Savvy Salve Making on the Homestead

This page from Bald’s Leechbook (mid-10th century) gives a recipe for Bald’s eye-salve which reads, in part: “Take cropleek and garlic, of both equal quantities, pound them well together… take wine and bullocks gall, mix with the leek… let it stand nine days in the brass vessel…” (Click to enlarge.)

Healing herbal salves have been a popular remedy for centuries. During the mid-9th century, an educational reform was organized by Alfred the Great. One of the lasting books from that time is Medicinale Anglicum; today, we know it as Bald’s Leechbook. In 2015, a group of scientists at the University of Nottingham decided to recreate a recipe found in Bald’s Leechbook for a salve to treat a sometimes stubborn eye infection called a wen, or what we would call a stye . The ingredient list was both familiar and foreign. It included equal parts of garlic and cropleac (a plant in the Allium family) mixed into equal amounts of wine and oxgall and placed in a brass vessel. The mixture must stand for nine nights. Then it was strained through a cloth and placed in a horn (a common liquid-holding vessel of the day). It was to be applied to the eye at night with a feather. The most amazing conclusion from this study was that this salve killed up to 90% of MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aurea). This was an important find to those concerned about the ever-increasing antibiotic resistant infections that are becoming more and more common. So, yes, salve making has been around for a very long time, and with good reason.

Salve Making Step 1: Make Herbal Infused Oil

Wild Violet, Forsythia, Cleavers, Broadleaf Plantain, Ribwort Plantain, Lavender, Rosemary in the jar for a nice long steep.

To begin making herbal salves, you must first create your herb infused oil(s) or purchase pre-infused oils.

Solar Method (my preference especially when using dried herbs):

  • Place dried herbs into a dry and sterilized glass jar.
  • Cover with EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) or another carrier oil with a stable shelf life, leaving at least 1-2” of oil above the herbs to allow the herbs to swell.
  • Cap the jar and place in a sunny, warm window.
  • Shake the jar once a day.
  • If the herbs absorb the oil, then add more oil so that they are always submerged.
  • Allow to infuse for 2-6 weeks, or until the oil takes on the color and aroma of the herb.
  • Strain through cheesecloth.
  • Make sure to squeeze as much oil as possible from the herbs so that you get all the medicine.
  • Vitamin E oil may also be added to prolong the shelf life at a rate of .5% to 1% of the formula (by weight).
  • Bottle into dry and sterilized amber bottles for storage.
  • Label at once! Include the oil used, what plant(s), and date.
  • Herbal oils will keep for approximately a year if stored properly in a dark and cool place.

Slow-Simmer-Stove-Top Method (fine for dried herbs; best for fresh herbs):

  • This method uses a double boiler on the stove-top or a crock-pot.
  • Take care to not over-heat your herbs to a crisp. Gentle heat is what is needed here.
  • Place herbs in crock-pot or double boiler and cover with EVOO or any other carrier oil.
  • Be sure the herbs are completely covered with the oil.
  • Gently heat the herbs over very low heat (preferably between 100 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit) for 1-5 hours until the oil takes on the color and scent of the herb.
  • Turn off heat and allow to cool.
  • Add Vitamin E Oil now, if you want. It may help prolong the shelf-life.
  • Strain using cheesecloth.
  • Bottle into dry and sterilized amber bottles for storage.
  • Label!
  • Store in a dark and cool place.

Salve Making Step 2: Turn the Oil into Salve

For every 8 oz. herbal infused oil(s) you will need:

  • Approximately 1 oz. beeswax OR carnauba wax to make a vegan-friendly salve
  • Vitamin E oil (optional)
  • Approximatley 10-40 drops essential oils of your choice. I like to try to match the essential oil with one of the primary herbs in the infused oil.
  • Containers for the finished salve.

