Throughout history, herbs have had an important place in the medicine
of the people. We have found remains of medicinal herbs in stone-age burial
sites (ca. 10,000 BC), and have written records of herbs and their preparations
from the ancient Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek and Chinese cultures dating back
to 3,000 BC or before.
At first, humans probably used herbs the same way we have observed African
chimpanzees to--by eating them. After some experimentation, early people
realized that herbs were more effective when picked at just the right season
and preserved in a preparation. We know from the most extensive medical
record of the Egyptians, the Ebers Papyrus (ca. 1550 BC), that many types
of herbal preparations were popular. Salves, ointments, teas and alcoholic
extracts were recommended for many ailments, from the wounds of war to a
variety of menstrual difficulties.
The use of these many preparations continued, being refined by the Greeks
and Romans (450 BC to ca. 100 AD). The great Greek herbalist, Dioscorides
traveled and practiced 50 years after the death of Christ. In his monumental
work, De Materia Medica (55AD), he gives instructions for many kinds
of herbal preparations, including vinegar and alcoholic extracts.
Galen, the renowned Roman doctor (130-201 AD), recommended many different
herbal preparations in his writings, including poultices, gargles, pessaries,
ointments, oils, cerates, tablets and inhalations. His name is immortalized
in the word "galenicals," meaning compound formulations.
The preparations of the ancients were carried on and slowly evolved over
the next 2,000 years. An excellent record of the variety of early 17th century
herbal preparations can be found in the Pharmacopeia Londonensis (1618),
the first official drug book from Great Britain. This influential work lists
many different kinds of preparations, including tinctures, salves, ointments
and elixirs. Today, many of the preparations available from manufacturers
in the U.S. and Europe are directly descended from ancient sources.
As a retailer, knowing the range of dose forms (preparations) available,
as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each is a great help--both
to the customer and the bottom line. Customers ask questions like, "is
the liquid or powder better?" and they may not actually say it, but
I can bet they are thinking, "What form of preparation offers the best
value for my money?" In these uncertain economic times, the price/value
ratio will need to be maximized to encourage some customers to buy an herbal
In a concise and clear way, this article will present the answer to questions
such as these and more.
First, what are the major dose forms for herbal preparations available from
American and European manufacturers?
We can begin our investigation by saying that herb preparations are either
in extract form, or have not been extracted. The extraction process involves
macerating the fresh or dried and powdered herb in various solvents (menstruums).
Unextracted herb forms
In the store, the most common unextracted herb forms are whole dried
herbs, sliced herbs, cut and sifted herbs and herb powders. Table 1 shows
the advantages of each.
Table 1 Advantages of Dried Herb Forms
Form Advantages Disadvantages
Whole herbs retains potency for needs to be ground up or
up to 2 years, best Cut and Sifted before using
form for storage for tea or encapsulated
Sliced herbs easier to powder for must be powdered for en-
(roots, barks) encapsulation, ready capsulation
for making tea, pre-
serves moderately well
Powdered herbs has the shortest shelf- ready for encapsulation,
life (appx. 1 year) can be used for tea
It is always best to encourage your customers to buy herbs in their whole
form and grind them fresh for each use. A Molinex coffee grinder is a handy
tool for this purpose, and makes a good item to stock in an herb department
or herb store. However, a common kitchen blender is second best and will
do the job in most cases.
While slicing, cutting and sifting, and powdering are fair alternatives
for heavy herbs such as barks, roots and stems (and sometimes fruits), it
is not appropriate for leaves (alfalfa), seeds (fennel), flowers (hibiscus)
or flowering tops (St. John's wort). These should be purchased whenever
possible by the store in their whole form. The only exception is when the
herbs are part of a bulk tea blend, where all the herbs may be in their
cut and sifted form. In this case, try to store the tea blends in air-tight
amber jars, away from light. When the herbs that the customer finds in your
store are fresh, they are much more likely to have the desired effect, and
they are more likely to return for more.
