Friday, December 19, 2014

The Herbs and the Herbalist

This post is partly a continuation of some of the themes discussed in the last one. Particularly concerning the challenges of obtaining the herbs that I need. There are a number of other older posts in which I've also touched upon related topics. Collectively they tell a story. I am using some examples of how the medicine moves in my life to answer some common questions that I am often asked by students, specifically relating to what herbs to use, how many, where to get them, and to what degree someone should prepare medicines themselves or obtain them from other sources. I'm putting this out there because I know that there are many other people asking the same questions. Hopefully, it will help others who are considering or already walking the path of the herbalist, or anyone who wants to deepen their relationship with plant medicines for personal use or interest, or other reasons.

Like some of my other posts, I am going to begin with broad strokes, laying somewhat of a philosophical and sometimes esoteric context in order to explain why I do things the way I do and what things you might want to consider when addressing similar choices. Then I will get a lot more practical towards the end.

Before I begin, I want to be clear that living the medicine is a very personal journey. There are many different systems of herbalism and each of them has its strengths and limitations, as do individual herbalists who practice these systems. Herbalism is very multifaceted. There are paradigms within paradigms within paradigms; based on world views, cultural differences, etc. However, I tend to view the overriding paradigms of various herbal traditions as existing somewhere within a circle consisting of two intersecting continua: holistic to reductionistic (i.e. treating people vs. treating symptoms), and material to spiritual (i.e. plants and people as a bunch of chemicals vs. plants and people as being both physical and spiritual beings). The paradigm of modern medicine, which largely evolved from herbalism, is located in the extreme lower left quadrant of this circle. In contrast, indigenous and traditional systems of healing fall somewhere in the upper right quadrant.

Herbalism Paradigms: The blue dot represents my initial orientation as an herbalist. The green line represents the evolution of the medicine
as I have gained greater experience and deepened my relationship with the herbs and the land. The green dot represents my current orientation.
The red dot represents the paradigm of modern medicine. Most, if not all, systems of herbalism will fall within the shaded portion of the circle.

The systems of herbalism that fall in the lower left quadrant tend to be those that operate from a more medical paradigm. They often define themselves as "medical herbalism". That being said, I know many herbalists whose training is in some form of medical herbalism who are very holistic in their approach, and sometimes even spiritual. Most systems of modern traditional herbalism tend to fall in the lower right quadrant. For lack of a better way to describe them, we could refer to those systems that fall in the upper right quadrant as "shamanic herbalism". I use that term because it more or less describes systems of herbalism that not only subscribe to a more spiritual or animistic philosophy, but they also incorporate ceremony and other spiritual elements into their practice. Shamanic herbalism is not the same thing as shamanism. It refers to systems of herbalism that have shamanic elements. However, in the context of indigenous systems of healing, the line between what constitutes shamanic herbalism and shamanism is pretty blurry.

I have to admit that I am not completely comfortable using the terms "shamanism" and "shamanic" because they have been considerably abused in the last couple of decades. Also, many indigenous healers are not comfortable with these terms because it comes from a particular tradition in northeastern and north central Asia. Although there are common elements in indigenous healing traditions from around the world, there are many differences as well. So, using a single term to refer to them has considerable limitations.

Regardless of where a particular system of herbalism fits within this circle, there will always be variations on every theme. A good student will learn a system as best they can, and then through continued learning, experience and (hopefully) intuition, make it there own. As with any skill or profession, there will always be those people who don't feel it in their heart and just go through the motions. It's like reciting a prayer with no feeling or expanded awareness. It becomes just words. However, there are many people who truly live the medicine and it would not be inaccurate to say that there are as many systems of herbalism as there are herbalists who live the medicine.

Traditional cultures are rooted in the land. So is their medicine.

For every herbalist, the medicine expresses itself differently. It is informed by the personal and ancestral history of the herbalist, the traditions of their teachers, and the culture and any subcultures that they are part of. These are the personal elements. It is also informed by the herbs that they use. However, traditional cultures experience the world in a different way. They know that everything is related, interconnected, and that our sense of individual identity is largely an illusion. Traditional medicine is informed by the land where the people live: the plants and animals; the plains, hills and mountains; the rivers, lakes and oceans; the grasslands, forests and deserts; and the living and ancestral spirits of the land.

In the mixed up world that we live in we have largely disengaged from this experience ­­- but it doesn't have to be that way. Instead, we can follow our heart and find that place where the land calls to us and stay there. When we approach the land in silence with humility, reverence, love and awe, it will speak to us if we learn how to listen. It takes time. A long time! We need to demonstrate our commitment; walk the land; get to know its different moods through the seasons, year after year. We also need to get to know the inhabitants of the land: the plants, animals and other beings that live there. If we want to go deeper, then we need to offer more than just our time, awareness and love. Through prayer, sacred offerings and ceremony we can open up to the land in ways that transcend the limitations of our logical mind and physical senses. Eventually, every step we take on the land becomes a prayer, a ceremony.

The medicine that I practice is not my own, although I am a part of it. It is my work, my path and my life. As I experience it, each expression of the medicine is unique in time and place. It includes the Earth, the Sun, the spirit of the land in a particular region, the ancestors of that land, the herbs, the practitioner, and those people who seek healing. It encompasses all of these and more. As a practitioner, I am both a part of the medicine and a conduit through which it is made accessible. As my relationship to the plants and the land deepens, so the manifestation of the medicine deepens as well.

Yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea) is a European species that won't grow where I live. I must obtain the dried root for making the tincture
because the North American species that grow in the region where I live are not plentiful enough to harvest.

When I first started practicing, I worked with about 120 herbs. Like most Western herbalists at that time, the largest portion of the materia medica that I learned consisted of European herbs, probably about 60%. Of the 60%, about 30% were plants that have naturalized in Ontario where I live, 20% plants that could be grown here, and 10% plants that won't grow in our climate. About 25% of the remaining herbs that I was using consisted of North American herbs, 15% which grow in the region where I live and 10% from other parts of the continent. The remaining 15% was an eclectic selection of herbs from South America, Africa and Asia, most of which can not be grown where I live.

I always had a deep connection with Nature and I felt it was important that I have a similar connection with the medicines that I use. Although the nature awareness and spiritual elements were not part of my original training as an herbalist, I was developing these aspects of my life in parallel and learning how to integrate them with my work. This process was one of the most challenging aspects of my work. It took years of deepening my relationship with the medicine and patiently listening to what the herbs and the land were teaching me. It would have been easy to impose my own ideas and I had to constantly guard against that. However, when I did slip up, the results very quickly made that apparent. I've had to learn not to push the energy, but to allow it to unfold in its own way in its own time.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) can't be grown in a temperate climate, but the organically grown fresh rhizome is available from commercial sources.

When I started practicing back in the 80s, I was ordering dried herbs and making my own tinctures. I also took the tincture of every herb that I made for a couple of weeks to get a deeper experiential connection with the medicines. At the same time I began a process of connecting with the plants in the region where I live. I would go out in the woods with a backpack full of plant identification books and manuals, walk into the fields or woods and try to identify every plant I didn't know. Sometimes it would take me hours just to walk a few metres. I recorded the botanical name of every plant that I was able to positively identify. When I got home, I would research each plant and record any information that I could find from about 200 herbals and technical reference books that I had. In this way I began to develop a data base of information on the plants that grow in the region where I live.

At the same time I continued to develop my relationship with the plants, the animals and the land. I spent lots of time wandering and sitting on the landscape. I attended and performed ceremonies and made offerings in accordance with the rhythms of the world around me: the solstices and equinoxes, the lunar cycles, and to honour powerful beings on the landscape such as rivers, waterfalls, lakes, cliffs, caves and ancient grandmother and grandfather trees. I sat with them, spoke to them, sang to them, prayed to them, meditated with them, made tobacco and other offerings. The plants, the land and the ancestral spirits became my chief teachers. I was skeptical at first. Not because I doubted the possibility of such communication. I had enough experience and had the opportunity to learn from a number of elders who were more adept in this realm. My doubts were about my own capacity to accurately receive and interpret these teachings from the plant realm. However, I very quickly learned to trust these communications because whenever I listened, the healing results were greatly expanded.

Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is a native of northeastern Asia but can be grown in temperate North America.

In this way the medicine gradually unfolded. One of the first things I learned was that I needed to work with fresh plants as much as possible as their healing capacity is much deeper. I was also instructed that I must gradually introduce more herbs that grow or are grown in the region where I live and replace most of the exotic herbs in my materia medica, and to wild harvest most of them. This is not an intellectual process. It's not about what I think or want. I must wait for the plants to offer to be part of the medicine. Neverthess, this relationship can be challenging at times. For example, one of the herbs that I know I must work with is blue vervain (Verbena hastata) and I have written about this herb in the Making Medicine series of blog posts. There aren't a lot of places that I know where this herb is plentiful. It is one of the herbs that I mostly obtain by "water walking", meaning I walk upstream or downstream through a creek or river so that I can harvest herbs that grow along the banks. Blue vervain tends to grow in little clumps here and there close to the shore. I usually have to go water walking several times, each time obtaining enough to make a couple of litres. About 10 years ago I was really concerned about being able to continue to use this herb. I started doing research on white verain (V. urticifolia), which is more common in this region, to see if it is similar enough to either combine them or use it as an alternative. However, I still needed to honour my relationship with blue vervain. That year I had particular difficulty making enough tincture. I visited this herb near the end of the season and offered prayers and tobacco and explained my need and asked for guidance about how to proceed. The next year when I went out harvesting the amount of blue vervain that was growing in the areas where I harvest it increased by two to three times! I also discovered a decent patch a bit off the beaten track in an area where I regularly wild harvest. When we work with the medicines in this way they listen and help. They are part of the medicine too, and they take their responsibility seriously. As long as we do our work, they will support us. Blue vervain used to be one of the medicines that I used in moderate quantities. Now it is one of the herbs I use the most. By the way, it did turn out that the properties of white vervain are almost identical to those of blue vervain.

Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) is a Eurasian herb that has naturalized in eastern North America.

Gradually, as I was called to use more local herbs, it became apparent which ones I need to stop using as well. Today the profile of the herbs that I use is very different than it was when I started. When I recently did an inventory of the tinctures that I have on hand, there were 102 (45%) native herbs, 81 (35%) that are naturalized, 28 (12%) that are grown locally, and 19 (8%) that are not available locally. 182 (80%) of my tinctures are wild harvested and 46 (20%) are organically grown. 202 (89%) of the tinctures are made from fresh herbs, 19 (8%) from dried, and 7 (3%) from both. The latter group are herbs that are available locally but not in sufficient quantity to meet my needs. In these cases I will usually make some dried herb tincture as well and press them together so that the tincture I use is a mixture. I try as much as possible to do that in a 2:1 ratio (fresh:dried) but sometimes have to do 1:1 or even 1:2.

Of the various tinctures that I have on hand, I only use 150 of them in my practice. Of these, 88 (58%) I use in a relatively low quantity (0.5-1.0 litre per year), 43 (29%) medium (2-4 litres per year), and 19 (13%) high (5-8 litres per year). The remaining 78 I only have a small quantity of (usually 250 ml) for research purposes. Some of them will eventually become part of the medicine. My relationship with the ones I don't end up using is different. They want me to make information available about them so that other people will start using them again, as this is part of their purpose.

Heal-all (Prunella vulgaris) is a circumboreal herb that is native to the temperate regions throughout the northern hemisphere.

Notice that the largest proportion of herbs that I work with I use in relatively low quantities. Some of these are herbs that I feel are indispensable in my practice but I can't harvest them in sufficient quantities, either because large populations aren't very common in this area, or because they are difficult to harvest in quantity. A good example of the latter is heal-all (Prunella vulgaris). This herb is very common, but it's a small herb and the portion that we harvest is very small as well (the flower spike and first pair of leaves) which makes it difficult to harvest in quantity. Like many herbs from the mint family, it is also fairly low density due to lots of air spaces in its tissues. This makes the harvested portion even lighter than a similar amount of some other herbs. I know that it is important for me to have this herb available, so I keep it on hand and use it sparingly. The other herbs in the low quantity group tend to be specialized herbs that are used for very specific applications. I really need them when I need them, but not very often. They add a significant level of versatility to my practice.

The 62 herbs that I use in moderate to large quantities are the herbs that I use more than 90% of the time. Theoretically, I could base my whole practice on these herbs. Most herbalists have a small group of herbs that they use the most. I recommend to my graduating students that they begin their practice using about 50-60 herbs that they feel most drawn to and then branch out from there as they gain more experience. It means that they need to know their herbs very well so that they can treat virtually any person that comes their way. Fortunately, herbs are not as limited as you might think from the general herbal literature. They tend to be very versatile, having dozens of properties and hundreds of applications.

Common purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a native of central North America. I have established a wild population on the land where I live.

Because I make all of the medicines myself and harvest almost all of them as well, I have to devote a considerable amount of time to this part of my work. Their is usually a fairly narrow window when an herb is ready to be harvested, typically a few days to a couple of weeks. During that time I have to harvest whatever amount of each herb that I will need to prepare enough tincture to last me at least a year, which is when I will next be able to harvest it (actually enough for 15 months because I allow at least 3 months for a tincture to macerate before pressing it). With roots and rhizomes there's more flexibility. They can be harvested any time from when their aerial parts have almost completely died back until the ground freezes. Also, whereas the aerial parts of herbs need to be macerated withing a couple of hours of being harvested (for some herbs less), roots and rhizomes can be stored in a cool place for a couple of days as long as they remain moist and they aren't washed until we are ready to process them. This is great because they are a lot more work to harvest! They need to be dug up, washed and allowed to dry before we can use them to make a tincture. Being able to spread the work out over a couple of days makes it a bit easier. I can spend one day travelling and digging up several herbs and the next couple of days processing them.

I schedule clinics on Thursdays. Typically, I see 5-7 clients per day. However, when I am travelling a lot I need to schedule the odd Wednesday clinic in and my client load goes up to 7-8 people per day. Until last June, I also had a student clinic scheduled every second Saturday. In order to be able to prepare enough tinctures to meet my needs, I spend about one day per week harvesting the medicines from mid April to mid May; two days per week from mid May to mid June; three days per week from mid June to the end of July; two days per week in August; one day per week in September and October; and then it's back up to two days per week in November. All of this needs to be coordinated with the weather and the rest of my life! Among other things, in recent years my work has required me to travel a lot during the time of year when I am doing all of my harvesting. That means that I have to harvest even more days during the weeks that I'm not travelling. To be able to accomplish this, during harvesting season I have to minimize the amount of days that I have a fixed schedule, such as clinic days and scheduled classes and workshops. During the peak harvesting season when I am not travelling I do my best to allow four to five days per week when I have nothing in particular scheduled so that I can head out on a moments notice whenever the herbs and the weather align! Fortunately, a lot of the work that I do is flexible and can be scheduled around my harvesting days. Also, the advanced students who are completing the clinical part of their program are required to harvest and prepare some tinctures for their student clinic. It only amounts to a small percentage of what they use, but it does reduce my work load a bit. Now that the clinical portion of the program is organized differently, no tinctures are required for the student clinic until the new version of the student clinic begins in a couple of years. This will reduce my load for awhile as well, but it also means that I am making them all myself.

Wood nettle (Laportea canadensis) is a native of eastern North America.

