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How to Create Your Own Herbal Tinctures

By Alex Tudela

A trio of herbal concoctions made by Marks, from left: a calming tea of lemon balm, calendula and milky oats; a heartwarming simple syrup infused with hawthorn berry; Marks’s version of fire cider, a tonic of apple-cider vinegar, citrus fruits, hot peppers and spices.
 
Paul Quitoriano
A trio of herbal concoctions made by Marks, from left: a calming tea of lemon balm, calendula and milky oats; a heartwarming simple syrup infused with hawthorn berry; Marks’s version of fire cider, a tonic of apple-cider vinegar, citrus fruits, hot peppers and spices.

For anyone sceptical about the medicinal power of plants, the 27-year-old herbalist Jade Marks is ready with an answer to the question, “Yes, but does it actually work?”

“I get asked that a lot,” Marks said in January, over a cup of coffee at a cramped cafe near their former home in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood of Brooklyn. (They moved soon after to the East Village.) “We know that plants work because we all consume them every day.” An espresso that provides a jolt of energy in the morning or an herbal tea enjoyed for its soothing effect before bed is simply putting plant extracts to use for our own treatment, they asserted, adding that the same can be said of using cannabis, alcohol and aloe vera. Marks first learned about herbalism in 2010 while studying agriculture at Middlebury College in Vermont and, after graduating, worked at urban farms in New Orleans and Brooklyn. But they didn’t truly consider harnessing the healing potential of plants until the death of their mother in 2017. “Herbs really helped me through that,” Marks said, explaining that they began working with hawthorn-berry extract, which is said to help with heart health and anxiety. Soon after, they enrolled in a training program in New York led by the Hudson Valley School of Herbal Studies. “I think the experience of grief and loss is what led me to working with herbs,” they said, “because they are so good at reaching those subtle parts of ourselves.”

Paul QuitorianoJade Marks, who runs the online apothecary 69herbs, photographed in Brooklyn, New York.
Jade Marks, who runs the online apothecary 69herbs, photographed in Brooklyn, New York.

For the last two years, Marks has been sharing their extensive knowledge through their virtual apothecary, 69herbs. Founded in 2018, the company sells plant-based remedies handmade in Marks’s Brooklyn studio — its products are now stocked in 25 stores throughout the United States and Canada — and specialises in glycerites. These alcohol-free tinctures, made from plant extracts and designed to be ingested neat or diluted with water, come in an array of different blends that Marks says may help with malaise both physical and mental. There is a formula made with extracts of echinacea, ginger and honey, for example, that they suggest might boost the immune system. To induce a deeper sleep, they recommend a blend that includes valerian, a perennial known for its sedative capabilities. But over the past few months, as the country has grappled with the Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing violence against black Americans, Marks has focused on addressing grief and anxiety.

There is a longstanding connection between healing practices and social justice movements, they emphasised during a recent phone call, noting that the Black Panthers and the Young Lords integrated healing and wellness initiatives into their work. “The Black Panthers were basically responsible for introducing acupuncture into the American mainstream,” they said. To support the current protests in downtown Manhattan, Marks has been creating and distributing care kits, which include a selection of 69herbs’s healing tinctures. “Some of the city’s herbalists are trying to build a herbal mutual-aid network,” they said.

Paul QuitorianoMarks recommends shopping locally when possible. Here, an assortment of ingredients including turmeric, lemons, jalapeños, honey, ginger, rose hips, passionflower, calendula and milky oats.
Marks recommends shopping locally when possible. Here, an assortment of ingredients including turmeric, lemons, jalapeños, honey, ginger, rose hips, passionflower, calendula and milky oats.

