You may have noticed, most of my foraging forays focus on edible plants and fungi. I occasionally have contemplated medical purposes, like Lactuca spp for pain relief or black walnut hulls for topical antiseptic but nothing much has come from those efforts. Quite frankly, wild medicine still makes me nervous. I’m not a trained herbalist, and it seems so much could go wrong in dosage or processing, it’s better to play it safe.
As I’ve heard, sometimes the difference between medicine and poison is dosage.
The exception has been salves, because they are really hard to screw up! Unless you somehow include poison ivy as an ingredient, I guess. Even if your foraged medicinal plants ended up being completely inert, completely lacking the healing properties attributed to them, the oils in the salve would still be good for your skin. But many plants are, in fact, beneficial when applied topically, so it’s quite easy to kick up your salves a notch or two with wild ingredients.
Last summer I made a bug bite & sting salve using jewelweed, broadleaf plantain, echinacea and comfrey. (OK, not all of those herbs were wild / foraged.) I infused each plant in the same batch of almond oil, either letting them soak overnight or putting them in a mason jar in a gently simmering water bath, according to whatever original recipe I had read. Then I strained and infused the next herb into the oil. Finally, I melted beeswax into the infused oil, stirred in some essential oils, and poured the result into tins. Rather than a special salve reserved for bites, stings, minor abrasions and burns, this DIY lotion ended up being used for every day hand repair and it was almost gone by winter’s end.
“Mom, make another batch,” my eldest begged me.
How often do you get a special request from a teen? Of course I wanted to, but this was early spring, and all the plants had barely started growing – they were nowhere big enough to harvest for salve.
So I turned to the plants which were already cheerfully growing, with plenty to be found in our own yard: dandelion flowers and violet leaves. Dandelion flowers are soothing and anti-inflammatory, and violet leaves are nourishing and moisturizing.
NOTE: Make sure you harvest materials that have not been sprayed with pesticides or other chemicals. We do not spray in our yard, but we’re downwind from large industrial agricultural fields so when they get treated my yard gets the side effects. Even the garden that I’m trying to grow organically. Sigh.
I gathered about a cup of dandelion flowers, and allowed them to dry overnight to lose some of the moisture. I then soaked them in one cup of sweet almond oil for a week.
… I should take a moment to say here, I “get” that homemade personal care products are all the rage because it’s better for the environment to avoid the plastic containers and industrial production with who knows what resulting pollutants. However, I’m still looking for a truly eco friendly / sustainable source of the ingredients. Sweet almond oil has all the problems that almond flour does, possibly more, from an ecological impact perspective. The other ingredients I used in this particular salve – beeswax, shea, and cocoa butter – all had to be harvested and processed somewhere far away and shipped to me. Same for the essential oils. At least I used US-only beeswax, but beeswax from local bees where I knew the apiarist would be even better.
And I would say “But I digress” but that’s actually a very important point to this blog – living better by making leaner, lower energy, more local lifestyle choices. Like using wild medicine from your yard (hyperlocal!) to make a healing salve for suffering skin.
While the dandelion was infusing, I picked a cup loosely packed of violet leaves, and allowed them to air dry completely. And then once the dandelions were finished, I committed a major blunder. I made a “quick” infusion of the violet leaves in one cup of sweet almond oil, using a mason jar and a not-quite-simmering water bath for about 3 hours.
But… I failed to use the same oil as I had used for the dandelions.
Which meant once I strained out the plant matter, I had two cups – 16 fluid ounces – of infused oil. My salve recipe was based on ratios, basically 1 ounce each of beeswax, shea, and cocoa butter per cup. With two cups of oil, I doubled the other ingredients, and added another ounce of beeswax for good measure. These all melted together in a mason jar in yet another hot water bath. Once everything was liquid, I removed the jar from the heat, added 12 drops each of tea tree and lavender essential oil, and poured the salve into tins.
I had way more salve than tins.
WAY more. Ooops.
I left the extras in the mason jar and screwed the lid on tight. When the current tins are empty, I will clean, sterilize and dry them thoroughly. Then re-melt the salve and repour it – as many times as needed until we use it all! This spring salve has been even more popular than its bug-bite-focused predecessor, so I’m sure it won’t last long. Just… twice as long as it probably needed to.
What gifts from nature are you enjoying this spring?