How to Turn Plants Into Tinctures, Like an Ancient Alchemist

Flower_Essences_1Jessica Leigh Hester of AtlasObscura offers a beginner’s guide to extracting flavors from herbs and flowers.

Hieronymus Brunschwig had a cure for whatever ailed you, and it all came down to plants. More specifically, it hinged on coaxing things from them.

In the early 1500s, the German surgeon-alchemist was sure that distillation could do some very heavy lifting when it came to human health. Brunschwig believed that distillation—one method of extracting flavors from flowers, herbs, and other plants, by boiling and condensing water—could calibrate the body, which was frustratingly prone to falling out of whack.

A tall order, but Brunschwig was not one to shy away from an encyclopedic effort. In his book one of the first printed distillation manuals, he arranged plants alphabetically, and noted their sneaky synonyms. He tallied the afflictions that various plants could defeat, and annotated which portions of flowers, stalks, and leaves were especially potent. He even indicated the months when each plant species were at their most formidable.

“Water of lekes,” distilled from roots in June, may be a balm “after the byrth of a chylde,” he wrote. “Water of lettys,” swallowed at “mornynge and nyght,” could comfort the “lyver.” The book promises drinkable salves for nearly any malady from head to toe, however ineffable. You could distill a remedy for headaches, marital discord, or bad dreams. You might chug some water of dill, or dab a bit on your temples.

There’s a long history here. Ancient Arabic alchemists made tinctures by macerating flowers and herbs, accenting them with spices, and setting them to boil and condense in glass vials over wood fires. By the Middle Ages, distillation was widely practiced by physicians, botanists, and apothecaries. The Victorians were enamored with tinctures, and during the Prohibition era in the United States, when alcohol was hard to come by, moonshiners applied the principles of distillation to make high-octane booze. (In the U.S., it’s still very much illegal to craft your own hard liquor at home, though Americans are permitted to buy and use distillation paraphernalia for other purposes.)

We asked Sarah Lohman, a historic gastronomist and the author of Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, to lay out a recipe for making simple infusions at home.

1. Collect your materials

No need to overthink this—most any herb or flower will do. “Lavender, thyme, basil, you can create whatever you want to add into baked goods, dinner, ice cream, whatever you’re thinking,” Lohman says.

“I guess if you’re really foolish, you could infuse something that’s poison—but just don’t do that,” Lohman adds. Only use plants you recognize. If you’re scouting for wild edibles, use a guidebook or go with a seasoned pro. “If you stick to herbs you find in the grocery store, you should be in good shape,” Lohman adds. You’ll also need a container. Plastic, snap-top takeout containers work nicely for the initial infusion.

The process is pretty, and fairly hands-off.

2. Measure out the ingredients

Besides your plant material, you only need high-proof alcohol. The higher the proof, the faster the infusion happens, Lohman says—and if it’s really high, around 180-proof (meaning it’s 90 percent alcohol and 10 percent water), you’ll likely need to cut it with water in order to douse the burn. Vanilla extract, for instance, is 70-proof, so it’s 35 percent alcohol. “You make the infusion at a higher proof, and then you usually add water to bring down the proof to a comestible level,” Lohman says.

If you have a cup of Everclear and a cup of water, for instance, you’ve slashed the proof in half—from roughly 90 percent to 45 percent. For flavored spirits, such as things you’d add to cocktails, you’d want to hover around 20 or 25 percent. Keep on adding splashes of water until you get there.

3. Walk away

Place the plastic container in a sunny windowsill, and then leave it alone for at least 24 hours.

4. Sample and adjust

Since high-proof alcohol kills whatever microbes cross its path, you don’t have to worry about things getting funky the longer you leave your concoction stewing. “The worst-case scenario is that you make something you don’t like the taste of and you throw it out,” Lohman says. That said, you’ll want to test your infusion daily so that the flavor doesn’t get stronger than you like.

A little clove goes a long way, while something like basil or thyme will be more subtle. To get a punchy flavor, you’ll either need to begin with more plant material or let the infusion sit around longer.

This is where tasting is crucial. A delicate flavor, such as wheatgrass, might take a few weeks to develop, while a more-aggressive lavender comes through in just two or three days—anything beyond that might be overbearing. On the other hand, if the flavor is too toothless, you can keep adding more of the ingredients—one vanilla pod here, a clove there. “It’s a little bit of trial and error,” Lohman says.

