Do It Yourself Medicine

Fall 2016
Red clover and dandelion root – two nourishing wild plants to tincture. English photo

By Joyce White

Plants are all chemists,
Tirelessly assembling the molecules of the world.

– Gary Snyder

What a revelation to me at midlife in the 1990s when Maine naturalist Jean Hoekwater introduced me to the idea that I could make my own medicine from plants! Her Echinacea plants were vibrant, and she showed me how to make a medicinal tincture from them using vodka to extract the healing properties from the chopped plant material. I’ve used the tincture ever since whenever exposed to colds or flu for its antibacterial and antiviral properties.

Being able to create medicine from plants fits with my desire to live as independently as possible. For most of human history, plant medicine was integral to people’s lives. Manufactured antibiotics displaced plant medicine, and now we’re told that without antibiotics, modern medicine would not be possible. But as early as 1945, Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin, warned that unwise use could eventually render antibiotics useless.

So here we are in 2016 with many virulent microbes resistant to existing antibiotics, and the only solution I’ve seen experts suggest is to manufacture new antibiotics; no mention of the possibility of using herbs to boost our immune responses; no mention that some plant medicine actually can act as an antibiotic. Stephen Buhner, however, lists several plants with antibiotic properties in his “Herbal Antibiotics: Natural Alternatives for Treating Drug-Resistant Bacteria.”

Herbal medicine is valued in the medical systems of Europe, but in the United States as many roadblocks as possible seem to exist to discourage competent, well-trained herbalists from using their skills and knowledge to help people.

Individuals, however, are free to learn about and prepare plant medicines for their own use. Although still a novice, I prepare and use herbal medicines as part of my lifestyle. I’ve chosen two wild plants with many uses to write about here: red clover and dandelion root.

Preparing Tinctures

Tinctures can be made easily from both plants. Instructions in various books use different ratios of plant material to alcohol. Here’s how I’ve adapted those instructions. I fill clean, quart glass canning jars 3/4 full of plant material. For red clover I pick fresh, dark red blossoms early in the day and put them directly into the jar. For dandelion I dig roots in spring or fall, scrub them thoroughly with a brush, which usually takes a couple of changes of water, then chop them into small pieces on a board and add them to a jar. Then I fill the jars with vodka and cap and shake them thoroughly before labeling them with the plant name and date. The jars sit for four to six weeks in a dark corner of the kitchen where they are easily accessible to shake every couple of days.


Dandelion is an unsung hero of the plant world. Its botanical name, Taraxacum officinale, refers to its historical use as a bitter herb. Plants’ scientific names are based on Latin or Greek. The Latin word “officinale” means “of the workshop” and alludes to apothecary workshops. It indicates that historically dandelion was an accepted part of official medical herbalism. Any “officinale” plant was prized by the apothecary, the forerunner of today’s pharmacy.

Both leaves and roots have medicinal uses, but the dandelion root was officially included in the U.S. Pharmacopeia from 1831 to 1926. Doug Elliot says in “Wild Roots” that until 1965 dandelion root remained in the National Formulary. So as late as the 1960s, dandelion root was recognized as a useful medicinal plant.

I have a special affection for plants with dual uses as both food and medicine, and I don’t simply substitute plant medicine for pharmaceuticals to treat a specific problem. Rather I use herbs to nourish and balance my whole being, body, mind and spirit.

Traditionally the root was used for rheumatism, and science indicates that it has an anti-inflammatory effect. Its primary use is for conditions of the liver associated with increased bile secretion. It may also lower blood sugar, act as a weak diuretic and as a weak but safe antibiotic against Candida infections, according to Maine herbalist Corinne Martin. Herbalist Deb Soule in “The Roots of Healing” suggests that the root tincture or tea can help alleviate menstrual or menopause problems.

In “Herbal Remedies from the Wild,” Corinne Martin suggests that dandelion root is a gentle laxative and that its diuretic actions combined with its ability to replace potassium can help alleviate fluid retention associated with heart problems and PMS.

Red Clover

Red clover, Trifolium pratense, is native to Asia and Europe and is naturalized in North America. Its dark pink, round flower heads are best harvested at full bloom before turning brown – usually in June in Maine but possibly into July. Check for spittle bugs and bees, then pick the heads into a paper bag, being sure to leave lots for the bees. Then put the flower heads straight into a quart jar. The jar looks nearly full before I pour in the vodka, but it loses volume as the flowers absorb the liquid. I add more vodka then to cover the plant material.

I began using red clover tincture for its tumor-inhibiting and general healing and balancing properties noted by Martin. She says it also has expectorant (mucus loosening), antitussive (cough suppressing) and antispasmodic properties, making it useful for a variety of chest conditions. Clover tea has long been used to help treat whooping cough.

Red clover gradually changes metabolism and tissue function to restore the body’s balance, Martin adds. Its high mineral content makes clover useful for helping treat eczema and psoriasis, since a deficiency of trace minerals is thought to set the stage for these skin diseases. Those same minerals may aid in digestion. Red clover flower tincture has no apparent toxicity, and no contraindications exist other than the occasional allergy to clover.

Straining the Tincture

After four to six weeks, the alcohol will have extracted the medicinal properties from the plant material, which can then be strained. I pour the mixture through a strainer and into a 2-quart pitcher to separate the used plant material from the liquid tincture, pressing on the plant material with a spoon until no more liquid comes out. Plant material goes into compost, and the liquid is bottled in jars and labeled. Some goes into labeled brown dropper bottles for immediate use. Clear glass jars should be stored in a cabinet out of sunlight so that the tincture will maintain its usefulness for at least two years and probably much longer.

This article is for informational purposes only. Please consult a medical practitioner regarding health problems.

About the author: Joyce White gardens in Stoneham, Maine, and is a frequent contributor to The MOF&G.

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