Folks, it’s that time of year.
Summer. Ew. When mosquitoes lurk around every corner, and poison ivy and thorns seem to meet you at every turn in the woods.
In addition to these common skin irritants, I’ve noticed as I’ve aged that prickly plants – not just thorns like raspberries, but even summer squash and pole beans – inflame my skin at the slightest touch. Last year an errant Kentucky Wonder bean tendril slapped across my neck and left such an angry welt it looked like I had been choked! (Thankfully this was during COVID when we were all staying home anyway, so I avoided awkward questions from neighbors and friends!)
Time to break out my bite, burn and sting salve … except I was all out. And while the spring salve I made from dandelions and violets was nice (and WOW I have so much of it still), it didn’t soothe the summer time insults to my skin as much as I would like.
Time to make a new batch of bite, burn and sting salve!
There are apparently a gazillion wild and cultivated plants which offer skin healing properties. As I have said before, I’m still learning about wild medicine so I stuck to plants that have a proven track record with the issues I’m trying to treat. OK, mostly. These are the plants I used, with their quantities for this batch. (It varies with every single batch.)
Jewelweed (Impatiens spp.) 85 grams leaves and stems. Locally we can forage both orange (I. capensis) and yellow (I. pallida) varieties. I don’t know which I harvested this time, because it was prior to the plants flowering. Jewelweed is particularly favored for treating poison ivy, one of the banes of my existence. Some people claim it can even provide preventative protection against poison ivy, but I’m not going to test that one out personally!
Broadleaf plantain (Plantago major). 29 grams leaves. Leaves promotes healing of minor skin wounds and takes the “bite” out of stings and bites. I’ve even used a spit poultice – I know, gross – chewing the leaf and applying it to skin that has accidentally brushed against stinging nettle. Plantain leaves and seeds are also edible, though I haven’t tried it since I have so many other choice wild food in my local area.
Echinacea / Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). 51 grams “aerial” parts (fancy plant speak for “anything above the ground”, i.e., exposed to the air.) Particularly helpful for spider bits and insect stings, and is a strong anti-inflammatory.
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale). 28 grams leaves. Leaves and roots heal skin and are especially good for minor abrasions like scrapes or scratches from thorns (or prickly-stemmed plants like zucchini). I only harvested leaves because I didn’t feel like digging up roots!
American Burnweed (Erechtites hieraciifolius). I didn’t record the weight of the leaves I used, because it was after my botched herb butter attempt and the leaves had already lost a lot of moisture from laying out all day. . .OK, this one isn’t at the same level of popularity as a treatment as the rest, but I mean, I had it. It was right there. As mentioned in my last post about it, American burnweed appears to have historically been used medicinally rather than as a food source. Treatments apparently included various skin inflammations including poison ivy and hemorrhoids.
Holy Basil / Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum). Amount of leaves unknown. This, like the burnweed, was an impromptu addition, since I had harvested some and left it to dry all morning, and then decided to add it to my salve. Holy basil is reported to be antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic… plus it smells really good!
Other local foraged or cultivated herbs used to treat skin conditions like stings include apparently burdock (Arctium lappa), black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), chickweed (Stellaria media), even lambsquarter (Chenopodium album) among many, many others.
Sweet Almond Oil. Lamentably, my non-eco-friendly go-to for salves. If anyone has a more sustainable option, please let me know. Something that can be produced locally with native ingredients with a minimum of industrial inputs. Preferably shelf stable. I know you can get oil from walnuts but it goes rancid quickly and you don’t want that happening to your salve. I don’t like using olive oil because I don’t like smelling like food (although extra light olive oil could work, and plenty of people use it).
Beeswax – used to make the oil solid enough to be a salve
Shea butter – extra moisturizing and conditioning for skin, anti-inflammatory and healing
Cocoa butter – extra moisturizing and particularly known to help prevent scarring
Coconut oil – helps lock in moisture and provides antioxidants
Tea tree & lavender essential oil – for anti bacterial properties, as well as the scent they add
(Of course, except for beeswax, these other ingredients are also problematic from a low-energy-lifestyle perspective… sigh.)
This is a “method” rather than a recipe because everyone can adapt it for their own needs. As I’m writing this, I realize my own approach isn’t “scientific” or “methodical” or even “repeatable” to any extent! Maybe as I improve my knowledge and experience over the year or two, I’ll have a “real” recipe to share.
I recommend roughly chopping all plant matter and allowing it to dry for a day or two to allow some of the moisture to evaporate. I prefer to dry indoors, especially this time of year, as the sun can burn the plant and turn it brown. You can use a dehydrator or oven on “warm” to speed up the process if preferred. Moisture from the plants can introduce water in the salve, which will hasten the rate at which it can become rancid. Additionally dried herbs take up less room in the jar!
