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Stocking Your Herbal First Aid Kit

I am going to be posting some of my Green Witch type stuff that I find, because I am sick of losing everything every time my computers blow up because the buggers always blow up so completely… If I know the source, I will of course note it. And everything will be under cuts.

If you are intrigued by herbal first-aid but simply don’t know where to begin, start slowly by stocking your medicine chest with a dozen or so basic, versatile herbs and herbal products that can be used to treat minor injuries. As you begin to feel more comfortable with treatments of this kind, and as your knowledge of herbs grows, you will find yourself turning to herbs first in most first-aid situations. Eventually, you may find yourself preparing your own herbal products and maybe even growing or collecting your own medicinals.

Choose items that best suit the needs of your family. Most of the things you will need can be purchased at a natural food store. Or, if you prefer, you can make your own herbal remedies-just follow the recipes provided in this book. You’ll find yourself using salves, compresses, poultices, teas and tinctures Add a few bandages, a pair of tweezers and the usual first-aid paraphernalia, and you’ll be all set. I keep my home medicine chest filled with herbal items, an herbal first-aid kit under the seat of my car and a travel bag of herbal remedies ready to pack in a suitcase or back pack. (For first-aid on the go, your supplies should fit neatly into a child’s lunch box or a small fanny pack.)

The herbs suggested for first-aid are safe and effective, and generally cause few of the side effects normally associated with pharmaceutical drugs. As with any medicine, though, you should keep these remedies out of the reach of young children, who often eat anything that comes within their reach.

Bites, Stings and Splinters

Does the high-pitched whine of a mosquito zeroing in on a patch of exposed skin discourage your next venture past the screen door? Fear not. While nature provides an array of bugs to pester you, she also supplies herbs to stop the itching and swelling of those bugs’ bites and stings. There are even natural insect repellents to make flying and crawling pests keep their distance.

Minor bites from mosquitoes and other insects respond quickly to an herbal oil. There are many herbs that stop itching and reduce swelling, but my favorite is lavender, which not only smells great, but also reduces the risk of infection. Since it’s neither practical nor comfortable to rub lavender flowers on a bite, use the Insect Bite Oil.

Insect Bite Oil

1 teaspoon lavender essential oil
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Combine essential oil and vegetable oil and dab mixture directly on bite as needed. Store in a bottle with a tight lid. A glass container is best, but if you prefer a lighter, plastic container, choose one made of oil-resistant plastic (you can find these in camping goods stores). Make sure to keep the Insect Bite Oil away from your eyes.

For the more severe stings and bites of bees, wasps, ticks and spiders, combine lavender with Echinacea and bentonite clay into a poultice. The clay pulls the poisonous material from the bite or sting to the skin’s surface and keeps it from spreading. Echinacea dramatically lessens any allergic response that might occur. In fact, your patients may feel so good once the poultice is applied that you’ll need to remind them to restrict activity for at least 20 minutes to prevent the poisons from circulating through the bloodstream. Lavender stops itching and reduces swelling.

Bite and Sting Poultice

1 tablespoon Echinacea root tincture
1 tablespoon distilled water
1/8 teaspoon lavender essential oil
1 tablespoon bentonite clay

Combine the tincture, water and lavender essential oil. Add this mixture to the clay, stirring slowly as the liquid is absorbed. The resulting paste should be tacky enough to adhere to the skin. Apply directly to bite as needed. Store this remedy in a container with a tight-fitting lid, so that the mixture will not dry out. If it does dry out, stir in enough distilled water to turn it back into a paste.

I’ve put clay poultices on more bites and stings than I can count. Much of this experience comes from the week I spend each summer doing first-aid at a dance camp on a lake in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in northern California. Unfortunately, people aren’t the only ones attracted to the lake; it also draws “meat bees,” pesky wasps that bite or sting with very little provocation. My patients often step on these bees, then tell me in great detail how badly they react to such stings and bites, even as I’m applying the poultice. It doesn’t take them too long to realize that their feet have not puffed up like balloons or turned bright red, as they were expecting, and that the pain is gone. Honey bee stings, some spider bites and even scorpion stings (the scorpions there don’t have a very strong poison-it won’t kill you, but it will produce a nasty sting) all respond quickly to the Bite and Sting Poultice.

