How To Make An Usnea Tincture (And How Not To) | Growing Up Herbal | Learn how to make an usnea tincture the right way and the wrong way.

Seeing how St. Patrick’s Day is this month, I thought it appropriate to share a bit about my new favorite green herb, usnea, with you today. 

No, I won’t be talking much about what usnea is, how to identify and harvest it, or how to use it as I’ll be sharing all that information in the next issue of The Essential Herbal magazine.

Instead, I want to teach you how to make an usnea tincture as well as some lessons learned on how not to make one too!

What’s So Great About Usnea

How To Make An Usnea Tincture (And How Not To) | Growing Up Herbal | Learn how to make an usnea tincture the right way and the wrong way.

First of all, I love folk herbalism. Folk herbalism is when you prefer to use herbs the way they’ve been used for centuries past, but it can also refer to those who like to use local herbs that grow close to where they live.

I can’t really tell you why I prefer this style of herbalism over other styles. 

Perhaps it’s that I think our ancestors knew a thing or two about plants and their medicine without all the “insight” that science provides us today. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m so very grateful for science, and I love to blend that into the herbalism I practice. However, I have to be careful not to rely on it too much. Intuition and hands-on learning can take you far when it comes to using herbs for your health. Having some herbal mentors and getting an herbal education from a school that supports both styles doesn’t hurt either!

Maybe another reason is because I find self-sufficiency to be ideal, and using herbs that grow in these mountains takes me one step closer to that.

This is where usnea comes into play. 

How To Make An Usnea Tincture (And How Not To) | Growing Up Herbal | Learn how to make an usnea tincture the right way and the wrong way.

At the end of 2015, I learned to identify usnea, and I realized that it grows everywhere in the mountains where I live. So, my husband and I took our four boys and went out hunting for it one evening. We brought back a good bit of it that we’d collected from fallen branches, and I set off learning how to use it and how to preserve it.

Usnea isn’t really water soluble which means that it needs something a bit stronger than water to extract the chemicals it holds out of it. What you need, is alcohol and heat.

There’s More Than One Way To Skin A Cat…

… or bake a cake, shine a penny, knit a sweater, tincture an herb. Yeah, you get where I’m going with this right. I didn’t really like the “skin a cat” euphemism, but since that’s the common one, I went with it. Anyway…

Tincturing herbs can be as simple or as complex as you want to make it as there are many ways to do it. However, the more I study plant medicine, them more I learn the reasoning behind these complex methods of tincturing.

Like I mentioned above, I prefer folk herbalism, and with folk herbalism, tincturing is simple. You take some water, some strong alcohol, and mix them 50/50. Then you fill a jar 1/2 full of herbs, cover it with your water/alcohol mixture, and you let it sit for two to six weeks. After that, you strain the herbs and store your tincture. When you need to use it, you start with a low dose and you work your way up until you get the results you’re looking for.

Pretty simple, right? Right. But, it’s not always consistent. That’s where science comes into play.

There are many herbalists out there who’ve spent their lives studying how to make herbal remedies and how chemistry affects the outcome of certain preparations. 

For me, this is where things start to get a little complex, so I avoided this as a beginner herbalist and stuck to simple tried and true remedies and preparations I’d found until I became more comfortable with making my own formulas and working more in depth with plants.

At this point in my herbal journey, I’m really curious about how to make really good herbal preparations that are going to do what I want them to do, and it boils down to understanding which solvents (water, alcohol, vinegar, glycerin, etc.) extract which constituents (flavonoids, glycosides, tannins, polysaccharides, etc.) from the plant material. The method of extraction (cold, hot, length of time) can also be a factor in how well your preparation turns out.

I hope I’ve not lost you at this point. In case I have, let’s turn the focus back around on tincturing usnea.

How To Make An Usnea Tincture The RIGHT Way

How To Make An Usnea Tincture (And How Not To) | Growing Up Herbal | Learn how to make an usnea tincture the right way and the wrong way.

So I say “the RIGHT way” with a bit of sarcasm because I don’t really believe there’s one “right” way to do anything in herbalism. However, I do believe in trying different things out and learning from mentors.

Herbalist Stephen Buhner, the author of Herbal Antibiotics, says that usnea tinctures best in a combination of water and alcohol (1:5 in 50%) and that a hot extraction method will yield better results (Buhner, 1999).

Since this man has done a ton of study on antibacterial herbs I trust his opinion so I decided to follow his method when it came time to tincture the usnea I’d gathered. 

Below, I’m going to share two different methods for making great usnea tinctures with you. Both follow a similar method, but one is faster than the other.

3-Day Crockpot Usnea Tincture

1:5 tincture using 50% alcohol

How To Make An Usnea Tincture (And How Not To) | Growing Up Herbal | Learn how to make an usnea tincture the right way and the wrong way.