As you experiment, keep a log of the tweaks you make. This makes the whole thing replicable, if things go well—and if they don’t, you know what to change in the next go-around.

5. Decant it

Once you’ve arrived at the flavor you want, you’ll need to fish out or strain the plant material so that the flavor doesn’t keep evolving.

After that, you might want to pour it into a pretty glass jar. (There are lots of apothecary-aesthetic shops online.

The finished product makes a creative, inexpensive gift. “At this point, you’ve bought a bottle of vodka, plucked some stuff from the garden, and that’s it,” Lohman says. “It’s a very low-risk at-home hobby.” Not to mention a delicious way to tap into an ancient practice, with a modern twist.

Does the Smell of Citrus Lower Street Fights?

OrangeIn Stratumseind, a street in the Dutch city of Eindhoven known for its nightlife, cylinders on lamposts and balconies dispense aromatherapy to deter brawls. After an experiment showed that the smell of citrus helped calm prisoners at police stations, the city is experimenting with this aromatherapy to help police break up fights an average of 400 times a year.

Now as some groups feel the need to protest in the streets, maybe a splash of citrus will calm them down.

Essential Oils From Around the World

In these stressful times, the ability to find ways to reduce stress is greatly valued. Here, from the Discoverer blog are some ideas for essential oils from around the world.

Essential oils have been used around the world for centuries, and they're an easy way to bring the scents of the world into your home during a time where you can't go outside or travel as much as you might like.

Before trying any essential oils, you'll want to do some background reading, such as this article from Johns Hopkins Medicine, to see if using essential oils is suitable for you and your family. Healthline also has a number of helpful articles specific to particular essential oils, such as this one about ylang ylang, and this one about peppermint. In short, the health benefits of essential oils are inconclusive, but they're still a great way to make your home smell nice.

You'll want to ensure that you choose a pure oil, with no additives. Regardless, essential oils should never be ingested. Instead, you’ll need a Diffuser to use them to best effect. There are many types that you can buy but it’s also possible to make one yourself.

If you plan to use essential oils in the bath, always use a carrier oil to dilute the essential oil; this is vital so that the concentrated oil doesn’t come into contact with your skin. Blend five drops of essential oil with a tablespoon of jojoba, grapeseed or almond oil. Do a patch test first, and never use on broken skin. Add the oil after you have run the bath so that the tub doesn’t get too slippery and the impact of the oil’s aroma isn’t lost before you get in.

Here‘s what you need to know about some of the most popular essential oils and where they’re from.


A lavender field in France. Photo: prochasson frederic
A lavender field in France. Photo: prochasson frederic

Suggested for: anxiety and fatigue

Lavender essential oil is distilled from the variety Lavandula angustifolia, commonly known as English lavender or spike oil lavender. These dense evergreen shrubs bloom in mid to late summer and their fragrant purple flowers add a vivid pop of colour to many gardens. The plant is also grown on a commercial scale, particularly in the south of France and across the Mediterranean region.


Peppermint oil. Photo: Tatevosian Yana
Peppermint oil. Photo: Tatevosian Yana

Suggested for: digestive issues and headaches

Peppermint, a hybrid of spearmint and water mint, was originally found in the Mediterranean and Middle East. It even gets a mention in Greek mythology: the nymph Minthe tried to seduce Hades, causing the enraged Queen Persephone to turn her into a mint plant. These days the fast-growing herb is cultivated throughout North America, Europe and Japan. It has distinctive leaves with a serrated edge and when it flowers, the blooms are pink and mauve. A process of steam distilling its leaves, fresh or dried, creates the essential oil.


Patchouli plant. Photo: wasanajai
Patchouli plant. Photo: wasanajai

Suggested for: skin conditions and stress

Patchouli, botanical name Pogostemon cablin, is native to Asia. It’s cultivated in countries such as China, Indonesia and Vietnam as well as the nations of South East Asia and some Indian Ocean islands. The bushy herb grows to between 2 and 3 feet tall, and has tiny pink-white flowers; to produce the oil, it needs to be extracted from dried leaves. Its heady scent makes it popular for perfumes as well as essential oils.