This year I was not able to harvest as many herbs and prepare as many tinctures as I had intended. This was due to my intense travelling schedule and the unusually cool, wet weather that we had in this area. I managed to make 90 litres of tincture from herbs that I wild harvested; 7 litres from fresh herbs that were organically grown locally [rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and cayenne (Capsicum annuum)]; 17 litres from organically grown fresh herbs that I had to purchase [turmeric (Curcuma longa), ginger (Zingiber officinale), American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum)]; and 21 litres from organically grown dried herbs. The proportion of dried herb tinctures is normally nowhere near this high, but I harvested a lot less herbs than usual this year, and last year I allowed much of my dried herb tincture stock go down to almost nothing.

I will have to cut back my use of some herbs this year. There is also a good chance that I will run out of a few of them before I am able to harvest them again or before some of the tinctures that I prepare next year are finished macerating. I am going to have to use other herbs as substitutes, which means that I will need to use a litre or two more than usual of some of the tinctures of which I have a bit of surplus stock. Fortunately, I do have a bit of surplus stock of some of them. It is still going to be a very intense harvesting season next year!

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) is one of the more specialized herbs that I rarely use due to its very high potency and potential toxicity.
However, sometimes it is indispensable. I use it for very deep conditions of the liver and spleen, and for a number of types of cancer.

In addition to all of the harvesting and macerating tinctures, I also have to spend about 4-5 hours, 3-4 days per month pressing and filtering tinctures. The time commitment to make all of these medicines is very high even though I'm only seeing an average of 6-8 clients per week. I figure, making medicines the way I do, if my work consisted solely of seeing clients it would not be possible for me to see more than double the number of clients that I am currently seeing. In my case a lot of my work involves teaching, but if someone were called to practice full time making medicines this way, it is definitely possible to make a living seeing 12-16 clients per week, and they'd (hopefully) be doing what they love. I think that's worth it! Nevertheless, spending this much time making medicines is challenging. This is why many herbalists make a lot of their tinctures from dried herbs, or purchase bulk fresh or dried herb tinctures from commercial sources. Ultimately, it is up to each herbalist to find the path that works for them.

Notice that I specifically did not say "choose" the path that works for them. To "choose" our path would require following our head instead of our heart. It is my experience that the path of the herbalist, or any path for that matter, is a calling not a choice. I have experienced this in my life and witness it on a daily basis in the people around me. In Western society we are taught to think our way through life and make many important life decisions based on fear rather than following our heart. It is one of the major reasons why there are so many unhappy people in the world today and one of the major causes of chronic illness. We live our life like an island at our peril. The consequences of this way of living are all around us.

Resinous polypore (Ischnoderma resinosum) is a fungus that has been calling me for several years. This fall I finally
got the call to harvest it and make some tincture. There isn't much information available on its medicinal properties.
It will probably be a year or two before I am familiar enough with it to start integrating it into my practice.

For anyone who is called to deepen their relationship with the plant people, or to follow the path of the herbalist, the most important advice I can give them is to quiet their mind, listen to their heart, deepen their relationship with the land and the plant medicines, and allow the medicine to unfold through them. In this and other posts I have given examples of how the mystery of the medicine manifests in my life. That isn't to say that this is how it will manifest for everyone. We are all unique and the medicine manifests through each of us in unique ways. There is no "right" way for everyone. For some people wild harvesting might not be appropriate or even an option. Maybe the only way they are able to offer their healing gifts is by using tinctures or teas made from dried herbs. That's OK. There are ways of working with herbs in any form, or even without form, that allow their healing to come through in a deep and meaningful way. The most important thing is that we develop our own relationship with the medicines. They will teach us how the medicine can best manifest through us.

The themes that I discuss in many of these posts are interwoven like a complex tapestry. Together they tell a story of herbs, healing and the interrelatedness of things. Many of my previous posts address some of the themes that I have discussed here in different contexts and from different angles. If you find yourself drawn into this world I encourage you to go back and check out some of the archived posts. Happy solstice and happy reading!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Crazy Season in the Life of an Herbalist!

Well, it's been a long time since I sat down at my computer and put any energy into this neglected child. Since April 2nd to be exact! I've contemplated it a few times, but the truth is that it has been such an incredibly busy seven months there hasn't been any time for it. Harvesting season begins in early to mid April, depending on how quickly things thaw, and ends some time in November or December when the ground freezes and I can't dig any more. This has always been a busy time for me. During the most intensive periods of harvesting, which are mid May to the end of July and late October to mid November, it is often necessary for me to devote the better part of three days per week to harvesting herbs and preparing tinctures - and that is on top of everything else that I need to do. There has always been a bit of travelling that was necessary during this time as well. Mostly to teach workshops but hopefully there is time for a holiday at some point. However, in the last few years my work has expanded into some new realms that require me to travel a lot more than I am used to. This year my travelling began on April 28th and ended on November 5th. During that time I was away three weeks in May, two weeks in July, one week in August, two weeks in September, two weeks in October, and the first bit of November. All of it was work related except for a week holiday in early September. We actually had to cancel a planned road trip to Nova Scotia in mid August because it would have been too much on top of everything else.

The interesting thing is that I'm not particularly into travelling, so it's surprising that my life has taken a turn of this nature. I'd rather just stay put and deepen my relationship with the land where I live from season to season, year to year. Nevertheless, the work that I am doing that requires me to travel is amazing and expansive, and I know in my heart that it is an important part of my path. It was a busy half year but it was all amazing. The challenge has been finding time to harvest all of the herbs that I need and fit in all of my clients on the few weeks that I am here. As it was, there were a few herbs that I wasn't able to get. In my world, that means that I have to use them less to stretch the stock that I have. When I eventually run out I won't have those herbs available until three months after I harvest them next year (three months is the minimum amount of time that I macerate tinctures).

It was a busy workshop season: Discussing black elder (Sambucus nigra) at an Herbal Field Studies workshop in early July.

This year things were even more challenging because of the weather that we had. After a record breaking, bitter cold winter and late thaw, we had a very strange spring and summer. It was much cooler than normal but not in the usual way. We do typically get a cool summer about once per decade. But those summers are usually very cloudy and wet, with very little sunshine. This year it was cloudy and wet a lot of the time, but we didn't get the days (sometimes weeks) of constant rain that we usually get during this kind of summer. On the rainy days the rain was more intermittent. We also had very few thunder storms. On the positive side, most weeks we still got at least a few sunny days. This was very important from an herbalists perspective because during years when it is almost constantly cloudy and rainy, although herbs that like that kind of weather such as stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) and coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) do very well, herbs that don't like it such as red clover (Trifolium pratense) and common St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum) do very poorly. For many herbs in the latter category it just isn't worth harvesting them as the quality of their medicine is very low. Fortunately, many plants can tolerate a range of habitats that get different amounts of sunlight. Therefore, it is possible to partially compensate for unusual weather conditions by harvesting them in different locations. During hot, dry years it is often possible to find healthy populations in the part of their range where they get less direct sunlight. In these areas they will experience less heat stress and the soil will be more moist. In cooler, wetter years we harvest them in the part of their range where they get the most sunlight. Here they will get as much sun as possible and the soil will be less wet. However, during extreme years even this doesn't work for some herbs and I have to pass on harvesting them and make up for it by using more of some of the other herbs that can be used as a substitute in various contexts. This is one of the reasons why it is necessary to work with a rich and diverse group of herbs. I also usually try to harvest enough herb to make a two year supply of tincture for herbs that this is manageable, meaning the ones that I use in small to moderate quantities. This is partly so that I don't have to harvest every herb every year, but also to build some resilience into my supply of tinctures. If for some reason I am not able to get some of the herbs that I need in a particular year, there will be more choices if I have to use substitutes.

Common St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum) doesn't like cool, cloudy, wet years.

