The case of the mystery tincture

Today I was organizing my office in preparation for a busy day of medicine making when I happened upon four large jars, FULL of liquid, and UNLABELED!

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I felt my chest tightening as I frantically searched my memory banks for what I would have made a lot of, and why on earth didn’t I label these jars?! As the panic began to set in, I opened one of the jars and smelled it – “Vodka, obviously. But what’s IN it?” I tincture all my herbs in 303 brand gluten free organic vodka, because that’s what my mother used. Other herbalists prefer to tincture in brandy, which doesn’t make a significant difference. What is handy, however, about tincturing in vodka, is that the alcohol, being clear, takes on the distinctive coloring of whatever has been macerating in the spirit for a few months.

I quickly found a shot glass (we are kitchen witches, after all!) and poured half an ounce. What came out astounded me: a deep, ruby red color that I’ve only seen shades of from tinctured aspen bark or dandelion root.

Then I tasted it…and it tasted like, well, tinctured herbs.

“Oh my Goddess…” I thought to myself. “What on earth could this be??”

I thought about reaching out to Kate Miller, Community Herbalist and founder of Alpine Botanicals, whose knowledge of all things herbal is truly encyclopedic. But before I made that call, I decided to open another jar.

The second jar was more of the same ruby red tincture.

The third jar, however, was an oil. “Oh, great.” I said out loud, as my frustration was growing. “More mystery medicine!”

I poured a teaspoon of oil into a glass, smelled it, and examined its color. Light golden color, with tiny specks of green (that, evidently, hadn’t been filtered out when I decanted this stuff…). “Okay, olive oil and….?”

Then I stuck my finger in the glass and rubbed the oil into my hands. “OH!” My panic immediately softened into gratitude, a shy smile turned the corners of my mouth up, and the furrows relaxed on my brow. “St. Joan’s Wort!”

The healing properties of St. John’s Wort

It is truly a blessing to recognize the energetic signature of a medicinal plant on contact – which is exactly what happened to me the moment the oil soaked into my skin. Indeed, St. Joan’s Wort is renowned for healing trauma, both physical and mental, and relieving tension and anxiety. It is also recommended to use it both internally and externally to experience the full, synergistic effect. (It is interesting to note that homeopathic hypericum is indicated for the same rubrics: nerve injury, puncture wounds, chronic pain and depression.

St. Joan’s Wort also contains red dianthrones (hypericin, and pseudohypericin), which account for the ruby red tinted extraction.

Harvesting St. Joan’s Wort

Then I remembered summer of 2018 was the last time I was out harvesting hypericum perforatum (also called St. John’s Wort, or St. Joan’s Wort by us feminist kitchen witches). It was a beautiful, warm summer morning at about 8,000 feet above sea level in the foothills outside of Boulder, Colorado. I spent much of that morning crouched down, softening my gaze until all I saw was the golden glow of hypericum blossoms, and softening my ears to the low hum of busy bees happily harvesting her nectar. I sang to her, I danced with her tall stalks in the gentle breeze, I made offerings, and received a bountiful harvest – enough medicine to keep and share for at least a year.

a field full of golden hypericum perforatum blossoms
A field full of golden hypericum perforatum blossoms

One third of the hypericum was allowed to dry, one third I turned into tincture, and one third into oil.

St. Joan’s Wort in the Materia Medica

According to one of my favorite Materia medicas, The Energetics of Western Herbs by Peter Holmes, St. John’s Wort tincture is used primarily for bladder and kidney irritation, pain and stones. Connected to the kidney and adrenal Qi, or energy, is mental and nervous tension related to stress, chronic pain, nervous exhaustion, frustration and depression (p. 566). The oil can be used in conjunction with the tincture to massage any area of the body, relieving tension and pain.

“When used for its antidepressant action, St. John’s wort herb only becomes fully effective after several weeks of use. For more permanent results two or three months of continuous intake are needed, as well as combining with other antidepressant herbs like Melissa leaf.”

– The Energetics of Western Herbs by Peter Holmes, p 567

Bear in mind that daily use should only be undertaken with the careful supervision of a trained herbalist, and should never be used as a substitute for professional medical care. Do not stop taking any current prescription medications for depression unless directed by your prescribing doctor. If symptoms of mild depression do not improve, please consult a professional!

bright yellow hypericum perforatum blossoms at the top of long green stems
Hypericum in full bloom, note the distinctive yellow pestles in the center of the flower

The tincture and infused oil are also excellent first aid remedies for panic, trauma, anxiety, as well as burns, painful swelling, bug bites and even pain from chickenpox and shingles.

“Applications include muscle tension and cramps, headache, burns and scalds, insect stings and neuralgias. Ointments and compresses are better for treating viral skin conditions such as herpes, cold sores and shingles. Note that for best results, external applications should always be supported by internal use.”

– The Energetics of Western Herbs by Peter Holmes, p 567

When in doubt, throw it out!

I’m so grateful I was able to make a positive id on these mystery jars – it would have been a shame to throw out so much medicine!

Why did I leave these jars unlabeled for so long? Shortly after harvesting, processing, and finally decanting, I became pregnant. I intuitively kept my distance from any herbs that might not be safe to take during pregnancy, St. John’s Wort being one of them. Now that baby is nine weeks old, I’m cleaning out my office, and picking up old projects that I put down before my protracted maternity leave!

(Now, where are all my tincture jars…?)

4 Comments on “The case of the mystery tincture

  1. I wish I had known this when I had shingles 2 seperate times, good to put in the memory bank if I learn of anyone else suffering with shingles though!

  2. I love your article, thank you! I think it’s always nice to provide a little counter-indication info with St. Joan’s wort stories ie. The increased sun sensitivity related to treating depression with St. Joan’s influences. Thank you for sharing personal stories about herbs. The natural world reaches out to us on so many quiet and powerful ways. I await the day when humankind unifies around listening to her wisdom and gentle prodding.

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