Ylang Ylang

Cananga tree flowers. Photo: SiNeeKan
Cananga tree flowers. Photo: SiNeeKan

Suggested for: high blood pressure and depression

Steam distillation of the yellow, star-shaped flowers of the Cananga tree creates a potent essential oil. Because of its strength, some people find it can cause headaches or nausea, so it’s often combined with other essential oils before use. Nevertheless, it has its fans, particularly of the subtler, less pungent version known as Cananga oil. You’ll find this tropical species in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and India, as well as tropical Queensland in Australia.


Citrus fruits. Photo: New Africa
Citrus fruits. Photo: New Africa

Suggested for: boosting moods and promoting energy

Essential oils from the citrus family have a zingy quality that can lift the spirits, making them popular choices for freshening a room. Most come from the rind of the fruit. According to this fascinating article from the BBC, we can trace all citrus fruits back to the foothills of the Himalayas. They spread from China, India and Burma because of climate change; now they’re associated with places as far afield as Florida and Italy. If the scent of bergamot seems familiar, you might be an Earl Grey tea drinker – the oil is what gives this type of tea its distinctive aroma.

The science is inconclusive, but so long as you’re doing no harm, you may feel you’ll gain from using them. I love the scent created by combining orange and bergamot essential oils. What about you? Let us know your favorite oils and combinations on Twitter or Facebook.

A New Age Interpretation of Christmas

MagiHere is my annual Christmas musing about the three wise men of the Christmas recounting. Wise men in those days were the astrologers. So it was the configuration of the planets and the astrologers who interpreted them that set things in motion and spread the events to the world.

The original interpretation was that there would be a momentous moment that would change the world as evidenced by the positioning of the stars. The Magi - the three wise men (astrologers?) followed a star to the city of Bethlehem. Whether or not you believe in Christianity, you would have to admit that the events predicted by the Magi did change the world.

Also, the Magi brought Frankincense and Myrrh which are religious aromatherapy essences. Frankincense represents Christianity and Myrrh represents Judiasm. It all connects....

Merry Christmas to all!

Using Aromatherapy to Repell Mosquitoes

Mosquito repel plantsMosquitoes love me and I can't figure out why. Whenever I am outside, it seems like I can be bitten anywhere by location, city or country, and anywhere on my body. Aside from constantly spraying myself with chemicals, is there an all natural way to create a mosquito repellant? There is.

According to an article in Alternet, aromatherapy mixtures can help repell mosquitoes and are safer to use than pesticides like DEET.

For those looking to avoid toxic chemicals like DEET or permethrin (a possibly carcinogenic insecticide frequently used to treat clothing and mosquito nets), plants might hold the key to repelling mosquitoes. One of the most often cited is lemon eucalyptus. In fact, a 2014 Australian study found that a mixture of 32 percent lemon eucalyptus oil provided more than 95 percent protection from mosquitoes for three hours, compared to a 40 percent DEET repellent that gave test subjects 100 percent protection for seven hours.

But lemon eucalyptus is not the only option. A 2013 study examined the ability of 20 different plant essential oils to repel malarial mosquitoes. Notably, rosemary, lemon, eucalyptus, neem, and pennyroyal each had no repellent effect. The three best were cinnamon, citronella, and thyme, which were repellent, irritating, and toxic to the mosquitoes. Additionally, they found that cumin, lemongrass, coleus, and thyme were irritants to the mosquitoes at all concentrations. Another 2013 study found that cinnamon repelled the Asian Tiger mosquito, and so did a plant called Herba Schizonapetae that is used in Chinese medicine. Yet another plant that proved effective in studies is Nepeta parnassicus, a species in the mint family related to catnip.

Unfortunately, plant based products evaporate quickly, which means they must be re-applied. But another study, published in 2001, tried the novel step of adding vanillin to the essential oils it tested on several species of mosquitoes. Vanillin, the primary component of vanilla (which is sometimes created synthetically and used as cheap vanilla flavor), extended the efficacy of the four plants tested (turmeric, kaffir lime, citronella and hairy basil). One commercial product that makes use of this finding is Dr. Mercola’s Bug Spray, which combines citronella, lemongrass, peppermint, and vanillin.

Or, if none of the above works, use Jewelweed after you get bitten. If you live in the eastern half of the United States, you are in luck, because this beautiful wildflower literally grows as a weed. Grab a few leaves, mush them up in your fingers until they are mucilaginous, and apply them to your bites. Voila! The itch is gone.

Find all of your mosquito repellent using aromatherapy here.