In our area, from mid June to mid September we can usually count on at least a few weeks of hot, humid weather with temperatures of 30+ °C (86+ °F). This year we only got a couple of days of temperatures in the 30s in June and then another couple in July. As a result, although plants that like a fair bit of sun, such as wild mint (Mentha arvensis) and wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), and flower earlier in the season did fairly well with the amount of sun that we had in spite of lots of rain and cooler temperatures, some of the plants that need more heat and flower later, such as peppermint (Mentha x piperita) and spearmint (Mentha spicata), really suffered from the cumulative affects of the weather. In our area they didn't flower until early September and the quality was too poor to harvest.

Wild mint (Mentha arvensis) got enough sun and produced some good medicine this year.

Another thing that stood out this summer was the continuing decline of the local honey bee (Apis mellifera) population. Around my home there are many species of clover. They all came into flower in June: first red clover; then alsike clover (T. hybridum); then white clover (T. repens); then yellow sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis); then white sweet clover (M. alba). Honey bees love many flowers, but the clovers are among their favorites. Yet, during their peak flowering in June and July I didn't see a single honey bee. A few years ago these flowers were covered in them! There is a wild hive in the woods about 400 m from my house. This year it didn't become active until early July. As their numbers increased they gradually expanded their range, but I didn't see any within 100 m of my house until the Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) was well into flower in mid July. Recent evidence suggests that a major factor in the collapse of the honey bee population in much of North America is the use of a group of pesticides that are nicotine derivatives called neonicotinoids. It's typical for us to look for simple, unidimensional solutions, but as with everything in life the cause is a lot more complicated than that and due to a combination of factors. In all likelihood the bees are being killed or weakened by the combined effects of neonicotinoids and other pesticides and, as a result, the weakened individuals are also becoming less resistant to various parasites. There are probably other environmental factors involved as well, but something needs to be done about it quickly and reducing the use of neonicotinoids is a good place to start.

The population of this colony of honey bees living in a crack in an old white pine (Pinus strobus) near my home
has been significantly reduced in the last few years

Needless to say, between the travelling and the weather conditions it was very difficult for me to get all of my harvesting done this year. There were a few plants I didn't have time to harvest and a few more that weren't good enough to harvest. This has continued up to the present. Unlike the spring and summer, September and October were warmer than usual. This had it's own challenges. For instance, I had to be away from October 24th to November 5th. I needed to harvest maidenhair tree leaves (Ginkgo biloba) before I left. I have found that the best time to harvest the leaves is in the fall when they are about midway between their transition from green to gold. In the region where I live this is usually around the third week of October. However, because of the warm weather, when I went to harvest them on October 21st they were only just beginning to turn. I knew I couldn't wait until I came back because by then they would have fallen, so I harvested them that day. They weren't perfect but they were good enough.

The maidenhair tree leaves (Ginkgo biloba) started turning gold late this year because of the warm fall.
Note the contrasting yellow and orange of the sugar maple trees (Acer saccharum) in the background.

When we returned from Mexico on November 5th the warm weather was still with us. Right away I had to get to work because the aerial parts of most of the herbaceous plants had already died back and it was time to start harvesting roots and rhizomes. We need to get them done before the ground freezes and we can't dig any more. There are also a few fruits that I need to harvest at this time of year, but they have to be harvested after a couple of good frosts, so they weren't ready yet. Things started out OK. We were getting highs of around 8-12 °C (46-54 °F) and lows of 4-7 °C (39-45 °F) and not too much rain. Perfect root harvesting weather! We got to work right away.

Here's Monika harvesting stinging nettle rhizome (Urtica dioica).

Then on November 11th the temperature went up to 18 °C (64 °F) and the next day it dropped below freezing! For a few days it wasn't so bad because the the daytime temperatures were staying above freezing. But by the end of the week temperatures had dropped to January levels. I still needed to harvest several herbs and was worried that the ground might freeze before I could do them all. The unseasonably cold temperatures weren't just a stress for us. Everybody was feeling it! On Sunday morning in my peripheral vision I caught a movement outside my kitchen window. I knew it wasn't a bird that should still be hanging around here at this time of year and sure enough there was a yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata) shivering in a tree just outside the window. That was November 16th. I have never seen any species of warbler around here later than mid October. He was probably migrating through from somewhere much further north. With the lingering warm weather he must have been taking his time. That choice could turn out to be fatal!

This is a yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata), but not the yellow-rumped warbler.

As if the cold temperatures weren't enough of a challenge, last Sunday night and all day Monday it snowed. Fortunately, we didn't get that much. I can't imagine what it must have been like a little south of us in Buffalo, New York where they got completely buried! That would have definitely been the end of the harvesting season for us.

It was incredibly beautiful in the woods on Monday afternoon. The first snow. It was perfectly still and silent, and everything was covered in a blanket of white. Monika and I would have preferred to have just gone for a nice walk. But, still racing against winter, instead we went out and harvested wild sarsaparilla rhizome (Aralia nudicaulis). This herb is a colonial species with a network of rhizomes that does not leave a recognizable stalk standing after it dies back. Below the snow and fallen leaves, the only way to identify it is by the crowns with the buds of next years growth that usually sit a bit higher than the surface of the soil. Finding them is easy, but only if you know exactly where they are growing! It's simply a matter of clearing away the snow and leaves, finding the buds, and following the rhizome from that point.

Harvesting wild sarsaparilla rhizome (Aralia nudicaulis) last weekend. Note the bud in the centre foreground.

Since Monday it has been even colder. The ground is starting to freeze, but fortunately hasn't yet completely because we got just enough snow to insulate the ground a bit. Yesterday I was able to get out and harvest high bush cranberry fruit (Viburnum opulus), which are ready now that the temperature has gone below freezing. There are a few good sized colonies of these shrubs on the property where I live. But for some reason none of them produced fruit this year. They all flowered. I can only assume that there was something about the conditions when they flowered that affected their ability to produce fruit. As a result, I had to hike a couple of kilometers into the back fields in order to find an area where there was a good supply of fruit.

High bush cranberry fruit (Viburnum opulus) can't be chopped on a cutting board because they are too juicy.
They need to be ground for a few seconds with a bit of menstruum. Great colour!

Starting today the temperature is going up again and we are supposed to get rain with the temperature peaking at around 13 °C (55 °F) by Monday before it starts dropping again. That will melt the snow and warm up the soil a bit and it looks like I will be able to harvest the last two herbs that I need to get: marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis) and wild ginger rhizome (Asarum canadense). After that harvesting season will be over for this year and I'll be using the time that I have been devoting to harvesting to converting classroom courses to online courses. This is something I don't have much time for during harvesting season. I'll also have more time to put up some more stuff on this blog. It won't be another six months until the next one!

Until next spring I can spend more of my time in nature just being with a lot less doing. I'm looking forward to that. I'm also putting out some good energy for my little winged friend and others like him that lingered too long. I hope they are able to make it to the warmer regions down south!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014


I've had this idea for some time to use a multimedia approach to provide detailed information on the identification, harvesting and medicinal properties and uses of individual herbs. We're still trying to get a feel for this, but a couple of weeks ago I put together a prototype video on motherwort herb (Leonurus cardiaca). We have posted this video on YouTube along with some written supplementary information which is available on the Herbal Resources page of the Living Earth School of Herbalism website. You can check out the video here. The supplementary info is available here. Enjoy!

My dear friend motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca)!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Good Relationship

For those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere, today is the first full day of spring! For me, the solstices and equinoxes are the closest thing to a "religious" holiday. I always take these days off as times for ceremony and reflection, both on my own and with the members of my community. They are important transition points in the yearly cycle of the seasons, and excellent times to honor our relationship with the world that we are part of.

Spring may be officially here, but spring weather will probably be later than usual this year!