You must remember, though, that applying a poultice is only the first step in treating the bites and stings that might cause an allergic reaction. Give anyone who is susceptible to these reactions half a teaspoon of Echinacea tincture every ten minutes. I have often seen an allergic response start, then retreat as the herbs take effect. You must remember, though, that allergic reactions can have serious consequences. If you know that someone is allergic to a bite or sting from a particular insect, do not depend solely on herbal first-aid-immediate medical
attention is required. Wheezing, swelling and hives are all indications of a serious, possibly fatal problem that requires immediate medical attention.

Most bites and stings are likely to occur when you are away from home, perhaps on a hike. At these times you may not have your first-aid kit handy, but you can always turn to wild plants for help. Be certain, however, that you correctly identify them and that the plants are clean and have not been sprayed with herbicides. If you are not familiar with wild herbs, check your local bookstore for a good wild-plant identification book that covers the plants in your area. Better yet, check with local herb experts about herb walks offered in your area; herbalists throughout North America give herb walk classes and will personally introduce you to the healing herbs.

In the meantime, I’ll start you off with two easy-to-spot herbs you might already be familiar with: plantain and jewelweed. Both of these herbs not only soothe the pain and itching of a sting or bite, but also reduce swelling and even slow down allergic reactions. Since plantain grows wild through lawns and meadows in many parts of the world, once you’re familiar with it you will have a remedy on hand no matter where you travel. Jewelweed is not nearly as common, but it does grow wild in the northeastern part of the United States and in Canada.

For an instant treatment while on the go, chew plantain leaf into a poultice and put it on the injury. Sometimes called “nature’s bandage,” plantain has the wonderful trait of being able to adhere to the skin with out any artificial means. Jewelweed, if handy, is even easier to use than plantain. Simply break a leaf and rub its sticky, soothing juice into your skin.

One of my favorite poultice stories comes from my mechanic, Chris, who decided to investigate the world of herbs by attending one of my herbal first-aid classes with his wife, Darhl. When their dog, Sutter, got an infection between his toes as a result of an embedded foxtail grass, Darhl immediately took action, putting her newfound herbal knowledge to use. Several plantain poultices later, two foxtails had worked their way out and the infection was gone. (This treatment works just as well for stubborn splinters and the infections that can result from them..) Chris was impressed, and when he attended a party at his brother’s house and found the family lamenting about yet another $50 veterinary bill for the removal of an embedded foxtail from their dog’s paw, Chris offered to treat the dog himself. Not surprisingly, everyone was skeptical, and they were really shocked when he walked into the backyard and began chewing some of the weeds found on the lawn. But Chris knew what he was doing, and the dog’s foxtail problem was soon solved. By now, the tale of this herbal feat has been repeated so often that the story-and the cure-is destined to become one of Chris’s family traditions.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been out collecting herbs in the wild and have brushed up against a patch of nettles. I’ve also encountered more than my share of red ants. The pain that arises from being “stung” by nettles or bitten by ants is caused by formic acid. Fortunately, this acid can be neutralized by a poultice of yellow dock leaf tincture and baking soda. Yellow dock has long been popular in treating formic acid stings. (The Old English rhyme “Nettle in, dock out, dock rub, nettle out” is a reminder of the effectiveness and tradition of using yellow dock for this purpose.) Of course, there is always a chance you will run into ants or nettles without having any baking soda nearby. If this happens to you, just reach for some yellow dock leaves, crush them between your fingers, and as the rhyme says, rub them on.

Ant Bite/Nettle Remedy

1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon yellow dock leaf tincture

Stir the baking soda and tincture together into a thick paste. Apply directly to bite. If remedy dries out, simply add enough yellow dock tincture to turn it back into a paste.

As an herbalist, I spend a lot of time outdoors foraging for medicinal plants, so I’ve certainly come to appreciate the importance of an effective repellent-a nontoxic, herbal one, of course. Natural, essential oil-based repellents have become so popular that you can find them not only at natural food stores, but also at most drugstores and sporting goods stores. Or you can make your own, using my recipe.

