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Research Notes

A traditional approach to making herbal medicines

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By Dr. Jeremy Hayman, ND and St. Francis Herb Farm medical advisor

Accessing a herb’s most powerful medicinal benefits requires a deep knowledge of what each herb requires. If handled improperly, a herb’s chemical and physiological benefits to the user may never be fully realized. There are a number of different elements to consider:

  • Using recently harvested herbs
    Part of traditional knowledge is understanding whether to tincture a herb when it’s fresh or when it’s dried. Milky oat seed, for example, is traditionally best tinctured from its fresh form, in order to maintain its soluble potency, as well as to preserve its bioactive action. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) should also be used fresh to make a tincture, because its medicinally comprehensive volatile oils can be lost within its dried form. On the other hand, Sacred bark (Cascara sagrada) should be tinctured in dry form. For this herb, the addition of heat assists in the curing process to help reduce the presence of harsh constituents that could potentially enhance and aggravate its cathartic qualities.
      • Deciding how to grind herbs
      The size and type of the grinder will affect the next form the herb takes—does this herb work better when it’s finely ground or coarsely ground? A herb such as Burdock seed (Arctium spp.) requires a very fine grind before being macerated, whereas Artichoke (Cynara spp.) tinctures better with a coarse grind.
      • Choosing maceration liquid
      The grinding method selected for each herb prepares it for the most critical step in the process: maceration. Maceration refers to the process of soaking the herb in a liquid to draw out its healing properties. The liquid used in the process can be water, alcohol, glycerine or a combination. Knowing which ones to use and how much of each are two pieces of the puzzle.

        Hydrastis, Boswellia and Balsams must be extracted with upwards of 95% alcohol, in order to pull highly insoluble resins out of the plant. On the other hand, Hawthorne (Craetegus spp.) requires much lower alcohol strengths, between 35-40%, in order to best extract its oligomeric procyanidins. 

        In general, alcohol or a combination of water and alcohol is a superior method of extraction. The exception is tinctures that require the extraction of mucilage or tannins, in which case glycerine is the preferred choice.

        • Length of process
        The length of the maceration process for each herb varies because each herb carries its own unique set of chemical characteristics. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) has a higher essential oil component and can be fully extracted within only a few hours. Tannin-rich roots, such as Polygonum (Polygonum spp.) requires up to eight weeks of maceration.

          Traditional methods combined with insights gained from experience maximize the benefits that herbs can offer people to help them heal. St. Francis Herb Farm understands traditional herbal medicine and with close to 30 years in business, it has the experience to realize the full potential of each herb. 

          For more information on herbs check out our monograph on using the whole herb.

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