Thursday, May 5, 2011

First Tincture: Valerian Root

Events around the homestead are running far ahead of posting, as is so often the case in spring.  A lot has been going on what with the installation a new package of Italian honey bees, and the addition of two Cuckoo Marans hens to our tiny backyard flock.  (Yes, I know that Cuckoo Marans sounds like a stripper's name, but it's a breed of chicken, trust me.) Add more transplanted stinging nettles, and ramps, and rootstock, plus potatoes still to be planted, and it's a bit of a whirlwind.  Blog-worthy stuff seems to just be slipping right past me these days, so I decided to seize upon one of them and just get a post out already.

Learning more about herbal medicine made my official list of goals for this year.  Last year I planted a good selection of the more widely available medicinal herbs.  Over the winter I picked up a few titles on the subject and dipped into them from time to time.  And finally today I've made my first effort towards creating a medicinal tincture.  I'm really hoping I just picked one of the more difficult ones, because it was rather a tedious chore: valerian root.  I planted three valerian plants last year, and spring of the second year is the latest time to harvest the roots.  I could only bear to dig one of them up; I'm hoping the other two will set seed and propagate themselves so I can harvest some of those next year.  You see, to make a tincture from the root of the plant is to kill that plant.  That's hard for me.  Beets, carrots, parsnips and turnips are one thing, but perennials are another.

That's one excuse anyway.  An equally good excuse would be that valerian roots are an absolute pain to clean.  Here's a picture of what it looked like after 20 minutes of hosing off outside, before I tackled the rest of the cleaning inside. It's much like being hairdresser to a sheepdog.  A very dirty and tractable sheepdog.  The digging took only a couple minutes.  The cleaning took at least an hour.  Other medicinal tinctures are going to have to be less work if they're going to get made.  Fortunately, once the roots were clean enough to pass muster with me, there was very little else to it.  I simply cut them up with kitchen shears, packed them very tightly into a clean canning jar, and poured over enough 80 proof vodka to cover.  If I'd had 100 proof vodka on hand, I would have used that.

For the next several weeks the tincture will stay in a kitchen cabinet where I'll see it and remember to shake it every other day or so.  After that it'll be strained and stored in the pantry where it will keep forever, or until it's used up. We'll see how diligent I am about making use of all the other medicinal herbs we've got around here.  If it can be justified, eventually it may make sense to stock up on a case or two of 100 proof.  One is inevitably drawn to wonder if it's the herb in the herbal tinctures which lends the efficacy, or is it the alcohol itself?  Valerian is known as a powerful sedative, but for a lightweight like myself, so is vodka.

Valerian root has a pronounced smell which some people apparently find extremely unpleasant.  I sort of like it.  It's strong but not overpowering.  I would describe it as somewhere between mossy forest and licorice.  My cat found the scent of it on my fingers incredibly fascinating just after I finished making the tincture.  I don't think this will be a tincture I've got to hold my nose to take.  At least I hope not.

Oh, and if you're an herbal medicine whiz and feel compelled to tell me I was too late with harvesting my valerian root, please save it.  Tell me in a month or so, if you must.  Today the effort is just too fresh in my mind to learn that it was all wasted.  On the other hand, if you're still an herbal medicine whiz and you have some nifty trick for cleaning valerian root, or any other herbal medicine tips you feel generous about, pipe right up.


Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

Two things about valerian: A good tincture really will knock you out if you're having trouble sleeping. And the plants really will propagate -- in some places it is considered an invasive.

My wife knows a fair amount about herbal medicines, so feel free to shoot an email this way if you have questions or are looking for good resources.

Chile said...

Interesting. Thank you for sharing this info!

Question about cleaning the roots. Were you just using a regular hose or a sprayer? I clean vegs in my volunteer job at a local organic garden and found the sprayer on the hose makes very quick work of getting the dirt out of the thick onion roots. Trying to clean it under running water in the faucet takes much longer. So...I'm thinking a sprayer might work for you, too.

queen of string said...