This morning when I was out at my prayer circle offering my morning prayers, beginning for the first time this year in the eastern direction of this new season, twice I heard the call note of a male red-winged blackbird as one flew overhead. In this region red-wings are the first birds to arrive from wintering in the south. Hearing them for the first time on this first day of spring was a good omen that, in spite of the lingering below normal temperatures, spring is arriving. There are other signs as well. Among the birds that overwinter here, the cardinals and black-capped chickadees started singing their spring songs a couple of weeks ago. The robins started whinnying around the same time, but I only heard the first one singing this afternoon when I was walking my dogs in the woods. The song sparrows haven't started yet, but they will soon. The dark-eyed juncos are still here. They won't be heading back up north for some time yet.

The increasing intensity and amount of daylight as the sun climbs higher in the sky each day is another sign that is very noticeable. The greatest amount of change per day of the amount daylight occurs at the time of the equinoxes - three minutes per day at the latitude where I live. During the last couple of decades the red-wings have usually arrived much sooner than the equinox. After this years longer and colder winter their call is a welcome sound.

The trembling aspens (Populus tremuloides) are getting impatient!

In contemporary Western society we tend to live cut off from the natural rhythms and cycles of nature, both within us and around us. We do so at our own peril! Not only has it had an overwhelming negative impact on our physical, psychological, spiritual and social well-being, it has similarly affected the well-being of our Earth Mother and all of the other beings that we share our lives with. Our life is only as healthy and fulfilling as the quality of our relationships.

As an herbalist, it is essential that I am in a good relationship with the medicines that I use and the land where they live. My role is as a mediator between the medicines and Nature, and human society - both as a healer and as an educator. It would be awesome if we lived in a society where we are as time-rich as our ancestors, the traditional peoples of the world, once were. I could take people out and acquaint them with the medicines that they need so that they could be in a deeper relationship with those medicines. The healing would be so much more powerful! Sadly, this is not possible any longer.

That being said, for people who wish to live a life of greater health and well-being, and who also have an interest in herbs, getting to know some of the plant medicines even on a casual basis can be a powerful way to enrich our lives and enhance our healing process. It allows us an opportunity not only to create a deeper relationship with some of the plant people, but with all of Nature as well. Whether we are atheists or agnostics, or believe that the natural world is connected to or an expression of a deeper spiritual reality, we must acknowledge that all healing comes from Nature. Connecting with plant medicines and Nature are essentially two sides of the same coin when it comes to the healing process.

Some plants overwinter as a rosette. This European sweet violet (Viola odorata) is taking advantage of full sun
(in the winter only) and a slightly south facing slope.

Back in the late 80s and early 90s when I first started teaching, the Herbal Field Studies workshops (which were then called 'Herbs of Ontario') were the first courses that I offered. Teaching people how to identify local herbs during the various stages of their life cycle, harvest them and use them was a big part of what these workshops were and are about. However, my primary objective was to use the participants' interest in herbs as a means of getting them out into Nature. This is an essential part of the healing process because it is our disconnection from Nature that is directly and indirectly the main reason why people and society are unhealthy to begin with.

Eventually I knew I needed take it deeper and after experimenting with different content and formats The Spirit of Herbs workshops were born: first as a weekend, then six days, then eventually (in response to where I knew the Medicine needed to go and requests from students for more) I added two more workshops to the series. I consider these workshops to be the most important courses that I teach. For any herbalist, having a wealth of knowledge of herbs and a good system for applying that knowledge is essential - as is plenty of experience. Together they can produce profound healing. However, what separates the good herbalists from the great herbalists is the depth of their relationship with the medicines. This is not only true for herbalists, but for anyone who uses herbs personally or professionally. The deeper our relationship with the herbs and Nature, the deeper the healing we are able to receive or facilitate when we need to use them.

The Spirit of Herbs workshops are also my favorite courses to teach because they always stretch me. To teach the Medicine I have to be able to live it. It is always a powerful learning and transformative process for me having to hold the space for the benefit of the participants and offering the Medicine at a much deeper level. It is also a profoundly humbling and fulfilling experience for me to witness the transformations that the participants go through as they develop a greater capacity to connect more deeply with themselves, the plant medicines and Nature.

Grandmother white pine (Pinus strobus) is happy to enjoy some early spring sunshine!
I spend some time sitting with her every day when I walk my dogs.

In summary, I can not over-emphasize the importance of being in and connecting with Nature. It is essential to who we are because we are Nature and Nature is us. This is not only the experience and wisdom of traditional peoples worldwide, for those who need "proof" there is a growing body of research that is beginning to demonstrate it as well (for example, see: What's amazing is that the benefits that are being demonstrated in these studies are the result of relatively simple things like more trees in urban areas, or spending a little time exercising or doing activities in more natural settings. Most people are still pretty distracted when they are in "greener" spaces: by their thoughts and by their technological gadgets. Add a certain level of quiet of our mind and deeper connection and the benefits increase exponentially!

The workshops that I offer provide an opportunity for participants to deepen their connection with Nature through their interest in medicinal plants. However, there are other teachers out there that offer similar experiences through other connections. For instance, in his recent book What the Robin Knows, Jon Young provides guidance about how we can foster a deeper connection with Nature through learning the language of birds. Whether it's birds or other animals, general nature awareness, or wilderness survival, there are teachers and mentors who truly walk their talk and from that place of experience and knowing are able to help others to more deeply connect with themselves and Nature by developing these skills in a way that fosters greater awareness and good relationships. Developing these personal interests is an excellent way to more deeply connect with Nature and live healthier, more fulfilling lives.

One of the most important tools for achieving this, which is explained in detail in Jon's book, is what we call the sit spot. It is simply a place in as natural a setting as possible where we intuitively feel good and can spend time sitting quietly and observing the world around us through the seasons. Although it's great for those of us who live in rural areas or on the edge of parks or other natural areas to find a sit spot that is in a more wild, natural environment, the most important characteristic of a good sit spot is its accessibility. The more effort we need to put into getting there, the less often we will use it. It's much better to find a nice spot under some trees in our backyard than some place that we need to walk or drive 20 minutes to visit, because the more often we use our spot, the deeper the results. Nature is everywhere! All we have to do is quiet our mind and be fully present with all of our senses. When we do this in the same spot on a regular basis, it provides a framework from which we can really get to know a place through its various cycles and changes. It is best if we can spend some time there at least several times per week. The more we make this a priority in our life, the greater the benefits. This season is a great time to start!

On that note, I would like to wish everyone a great spring (or great autumn to my sisters and brothers in the Southern Hemisphere)!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Making Medicine Part 5 of 5: Pressing and Filtering a Tincture

This is the fifth and last post in a series in which I am using the process of wild harvesting and making a fresh herb tincture of blue vervain (Verbena hastata) as an example to explain in detail the process of making herbal tinctures. In Part 1 of this series I discussed the process of harvesting blue vervain; in Part 2, preparing the herb for macerating; in Part 3, preparing the maceration; and in Part 4 I discussed some of the common equipment that is available for pressing and filtering the maceration. Now we're going to look at the actual process of pressing and filtering our maceration to prepare the tincture.

As I indicated in Part 4, this final stage in preparing our tincture can be either a single or two part process. The standard method is to pour the maceration into our press. Much of the fluid (also called the macerate) will flow through, but not all of it. Then we apply as much pressure as our press will easily allow to squeeze as much of the fluid as we can out of the herb material (also called the marc). The better the press, the more fluid that we can press out of the herb. This is not only more efficient because we will end up with a greater volume of tincture, but our tincture will tend to be a bit stronger because the fluid that is deep withing the tissues of the herb will tend to contain the highest concentration of its constituents. Having macerated the herb for at least three months will ensure that the herb tissues have softened sufficiently to make it more easier for our menstruum to penetrate into the tissues of the herb, extract its chemical constituents, and be pressed out when we apply pressure.