The next step is to imbue the oil with all the goodness of your selected herbs.
Here you have two options. Put the oil and the herbs together in a glass jar and leave them in an oven on a “warm” setting for an hour or two. Alternatively, put the glass jar in a pot of water, kept just below a simmer for a few hours. If you use this approach, make sure the water doesn’t boil and overheat the jar’s contents.
For this batch, I opted for a cold infusion. For the cold infusion, I just place the dried-ish plant parts into a glass jar and cover them with the carrier oil, and allow them to infuse for … you know. A while. I am not terribly scientific about any of this, as I’m still playing, er, learning. This approach offers two main benefits. First, there’s no additional energy required to infuse the oil (either through the oven or stove-top). Second, there’s no risk of overheating the oil and plant matter and possibly losing any phytochemicals which are heat-sensitive. The biggest disadvantage is having to wait a longer time for the oil to infuse.
Rather than infuse each herb separately, since I had so many of them, I put the comfrey, echinacea, plantain and holy basil in together at the same time, and covered with 1.5 cups / 12 fluid ounces of almond oil. I left this in the oil for five days, and then strained out the plant matter using a regular kitchen strainer. Even just this step made an amazingly soothing and emollient oil, with a deliciously thick texture. It would have been great for a cuticle oil. The oil had also taken on a greenish tint, another hint at the medicinal properties it now held.
Next I added jewelweed leaves that had been drying for a day. This went in separately because I had to make a trip to the woods to harvest some, whereas the first four plants were readily available in my yard! The jeweleweed stems took longer to dry, so I added them to the leaves, still in the oil, the following day.
After two days of infusing, I strained the jewelweed and tossed in some random amount of dried burnweed leaves. Because I had them. Why not. Three days later I removed the burnweed, and then used my Big Fat Nut (milk) Sack http://www.blankitconcepts.com/my-big-fat-nut-milk-sacks.html to make sure as much plant matter was removed from the oil as possible. At the end of this process, due to amounts of oil being lost during the previous strainings, I only had about a cup of infused oil left. Next time around, I may work harder to prep all the herbs ahead of time, so they all infuse at the same time to see if I lose less oil that way.
Salve, At Last
Last but not least, we add in the other ingredients to make an actual semi-solid salve. I started with a ratio of 3 Tbs beeswax per 1/2 cup of infused oil, so 6 Tbs total. I added the beeswax to the glass jar, and placed the glass jar in a hot water bath to gently heat the ingredients to the point where the beeswax melted. Make sure to have something like a jar rack between the bottom of the jar and the pot, and if you don’t have something fancy here is the hack I use. https://www.healthycanning.com/improvised-canning-rack-bottom-trivet
This is where you get to REALLY customize your product. I dribbled a few drops of the mixed oil & beeswax and allowed it to harden for a few minutes. The texture seemed too soft, so I added 2 more Tbs of beeswax, then sampled again. This time it seemed a bit hard, so I added 2 more Tbs of almond oil, and the other oils: 1 Tbs each coconut oil, shea butter and cocoa butter. I sampled one final time, and it was spot on for my tastes – soft enough to easily smooth onto tender skin. If you prefer a harder, more solid result, add more beeswax a few tablespoons at a time until the sample suits your preference.
Once I took the oil off the heat, I added 15 drops each of tea tree and lavender essential oil, and then poured the oil carefully into metal tins for storage. Do NOT leave these tins in your jeans pocket or in a car in the summertime heat because it will melt again very quickly.
In a perfect world, I would apply this bite and sting salve the moment I received the injury. Most of the time, I’m in the garden or forest and a) I don’t realize it’s happened or b) my hands are covered in dirt and mud. (Or both). So step one in applying the salve: wash hands and the affected area thoroughly, and apply a thin coat of salve. The salve will soften quickly with body heat, so it only takes a little effort to spread. Apply up to three times a day until the bite or sting subsides (although I promise I won’t tell if you use it more often). I’ve even been known to use it daily for regular hand lotion!
NOTE: As with anything new (particularly wild crafted or foraged), remember to sample a small amount before going overboard with this product! You never know what someone could be allergic to – even with herbs that are widely used and generally recognized as safe – and you don’t want to find out the hard way. Test a small sample on the inside of the elbow, and wait for 24 hours to make sure there is no reaction.
What’s your favorite remedy for the inevitable bites and stings of summertime? … aside from not getting them in the first place, of course!