There’s nothing quite like having the right first aid kit handy when an emergency strikes. But what if you’re fresh out of Neosporin or don’t want to go there in the first place? How can self-sufficient homesteaders tend to scrapes, wounds, burns, and illness without having to depend on a run into the city drugstore—if there’s even one available? Help may be closer than you think. Whether you’re in the kitchen or out in the fields, there are probably medicinal herbs nearby—whether fresh or dried and crushed in a canister waiting to sprinkle on tonight’s dinner—that can help.
Having the right tools on hand is, of course, not enough; you also need to know how to use them. Most herbs are fairly safe, but misidentification or misuse of herbs can be just as disastrous as similar errors in judgment would be with more conventional medication. Some conditions, even if there is an herbal or folk remedy for them, may require a doctor or other trained healer’s prompt attention. So don’t forget the very first essential tool for herbalism: common sense.
The second tool? Practice. The more familiar you are with these remedies, the more likely you are to remember them—and know if they’re appropriate—when it matters.
Medicinal Herbs in the Kitchen
Odds are good that you’ve got at least a few staple medicines in your kitchen, cleverly disguised as cooking spices. While sticking cayenne pepper up your nose might not be the first thing most of us think of when we get a bloody nose, doing exactly that can help to stem the bleeding quickly. If you’ve been cut, sprinkling cayenne on a cut will quickly stop the bleeding, too. Once the wound has stopped bleeding, you can use honey, with its natural antibiotic effects, to help keep it closed and clean if necessary.
Cayenne is also reputed to enhance circulation, reduce blood pressure, and to greatly energize anyone but especially those with weak hearts. Some go so far as to recommend putting cayenne under the tongue if a heart attack or stroke is suspected, although once again, herbal emergency care is no substitute for evaluation and care provided by a trained health professional.
You’ll also find cayenne used to help break loose phlegm; other warming herbs like ginger and cinnamon have similar effects, including the ability to stimulate circulation, making them all useful for treating colds and flu. Ginger makes an excellent foot bath or could even be added, whether powdered or freshly chopped, to a hot bath for a long soak. Ginger is also excellent for alleviating nausea of almost any cause by drinking a strong tea, eating it in your food, or even as candy made from the roots.
Ginger soaks, hot compresses, or taken as tea or food may also be of big help for sore, injured, or arthritic joints because of how they stimulate circulation. Cayenne has similar properties when consumed or may be combined with a little oil to make a paste that is then rubbed onto the sore area.
Ginger juice or tea may also be used on mild burns, with garlic and/or onion, mashed or rendered into juice, or on more serious burns then covered with a clean cloth, the entire application being changed two or three times a day. While most people don’t keep aloe for eating, many people have an aloe plant in the house, and the gel from one of this plant’s cut or broken leaves is unparalleled for healing burns. As before, don’t neglect the need for urgent expert attention, when appropriate, to severe burns.
Cranberry is reputed to help prevent urinary tract and bladder infections. A bladder infection, in particular, can be a very serious condition that requires evaluation by a trained professional, but some claim that taking cranberry will aid greatly in eliminating it. The berries can be eaten or you can drink the juice.
Garlic is called “the wonder herb” by some and you’ve most likely got it in your kitchen. Aside from its usefulness in treating burns, it’s also useful for preventing or shortening the symptoms of colds and the flu, and for helping to kill intestinal worms and expel them from your body. A master herbalist friend likes to recommend wafer-thin slices of raw garlic, placed to melt on the tongue for helping to keep healthy; but those with extremely delicate stomachs may find this to be too irritating to their digestive system.
Curry powder can be mixed into a paste with a little oil and applied to mosquito bites or bee stings to ease the inflammation. I’ve heard master herbalists recommend putting very thinly sliced potatoes on stings to help draw the venom out and ease inflammation; more intriguingly, applying the cut side of a potato to a poisoned or infected wound is said to draw the toxins out almost immediately.
Alfalfa is praised by herbalists for being one of the most nutritional of herbs. It’s easy to grow your own alfalfa sprouts in the kitchen, and they can be eaten or mashed to apply directly to an infected wound.
Tea—that is to say the Camellia Sinensis plant that produces green, black, and white teas—is said to help fight infection too, when taken several times daily in a strong drink. Some people also apply moistened tea bags to itchy skin; I was surprised by how quick and complete the relief from this remedy was when I tried it, although the tea bags needed to be remoistened occasionally.
While flatulence may not seem like a severe emergency, gas pains certainly can feel as if they are. Peppermint tea and other herbs like anise and caraway are all likely to help expel gas in a hurry, while also freshening your breath at the same time—both of which visitors will thank you for!
Medicinal Herbs in the Field
You might have the best prepared first aid kit… back at the house. Or maybe you just went out for a quick stroll and didn’t expect to have any trouble. Or maybe you forgot to replenish something before you left. Regardless, here are some quick remedies that may just be gathered ’round your feet next time you go for a walk.
