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!