I have been considering having a nettle patch or tub or something. I was concerned they would invade everywhere though. Did you do anything special to stop them and have they been a problem?


it's a shame you dont have time to post so much anymore, I have learnt a lot from your blog.

teekaroo said...

Wow, that seems like a lot of work. I don't know much about herbal remedies, but it is something I would like to learn more about.

Paula Adams Perez said...

From the dried valerian powder at the health food store, I'd describe it as "terrible foot odor." Phew!! I can always smell it long after a customer has opened the jar!

P.S. Despite our record-setting cool "La Nina" weather, your Tuscan kale seeds are sprouting well!

Andy and Cheryl Anderson said...

Good for you on Valerian Root tincture. I use Valerian for headaches. I mix it with spearmint. Really helps alot.

Jen said...

Last year was my first attempt at tinctures - echinacea and ginger, mixed (after tincturing) with elderberry juice and sugar (to preserve the elderberry juice). I did not get around to tincturing the root of the echinacea, but the rest of the plant was easy to deal with. I couldn't bring myself to do the roots due to the difficulties you describe - hours of cleaning, killing my plants. This was meant to be an immune system tonic, and indeed we were healthy until we ran out of it in March.

Kate said...

Tovar, thanks for letting me know the plants will propagate. That's encouraging. I hope the two I left will do so, and I hope that by next spring the trauma of harvesting the roots has faded enough that purposeful harvesting will keep the valerian in check.

Chile, you're welcome. I used a sprayer hose. These roots were just incredibly thick and tangled, and had some wood mulch in their clutches as well as dirt.

QoS, I put my nettles in really poor soil and in a shady area. I want them to expand, just not like crazy. So far the expansion has been minimal - just about right. I'll keep posting as often as I can manage, but I think the schedule will always be erratic.

teekaroo, me too. Seems like the books and planting the herbs only take me so far. Then it's time to actually get my hands dirty.

Paula, I think the scent of the freshly dug root is a little different from the dried variety. I wouldn't wear it as a perfume or anything, but it's sort of a neat scent. Thanks for letting me know the kale seeds are sprouting. I hope they do their Pennsylvania heritage proud.

Andy/Cheryl, do you mean that you make a mixed tincture of valerian and spearmint? Or separate tinctures? Or something else? I have spearmint too, so maybe I should do something with it, other than dry it for cooking.

Jen, that sounds like a great tincture combo. I love elderberry and ginger. Going on my list!

saving for travel said...

Congratulations on working on one of your goals. I was very impressed with your list. I'm currently blogging about my 101 goals in 1001 days. It is good to have something to work towards don't you think?

Keep up the excellent posts.

Sft x

Jackie said...

Great post. I have been interested in making tinctures for a little while now but haven't taken that step to actually doing it. It sounds easy enough once you get past the root cleaning.

Kate said...

SFT, thank you. You goals project sounds a lot more ambitious than mine. Even assembling a list of 101 goals sounds like a challenge, let alone getting them done!

Jackie, you probably know this, but your comment made me realize that I wasn't terribly clear in my post. Tinctures are not always made with roots. Depending on the plant, they might be made from other parts. Root tinctures are obviously more work than leaf tinctures, and more destructive. And if it had been a burdock root tincture, the cleaning would have been much simpler, though the digging would have been prodigious. So yes, tincturing doesn't have to be as difficult as it is with valerian. Don't let my experience put you off.

Andy and Cheryl Anderson said...

Andy/Cheryl, do you mean that you make a mixed tincture of valerian and spearmint? Or separate tinctures? Or something else? I have spearmint too, so maybe I should do something with it, other than dry it for cooking.

I have 2 separate tinctures I buy from the store (Haven't got around to making homemade tinctures yet).

Spearmint is a leaf tincture.

Says 15-30 drops 1-3 times a day. per tincture. (Consult doctor if unusual symptoms develop).

When I have a headache I put a little of both tinctures (15-30 drops per tincture) into some warm water and drink as a tea. Usually takes me 3 cups to get rid of a headache.

Sarah said...