Insect Repellent

2 ounces vegetable oil or vodka
¼ teaspoon each citronella and eucalyptus essential oils
1/8 teaspoon each pennyroyal, cedar and rose geranium essential oils

Combine ingredients and apply mixture directly to all exposed skin. Keep oil away from eyes and mouth-take care not to rub your eyes right after applying the repellent with your fingers. This repellent will keep for at least a year.

While I can’t prove that herbal insect repellents work any better than the standard drugstore variety, they do present some stiff competition. Herbal repellents have a more pleasant fragrance than their drugstore counterparts, and using them is certainly preferable to rubbing toxic chemical repellents into your skin.

I’ve successfully used this herbal repellent in my own backyard and have sent bottles all over the world: into the insect-filled tropics of Thailand, India, the Caribbean and the Amazon and to the high plains of China and Tibet, not to mention the southeastern United States. Everyone who has used this bug “dope” has given me glowing reports on how well it works.

Because insects have an amazing sense of smell, odor is used as the basic element in most repellents. Mosquitoes, ticks and many other crawling and flying pests hate the smell of herbs like eucalyptus , pennyroyal and citronella; unfortunately, so do quite a few people. Combine these herbs and you end up with a great insect repellent that also fends off your friends. I have found that the pungent smell of eucalyptus and citronella becomes more pleasant with the addition of rose geranium-but only for humans, not for insects. Despite its sweet smell, rose geranium is great for keeping bugs away.

Another herbal method for reducing the insect population hovering around you is to light a citronella candle. These candles release the citronella scent continuously as they burn. They are available from most camping goods and household stores and catalogs. Or you can make your own by taking a votive candle and using a dropper to slowly saturate the wick with about 20 drops of citronella oil, which is available at most drugstores. Allow two hours for the wick to absorb the oil; the candle is then ready to use.


If the sight of blood makes you woozy, you are not alone. I find, however, that being prepared by knowing what to do in an emergency really makes a difference.

The next time you are confronted with an injury, consider that a small amount of bleeding has its advantages. Bleeding cleans dirt and foreign particles from a wound, and when blood is exposed to air, it forms an important fibrous substance called fibrin. This fiber creates a netting that entangles other blood cells so that they clot into a scab.

I’ve been in quite a few situations where bleeding was serious and something needed to be done right away. Certain herbs can be applied directly to the wound. If this does not stop the bleeding, place an herbal compress over the injury and apply pressure. A flat object, such as a credit card, inserted into the folds of the compress can help distribute the pressure. While administering herbal remedies, you should also try to slow the flow of blood by raising the injured area higher than the heart. For deep cuts, or if bleeding does not stop within a minute or two, be sure to get medical help.

While preparing dinner you cut yourself with a knife. What do you do? Reach for the spice rack! Powdered cayenne, the same pepper used in chili powder, will quickly staunch bleeding when sprinkled directly on a wound. It will also reduce the time it takes for a scab to form. I realize that putting cayenne on a wound sounds as if it might be more painful than the injury itself, but the pepper not only arrests bleeding but also contains a substance that reduces pain: capsaicin, the same stuff that makes cayenne peppers hot. Researchers have discovered that capsaicin suppresses a chemical that carries the pain messages from nerves in the skin to the brain.

Powdered kelp (a seaweed used as a salt substitute) has been used in England for centuries as a folk remedy to arrest bleeding. During World War II, when medical supplies became scarce, British medics used it extensively in the field.

Agrimony, plantain and yarrow are versatile herbs that arrest bleeding and encourage scabbing. You can either sprinkle the dried and powdered leaves of these herbs directly onto a bleeding wound or make a poultice from the fresh plant. I have nicked myself so often on stakes or rosebushes while gardening that it has become second nature when this happens to grab a leaf of plantain, agrimony or yarrow, mash or chew it into a poultice and press it on the bleeding area. I know that a few readers will cringe at the idea of chewing their medicine, but in an emergency, most people out on a stroll or having a picnic would rather staunch a sudden cut with a wild plantain leaf than bleed all the way back to the house. Just be certain that you properly identify your herbs.

