Making Wild Herb Vinegars
by Corinna Wood
First published in the New Life Journal, April/May 2004
"Chickweed is back! Spring is here!" My three-year-old delightedly munches the luscious green shoots, and offers me a handful. Chickweed's return means it's time to make medicines again, starting with vinegars in April and May.
Many wild plants can be extracted into vinegars, but chickweed, nettle, and mugwort are my favorites, both for medicinal value and sheer flavor. You can easily make these vinegars yourself, with one or all three of these plants.
Chickweed is the most widespread of these three beauties. In fact, if you have garden beds, you probably know that chickweed loves rich garden soil and thrives in the cool, wet weather of Spring and Fall. But many gardeners don't realize that this "weed" is nutritious and delicious in wild salad or herbal vinegar.
You can tell chickweed by its tiny, white, star-shaped flowers, which give it its botanical name, Stellaria media. Also look for opposite leaves. When you're harvesting chickweed for vinegar, don't forget to set aside some for tonight's wild salad!
When it comes to wild medicinals, Nettle is one of the easiest to identify--if you're not sure you have the right plant, just brush your hand against it! The nettle sting, which is mild for most people, is felt immediately, and usually wears off within a few hours. The benign sting is actually used as a treatment for arthritic joints!
There are two species of nettle in our area: "Barn Nettle," Urtica dioica, and "Wood Nettle," Laportea canadensis. Long used as an iron and adrenal tonic, Urtica diocia is the species widely recognized for its medicinal value, but either species can be eaten (and Wood Nettle stings much less). Nettle can be gathered with gloves anytime from when it peeks out of the ground until just before it flowers.
Mugwort is a fragrant, magical herb that is traditionally used in dream pillows to make dreams more vivid and more memorable. It can be harvested for vinegar until it is one foot tall. After that, it becomes bitter and somewhat toxic.
Mugwort can be confused with other plants, so check for its fragrant smell when crushed as well as the silver sheen to the back of the leaf. In fact, this silver color, associated with the moon goddess Artemis, is where Artemisia vulgaris gets its name. Try some in your pillow tonight!
To use your springtime harvest, follow these easy steps:
- Tightly pack a jar full of plant material. If you are using more than one plant, brew them separately so you can get to know what each of them tastes and feels like. You can always combine the finished product later.
- Fill the jar to the top with apple cider vinegar (raw, organic vinegars give you beneficial microorganisms much like yogurt does).
- Since vinegar rusts metal, a cork or plastic top is preferable. Placing a piece of waxed paper or plastic between a metal lid and the jar works too.
- Label your jar with the plant name and date harvested.
- The next day, the plant will usually have absorbed enough liquid to end up uncovered, so top off the liquid level. Check the liquid level once or twice over the first week.
- Six weeks later, strain out the plant material, and you have your own wild herb vinegar!
Herbal vinegars are delicious in salad dressing, on cooked greens, in marinades, or in sauces. Some people prefer to take a tablespoon in water as a daily tonic.
Our soils and our bodies in these times are chronically depleted of minerals, contributing to many health challenges, especially in the hormonal, nervous, and immune systems. It is much easier for the body to digest and absorb minerals from a wild plant, which our ancestors evolved with, than from a tablet! Because of its acidity, vinegar is the best medium for extracting the minerals from these nutritious wild plants.
The days are getting longer. As the sun goes down, if I can keep my son from eating everything before it gets into the basket, we'll have a wild salad tonight and plenty left for making this year's vinegar tomorrow!
Corinna Wood is founder and director of Southeast Wise Women. Her early initiation into the herbal world included an extensive apprenticeship with Susun Weed. For the last 25 years, Corinna has been practicing and sharing the Wise Woman Tradition, based in honoring of women and the Earth. Through two decades of teaching, as well as founding Red Moon Herbs in her home community, Earthaven Ecovillage, Corinna has opened countless hearts to the wisdom of the plants and their own bodies.