Use "Weeds" to Make Your Own Healing Salves May 25, 2015 09:58

When my grandma was a kid, babies were born at home.  Bones were set at home (if at all).  And many, if not most, families would have had homemade tinctures and salves always on hand.  If I got a cut or scrape at her house, Maw-Maw would rush to apply a smear of "salve" to the affected area (although, having raised her own kids in the era of "better living through chemistry," she was actually using store-bought Neosporin).  As a kid, I just thought she was funny, or old-fashioned, to call it "salve," but to my adult self, her word choice highlights the fact that medical specialization has eclipsed the art and craft of traditional healing.

Anti-inflammatory salve lovingly hand-crafted using plantain and comfrey harvested from within 100 steps of my front door.

Anti-inflammatory salve hand-crafted using plantain and comfrey harvested from within 100 steps of my front door.  Reusable metal tins mean no wasteful packaging!

Here, I will share what I've learned from making my own medicinal salve.  First of all, it is dead simple to do, requiring only 3 ingredients: oil, wax, and plants (most of which, people consider "weeds").  If desired, you can add an essential oil for additional therapeutic benefit or just for the smell of it.  You can use a number of different oils, including olive, almond, jojoba, etc.  I used olive oil because I always have it on hand and it lasts a long time without going rancid.  For the wax, beeswax seems to be the most commonly recommended.  It's very hard and has therapeutic benefits of its own.  Different plants have different healing properties, so the plants that you choose for your healing salve will depend on what type of healing you're trying to achieve.

I wanted an anti-inflammatory salve to treat burns, scratches, rashes, bites, and stings.  I'm no herbalist, so I'm taking it on the authority of the internet that plantain and comfrey are two plants that provide the healing effects I'm after.  Both plants grow in almost every part of the continent and have been used for centuries by Indigenous peoples.

You've likely seen this "weed" in your yard, parks, trails, even popping up between sidewalk cracks.

Comfrey grows several feet tall and fast. It's dark green leaves are somewhat fuzzy, almost soft.

The delicate purple flower clusters of comfrey.

The delicate purple flower clusters of comfrey.

The simplest way to use one of these plants for healing is to prepare a "poultice," a macerated paste of raw plant material that's applied topically to wounds.  My three-year-old son received his first wasp sting late last summer and when it happened, we were away from home and had no first-aid available. The only thing to do was find some plantain growing nearby and chew it up.  It took some convincing for my son to let me stick the spitty green glob onto his hand, but once applied, he stopped reacting to the sting in under three minutes and there was surprisingly little swelling afterwards.  As effective as the plantain poultice was, a salve would have been less messy and more convenient to use.

For my salve, I gathered several handfuls of both plantain and comfrey, which both grow abundantly all summer.  I laid the leaves on racks in the sun to dry for a few days, until they were crinkly and brittle.  (You want to dry the leaves because moisture in the end product can cause the salve to go rancid.)

Dry the leaves until they're brittle and crumbly.

Then, I packed the dried leaves into a mason jar, covered them with a cup of olive oil, closed the jar, and left it in the sun for about six weeks.  The gentle warmth of the sun eventually caused the oils from the leaves to be released and infused into the oil.

After 6 weeks in the sun, the oil is infused with the essence of the plants and ready for use in a healing salve.

After 6 weeks in the sun, the oil is infused with the essence of the plants and ready for use in a healing salve.

You can also make infusions in a crock pot on the lowest setting, but why use energy to do something the sun does for free?  (Ahem... clothesline, anyone?)  After infusing the oil, I strained it through a colander lined with cheesecloth and was left with a light greenish oil for making my salve.

After straining through butter muslin, squeezing the plant material will get the rest of the infused oil out.

After straining through butter muslin, squeezing the plant material will get the rest of the infused oil out.

Looking online for a salve recipe, I found a wide variation in the recommended ratio of oil to wax, even when the recipes used the exact same ingredients.  Olive oil is liquid at room temperature and wax is solid, so getting the right ratio of these two base ingredients is important for making a salve that is solid enough to not melt and leak if you leave a container of it in your purse on a hot day, but soft enough to be easily rubbed in to your skin.

The first recipe I looked at used only 1 part beeswax to 8 parts oil.  After following the recipe and allowing the salve to cool, it wasn't nearly as hard as I wanted it to be.  I found another recipe that recommended 1 part wax to 5 parts oil, and after doing the math and adding the right amount of beeswax to achieve the new ratio, I still found my salve to be too soft.

Grating the beeswax makes it melt into the oil evenly and quickly.

Grating the beeswax makes it melt into the oil evenly and much faster than if it's left in chunks.

Use a clean yogurt container or can in a pot of hot water to gently heat the oil.

Use a clean yogurt container or can in a pot of hot water to gently heat the oil as in a double boiler.

To get the right consistency, I kept adding beeswax a little at a time until I was satisfied.  After each addition I checked the consistency by dropping a little of the mixture on a plate and letting it cool; that way, I could test it quickly without having to wait for the whole batch to cool.  In the end, I found that 1 part beeswax to 2 parts oil was a good ratio for making a thick, but spreadable salve.

Now for the final touch: essential oil!  Aside from the obvious consideration of choosing a scent that you'll want to rub all over your bug-bitten body, an essential oil can also be a preservative.  Many of the salve recipes I looked at before doing this called for a bit of Vitamin E oil, which is an anti-oxidant and natural preservative frequently used in all-natural cosmetics.  It's also not something I have lying around the house, so I did a little research into the preservative qualities of essential oils and found that rosemary oil could be used.  So, to my one and a half cup batch of salve, I added a teaspoon of rosemary essential oil.  I then poured the still-warm mixture into tins and left them to cool and harden...and voila!

I'm now using my plantain-comfrey salve almost daily for mosquito bites and gardening-related irritations.  It's wonderful for soothing itches; it's moisturizing; and the smell is nice, too.  After a long day in the garden, a hot shower and a liberal rub of this stuff is a perfect combination!