A final recommendation about whole herb forms. If possible, consider stocking
small live herb plants, if there is a sunny place to display them. Herb
plants such as echinacea, lavendar, rosemary, lemon balm and peppermint
can provide a first-hand connection with the plants, and interest customers
in the ways of healing herbs. Many people will want to grow their own herbs,
which, in my experience leads to more herb sales, not less.
Extracted Herbs and Herb Products
The making of herbal extracts is time-honored. As mentioned above, the Egyptians,
Greeks and Romans made a variety of extracts for use by their doctors, but
also for everyday household use.
While the extracting process has become more involved in recent years, many
basic principles still apply.
To make any extract, a solvent is needed. The solvent, or menstruum usually
consists of either water or ethyl alcohol, often derived from grains. For
many herbs, ethyl alcohol (ethanol) is one of the best solvents available.
It efficiently draws polar constituents (compounds that contain hydroxyl
[-OH] groups in sufficient quantity and placement to impart solubility in
water or short-chain alcohols (methyl alcohol or wood alcohol included).
These constituents include saponins (steroid glycosides such as the ginsenosides
in ginseng), flavonoids (hawthorn, ginkgo), proanthocyanidins (hawthorn,
bilberry), tannins (witch hazel), other glycosides such salicin (willow
bark). Fat-soluble constituents, such as the flavanolignins in milk thistle
and polybutyl amides (echinacea), though not soluble in water, are soluble
in ethyl alcohol.
Alcohol and water are completely miscible, and varying ratios of the two
are used, depending on whether the main active constituents to be extracted
in a plant are fat-soluble (lipid-soluble) or water-soluble. For instance,
flavonoids are mildly water-soluble, but many are more lipid-soluble, so
a percentage of 30% water and 70% grain alcohol is used to most effectively
remove these important constituents from herbs such as passion flower, ginkgo
or hawthorn. Many of these ideal menstruums were worked out years ago for
a number of popular herbs, and printed in the U.S. Pharmacopeia and National
Formulary, the two "official" drug books in this country. These
books can still be found in used bookstores--the best years to look for
are from about 1870 to 1930. Today, many herbalists have worked out their
own "ideal" menstruums from years of experimentation and practical
experience. When I started my line of liquid extracts 6 years ago, I found
that by varying the ratios of alcohol and water, and sometimes by adding
glycerin, I was able to maximize the potency of the extracts.
The process of making liquid extracts involves grinding the fresh or fresh-dried
herbs and soaking (macerating) them in the menstruum for about two weeks.
Another process of liquid extract manufacture involves slowly dripping the
menstruum through the ground herb, pulling the active constituents out by
capillary action as they drip through. This method is called percolation.
Which method produces the strongest extract is open to debate, but maceration
may be more foolproof.
Fortunately, standards for tincture strength are starting to be developed
in this country. Even now, tinctures are made to varying strengths, and
it is usually impossible to tell what that is by looking at the bottle.
Tincture strength usually varies between 1:1 and 1:10. Formerly, a liquid
extract that was made by using one part of the herb to one part of menstruum
(weight to volume), was called an "extract," and one that was
made one part herb to five parts menstruum (which is weaker) was called
a tincture. Obviously, the strength of the finished product, and therefore
the cost/value ratio very much depends on how much herb was used in a given
amount of menstruum. When a menstruum is packed with as much herb as possible,
pressed out, and more herb added to the first liquid extract, it is said
that the finished product is a "double extraction." Another way
of double extraction is to make an alcohol/water extract, take the dry herb
that is left over (called the marc) and make a hot water extraction.
In this way, any constituents (such as cell wall components, tannins and
mineral ions) that are not extracted by the first menstruum will be released
into the hot water. The two extracts are subsequently blended together to
yield a "double extraction." For both the store owner or buyer
and customer, it pays to compare prices, tincture strengths and quality
to find the best overal value.