Ingredients:

  • 1-ounce fresh usnea 
  • 50% vodka
  • mortar and pestle or coffee grinder
  • kitchen scale
  • mason jar
  • crockpot

Directions:

  1. Using a kitchen scale, weigh out 1-ounce of fresh usnea.
  2. Using a sharp knife, chop your usnea into small sections. Place it in a coffee grinder (or mortar and pestle) and grind it as fine as you can without getting it too hot. This will result in a fine green powder and white string-like material.
  3. Place all of your herbal material in a mason jar.
  4. Next, pour 5-ounces of vodka over your herbs. Cap tightly. Your liquid should look green.
  5. Place a dishcloth in the bottom of your crockpot. Place your jar on top of the dishcloth. Next, fill your crockpot with water until it reaches the top of the crockpot or comes within 1 inch of the top of your mason jar. Turn the heat on low.
  6. Let this tincture sit in your crockpot, uncovered, for 3 days. Carefully remove the jar once a day and let it cool. While it’s cooling down, add more water to your crock to bring it back up to level. You may also open your jar and then recap it to release any pressure built up in your jar. Once it’s cooled a bit, return it to the crockpot.
  7. When 3 days are up, remove the jar and let it cool. At this point, you can strain the tincture from the plant material (you may want to use coffee filters for this). It should now look brown and smell herby. Compost the plant material, and store your usnea tincture in a dark bottle in a cool, dry place.

Thoughts:

This tincture will turn out a golden brown color and will most likely contain sediment from the plant. You can leave it as it won’t hurt you, but you can also let it settle to the bottom of your jar and slowly siphon off the clear liquid on the top.

I feel like this method produces a high-quality tincture as it contains both water and alcohol and it uses heat to speed up the extraction process.

Double Phase 7-Day Crockpot Usnea Tincture

1:5 tincture using 50% alcohol

How To Make An Usnea Tincture (And How Not To) | Growing Up Herbal | Learn how to make an usnea tincture the right way and the wrong way.

Ingredients:

  • 1-ounce fresh usnea 
  • water
  • 95% alcohol
  • mortar and pestle or coffee grinder
  • kitchen scale
  • mason jar
  • crockpot

Directions:

  1. Using a kitchen scale, weigh out 1-ounce of fresh usnea.
  2. Using a sharp knife, chop your usnea into small sections. Place it in a coffee grinder (or mortar and pestle) and grind it as fine as you can without getting it too hot. This will result in a fine green powder and white string-like material.
  3. Place all of your herbal material in a mason jar.
  4. Next, pour 2.5 ounces of water over your herbs. Stir and cap tightly. You won’t have much liquid. Instead, your usnea will look wet and soupy.
  5. Place a dishcloth in the bottom of your crockpot. Place your jar on top of the dishcloth. Next, fill your crockpot with water until it reaches the top of the crockpot or comes within 1 inch of the top of your mason jar. Turn the heat on low. This will result in a strong decoction. Let this sit in your crockpot for 1 day.
  6. On day 2, carefully remove the jar and let it cool. Once cool, open your jar and add 2.5 ounces of 95% alcohol. Stir and cap tightly. You should now have more liquid.
  7. Place your cooled jar back inside of your crockpot to sit for 6 days on low heat. Be sure to carefully remove the jar once a day and let it cool. While it’s cooling down, add more water to your crockpot to bring it back up to level. You may also open your jar and then recap it to release any pressure built up in your jar. Once it’s cooled a bit, return it to the crockpot.
  8. When 6 days are up, remove the jar and let it cool. Strain the tincture from the plant material. It should now look brown and smell herby. Compost the plant material, and store your usnea tincture in a dark bottle in a cool, dry place.

Thoughts:

This tincture will turn out a deeper brown than the first and will also contain sediment from the plant. Feel free to leave it or siphon it. It’s up to you. 

I feel that this longer method produces a better tincture in the end. I really have no way of knowing that as I don’t test my homemade tinctures (other than by taste, but that’s not very scientific). I simply prefer hot processed preparations to cold processed ones and time is your friend. Perhaps it’s intuition. Perhaps it’s preference.

The more you work with herbs and use them, the more you’ll learn what you prefer too.

How To Make An Usnea Tincture (And How Not To) | Growing Up Herbal | Learn how to make an usnea tincture the right way and the wrong way.

Don’t Be Neglectful When Making Hot Extraction Tinctures

So, I got a little lazy when I made my first 7-day usnea tincture. Instead of removing the jar from the crockpot and adding my water while the jar cooled, I poured the water into the crockpot with the jar still in.

Guess what happened?

How To Make An Usnea Tincture (And How Not To) | Growing Up Herbal | Learn how to make an usnea tincture the right way and the wrong way.

Yeah.

I had usnea in my eyes, hair, and mouth. I had burns on my arms from the hot liquid. Shards of glass were everywhere (thankfully not in my eyes though), and I had usnea plastered to my cabinets and ceiling that I had to scrub off by hand.

It. Took. Hours. 

So, do NOT add water to your crockpot while your jar is in it. The change in temperature will cause your jar to break. If the jar has been sitting in there for a while and you’ve not opened the lid to release the pressure from the steam, it will burst into thousands of pieces.

Just don’t do it. I think I have PTSD from the sound of it. Seriously… I’m overly cautious about hot extraction tinctures these days.

Let’s Review

Usnea is a great antibacterial herb. It is best prepared with a combination of water and alcohol as a hot extraction tincture. Always cool your jar before adding water to your crockpot. Got it? Good!

Also, don’t forget that my article about how to identify, harvest, use, and preserve usnea will be in the next issue of The Essential Herbal magazine. Order your copy today!! (You can now order this back issue as a PDF or print.)

So what about you? Have you ever made an usnea tincture before? How’d it go, and what do you use it for? Share with me in the comment section below!

REFERENCES: 

Buhner, Stephen. (1999). Herbal Antibiotics. Pownal, VT: Storey Books.