Legendary in its ability to arrest bleeding, yarrow is a common wild plant that also decorates herb and flower gardens. Its Latin name, Achillea, comes from Achilles, the name of a soldier-doctor who dressed the wounds of Greek troops during the Trojan War. Plantain, like yarrow, has a long history as a treatment for battle wounds. English children still refer to it as “soldier’s herb” or “kemp” (from cempa, the Anglo-Saxon word for “soldier”). Plantain is a good herb for you to be able to recognize because it seems to grow everywhere-in the United States, you will even find it growing in vacant city lots.

Like many herb gardeners, I grow agrimony and have always been impressed by how quickly it slows bleeding. Various kinds of agrimony grow in many parts of the world, including China, and studies reported in Chinese medical journals, as well as the American Journal of Chinese Medicine, found that this herb stops bleeding and doubles the speed of formation of scabs. The same studies cited the discovery that agrimony controlled hemorrhaging after surgery within two minutes. Actually, I knew that agrimony slowed bleeding long before I read these reports. It was mentioned in the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century work “The Yeoman’s Prologue” and was made into a famous sixteenth-century wound wash called arquebusade water, which is still sold in France.

Keep in mind that treatment with powders and poultices made with these herbs is an emergency tactic only. Although the herbs quickly arrest bleeding, they are not antiseptic enough for long-term healing. Unseen infection can hide beneath a lumpy scab thickened with herb powder. Once bleeding is arrested, the area needs to be cleaned and disinfected with an antiseptic.

Another way to arrest bleeding is to swallow two capsules of cayenne or a tincture of shepherd’ s purse. Both herbs take only a few minutes to begin working-which is hard to believe until you’ve seen them in action. They are useful whenever there is substantial bleeding or when direct pressure with a compress isn’t possible-for example, if you are treating a wound near your eye. This is exactly what happened to me one day. I had a blood blister on my eyelid that was very bothersome. I kept thinking that it was a bug and trying to flick it off. After one really strong flick, I could hardly stop the bleeding. But I was in my kitchen, and cayenne powder was within arm’s reach. I mixed about half a teaspoon into a quarter-cup of water and drank the mixture. The bleeding ceased within a minute. The only disadvantage to this treatment is that on an empty stomach it occasionally creates a slight burning sensation; to avoid this unpleasant
feeling, have a light snack or something to drink as soon as the emergency is over.

A few years ago, I went on a camping trip in the mountains with some of my students and their families. One of the teenagers was slicing a watermelon with a deer-skinning knife that was at least three times larger than was required for the job. I was wondering if I should remind him to be careful when the knife slipped and went into his hand. We were an hour away from the nearest doctor. I ran to get my first-aid kit, and everyone nearby went into action. We coated the wound with cayenne powder, and the boy’s father pressed an antiseptic compress soaked in lavender water over it. We also had the boy take two capsules of cayenne with some water. The cloth quickly became blood-soaked, but we were ready with more cayenne and another compress. The bleeding quickly subsided. We also put a cool lavender compress over the boy’s eyes, since he was starting to feel faint. (I also had to lay the poor father down and place a
lavender compress on his forehead before he fainted.) We followed up with herbal treatments to prevent infection, and the wound quickly healed.

Incidentally, the same herbs that work for bleeding wounds also work well for nosebleeds. You might also hold a compress-the colder, the better-firmly over the bridge of the nose. Then sit down and lean forward, tucking your head between your knees so that the blood doesn’t run down your throat and choke you. As an added measure, or if the nosebleed is severe, place another compress (also cold) on the back of your neck and apply pressure directly to your upper lip.

Many things can provoke a nosebleed. Among the most common are a sinus infection, a blow,excessively dry air conditions or weak blood vessels. Frequent nosebleeds may indicate that you have a serious problem, such as anemia or high blood pressure, so see a doctor if you are prone to this condition.

In addition to using a compress, you can also stop a nosebleed by sniffing one of these powdered herbs. I assure you that this sounds much worse than it really is. It takes only a small amount and the results are dramatic.