Herbal Salve-making Procedure

  • Place herb infused oils in a small pan over a double boiler so you can bring the temperature up gently.
  • Add the beeswax a little at a time. It will melt easily.
  • Check the consistency of your salve by dipping a spoon into the liquid and then placing it in the freezer for 5 minutes. Check to see if you like the feel of the salve. If it is too stiff, add more oil. If it is too soft, add more beeswax. If you are adding essential oils, start with a slightly stiffer salve.
  • Once you have the consistency you like, add the essential oil(s).
  • If using Vitamin E oil, add it now.
  • Pour into your prepared containers. Don’t linger during this step. The salve will begin to solidify quite quickly.
  • Cool completely before placing the cover on the container.
  • Store in a cool location.
  • If properly stored, salves may last for 1-3 years.

The Secret Ingredient: Include a few small strips of dried Slippery Elm Bark (Ulmus fulva) with the herbs at the infusing-the-oil-step to help extend the shelf life. Slippery Elm Bark will also add to the healing properties of the salve because of its mucilaginous (a viscous or gelatinous solution from plant roots, seeds, etc.) nature it is demulcent (relieves inflammation or irritation) and emollient (softening or soothing the skin).Thank you, Abby Artemisia at The Wander School for this great tip.

Choosing a Carrier Oil for your Homemade Salve

There are many oils to choose from. Here are just a few of the most commonly used ones with their advantages and disadvantages.

Olive Oil (Extra Virgin Olive Oil: EVOO)

Pros: Seems to be the most commonly used. It is easy to source and has the benefit of having its own anti-inflammatory healing properties.

Cons: Some folks are not fond of the scent; but this can be easily solved by using essential oils in the salve. It is a somewhat heavy oil and is not absorbed quickly into the skin.

Coconut Oil

Pros: It is already solid at room temperature; so you will need less or no bees wax. It is excellent for nourishing the skin. The scent that it carries is generally mild. Some say that it has mild sunscreen properties.

Cons: It is temperature sensitive; so, your salve may be quite soft on summer days and very stiff during winter’s colder days. While the fragrance is generally quite soft, it can overpower soft-scented plants and essential oils. Coconut oil can be expensive when compared to EVOO.

Grapeseed Oil

Pros: It a lighter oil than EVOO that has is fragrance-free. Has antioxidant properties and a relatively long shelf life.

Cons: It is a highly refined product; so tends to be expensive.

Almond Oil

Pros: It is absorbed easily, has no strong scent, is antibacterial and is full of vitamin A.

Cons: Not for use by those with nut allergies.

Jojoba Oil

Pros: This oil is really a liquid wax that is pressed from the seeds of the Simmondsia chinensis (Jojoba) plant; which grows in southern Arizona, southern California, and northwestern Mexico. It is somewhat viscous and naturally antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, analgesic, anti-inflammatory and hypoallergenic. Blends well with other oils.

Cons: Some may find it to be not quite moisturizing enough. It is the most expensive carrier oil among those mentioned in this article.

jojoba plant and fruit.
Avocado Oil

Pros: Is full of fatty-acids; so is very nourishing and soothing.

Cons: Has a shorter shelf life than other oils.

Animal Fats (Fatwax)

Bear and Sheep (mutton tallow) fat are the most commonly used.

I was gifted some bear oil (rendered bear fat) by my son a while back and made some excellent rosemary salve with it. Contrary to what you might expect, it had no wild/gamy scent at all. I found it to make an almost silky-textured salve that absorbed well. Those that I shared it with wanted to know when I would be making more!

According to the folks at Cate Hill Orchard in Craftsbury Common, Vermont, sheep fat is easily absorbed by our skin. Grass-fed animals will produce fat that is rich in fat-soluble vitamins that will add a nourishing benefit to the salve. It touts anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties. I have not tried using this carrier yet, but I look forward to sourcing some and giving it a go.

Choosing Herbs for Your Homemade Salves

This is a short list of some of the most common and easiest to find herbs for you to try. Don’t let this list stunt your imagination. Go ahead out into your own backyard and see what herbs you have there. You might be surprised. Some of my best salves come from the wildly weedy community that grows right out my back door.