With this method, the fluid that flows from the press will contain herb particles that are small enough to pass through. The fluid must then be filtered. The standard method is to allow the tincture to flow into a filter in a funnel placed over a large beaker or other kind of receiving container, and allow gravity to draw the tincture through the filter. Beakers are the best container to use because they have a large opening, are graduated, have a spout that will make it easier to pour the tincture into our bottles, and better ones will be made of borosilicate glass which is more durable. Although the graduations on a beaker do not allow us to accurately measure the volume of our tincture, they give us an approximate volume which allows us to determine the size and number of bottles we will need to store it.

For this process we do not want to use a paper filter as these are too fine. We need to use a fairly coarse filter because we want to include the fine sediment and other thick components like latex in our tincture. This means that it is best to use a cloth filter. It is critical that our filter does not contain lots of chemicals that are typically found on fabrics these days. The best fabrics are unbleached organic cotton, hemp or another natural fibre or combination of fibres. Muslin or some other coarse weave is best as long as it isn't fuzzy like flannel. Otherwise cloth fibres might end up in our tincture. Even when using a relatively non-toxic fabric to make our filters, it is best to wash them a few times and rinse them very well. We don't want soap in our tinctures! Cloth filters will last many years. They need to be scrubbed (by rubbing the fabric against itself) and rinsed well after use. Although it is best to use soap the first time we wash them and rinse them very well, water alone is best after their initial use. Soap isn't necessary because tinctures are sterile. However, it is important that the filters be allowed to dry completely before storing them.

When using a potato ricer, the macerate (fluid) and herb material are poured into the ricer, which is held over the filter.
The liquid will flow through into the filter. An cone-shaped unbleached cotton coffee filter works well for this.

The herb material (marc) is then squeezed to get as much liquid out as possible. Once the macerate
has completely flowed through the filter we wring it out to get any remaining fluid out of it.

In terms of funnels, the best funnels have a design that has a spiral cut into them. This reduces the surface contact between the filter and the funnel and allows the fluid to flow out more quickly. These funnels are usually make of glass or polycarbonate (plastic #7). We don't want to use polycarbonate plastic because it contains toxic chemicals that will leach into our tincture. That leaves the glass ones. However, they are very expensive, easily broken, and only marginally speed up the filtering of tinctures that have sediment or latex. Tinctures that don't have these components tend to filter relatively quickly anyway. As a result, I recommend solid plastic funnels. They are inexpensive and easy to obtain. That being said, we only want to use funnels that are made of polyethylene or polypropylene (plastics #1, #2, #4 and #5) as these are not known to contain any chemicals that will leach into our tincture (so far). If the funnel doesn't clearly indicate which type of plastic it is, don't use it.

With a screw press, the receiving cylinders must be removed from the frame of the press in order to
be able to easily empty the contents of our macerating jar into them. It is also important that
the beaker be at a lower level to allow the tincture to flow into it.

The biggest disadvantage of this method of filtering is that it is very slow. In fact, if the tincture contains a lot of sediment and/or latex it can be extremely slow, even with a very coarse filter. This is undesirable because the longer our tincture is exposed to light and especially air, the greater the amount of degradation of its active constituents that will occur. As a result, I always use the second method of filtering the macerate and that is to make cloth filters that fit inside our pressing device. This allows the maceration to be pressed under pressure. It only slightly slows down the pressing process and the end result is a filtered tincture that can be bottled immediately. The reduction in time will significantly reduce the oxidation of the components of our tincture and therefore improve its quality and how long it can be stored before use. With this method it is not necessary to use a funnel unless we are using a potato ricer as our press. With a well designed screw press or hydraulic press the tincture can be directed directly from our press into the beaker.

With a potato ricer the cotton coffee filter is placed inside the ricer. It's still a good idea to use a funnel because the tincture
doesn't flow out of the ricer as neatly as through a hose and the funnel provides a wider area for it to drain into.

Here's the same set-up with a screw press. In this case it's necessary to make filters that fit the inner cylinder
of the screw press as cotton coffee filters are too small and not the right shape.

We pour the fluid into filter and then empty any of the remaining herb material into it as well. There will always be some residue in the jar, so I will pour some of the filtered tincture back into the jar to rinse the last of the herb material out of it. then we fold up the top of the filter so that when we apply pressure to it none of the unfiltered fluid will flow out of the top. With herbs that have a latex or are very mucilaginous, the filter will sometimes clog up preventing the fluid from draining efficiently. If this happens, it is important that there is no excess liquid on top of the herb material in the filter when we press it or it will not be possible to prevent it from flowing unfiltered out of the top of the filter. In this case I lift the filter part way out of the cylinder and rock it back and forth to speed up the rate at which the macerate flows through. Once the level of liquid is below the top of the herb material, it is OK to fold up the filter over top of it and press it. With a potato ricer we simply press it as hard as we can; with a screw press we tighten the screw as tight as we can; with an hydraulic press we pump it as much as we can.

Tightening the screw.

Here's the actual process using my hydraulic press: pouring the macerate and herbs from the jar into the cylinder.

Pumping the press.

With this method, once we finish pressing the herbs the filtering process is also complete and our tincture is ready! We need to get our tincture into bottles as quickly as possible in order to minimize oxidation. It is necessary to use narrow mouthed bottles because they have a smaller air space and it's easier to pour out of them. Once more we want to use amber glass bottles. The bottles I use are called amber metric rounds. The best lids are plastic phenolic caps with a cone-shaped polyethylene liner as these lids seal the best and polyethylene is one of the two kinds of plastic that are suitable for this purpose (the other being polypropylene).

50 ml, 100 ml and 250 ml amber metric rounds. The equivalent in the US is 2, 4 and 8 oz. bottles, which are slightly larger.

It is better to store our tincture in several smaller bottles rather than one large bottle. This will significantly increase the shelf life of our tincture. Every time we open up the bottle and use some of it we are exposing it to more oxygen and increasing the size of the air space in the bottle. The tincture in the bottle we are using will degrade much more rapidly than tincture in a full, unopened bottle. Since I tend to press half or one litre jars, I store my pressed tincture in multiple 250 ml bottles. If you are making smaller quantities for personal use, it is better to store your tincture in 100 ml bottles. Just like with our maceration, these bottles should be stored in the dark. Presumably, the last one we fill won't be completely full. We'll start by using that one and not start another until it is completely finished. In this way each bottle remains undisturbed until we need it. For most herbs, the tincture stored in the dark in an undisturbed full bottle will maintain its potency for about 6 months to a year. However, once we start opening it and using it it's best to use it up within 4-6 months. They don't go bad. They just lose their potency. The timing I have indicated is what is ideal. It doesn't mean you should throw out a tincture if you don't use it all within that time frame. However, I like to do things as ideal as possible, so I usually don't press any more of a specific tincture than I can use within 4-6 months.

Pouring the finished tincture into storage bottles. For demonstration purposes I broke with the tradition of these posts. I did not press
blue vervain herb tincture (Verbena hastata) because I had plenty on hand. Instead I pressed a half litre of blueweed herb tincture
(Echium vulgare) which is from the Borage family and has similar properties as common comfrey herb (Symphytum officinale).

It's important that we label our bottles of tincture. The label should include the name of the herb, the part of the herb used, the potency of the tincture, and the date it was pressed. I always use the same bottles for the same tincture because the bottle picks up the aroma and energy of the herb. You will note from the photo that I use green masking tape for labels because it is relatively water resistant, can be written upon and looks pretty good. Each time I press a tincture I cross out the old date on the bottle labels and write the new one until the label is full. Then I start a new one. This is an efficient way to label them because the same label can be used many times and a quick scan of the label gives me an accurate indication of how much I am using that tincture. This information is important when it's time to harvest that herb in terms of estimating how much I will need for the following year.