Could I suggest that when your tincture is ready, you clear your weekend before trying it. Fresh root affects people differently from dried root. Autumn and spring harvest will also be different. Some people find valarian calms them down/helps them sleep, others find it stimulating and makes them hyperactive. So start off with a small dose and give yourself time to see how it affects you. Valerian is like valium in that it is actually a muscle relaxant rather than a straight forward soporific. You can also mix it in tincture form with passionflower and hops tinctures to give a very effective sleep rememdy. Don't use hops if prown to depression and don't give hops to men with compromised testosterone levels. You can also use the aerial parts if you want a less strong medicine.

Kelsie said...

Yep--Someone mentioned that the plants will propagate, and that's definitely true with almost any medicinal herb where you use the roots. Just make sure some pieces of the rootstock break off in the ground when you harvest. I grow elecampane in my medicinal garden, and I was SO SAD when I dug up the second year plants to make my absolute joy, though, even MORE elecampane plants than I started with popped up out of the ground this spring and now they're HUGE--bigger than the plants I started from seed two years ago. Root tinctures are definitely more time consuming to make, so when you try your first leaf/flower tinctures, you'll be pleasantly surprised at how quickly you can prep one!

Kate said...

Andy & Cheryl, thanks for clarifying.

Sarah, thanks for the suggestions. My husband and I have both used valerian store-bought tablets and found them helpful for sleep. So I hope our experience with the tincture will bring no surprises there.

Kelsie, good to know. I just put in some elecampane this year. I should be processing my first flower tincture pretty soon. The camomile has buds on it right now.

northidahojoyce said...

I understand the volatile oils in valerian root are stronger when the root is dried. When I tinctured mine in 200-proof vodka, (available in MT, not ID) I put them in the vodka right away (fresh-cut). Next time I'll try drying them first. Also, in cleaning the root, I used a hard stream from the nozzle attachment to get the big dirt off; every time I ran into a deep crevice, I cut it apart there with my clippers (not wimpy scissors) and continued with the hard stream of water, cutting and hosing as I went. Next step was to cut all the rootlets into 1/4" dice with my clippers. This summer, when I cut off all the flowers before they opened, expecting a huge crop of juicy roots, because the plants were several years old All of the roots of the huge plants I chose to harvest were dried up, papery, and SPENT. Lesson learned: don't let them go longer than three years. Fortunately, I have lots of younger plants to check because valerian HAS become invasive in my yard, and I love it. The flowers smell heavenly! The more the better! And, yes, the roots stink to high heaven. Even in a sealed quart jar outside on the deck, the smell was unbearable.

Patty said...

I enjoyed reading your experience with tincturing valerian, especially since I just went through the exact process yesterday. It took forever to wash the roots in my kitchen sick. When I dug up my plant though, I cut the root wad into quarters and placed one quarter back into the ground for next year. I have three other plants and will rotate them for usage each season.

I am currently drying the roots in my over under the lowest temperature possible. Tomorrow I plan to tincture them. It's my understanding the tincture is most potent when tinctured dry. Right now the smell of drying valerian is powerful and driving my cats wild!

Karen Fischer said...

I have just started to dabble in this. Today I made my first Tincture of Chamomile and Valerian root, both dried, mixed together. I hope in a few weeks, it works. I have been on sleeping meds via my MD for too many years. I am going all natural with most things. A new life at the age of 50...

JAMES09 said...

Why vodka? why not water, or an oil of some kind?

I'm an alcoholic & the LAST THING I need is to get anywhere near alcohol....

I like this idea of yours tho...I have heard for years about Valerian Root & how it helps you to sleep, I just have never tried it....yet.

Kate said...


The alcohol is a solvent for the medicinal elements of the root. Also, it's an excellent preservative. Once you have a strongly alcoholic tincture, it basically lasts forever without degrading, so long as it doesn't evaporate. I understand that glycerin is another medium used for medicinal tinctures. Sometimes glycerin is actually preferred over alcohol for some medicinal plants. I don't know too much about those sorts of tinctures though. You could find out about that in a book on medicinal herbs.