The joys of summer: sunny days on the beach, reading a good book while gently swinging in a hammock, digging your toes into the grass, outdoor concerts, delicious juicy watermelon, frolicking in an idyllic meadow like a carefree child...
The not-so-fun parts of summer: sunburn, bug bites, rashes, bee stings, heat headaches, cuts and scrapes.
It's a beautiful, dangerous world out there.
Buy hey, guess what? There are plant allies growing near you, or even right in your backyard, that can help you with all of that not so great stuff. And of course, if you're camping or out on the trails, odds are some of these are growing there too.
With the peak of summer coming in hot (heheh, see what I did there?), I've put together a list of the most trusted plant friends in my herbal first aid kit. These are the tried and true remedies I reach for again and again.
Jewelweed (Impatiens spp)
Uses: Poison ivy/oak
I don't really think there are enemies in the plant world...but if there were, jewelweed would be the one throwing shade at poison ivy.
It's probably the single best remedy I know for quelling the maddening, miserable itch. And thankfully, jewelweed is really common in these parts (North America) and grows so abundantly that it's easy to find and harvest in big armfuls. To use it on a poison ivy rash, there are a few different things you can do:
1. Fresh plant poultice. Simply gather the aerial parts of some jewelweed, mash it up, and apply it right onto the rash. The good stuff is the juicy 'sap' in the hollow stalks.
2. Herbal wash. Take a big bunch of jewelweed leaves and stalks and add it to a pot of boiling water (a couple of handfuls per quart of water is a pretty good ratio). Allow it to blanch for a couple of minutes, or until the water has taken on a greenish color. Then strain out the jewelweed, allow the liquid to cool, and apply it to the rash with a clean cloth. Store in the refrigerator for up to a few days.
3. Ice cubes. If you freeze the jewelweed wash (see #2 above) in ice cube trays, you'll have an incredibly soothing poison ivy remedy to reach for when you need it.
4. Make a salve. Jewelweed steeped in olive oil and then combined with beeswax is a great way to have something on hand when you're not at home (it's nice to reach for at night if that itch is keeping you awake, too). I make my version with plantain and violet leaf, as well, for the extra soothing benefits those plants impart (see more about them below).
Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
Uses: cuts, scrapes, bites and stings, irritated/sunburned skin
Calendula is an all-star herb for the skin. The beautiful, resinous flowers have a soothing, clarifying, antibacterial, vulnerary (wound healing) action. Calendula is wonderful to have around for minor cuts, scrapes, bites, irritated/chapped skin, and burns. A wash can be made by steeping the fresh or dried flowers in just boiled water for 10-15 minutes (the same way you would make a tea, essentially), allowing it to cool, straining and then applying it directly to the skin with a clean cloth.
Personally, I like to make a salve from the flowers, as it's easy to keep on hand and apply when needed.
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)
Uses: cuts, scrapes, bites and stings, tears and sprains
Comfrey has long been used to knit together external wounds. In fact, its powers are so great that using it on a very deep wound isn't advised, as the outer skin will heal over too quickly and potentially seal in infection. But, for minor cuts and scrapes, it's the number one go-to for most herbalists. A decoction can be made from the roots, or an infusion from the leaves. Both can be applied as a wash or poultice directly on cuts, scrapes, tears and sprains.
I often combine comfrey leaf with calendula in a salve so I can reap the benefits of both.
Plantain (Plantago major)
Uses: bites and stings, irritated skin, puncture wounds
Plantain is one of those herbs that grows everywhere but goes unnoticed probably 99% of the time. A low-growing plant with ribbed leaves fanned out in a basal rosette, plantain is the friend at your feet who's always there for you.
If you get a bee sting, the best thing you can do is find a plantain leaf, chew it up into a poultice, and put it directly on the bite. It has a drawing action that will pull out the venom, sooth the pain, and help to prevent infection.
Plantain is a great thing to use on cuts and scrapes too, and is especially perfect for deep puncture wounds; it has a way of healing from the inside out, which helps to prevent infection. It's soothing to burns as well. I like to use this plant fresh, directly on the skin, but also include it in my Summer Salve for it's soothing effects. An infusion of the fresh or dried leaves can be used as a wash, as well.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Uses: cuts, scrapes, bites and stings, to stanch bleeding
Yarrow is hands down the herb I would take with me to a desert island. She has too many uses to count...but I'll just stick to the first aid stuff. The flowers are antiseptic, help to stop bleeding, and encourage speedy healing. The leaves have many of the same properties, but in my experience they are more strongly analgesic - if you get a cut or scrape out on the trail and there is yarrow near by, chew up a leaf and apply it to the cut and you'll see what I mean.
A wound wash can be made by infusing the fresh or dried leaf and flower, but I think the best way to use yarrow is either as a tincture or a styptic powder.
To make a simple folk tincture of yarrow, just fill a jar with the fresh leaf and flower (about 1/3 to halfway full if using dried), fill to the top with alcohol (I like brandy for yarrow), let sit for 4-6 weeks, shaking occasionally, and then strain. You can store the tincture in small dropper bottles and throw them in your bag or first aid kit. I personally like to put some in a small spray bottle that I keep in my pack for injuries in the field. (As a side note, a trick I learned from Susun Weed is to use yarrow tincture as a bug spray. It works well, but you do need to reapply it frequently.)
To make a powder to stanch bleeding, dry the leaf and flower and then grind it into a fine powder with a mortar and pestle or coffee grinder. The powder can be used alone or mixed with a bit of clay (bentonite is a good choice). Store it in a small container and throw it in your bag - a small dash of powder applied directly to the wound will go a long way to stop bleeding from cuts and scrapes.
Violet leaf (Viola spp.)
Uses: cuts, scrapes, bites and stings, irritated skin
The leaves of violet are cooling and demulcent (moistening). Although plantain springs to mind as the first thing to reach for in the case of cuts, bites or stings, violet will work pretty well too. And because it's so moistening, it's especially soothing to dry or irritated skin (think heat rash, burns, etc.). As with plantain, a fresh poultice is best for topical application, but a wash can be soothing as well.
Aloe (Aloe barbadensis)
Uses: irritated/sunburned skin
Well, I think everyone knows this one, but it bears repeating, as it's probably the best antidote to sunburn there is... The cooling gel inside the succulent leaves takes the sting out of burnt skin and supports healing. If you have a nice big aloe plant around, all you have to do is break off a leaf, squeeze out a little gel, and apply it directly to the skin.
Peppermint (Mentha piperata)
Uses: feeling overheated, headaches, nausea
Peppermint is a wonderful, cooling plant that helps to release tension and calm nausea - which makes it a great thing to reach for when too much heat brings on a headache or upset stomach. Spearmint works in a pinch, too. To make a reviving tea, infuse 1 tsp of the dried leaf (or 1 Tbsp chopped fresh leaf) in hot water for 10-15 minutes. You can drink the tea hot if you like, but letting it cool and serving it over ice is especially refreshing when it's warm outside.
I don't work with essential oils very much, but for peppermint I make an exception. A drop of the oil applied to the back of the neck can help cool you off and soothe a headache, and just a quick sniff can help to curb nausea. It's great a idea to keep a little bottle in the car or in your pack just in case.
Hopefully you won't need any first aid summer...but if you do, keep the plants growing around you in mind. They're here to help!
All information herein is strictly for educational purposes and has not been verified by the FDA. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any disease. Always do your own research before trying new herbs or wild plants.