So, that finally wraps up this discussion of making tinctures! I hope that you have found it useful. As I promised way back when I posted the first installment of this series, since blue vervain was the common thread, especially in the first three posts, I am providing detailed information on the properties and uses of this herb that is based on my research and experience on the Herbal Resources page of the Living Earth website in the form of a pdf document that you can download (link to pdf file). Enjoy!

Thank you blue vervain!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Making Medicine, Part 4 of 5: Equipment for Pressing and Filtering Tinctures

This is the fourth post in a series in which I am using the process of wild harvesting and making a fresh herb tincture of blue vervain (Verbena hastata) as an example to explain in detail the process of making herbal tinctures.

Part 1 of this series was posted on July 9th, Part 2 on July 15th, and Part 3 on August 22nd of 2012. After that I got busy and forgot about it, except periodically when someone reminded me about it. The truth is, every time it came up I thought about having to find and drag some old equipment out of storage and set up and take a bunch of photos and I put it off and forgot about it. Well, here is the next installment at last!

This was supposed to be the last post in this series, but it keeps growing! Every time I've worked on it I've realized that there is so much info to cover I keep extending it. However, I am confident that the fifth part will be the last.Taken as a whole, this series is one of the three most viewed offerings that I have posted so far. My apologies to those of you who have been patiently waiting for the conclusion.

In the first three posts we got up to the point where we have prepared the maceration of fresh blue vervain herb and it is being stored in the dark for a minimum of three months. As I stated previously, we don't want to press the maceration until we actually need it because the greatest amount of degradation of the active constituents occurs during the pressing process and afterwards. Once we know that we will be needing the tincture of a particular herb that we are macerating, starting about a week before we press it, it's a good idea to shake it vigorously once per day for about 30-60 seconds and then again immediately before we press it. This helps break up the plant material further now that it is much softer from having soaked for awhile and to get some more of the constituents out of the herb and into solution.

In order to prepare our tincture, the final step requires that the maceration be pressed and filtered. Let's begin by discussing pressing. The purpose of pressing the tincture is to squeeze as much liquid as possible out of the macerating plant material, which is technically called the marc. The more intensely we are able to press the plant material, not only do we get more tincture as an end result, we also get a somewhat stronger tincture because the fluid that is deep in the herb will tend to contain the highest concentration of its constituents. There are different kinds of pressing equipment that work to varying degrees. Unfortunately, as we might expect, the better the press the more expensive it is going to be. This means that we need to strike a balance between wanting to use the best equipment that will produce the largest volume and most potent tincture with the cost. In the long run, if we are serious about making tinctures it is preferable to use the best equipment that we can afford.

There are essentially four ways to press a tincture. Many books recommend the simplest method which is to pour the maceration through a few layers of cheese cloth and then wring out as much liquid as possible by hand. This process is so inefficient that, personally, I consider it a waste of time (and herbs). The simplest and most inexpensive method for pressing your maceration is to use a potato ricer. However, the standard cylinder type ricers are not recommended. They are not strong enough for pressing herbs and will break pretty quick. Although they are more expensive, the best ricer is what is usually marketed as a "professional" potato ricer. These have a triangular shape (see photo) and the part that takes most of the pressure is much stronger. Not only will they allow you to use more pressure, they will last much longer.

The standard cylinder ricer (left) is not strong enough for the kind of pressure necessary to press tinctures. The older professional ricer (middle) demonstrates what happens after many years of use. Note how the point with the wire is wrapped around it is bent out of shape. This is the point that takes the stress from all of the pressure. Wrapping wire around this point will increase the life of the ricer by helping to prevent the parts attached to the handle from slipping over the corners of the bar. The newer model with the more solid handle (right) is better because it isn't as hard on our hands when applying pressure. I used to have to use a towel wrapped around the handle of the old one. This isn't necessary with the design of the newer one.

The next best press is the screw press. There are many types available. They are usually used for pressing grapes to make wine or apples for cider. Wooden presses do not work for tinctures. Only stainless steel presses will do. Most of the better ones are made in Italy. However, there are some flaws in the design of many models that I will address. The more of these features that a press has, the better the quality.

Firstly, it is important that the design has an inner straining cylinder with holes that will contain the herb material while allowing the fluid to pass through, and a slightly larger solid outer cylinder with a hole and spout that allows the fluid to flow out. Ideally, the hole should be flush with the bottom of the container. Although most designs don't have it, it is best if the part of the press that the container sits on has some kind of brace that the spout fits into to hold it in position. Otherwise, when the pressure gets fairly high while we are pressing the tincture, the container and the position of the spout will spin. Another important point is that it is not recommended to just let the tincture flow out of the spout into a beaker or other container. It is best to attach a hose so that we can better direct the flow. Most presses don't come with a hose and it is necessary to purchase one. It's important that it fit snugly on the spout. If it isn't tight enough we can add a hose clamp. The material that the hose is made of is also important. We don't want to use PVC or other materials that will leach toxic chemicals into our tincture. A low-density polyethylene hose (LDPE) is probably the only material that is relatively non-toxic.

Another aspect of the design of a screw press that is important is how the metal disc that presses the herb material is attached to the screw on which it is mounted. Because of the tight fit between the disc and the inner cylinder, many companies do not weld the disc to the screw, but attach it loosely so that it can move. This makes it less likely to get jammed in the cylinder during the pressing process if it is slightly misaligned. The problem with this design is that, as the pressure on the herb increases, some of the tincture will seep up through the space between the disc and the screw and come in contact with the screw. This will allow some of the lubricant on the screw, which will be some kind of rancid oil that also contains fine metal dust from friction between the metal parts, to get into our tincture. This can even be a problem with presses for which the disc is attached to the screw because when the herb material is under a relatively high pressure the tincture will often flow out faster than it can seep through the holes in the inner cylinder. When this happens it will flow through the space between the disc and cylinder and over the top of the disc. Once more it could potentially come in contact with the screw unless the part of the disc that is mounted to the screw is relatively deep so that the level of tincture on top of the disc isn't higher than the point at which the disc is attached to the screw. Unfortunately, most screw presses have one or both of these flaws in their design. There is, however, a way around it and that is to insert a wooden disc between the metal disc and the herb. To do this it will be necessary to cut a round disc that fits fairly snugly into the inner cylinder of the press. It should be at least 2 cm (3/4 inch) thick and made from a relatively hard wood with a tight grain. I have found the best choices of wood to be (in descending order) sugar (hard) maple (Acer saccharum), white ash (Fraxinus americana) or American beech (Fagus grandifolia). There are even harder woods from tropical trees, but as these are usually harvested in an unsustainable manner that has a negative impact on tropical rain forests, I don't recommend them.

The purpose of the wooden disc is not only to prevent the metal disc (and the end of the screw if it is loosely attached) from coming in contact with our herb material, but also to help prevent the tincture from coming in contact with the screw by flowing up over the outer edge of the metal disc. The thickness of the wooden disk allows the tincture extra space where it can flow unimpeded through some additional holes in the inner cylinder. A 2 cm disc will usually be adequate, but up to twice that thickness might be a good idea for an extra margin of safety. For presses for which the metal disc is loosely attached to the screw, if we use a wooden disc between the metal disc and the herb material it is necessary to always position it so that the same side of the wooden disc is facing upwards. This is because inevitably the grease and metal dust from the screw will come in contact with the wooden disc and we don't want that side of the disc coming in contact with our herbs or tincture.

Another thing to look for in a screw press is the design of the frame that holds the screw. With most presses the part that holds the screw is attached to the base at two points. If we don't use the press too much this isn't an issue. However, if we use it a lot and really crank it to squeeze as much tincture out of our herbs as possible, I have found that this design isn't strong enough. Eventually it becomes loose at the points where it attaches to the base. The best designs are those where the part that holds the screw attaches to the base at three points. This is far more stable and more durable in the long run.

