Tinctures, tisanes, infusions, decoctions: what’s the difference?
Herbal medicine is enchanting because it’s a simultaneously an art, craft, and science. It’s an art to formulate and be a matchmaker between people and plants. It’s a science to inquire about why and how herbs work the way they do. This post introduces you to the craft of herbal medicine, and demystifies some of the terminology. [This post was originally published in the November 2017 Face the Current magazine.]
Tinctures: water and alcohol extracts
Best for: strong medicinal activity, convenience, long term storage
Tinctures are made by grinding or chopping herbs into small pieces and steeping them in a water/alcohol mixture for 1-4 weeks. Grain alcohol and vodka are the most common solvents used, typically in concentrations of 50-65%. These 2 solvents are excellent at extracting a wide range of plant compounds, making this a preferred preparation when medicinal activity is sought. (However, non-alcoholic tinctures can be made with glycerine.)
Virtually every herb can be tinctured, and they have a long shelf life (up to 10 years depending on storage conditions). They are usually dispensed or sold in 1-2oz. dropper bottles. For these reasons of medicinal strength, flexibility, shelf stability, and convenience, herbalists use tinctures the most. They are usually taken internally by mouth, but they can also be used externally in some cases.
When alcoholic extracts are applied to the skin, they are called liniments.
Tisanes: herbal teas
Best for: daily use of palatable aerial (above-ground) herb parts (leaves and flowers)
Also known as herbal teas, tisanes are not technically teas in the classical sense–they do not come from the _Camellia sinensis_ tea plant. Rather, they are water infusions made from herbs. Common herbal teas include peppermint, chamomile, rose, verbena, and rooibos. They can be brewed in a variety of ways (loose leaf with strainer, tea bag, ball infuser) and steep times vary between 3-10 minutes.
Herbal teas are not as strong as tinctures, but they can be very effective for calming the nervous system, soothing the stomach, and brightening mood.
The term infusion has broader meaning in herbal medicine. It refers to any preparation where an herb is steeped in a particular medium. These include hot water infusions (aka tisanes or herbal teas), oil infusions, honey infusions, and even vinegar infusions (i.e. fire cider, below).
Original fire cider recipe – Rosemary Gladstar
- ½ cup grated fresh horseradish root
- ½ cup fresh chopped onions
- ¼ cup or more chopped garlic
- ¼ cup or more grated ginger
- Chopped fresh or dried cayenne pepper to taste
- Optional ingredients; Turmeric, lemon, elderberry, jalapeno, rosemary, beet, cinnamon, etc.
- Place herbs in a half-gallon canning jar and cover with enough raw unpasteurized apple cider vinegar to cover the herbs by at least three to four inches. Cover tightly with a tight fitting lid.
- Place jar in a warm place and let for three to four weeks. After three to four weeks, strain out the herbs, and reserve the liquid.
- Add honey ‘to taste’. Warm the honey first so it mixes in well.
- Rebottle and enjoy! Fire Cider will keep for several months unrefrigerated if stored in a cool pantry. But it’s better to store in the refrigerator if you’ve room.
Infusions can take many forms, such as a rose and kava root-infused coconut oil for massages. Be creative!
Decoctions: herbal brewing
Best for: daily use of tough herb parts (roots, bark, berries, seeds) and mushrooms
Decoctions are made by placing herbs in cold water (usually 1t-1T per cup of water), heating until boiling, covering and reducing to a simmer for 20 mins to an hour. Decoctions are performed when simple infusions won’t do with tough and sturdier plant parts or mushroom pieces. These are unlikely to be extracted with a 10 minute steep in hot water. They need heat and time. Decoctions can be done on the stove or in a slow cooker.
What if you want a tea with both flowers and roots—like a rose and elderberry tea? You can make an incoction (infusion + decoction) by decocting the elderberries and adding the rose in the last 5 minutes of the simmer.
Crockpot chai recipe – Whole spices + time = the best chai.
Base spices: Place the following in a crockpot (any size will do):
- 3 sticks cinnamon, broken
- 1/2 whole nutmeg, chopped coarsely
- 4-5 whole cardamom pods
- 3 whole star anise, broken
- 1T finely shredded ginger
- 3 black peppercorns, bruised
- 3 whole cloves
- pinch sea salt
Add 6 cups water and turn the crockpot on medium. (If you have a time setting, I usually do 6 or 8 hours.) Include any herbs you might want in there:
- Dandelion root
- Burdock root
- Ashwaganda root
- Turmeric rhizome
- Ginger rhizome
- Nettle leaf
- Reishi mushroom
- Turkey tail mushroom
- Astragalus root
Favorite herbal chai combos
- Reishi + Eleuthro
- Hawthorn berry + Doug fir needles (substitute another conifer)
- Ashwaganda + rosewater
- Turmeric + astragalus
If you want to add tea (green, black, white, or yerba mate), add it in the last 5 minutes. (Otherwise it’ll be VERY bitter.) You’ll know when it’s ready when you smell it. Strain into a mug and sweeten/add milk if you desire. You can keep the rest in the crockpot (I use the ‘warm’ setting).
This stores very well in the fridge. Enjoy!