If you’ve cut yourself and are bleeding, yarrow may be one of the easiest fixes. Bruise the feathery leaves by rolling them in your fingers and apply to the wound; this might even mean tucking a leaf or two, rolled, into your nose if it’s the source of the bleeding. Make sure to take the leaves out after the bleeding has stopped; you don’t want the wound to heal over them. If there’s no yarrow nearby, you could pound fresh plantain leaves into a paste and apply them, instead, to check the bleeding. Drinking teas made from hemostatic herbs like stinging nettle, horsetail, and shepherd’s purse may also help.
This is a good time to point out why proper identification of a plant is critical. I once attended a local plant walk where the leader indicated a plant—club moss—that bears a very faint resemblance to yarrow leaves. He then told the story of how a woman mistook the club moss for yarrow and applied it to a fresh cut in her son’s arm. If she’d been familiar with yarrow she might have noticed that instead of being feathery and light, the plant’s tiny leaves were stiff—and instead of growing on a vertical stalk they grew on the ground. She did, however, recognize her mistake when her son howled—not only does the club moss not have yarrow’s medicinal properties, it hurts!
Once you’ve stopped the bleeding, you might spread spruce gum or pitch onto the wound to help keep it clean, then cover with a clean bandage. Spruce gum may also be a remedy for blood poisoning when spread onto a cloth and wrapped around the site of the poisoning and the red streak, as far up as it goes; remember that blood poisoning is an extremely serious condition so unless you have sufficient training and knowledge to evaluate the course of it, you should seek help for it as soon as possible, treated or not. The spruce pitch should be clear and soft; I’ve been told that you can chew it to soften it, or even to freshen your breath—not unlike a piece of gum.
If you’ve been burned, a poultice of comfrey, plantain, chickweed, and/or horsetail may help. Plantain is also useful, applied as a poultice, to remedy infection or skin irritations. If you’ve got a mosquito bite or bee sting, mash, or chew up, some plantain or chickweed leaves and apply to the area; that should quickly draw out most of the inflammation, itch, and discomfort. Poultices made of cooling plants like plantain and chickweed should be changed frequently if possible, as often as every hour. Fresh plantain or mullein leaves, when tucked into your shoes, will also help to prevent blisters or soothe those that may already have popped up. While I’ve never had a chance to try it myself, mashed chickweed should have a similar effect, though mashing the tiny plants into a paste is nowhere near as convenient as just slipping a few large, fleshy leaves into your footwear.
Broken bones are another example of a serious condition that may threaten your life, depending on how far afield you are. Don’t attempt to set the bone without the right training; you might cause further damage to muscle, nerves, and connective tissue. The basic first-aid tenet of immobilizing the break can usually be accomplished, in a pinch, with sticks, zip-ties, pieces of clothing or a pack—anything you might happen to have on you—to rig an impromptu splint. You could also carefully peel some birch bark off a tree, wet it, and wrap it around the break where it will harden into a solid cast.
Other miscellaneous helpers that can be readily found in the field (and fairly easily identified, too) include dandelion and nettle teas, good for treating anemia and fortifying the blood, in addition to their high nutritional value. For coughing, some herbalists recommend plantain tea while others would advise you to collect dried mullein leaves, burn them, and inhale the smoke. Others recommend boiling coltsfoot leaves and inhaling the steam to help clean lung and bronchial congestion. Branches of juniper can be boiled in water to make a decoction for sore throats, colds, and congestion; you can also burn the needles as incense, said by some to help with a cold.
How to Make Herbal Applications
Here are some basic instructions for how to make the types of herbal application you’re likely to use in an emergency:
Tea/infusion/decoction: The only true tea is that made from the leaves of the Camellia Sinensis plant; what most of us refer to as “herbal tea” is actually an infusion made by steeping herbal material in very hot water. This is appropriate for more delicate herbs, fresh or dried; sturdier, woodier stems and roots are usefully prepared in a decoction, which is adding them to boiling water and cooking for a time, instead of simply steeping. Regardless of how you’ve prepared them, make sure to strain off solid herbal matter before using the liquid, which will keep for a maximum of three days if refrigerated.
Poultices and plasters: While the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, a poultice is usually mashed herb (fresh or dried, although dried herbs will need to be moistened) applied directly to the skin and covered with a clean cloth, while a plaster is the same mashed herb sandwiched between two layers of clean cloth, with this “sandwich” then being applied to the skin. Another way of applying herbs to the skin is with a fomentation or compress, where clean cloth (usually cotton or wool, and unbleached if possible) is dipped into a hot or cold infusion or decoction, then applied to the skin.
Salves and pastes: If you need the herb you’re applying to stay in place, you can mix it with a little oil or grease to thicken it.
While books are no substitute for learning directly from a skilled herbalist, they make excellent references, and the determined self-taught herbalist can learn quite a lot from them to guide her experiential learning. I highly recommend Heinerman’s Encyclopedia of Healing Herbs & Spices by John Heinerman, as well as Herbs to the Rescue: Herbal First Aid Handbook by Kurt King, which combines practical first aid advice with herbal first aid advice; and any well-craft guild to local wild herbs in your area.