Foraged Muscle Salve (Hopefully)

I’m still dabbling in wild medicines, still only comfortable with topical applications and the occasional cup of healing tea (like burdock, among others). As spring nears, and more wild plants emerge into the warming sun, gifts from nature still linger under the snow.

One such is Eastern teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens), which you will probably grow sick of reading about on this blog because I finally have a good (if physically distant) source for this enchanting little member of the Heath family.

Eastern teaberry can be foraged in the winter
Eastern teaberry can be foraged in the winter

Pro tip! When foraging for Eastern teaberry, keep an eye out for possible confusion with mountain laurel seedlings (Kalmia latifoli), which have a similar leaf shape and grow in the same habitat. You can confirm teaberry by crushing a leaf and checking for a whiff of mintiness, for which this perennial is also known as American wintergreen.

Since I now can reliably forage Eastern teaberry, it seemed like a great opportunity for a soothing muscle salve. Eastern teaberry is a natural source of methyl salicylate, the same wintergreen-scented compound associated with commercial muscle ointments.  In fact, Eastern teaberry essential oil contains methyl salicylate in such high concentrations it can be toxic. Luckily, infusing oil for a muscle salve won’t produce concentrations nearly that high. Plus, I’m only planning to use it topically.

Although teaberry muscle salve seemed like an obvious choice to me, I failed to find much online or in my herbal medicine books about how to proceed. I figured I’d need to infuse the teaberry in oil to form the base of the salve, but the only instructions I found were here. And they didn’t mention specific quantities. So I decided to make up my own recipe. Rather than using a double boiler, I opted for a slow “cool” (a.k.a. room temperature) oil infusion to form the base of my salve.

I harvested 20 grams of Eastern teaberry leaves, and allowed them to dry for several days to reduce their moisture. Excess water in an oil infusion can cause the oil to go rancid more quickly. The weight after four days dropped to 9 grams. I roughly chopped the leaves, then divided the fragments between a sweet almond oil infusion for a muscle salve and a high proof alcohol infusion for wintergreen flavoring. (To compare against the sweet birch (Betula lenta) ‘wintergreen’ I made a few months ago.)

Dried chopped Eastern teaberry, ready for infusions
Dried chopped Eastern teaberry, ready for infusions

I set the tiny jar of oil in a sunny location. The sources I read online suggested the gentle warmth of the sun through the glass jar, plus time, would be sufficient to extract the medicinal phytochemicals from plant matter (generically speaking). Often they suggest refreshing the material after a few weeks for the greatest strength but I’m not sure when I’ll be able to harvest more leaves. (Gas prices, you know?)

The sun's rays gently warm the medicinal infusion
The sun’s rays gently warm the medicinal infusion

Will it work? I have NO idea. After two weeks, I can’t detect the minty aroma one encounters with muscle rubs. Or the faintest hint of wintergreen. Which suggests that oil is not, in fact, the best way to extract the methyl salicylate. I’d hoped it would work based on this page for the synthetic version of the chemical but I’m not convinced. The other half of the leaves in the high proof alcohol, by contrast, assaults your nose with its mintiness the moment you crack the jar! I’ve even sampled a few drops of the oil, rubbing it directly onto achy muscles, but I can’t tell if any relief I feel is a placebo effect or the benefits from a gentle massage while applying the oil.

What are you foraging as winter slowly gives way to spring?

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