Even herbalists can get into a rut. We don’t see little bottles of vinegar extractions lining shelves at health food/herb stores, so we generally don’t make them at home, either. Vinegar, being made from and still containing plant matter, naturally decomposes over time. Vinegar tinctures last about 2 years, while alcohol preparations last almost indefinitely. As James Green reiterates, when we are making herbs at home, we generally do so in small batches so there is no particular reason we should not employ vinegar tinctures on a more regular basis.
For years, vinegar was the official menstrum in mainstream pharmacy. Then in the early 1900’s it was replaced by ethyl alcohol. At that time, medicine was quite heroic, and using the strongest, biggest and baddest (because they were sometimes toxic) medicines and treatments was the norm. It was all but goodbye to food-based menstrums like vinegar, alcohol, honey and sugar, and oils as medical knowledge was becoming possessed by the “official” medical community.
Green reminds us that when herbal medicine experienced a resurgence in the 1960’s – 1970’s, the budding herbalists took on where the 1920’s pharmacopoeia left off; that is with using strong alcohol extractions rather than using food-based menstrums. Not to say that alcoholic tinctures are a bad thing; just that herbalists may have overlooked viable options.
More non-alcoholic medicine-making appeals to me on many levels, least of not for the fact that grain alcohol is not widely available (I have to drive to Wisconsin to get it, as it is not sold in Minnesota) and is more costly than even the most expensive bottle of apple cider vinegar. Many households have vinegar on hand anyways, so it’s truly medicine from the pantry.
Back to vinegar. Look on the bottle of Bragg’s apple cider vinegar, and you will find a paragraph of vinegars’ health benefits and history of use. It has been along for, well, as long as anyone can remember. It was used by Hippocrates, Galen, and steeped in uses by common people though the ages. Green sums up vinegar’s benefits (179):
- Pure vinegar is non-toxic and can be tolerated by everyone, young and old
- It is a digestive tonic, helps regulates the acid/alkaline balance
- High in minerals (dilute or add honey to make it go down smoother for daily use)
- Non-alcoholic, for those who want/need a break from traditional tinctures
Medicinally, vinegar is warming but still has an refridgerant effect as it evaporates off the skin, quells thirst and promotes saliva. Green says it has a quality that “alleviates restlessness”, as well as “promotes secretions of the kidneys and respiratory mucous membranes” (181). Topically, vinegar is antiseptic and astringent so use for deodorant, to relieve inflammation, itching, allergic rashes and sunburn. Rosemary Gladstar once joked that her grandfather said her grandmother smelled like a salad dressing from slathering olive oil on her skin and using vinegar hair rinses. Indeed, it is cleansing, toning and conditioning to the skin and hair.
Vinegar combines with other herbs that augment the medicinal attributes it already has. Add to it expectorant herbs, or astringents for internal or external use. A bit of cayenne makes vinegar a wonderful liniment for aches and pains. Where vinegar really shines as a menstrum is for extracting alkaloids, which water and alcohol do not do as well. When alkaloid-containing herbs (lobelia, goldenseal, bloodroot, black walnut are a few) are macerated in vinegar, the acetic acid from the vinegar causes an alkaloid salt to be formed, making it readily available (179).
Although I have tried oxymels, I figured it was high time to make one for my household. Oxymels are a mixture of vinegar and honey, combining sweet and sour to create an invigorating and balanced blend. The simplest type of oxymels is by stirring a tablespoon of vinegar in a tablespoon of honey, then diluted in a cup of warm water. This simple remedy is known to balance the acid-alkaline balance in the body and is employed as a daily tonic. Here is the oxymel that I made, from I recipe I wrote down from a 2006 lecture:
- 1 onion, chopped
- 16 0z apple cider vinegar
- 2 T thyme
- 2 T fennel seeds
- 2 T anise seeds
- 2 T oregano
- 2 cups honey
Bring all but the honey to a boil, then simmer covered for 20 minutes. Let cool slightly, strain and press herbs, and add honey while it is still warm. When would one take this oxymel? You guessed it: cold and flu season, especially for chest colds of all kinds. I added the anise to assist the herbs in expectoration; it’s one of my favorites for thinning and bringing up congesting phlegm.
There are endless varieties of oxymels, so add in herbs that suit your individual needs. The above recipe could replace onions with garlic for extra anti-microbial action, or an addition of black peppercorns and mustard seeds for more warming actions (as vinegar is cooling, see ). James Green says that the basic ratio of vinegar to honey is roughly 1:3, or 1 cup vinegar to 3/4 pounds honey, although I have had some with equal parts honey to vinegar and they seemed to work just fine. Perhaps the larger amount of honey serves for added preservation.
Lobelia oxymel – from Dr. William Cook for dry, irritable coughs, lung congestion
- dried lobelia herb
- apple cider vinegar
Place lobelia (preferably dried) in a jar and cover with apple cider vinegar and steep for 2 weeks. Strain, mix with honey in the proportion of ¾ pound honey to 1 cup vinegar. Place in a water bath, until the mixture is like thin molasses, bottle and refrigerate (246). As you can see, there are no set measurements for materials, so adjust quantities to your needs. Dose as needed for coughs.
Jam’s Green’s Poison Oak Lotion
- 1 part mugwort
- 1 part horsetail
- apple cider vinegar
Make a strong decoction of 1 part mugwort and 1 part horsetail. To 2 parts of this liquid, add 1 part apple cider vinegar. Add 1 tablespoon salt per cup, bottle, label, and store in the fridge. Apply externally often (184).