Arnica flower (Arnica montana) is best known for their bruise soothing properties. Great for anytime there is unbroken skin trauma like sprains, strains, hematomas, or simple bruising. Helps relieve the pain of over-used muscles and reduces swelling. When used immediately after the injury the results can be pretty amazing.

Arnica flowers.

Calendula flower (Calendula officinalis) is suitable for sensitive skin and perfect for salves for babies. It has slight antimicrobial properties and is anti-inflammatory. A favorite with may Home Herbalists; it is easy to grow

Cayenne pepper (Capsicum annuum) is a warming herb. Useful for joint pain, muscle aches, and arthritis-type inflammatory pain. When used with other herbs it seems to help “drive” the medicinal properties of the other herbs deep into tissue and joints.

Chickweed (Stellaria media) has emollient, anti-inflammatory, astringent properties that have a cooling, drying effect on wounds or irritated skin. It has been used to treat cuts, abrasions, minor burns, rashes, eczema, psoriasis and other skin troubles.

Comfrey root and leaf (Symphytum officinale) have strong cell proliferation properties. This herb causes very quick healing; so I use it in my salves very cautiously. It should never be used when there is inflammation or a chance that there is still some lingering infection in the wound; as it may heal/seal the infection beneath the surface of the skin. I find its best use in a “follow-up herbal salve” for after all inflammation is gone and you are looking for a quick finish to healing the wound.

Comfrey flowers.

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) or Oregon Grape Root Mahonia aquifolium) each contain the chemical constituent Berberine; which is well-know for its antibacterial, antiseptic, antifungal properties. Both of these herbs are used for treating wounds and skin conditions. An IMPORTANT NOTE: Goldenseal has been listed as an endangered species and may be hard to find or illegal to harvest. Check the laws for your area and please use Oregon Grape Root whenever you can.

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) is a member of the mint family. It is famous for thwarting outbreaks of cold sores, chicken pox, shingles, or genital herpes by binding to cell receptor sites, and blocking the herpes virus from entering and replicating. It works best if used at the first tingle of an impending outbreak. Soothing for the skin, and good for cold sores.

Mullein flowers (Verbascum densiflorum) are quite famous for their earache-stopping abilities when used as an infused oil. Combined in equal parts with garlic infused oil it will work on that earache even better. Mullein is a gentle plant with loads of soothing, strengthening properties. So, save some oil aside before adding your beeswax to make a salve.

Plantain (various species): with one of its common names being Medicine Leaf, this may tell you all you need to know about this remarkable plant. It has many admirable attributes – but for our purposes we note that it has antibacterial, astringent, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, demulcent, and hemostatic properties. It is very soothing and healing to nearly all skin conditions such as insect bites, rashes, blisters, cuts, and scrapes.

Rosemary (Rosemaria officinalis) has high levels of antioxidants and is anti-inflammatory. Use rosemary alone infused into an oil or combined with other herbs to make a soothing, healing salve for many skin conditions.

St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) can be used fresh to make a lovely red-colored infused oil. It has an affinity for healing nerve damage and quelling neuropathy (nerve pain). It is also anti-inflammatory, so a salve with this herb will be wonderful for healing wounds, swellings, sunburns, stings, scrapes, rashes and, mild burns.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is strongly antiseptic. It makes a powerfully medicinal salve that can be used externally for wounds, stings, rashes, and it is great for sore muscles.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is also known as Soldier’s Woundwort. With its well-known styptic (stops bleeding), astringent, anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial properties; it makes a great addition to any salve for cuts, scraps, rashes, and minor cases of eczema.

Calendula salve.

Herbal Salve Recipes

I hope you enjoy experimenting with the following herbal salve recipes.