Herbal Compress to Stop Bleeding

1 teaspoon tincture of yarrow (or other suitable herb)
½ cup water
Soft cloth

Combine ingredients. Soak the cloth in the liquid, wring it out and apply it with pressure over the wound.


Medical dictionaries define a bruise as “an injury just below the skin where the skin is not broken,” although most of us would settle for describing it as an uncomfortable nuisance with unsightly discoloration. Actually, many bruises are so minor that after announcing themselves with a few moments of intense pain, they seem to go away. Be warned, however-if the bruising was caused by a heavy impact, the under lying muscles, bones or organs could be injured, so call a doctor if you’re in doubt as to the severity of the injury.

If you bruise easily and seem never to be without a few discolored spots, you should probably look beyond simple first-aid remedies. Easy bruising may be an indication that you have weak blood vessels or a problem with blood clotting.

For simple, uncomplicated bruising, herbs can be quite helpful. One day I was potting some herbs and went prancing at high speed across my stone-filled driveway, arms full of plants. I tripped and went sailing across the rocks, herbs flying in all directions. I received a deep scrape on my knee, but that was nothing compared to the assortment of bruises inflicted by those rocks. I limped over to pluck a plantain leaf to stop the bleeding. Then I thought to put my misery to some good, so I tried an experiment. I put Saint-John’s-wort tincture on half the bruises and arnica tincture on the other half. Like a true scientist, I even left a few small bruises untreated. The result was a tie between the two tinctures: By the next day, the discoloration was fading on both sets of bruises, and in a few days my skin no longer looked like a calico quilt. The untended bruises, however, did not fare so well. Even though they were very minor, they remained visible and painful long after the other bruises disappeared.

The best herbs for treating bruises are those that discourage swelling and promote quick healing, such as arnica, chamomile, lavender, Saint-John’s- wort and witch hazel. In Germany, pharmacies sell more than 100 different arnica preparations to reduce inflammation caused by bruises. Arnica is also popular in North America, although many herbalists use Saint-John’s- wort instead because it grows much more abundantly. Another classic North American folk remedy for the treatment of bruises is witch hazel tincture, which is conveniently sold at drugstores. The distilled witch hazel that is commonly sold in drugstores does not contain the astringent tannins that reduce bruising, but folks still swear by it. For even better results, purchase a witch hazel tincture at a natural food store.

I was at a picnic once when a young boy fell out of a tree. He received several bad bruises that began to swell almost immediately. My herbal first-aid kit was in my car, a good 20-minute walk away, but growing right near the tree was some Saint-John’s- wort. While I collected some leaves, I thought, “How can I best chop this to release its healing properties?” The answer was obvious- I popped the herb into my mouth and chewed it. And yes, it tasted terrible. A few minutes after the poultice was on the child’s bruises, the swelling receded and his crying was reduced to an occasional sob.

Whichever herb you choose, the sooner you dab on the oil or tincture, the better. To further diminish swelling, apply a tincture-soaked compress that has ice slipped inside its folds. Or use herbal ice cubes, which you can make from a strong tea (use two teaspoons of herb per cup instead of the standard one teaspoon) of any of these herbs. (Do not place ice directly on the skin.) Keep your Herbal Ice in the freezer so that it is always handy for an emergency.

Bruise Compress

1 tablespoon tincture of arnica flowers, Saint-John’s- wort flowering tops, witch hazel bark or chamomile flowers
4 drops lavender essential oil
2 tablespoons cold water


Combine ingredients. Soak a washcloth in the herbal water to make a compress. Wring it out and place it directly on the bruised area. To keep the compress extra-cold, insert an ice cube (regular or herbal) inside the folded cloth.

Herbal Ice

1 cup water
1 teaspoon chamomile flowers
1 teaspoon lavender flowers

Pour boiling water over the herbs and let steep in a covered pan for about 15 minutes. Strain out the herbs and freeze the tea in medium-size ice-cube trays. Once the cubes are frozen, pop them out and store them in a plastic bag in the freezer. Herbal Ice can be applied directly to the bruise or wrapped inside the Bruise Compress.