This older screw press is the standard design. You can see that the upper part of the frame that holds the screw is tilted from long-term use. The handles aren't long enough to easily apply sufficient torque for pressing tinctures. The metal disc isn't securely fastened to the screw so that it can rotate and tilt slightly, but it leaves enough space to allow tincture to flow up between the screw and the disc and come in contact with the grease on the screw. We eventually welded the disc to the screw with one of these, but due to the thinness of the attachment point, tincture was still able to flow around the edges and up over the top of disc and come in contact with the screw. Adding a wooden disc between the metal disc and the herbs was necessary to prevent this.

There are two more aspects of the design of a screw press that are important. The first relates to the handle that we use to turn the screw and put pressure on the herbs. Most of these presses have handles that are too short. The longer the handle the better. Not only is it easier to grip, but it allows us to put more torque on the screw and therefore more pressure on the herbs. The last issue is that it is best if the inner cylinder has a bottom. Some designs have inner cylinders without a full bottom.

In summary, I only recommend stainless steel screw presses with a two cylinder design and a spout on the outer cylinder. It is best to get one that has a capacity of 1-2 litres (approximately 1-2 quarts). In terms of the design issues I mentioned, the first (metal disc attached to screw with a deep attachment point) is the most important, however, it can be compensated for by using a wooden disc between the metal disc and the herbs. The second (three attachment points) is slightly less important, but it becomes more important the more we use the press. The third (long handles) is even less important, but this little detail can make a big difference in terms of ease and efficiency of use. The fourth (inner cylinder has a bottom) isn't that important, but it does make the press a bit easier to work with.

This is the best designed screw press that I have come across. It has three attachment points for greater stability, strength and durability; larger handles making it easier to turn the screw and apply more torque; a brace in the base that holds the spout in position; and a superior design for the disc attachment (see below). Although parts of the frame are made of aluminum, all of the parts that come in contact with the tincture and herbs are stainless steel. It even has holes in the feet so that it can be secured to a counter or piece of wood for greater stability. However, it is important to be able to tilt the press forward to drain the last bit of tincture out of the cylinder. It could be attached to a piece of wood as long as it is not too large, the front is straight, and doesn't extend too far beyond the feet so that it will still be easy to tilt the press forward. The only disadvantage of this design is that the inner cylinder doesn't have a bottom (see the photo of inner cylinders in the discussion of hydraulic presses below). However, this is only a minor issue; the least important of the various design issues that I have discussed.

Here is a closer look at the disc attachment. It allows the disc to spin so that it is less likely to get jammed in the inner cylinder. It also is fairly deep at the attachment point so that any tincture that flows over the surface of the disc will not come in contact with the grease on the screw. If we press the herbs relatively slowly towards the end, the amount of tincture that seeps up between the outer edge of the disc and the inner cylinder is minimal.

There is one modification to the screw press that I highly recommend. I have found that it is best if the herb material doesn't sit in a pool of tincture. This is because when we apply pressure, after a bit of time the herb material seems to settle a bit which causes a slight reduction in the pressure. When that happens, if the herbs are sitting in the tincture they will reabsorb some of it. Therefore it is best if the tincture is able to efficiently flow away from the herbs as soon as it is pressed out. This is one of the reasons why a press design with a spout is absolutely essential. However, because the bottom of the cylinder is horizontal, the last bit of tincture doesn't flow out very fast. To avoid the herb material sitting in a pool of tincture, what I have found works best is to use a wooden disc as described above. This disc is placed inside the outer cylinder before we insert the inner cylinder so that the inner cylinder is resting on the disc and elevated above the bottom of the outer cylinder.

The third major type of press is the hydraulic press. The best hydraulic presses are the electric ones because they can apply the most pressure. However, these tend to have three limitations. Firstly, they tend to be designed for a larger capacity and are not suitable for small quantities of tincture. Secondly, many designs don't have an outer cylinder. This might be OK for pressing grapes, but for many herbs the tincture will spray out in a way that needs to be contained by an outer cylinder. The third limitation of electric hydraulic presses is that they are extremely expensive. I would only recommend an electric hydraulic press for the production of tinctures on a very large scale requiring the pressing of 4-5 litres or more at a time. Even for an herbalist who has a busy practice and produces all of their own tinctures this is not likely to be economical.

As an alternative, there are a number of designs out there that use a manual hydraulic mechanism. Basically they attach an hydraulic bottle jack (which is typically used as a car jack) to some kind of frame. I have seen a number of designs and most of them are examples of enthusiasm more than efficiency. The typical design is to use an hydraulic bottle jack to squeeze herbs between two stainless steel bowls and then pour off the tincture by tilting the "press" (no holes, no spout). I don't recommend any of these. There is only one that I have come across that I recommend and it is the press that I use myself. Although it's not perfect, it is the best press I've ever worked with. I am always experimenting with different kinds of equipment for making tinctures. I have to say that of all of the equipment that I have acquired, the two most important things in terms of efficiency are my mezzaluna (see Part 2) and my hydraulic press.

This is the best manual hydraulic press that I have come across so far. It works very well but has two design flaws. Firstly, it is too top heavy and awkward to work with. I have a lot of experience working with presses and I don't find it too difficult to use, but most of my students have difficulty working with it on their own and need to work in pairs when using this press. The second design flaw is that there are too few holes in the inner cylinder (see below).

 Note the significant difference in the number of holes between the inner cylinder of the hydraulic press (left) and the screw press (right). Even if it had additional columns of holes in between the existing columns with the spacing of the holes half way between the existing holes it would be a significant improvement. I will probably drill them myself at some point. The cylinder on the left includes a cotton filter which is flared at the top so that it easily folds over the top edge when the maceration is being poured in. The wooden disc (centre) is positioned between the outer and inner cylinders so that the inner cylinder sits on top of it. The filter and the disc are both very stained from the tannins in herbs. Note that the inner cylinder of the screw press doesn't have a complete bottom. It is the only design flaw with that particular press, and a minor one at that.

There is one more trick that will significantly improve the efficiency of pressing and filtering. It is best to use a filter inside the press. This allows the maceration to be filtered under pressure. It eliminates the need for a separate filtration step and significantly decreases the amount of time of the whole pressing and filtering process. This is very important, not only in terms of saving time, but because the less time that elapses between when we open the jars containing our maceration and when we seal the finished tincture in a bottle, the less degradation of the active constituents that will occur. That means a better quality tincture. It is best to custom make filters that fit inside the inner cylinder. They should be a little taller than the cylinder and flared at the top so that they can easily be folded over the top of the cylinder when we pour our maceration into the press. Otherwise the filter will collapse as we pour the maceration into it. The filter should be made out of unbleached cotton or some other natural fibre, preferably certified organic. Use a coarse weave because it will filter easier and we actually want the thicker sediments and latexes of the herbs in our tincture. Before making the filters, it is important to wash the fabric several times with natural detergent because fabrics these days tend to be coated in all kinds of toxic chemicals (see Toxic Threads for more information). It is best to add some vinegar to the water as well.

If we don't use a filter in the press, it is necessary to filter the tincture after pressing it. In this case we allow gravity to filter it through a cotton filter placed inside a funnel over a beaker or other receiving container. We position the hose to allow the tincture to flow into the filter from the press. It is necessary to press the maceration more slowly when using this method so we don't overflow the filter.

There are other designs of equipment that can be used for pressing tinctures. Although I would love to, unfortunately it isn't possible for me to purchase and try them all. Most of the presses I have seen online aren't very good, but I suspect there are a few out there that are worth checking out.

This ends my discussion of pressing and filtering equipment. In Part 5, the final post in this series, I will cover the actual process of pressing and filtering our maceration.