To make things more interesting, European manufacturers have a different
philosophy about tincture strength than most American herbalists. In Europe,
some homeopathic mother tinctures (extracted at 1:10) are sold as tinctures
in this country. The homeopathic philosophy dictates that the weaker an
extract is, the more potent effect it can have in the body. Further, Europeans
tend to feel that only 5 to 35 drops of a tincture is an adequate dose,
whereas many American herbalists traditionally recommend a dose of 40 to
80 drops (1 to 2 droppersful). An American herb company might feel that
a 1:10 tincture is excessively weak, but a European manufacturer would take
a 1:1 extract as overkill and a waste of herbs. These differing philosophies
make for interesting discussions in this country, where both European and
American herbal products are commonly sold. Which one is right for you is
best determined by giving each a fair trial and feeling the results.
Advantages of Different Extracts
Liquid extracts or tinctures offer many advantages as an herbal delivery
system, as presented in table 2. The only disadvantage being that some people
are sensitive or allergic to alcohol, or choose to avoid it because they
have problems with addiction.
Powdered extracts are a good alternative for such people. Personally, although
I have been a tea-totaler for many years, I prefer the liquid extracts because
I can actually taste the herbs! This connection is important for me, and
I feel it adds to the healing experience. However, powdered extracts offer
some of the same advantages as liquids.
To make a powdered extract, the liquid extract or tincture is often "spray-dried"
under low heat in a vacuum chamber to remove any moisture and create a concentrated
powder. This powder represents the dried "essence" of the herb,
with no fiber, cellulose, lignan and other "inert" constituents.
While I believe in using herbs in their whole form (adding nothing, taking
nothing away), I have sometimes found it difficult to eat enough herbs to
take in an adequate amount of the active principles. Plus, ideally, herbs
should be picked at their optimum season for best activity. Extracts can
be made at this time, preserving this high level of activity for up to 3
One word about quality. The quality of any herb product directly depends
on the freshness and strength of the herbs that went into it. Today, it
is extremely important to support organically-grown herbs and herb products.
To me, it is unthinkable to choose herbal medicine as a healing path, while
supporting the addition of synthetic chemicals to the living herbs. Today
there are many organic herbs and herb products available to offer on the
retail level. In my 23 years of experience, it is also a fair statement
that if a company cares enough to pay a higher price for organic herbs,
it will also pay extra attention to how the herbs are dried, processed and
The following chart presents the major types of extracts sold on the American
herb market and their benefits.
Types and Benefits of Extracts
Liquid Extracts "pre-digested" and concentrated, the most quickly
and (tinctures) efficiently absorbed of any preparation; herbs can be extracted
fresh at the optimum time of year--freshness well preserved (2-3 years);
can be disguised in juice or water for children
Powdered Extracts "pre-digested" and concentrated, efficiently
absorbed; taste disguised in capsules or tablets; no alcohol; freshness
preserved (2- 3 years)
Standardized All the advantages of powdered extracts, but are more
powdered extracts consistent, because active constituents are detected and
set at identified levels; original balance of the herb may or may not be
Oils, salves, Herbal extracts in an oil or oil and beeswax base (salves),
creams, ointments or water-soluble base (creams); excellent for external
trauma--burns, bites, stings, cuts, aches and pains; easy to carry, convenient
Syrups, elixirs Herbal extracts in a sweet base; Sweet-tasting, palatable
for children (and adults sensitive to strong tastes), can coat and soothe
the throat to help relieve coughs; concentrated, fast-acting
Lozenges Herbal extracts in a candy base; sweet-tasting, very palatable
for children of all ages; convenient to carry and use for sore throats and
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Wootton, A.C. 1972 (1910). Chronicles of Pharmacy. Tuckahoe, NY:
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La Wall, C.H. 1927. The Curious Lore of Drugs and Medicines. Garden
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