Organic Chemistry for Herbalists

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Recently our Queen of Black Eyed Susan announced she was going to tincture their roots. She knew that, as a cousin of Echinacea, Black Eyed Susan had similar effects, in fact, they were reputed to be even more effective in boosting the immune system and warding off infection. But did she know their chemistry? Did she know which phytochemicals to extract in her tincture? What solvent to use to snatch them?

Its customary for beginning (& experienced) herbalists to use the folk method of tincturing. Stuff a quart jar with fresh material, or fill half-way with moistened dry material, fill the rest of the way with vodka or absolute alcohol. Generally this results in a useful tincture, but is it the best we can do?

Not in the case of Echinacea or Black Eyed Susan. Both contain polysaccharides which are responsible for their efficacy on the immune system. Polysaccharides release their magic to water instead of alcohol. They don’t extract into alcohol over 35%.

The moral of the story is this; herbalists do need a foundation in chemistry if they want to make reliable herbal preparations. When we see the lists of plant constituents in our Materia Medica, we do need to know what they are, whether or not we want to extract them…and how.

This story comes with a happy ending. We now have the first course in organic chemistry for herbalists. It will take several courses to fine tune our students’ skills in making superior products. Our Queen of Black Eyed Susan now knows how to pull the magic out of her roots.

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