Bruise Balm (Arnica-Cayenne Salve Recipe)

Ingredients:

  • 2 c. EVOO (or other carrier oil/combination)
  • 1/4 oz. dried Arnica montana flowers
  • 3-6 T. dried cayenne powder
  • 1-2 oz. beeswax granules
  • ½ t. essential oil of your choice (optional)

Procedure:

See the instructions at the beginning of this article to choose which method you prefer—Windowsill or Slow-Simmer Stove-Top—then have fun!

Just Plain Plantain Salve Recipe

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup dry Plantain leaves
  • 1 1/2 cups EVOO (or other carrier oil/combination)
  • 4 tsp. Beeswax granules
  • 20-60 drops Lavender essential oil (optional)

Procedure:

The instructions are the same as noted at the beginning of this article.

This is an example of a super-simple, single-herb salve. You can even leave out the essential oil and still make excellent medicine. Super easy!

Wild and Weedy Backyard Salve Recipe

Ingredients:

  • EVOO (Olea europaea)
  • Wild Violet (Viola odorata)
  • Forsythia (Forsythia suspensa)
  • Cleavers (Galium aparine )
  • Broadleaf Plantain (Plantago major)
  • Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata)
  • Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Procedure:

This is my favorite way to make a salve. All this was wild-crafted from my backyard or was grown by me. A handful of this, a handful of that, cover with oil and steep. You have directions for the rest of process at the beginning of the article. Enjoy!

Rosemary Repair and Relief Salve Recipe (my most requested salve)

Ingredients:

  • EVOO (or other carrier oil/combination)
  • Fresh OR dried Rosemary leaves; if fresh, wilt for a day
  • Rosemary essential oil (E.O.) at up to 2% dilution

Procedure:

This is the one salve I have made by the Slow-Simmer-Stove-Top method during a workshop I was teaching. It came out beautifully. The math for figuring essential oil dilutions can seem difficult at first, but it is really pretty easy once you get your conversions down.

Rosemary salve.

Things to Remember about Essential Oils

The addition of essential oils can add a lovely scent and may increase the effectiveness of the salve. The ratio of essential oil to your infused oil will determine the strength of the salve.  For the home herbalist, the following dilutions are generally considered safe to work with.  Not all essential oils should be included in your salves.  Please learn about the essential oil you want to include before adding it.
  • Use a 1% dilution of the essential oil in your infused oil for long term use, for children younger than 2 years old, and to access the subtle energetics of the oils.
  • Use a 2% dilution for children over 2 years old and if the salve will be used over a large area.
  • Use a 3% dilution for acute, localized pain using essential oils that target a specific issue. For example, arthritic pain.
So, for every ounce of infused oil:
  • For 1% dilution add 6 drops essential oil
  • For 2% dilution add 12 drops
  • For 3% dilution add 18 drops

To find how many drops of the essential oil you need for your own batch of salve, multiply the number of ounces you have by the number of drops for the dilution you want.

So, to make a salve with a 2% dilution of essential oils with 4 ounces of your infused oil the math looks like:

  • 4 (ounces your oil) X 12 (drops per ounce) = 48 drops for that batch of salve.

Mountain Rose Herbs has a very helpful Essential Oils Dilutions Chart.

Note of caution: essential oils are very strong medicine so be aware of any contraindications that my apply to the folks your are making your salve for before adding them to the formula. Some considerations include: epilepsy, asthma, pregnancy, breastfeeding, having a compromised immune system, or being on some prescribed medications.

Today’s ingredient list may look different than those is Bald’s Leechbook, but we can expect very good healing results with what we have on hand to use today. The number of combinations of oil(s)/plant(s)/essential oil add-ins is nearly endless. Start simple and you will soon have the confidence of a savvy salve maker.

***Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. There is no licensure for herbalists. The material presented in this article is for informational, reference, and educational purposes only and should not be interpreted as a substitute for diagnosis and treatment by healthcare professionals.

Read How to Make Herbal Tinctures, also by Linda Zimnick.

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