Burns and Sunburn

I confess that I am attracted to hobbies that often lead to burns. I like to make scented candles with hot wax, boil up herbal jellies and candies and use a hot-glue gun on dried herbal wreaths. It’s no wonder I learned early to keep an herbal burn remedy nearby! I’m sure you are familiar with the discomfort of a burn, whether it is caused by an herbal hobby like mine, a hot kitchen pan or a long day under the sun. Sunburn, after all, is essentially just another kind of burn, usually less severe in intensity but dangerous at times because of the large area of skin affected. Although the causes of these burns are not the same-sunburns are the result of prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light, and standard burns are caused by physical heat-the symptoms are the same. The burned skin swells, blisters and sometimes even peels off. Underneath, dilated blood vessels leak toxins into the inflamed area, which causes further skin irritation. For the most part, burns and sunburns respond equally well to the same herbal treatments.

Whenever you are in doubt about a burn’s severity, seek help from a professional health care practitioner. Burns from chemical and electric shocks require special treatment, and a superficial burn over a large area can be more serious than a deep, small burn, because extensive nerve damage and dehydration are possible. After a doctor has treated even serious burns, herbal remedies are wonderful elements to incorporate into your follow-up care.

For any minor burn that you can confidently treat yourself, the rule is immediate action. First, cool the burned area by immersing it in cold water or applying ice for about a minute-the cold numbs the pain and prevents further injury. Then reach for the herbs. Whether you treat your burns with an herbal remedy of your own making or with a commercial treatment, you should avoid using oil-based products, such as salves, on all but the most minor burns. Oil retains heat and inhibits air circulation and drainage, all of which combine to slow the healing of a burn.

According to John P. Heggers, M.D., director of research for the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at Wayne State University in Detroit, it is the center of a burn that receives the most heat, and it is the skin there that suffers the greatest damage. Surrounding tissue is often injured, but seldom destroyed; it will, however, die in two days if not treated.

I have been impressed by the burn-healing effects of certain herbs since I went to an herb retreat more than 20 years ago. All those who attended spent a lot of time in the sun that weekend-too much time. The staff and some of the students traveled there and back in a school bus; on the way home, everyone compared sunburns. As I worked my way from seat to seat, burn remedy in hand, the bus became an herbal burn clinic on wheels. The “oohs”and “ahs” of my patients communicated their instant relief. After a couple of rounds at my “clinic,” bright red skin had dulled to a healthier pink. Everyone asked what herbs were in my magic formula.

Actually, the recipe contained only two primary ingredients: aloe vera and lavender. Both of these are star performers when it comes to burns. They ease pain and swelling, help repair damaged cells, deter infection and help prevent burns from scarring. It’s no wonder that many hospitals use aloe and that it is the main ingredient in many burn remedies sold in pharmacies and drugstores. (If you buy your burn remedy already prepared, look for one that is at least 90 percent aloe.) Studies conducted at Wayne State, the University of Chicago Hospital and the University of Miami Medical School show that aloe vera not only reduces burn damage and promotes new skin growth, but also stops cell destruction caused by inflammation.

If you are lucky enough to have your own aloe vera plant, remove an outer leaf from the plant (leaving the younger, inner leaves undisturbed) . Peel off the thin, green skin from a small section of the leaf, and rub the gel-like substance from the inside directly onto the burn, as often as needed for relief. Stored in the refrigerator, the unpeeled leaf should keep for at least a week.

Homemade Aloe Gel

¼ cup peeled aloe vera leaves
150 International Units vitamin C powder

Puree aloe leaves in an electric blender, using enough leaves to make ¼ cup of puree.

Stir in vitamin C powder as a preservative. Store in the refrigerator- cold helps burns to heal.

Aloe is not the only herb that can be used to heal burns. There are a number of other herbs and essential oils that can help injured skin to regenerate, including calendula, chamomile,
comfrey, Saint-John’s- wort, plantain and, as mentioned earlier, lavender. The last one is my favorite. Time and again I have seen the almost miraculous burn-healing power of lavender essential oil at work. Like other essential oils, lavender needs to be diluted; I combine it with aloe vera. It was lavender that came to the rescue of the French chemist Dr. René.



One Response

  1. Thank you for this comprehensive guide with your own field experiences. It is always interesting to see what other herbalists use.

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