit of inertia going on. Maybe another year went by. I couldn’t seem to do it by myself. I thought if I got someone else involved it might move me along. I would engage an enthusiastic friend into the project. Denise would be into it. I solicited her enthusiasm and together, we dug the roots in the fall. There, step one complete.
The Root of the Problem
I let the pile of roots sit on my porch until they dried into nothing. Abandoned, waiting, waiting, abandoned, until it was a dried up pile of nothing at all.
Another friend, Chris, with six jars of herbs marinating in vodka on top of his frig, had once told me that making a tincture is harder than harvesting and throwing away an herb, but not much harder. He said this as he lovingly rocked each jar back and forth, its contents immersed and feeling very attended to. So Chris says, its barely more work than composting the shriveled up dry roots I had left for dead. Still, they are supposed to impart powerful attended-to energy into the tincture, not emotions of complete abandonment, left on the porch in neglect. I could do better.
The following fall I met Rosemary Gladstar. She is a joy to witness, that woman. It was a pleasure to hear her speak at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania. She stood at the table with a pile of herbs that she brought from her home garden and wild medicinals (read: weeds) from the parking lot of the Seven Springs Resort. Now when I dream over her herbal books, I feel like I am sitting in her kitchen garden with her, talking herbs. She brings all the energy of the medicinal garden into her speaking engagements. She makes it seem easy. She gave us a pep talk on the easy process of making a tincture, pouring vodka over chopped herbs and letting it steep for weeks.
Here she is, ready to help you out too, with this youtube video lesson on making Echinacea tincture. And why exactly, was it not easy from the start? Pour vodka over chopped herbs…what exactly was stopping me? How hard could I make this? I put something different on my to-do list: buy a bottle of vodka. I bought myself a bottle of Absolut Vodka, 80 proof. This was already starting to feel more potent.
Now all I needed was the root. And why exactly was that part difficult? It’s right out there in my herb garden. I think this transformation from pretty flowers to medicine is hard to get my head around. I always had a sense of hesitation, just enough doubt to inhibit the process. It just seems a bit surreal that roots and vodka would concoct something potent. And why not? People in the rainforest or down in North Carolina know that you can cut important plants and use them as medicine. I didn’t grow up with anyone around me collecting tree bark to simmer for my headache remedy, or running out to pick some plantain leaves to heal a cut. Why would I trust the jar from the natural food coop more than roots soaking in vodka? Because its $15? Or because it is purchased…from a wellness center?
I needed to truly own the fact that the most potent remedies are natural plants. I may be on to the, um, root of the problem here.
A Barter Faire Rescue
So the contemplation of all this absorbed another month or two. It was late fall and I was attending a barter faire, with lovingly prepared or harvested items for trade by people in my community. A kind woman had her eye on my sweet potatoes and she offered me a bag of dried Echinacea, leaves and stems and flowers intact. I looked up at her, about to decline because I have my own Echinacea to harvest. But there she was in front of me, and there was the bag, almost in my hands and ready to go. She gave me a gentle, wise look, like she had some confidence and experience in the process and she said, “Just chop it up and pour vodka over it. It’s easy.” I took the Echinacea and gave her some sweet potatoes.
I took it home and chopped it up and poured my bottle of vodka over it. The whole $35 bottle of vodka. Rosemary Gladstar told us to talk to our herbs and instill good intentions in them. For weeks I shook and admired my jar of herbs every day that I went into my pantry for something, gently mixing it, giving it a hopeful thought. Some trust.
A vision of healing my family from the earth. From our garden. From our own efforts. That’s very powerful medicine right there. It’s bound to be.
Pouring off the liquid from the spent herbs was exciting. It made five or six little jars of Echinacea tincture, which seems to be about a year’s supply for me. I appreciated using my own Echinacea all winter and I gained confidence that it’s the real deal.
So this season I should make another batch for next winter. From my own coneflowers right in my garden. Right? That’s the next step. Sometimes you have to cut yourself some slack and break difficult processes down into baby steps. Even easy processes. Because sometimes the hard part is psychological. The process was easy the whole time, but I had to bust through my own psychological barrier to the truth: plants are good for you and they make good medicine.
Rosemary Gladstar has many books on herbs. Here are the two that I own and love:
Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide (this one is for gardening herbalists)
Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health (this one is for any kitchen herbalists)
Do you have Echinacea in your garden? Try this whole-plant Echinacea tincture:
I read about whole-plant Echinacea tincture in Rosemary’s book Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide. Start it this spring and go through the whole season into fall, adding parts of the plant throughout the growing season. In the late spring you add leaves to your jar of vodka, then a few young buds, several summer flowers, then dig some of the root in the late fall to chop and add into the jar. I like the energy of the whole season and the whole plant that is captured in this tincture. I’m a little doubtful that I’ll harvest four times this season for the whole plant tincture, but I’m ready for the challenge of this next step of commitment.
Ilene White Freedman operates House in the Woods organic CSA farm with her husband, Phil, in Frederick, Maryland. The Freedmans are one of six 2013 Mother Earth News Homesteaders of the Year. Ilene blogs about making things from scratch, putting up the harvest, gardening and farm life at Mother Earth News and Blog.HouseInTheWoods.com, easy to follow from our Facebook Page. For more about the farm, go to www.HouseInTheWoods.com.