The tincture designed to reduce anxiety that Marks has seen an increased interest in is made with nervine milky oats — the top of the oat plant after it has flowered — while their blend meant to ease grief is infused with hawthorn berry, which Marks hopes will help others as it once helped them. Their signature brew, which is designed to encourage sexual empowerment (it is blended with passionflower, an herbal aphrodisiac), has, conversely, received fewer orders since social distancing measures went into effect. Still, said Marks, who created 69herbs in part to support the health of the trans and queer communities, “part of my brand and what makes it interesting, I think, is that it doesn’t shy away from sexuality.” They make remedies easily accessible by offering prices on a sliding scale and create certain recipes with queer people in mind; there is, for example, a tincture Marks designed with the aim of easing body and gender dysphoria. “There is a legacy of queer and trans people fusing the worlds of healing, herbalism, fashion and art,” they said.

Because Marks believes that “herbalism is the people’s medicine,” they want to upend the idea that knowledge of plant usage is reserved for a few experts. “That’s what I worry about in the herbal world,” said Marks, who has hosted herbalism workshops at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Alchemist’s Kitchen apothecary in New York, and recently taught a virtual class series that addressed grief and healing. “I do see and am concerned about the consolidation of power when we get into so-called experts — we are all experts,” they continued. “The benefits should be more accessible, especially for people who are from marginalised communities.” When a company in Massachusetts trademarked the name “fire cider” (in reference to a tonic of apple-cider vinegar, citrus fruit extracts, hot peppers and spices — a staple brew in the herbalist community for decades) in 2012, it was met with strong opposition that ultimately led to a lawsuit; last fall, a court determined the term could not be trademarked. “Herbal formulas are not meant to be owned, they’re meant to be replicated,” Marks said. “That’s the beautiful spirit of herbalism.” With that, they share three herbal recipes that can be made by anyone at home.

Hawthorn Herbal Syrup

Paul QuitorianoLeft: The ingredients for Marks’s hawthorn-berry herbal syrup. Right: The syrup can be mixed with soda water to create a refreshing nonalcoholic alternative to a cocktail.
Left: The ingredients for Marks’s hawthorn-berry herbal syrup. Right: The syrup can be mixed with soda water to create a refreshing nonalcoholic alternative to a cocktail.
  • ½ cup dried rose hips

  • 3-5 cinnamon sticks or 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • About 1 tablespoon ginger, sliced into coins

  • 1 cup honey

  • 4 cups water

  • ¼ cup dried passionflower

1. Mix all the ingredients, except the honey, into a pot and set on low heat. Bring to a simmer with the lid ajar and cook down until the liquid is reduced by about half (45 minutes to 1 hour).

2. Remove from heat and let cool. Strain with a cheesecloth or a mesh strainer. Mix in honey. Store syrup in the fridge.

Paul QuitorianoLeft: Marks often takes a shot of their herbal fire cider to fortify their immune system before travelling. Right: The brew can be stored for months in a cool, dry place or in the refrigerator.
Left: Marks often takes a shot of their herbal fire cider to fortify their immune system before travelling. Right: The brew can be stored for months in a cool, dry place or in the refrigerator.
  • 1 4-inch piece ginger

  • 1 handful dried rose petals

  • ½ cup raw honey

  • 4-5 hot peppers (any variety will do)

  • 1 lemon

  • 1 quart raw apple-cider vinegar

Chop turmeric, ginger, hot peppers and lemon, put into a quart jar. Add rose petals. Pour in apple-cider vinegar until all ingredients are covered. Stir in honey. Mix and enjoy as needed, pouring the tincture through a strainer.

Sunshine Herbal Tea

Paul QuitorianoLeft: Marks prepares the ingredients for their Sunshine herbal tea. Right: This tea is made with milky oats — the tops of an oat plant after it has flowered — which are thought to ease anxiety.
Left: Marks prepares the ingredients for their Sunshine herbal tea. Right: This tea is made with milky oats — the tops of an oat plant after it has flowered — which are thought to ease anxiety.
  • Dried lemon balm

  • Dried calendula

  • Milky oats

Mix all the ingredients and steep in just-boiled water for 10 minutes. Strain before drinking. Optional: Serve over ice.