Soothing a sore throat while beating infection: Home Medicine Cycle 32

The immune system is our defense against infection. But it is not one monolithic shield. Instead it is a system that works together with the other systems of the body. And as such it has stronger and weaker points. There are often--in specific individuals--weak points that provide infections with an easy gateway to the body—a literal Achilles’ Heel. 

Image licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Image licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

For many the vulnerable place is some section of the respiratory pathways and infection creeps in through colds. Others have vulnerable inner ears. For me the weak point is my throat. 

Most viral illnesses begin with a sore throat, even if that isn’t among their primary symptoms. And if I am weakened by a viral infection, the chances are high that I may develop bacterial strep throat. Almost all antibiotics I have ever taken were for strep throat. 

As a result I’ve made a study of the herbs that are useful for sore throats and throat infections. And in the last few years, my throat troubles have largely evaporated. 

There is a difference in how I treat a tickling in the throat or a raging inflamed throat. And there are things I do to prevent sore throats when other illnesses are around. Here are the things that work for me, which have resulted in two years without any significant sore throat, despite my personal vulnerability. 

Prevention:

When there are viral infections around or particularly if others have an illness involving a sore throat, I am particularly careful. I use echinacea tincture (recipe here) and echinacea flower tea for general prevention. Beyond that I drink strongly brewed lemon balm tea. See this page on how to brew potent herbal teas. I personally like it without honey and I use honey for acute infections, but that’s optional.

A tickling in the throat

Whenever I get a tickling sensation in my throat and feel that something might be coming on, I do the same as with prevention—echinacea and lemon balm. Plus I take a dose of plantain syrup. You can find the recipe for that here

Acute sore throat

If an infection takes hold and the throat is inflamed and painful, I will make strong lemon balm tea with added raw honey and fresh lemon juice. This will often cut the pain very effectively. Another option is lemon balm popsicles. Simply brew a strong lemon balm tea with honey, add yogurt and lemon juice and freeze. While some infections do better with hot treatment, popsicles are sometimes the only way to get a child to take medicine and it may be worth it. 

In an acute situation I also take lemon balm tincture. New studies are showing some surprising results with lemon balm, which appears to be specifically active against the bacteria that is responsible for most bacterial infections in the throat.

A simple herbal antibiotic is fresh garlic, either eaten in food (without cooking) or drunk as juice. It works both topically and systemically so the more the garlic or its juice touches the inflamed parts of the throat the better. The difficulty with raw garlic is that many people cannot swallow enough of it for it to work as a systemic antibiotic. Even a small amount of raw garlic eaten in food can help to prevent or treat throat infections however.

Another effective treatment is propolis tincture. It's made with 80 proof alcohol and must be diluted in water. When treating a sore throat it is best to gargle with the water and propolis tincture solution for as long as possible. Those with bee allergies should be very careful of propolis, since it Is a bee product.

Some people may find gargling with propolis to be unpleasant due to its distinctive taste. I am not sure why I dislike the taste of propolis. It smells good to me but I find the tincture to be unpleasant and it is hard for me to gargle with it. Still I do it because the combination of propolis and lemon balm tinctures is the one way I know of to prevent the need for synthetic antibiotics for strep throat.

There are herbal antibiotics which may be effective against strep throat, however most of them are not available locally and I haven’t been able to grow them myself or gather them in the wild yet. Purchased herbs are highly variable in their effectiveness and strep throat can become very serious and lead to permanent health problems if left untreated. Therefore I would only rely on herbs to treat a bacterial throat infection if I could see a professional herbalist with reputable supplies.

A sore throat that continues for many days or is accompanied by a significant fever should be treated as a potentially serious illness. Medical and healing professionals should be consulted. 

The easiest herbal syrup recipe: Home Medicine Cycle 27

It can be tough to get kids to take herbal medicine, especially if they haven't been brought up with it from day one. Herbs have taste and herbal medicines often retain a bit of earthy sediment. They are natural after all and today's kids are used to candy that looks like it's made of plastic, as well as food items that have been shaped, pressed and specifically colorized to look synthetic. 

Creative Commons image by  Susy Morris    

Creative Commons image by Susy Morris

 

Add to that the problems of rendering alcoholic tincture safe for kids to consume and the homecrafting herbalist parent has a lot of technical issues to deal with. 

One of the best tools for conquering these problems is herbal syrup. It's sweet and with proper straining it can be sediment free and have a texture that kids associate with commercial medicine and candy. It is often dark brown or black in color, which can be an issue until they've tried the first taste. But once a child is convinced that "black honey" is like caramel, the struggles over medicine will dissipate. 

The other good thing about making herbal syrup is that it is simple and relatively forgiving of the novice. For one thing, you can safely start with either fresh or dried herbs, which means you can make a fresh batch of syrup at various times of the year. Here's how to go about it:

Creative Commons image by  Angelina Earley    

Creative Commons image by Angelina Earley

 

  • Find a source of good-quality honey. Organic honey is good if you can get it, but the primary issue is to make sure that the honey does not include added sugar syrup, which many brands of honey purchased in grocery stores do. The easiest way to make sure your honey is good is to find local beekeepers and buy their honey. It may be a bit more expensive, but beekeeping is so crucial to your local environment that it this is one cost that is well worth it, even if your resources are limited.
  • Obtain fresh or dried herbs. The most basic syrup can be made with plantain, which is found in many lawns, and it is excellent for sore throats, upset stomachs and coughs and will cover a wide variety of children's health problems safely and without a battle. Other common herbs for syrups include lemon balm, mullein leaf, marshmallow flowers and thyme. Lemon balm is good for sore throats, anxiety and hyperactivity, and the other herbs are all specific to coughs and bronchitis. If possible grow your own herbs, even if it's just in a pot on the window sill. If not, gather them in wild places or get to know an herbalist and make sure that the herbs you get are no more than a few months old and stored carefully.
  • Now you're ready to make syrup. Pour a cup of boiling water over a double handful of your chosen herbs in a small saucepan (use enamel if possible or second-best stainless steel, as many medicinal compounds react with metals and lose potency). Add more herbs if they will fit and still be covered by the water. 
  • Simmer for 5 minutes.
  • Strain the herbs out of the water. What you have now is a strong infusion. 
  • Measure your infusion with a cup (as some of the liquid will have evaporated) and add an equal amount of honey.
  • Set your stove on a very low heat and simmer the syrup until all the water has evaporated. The time involved will depend on how hot your stove is. If you keep it at a regular simmer, you will have to stand over it and stir to ensure that your honey doesn't burn or boil over. And then you may be able to evaporate the water in just a half an hour. If you can set your stove to a very low heat, however, it may take hours to evaporate the water but require little supervision. 
  • Don't boil the syrup too long or too vigorously. Not only will this reduce the potency of some herbs. At times I have also accidentally turned the syrup into candy, which would be okay, except that I poured it into a jar and then couldn't get the resultant mass of hard candy out of the jar once it cooled. If you do boil the syrup more vigorously, you can then drop it into greased molds and have candy of various consistencies. I prefer to simmer at a lower heat in order to retain as much of the herbal potency as possible.

A syrup that is about the same thickness as honey is ideal and primarily depends on how long you are willing to evaporate the water. The infusion of herbs will then be left in the honey, usually turning the honey a rich dark color. You should store this syrup in the refrigerator, but it can then last many months if properly evaporated. Both children and adults will enjoy it.

Be sure to share this simple recipe with your friends. It is one that even those without much herbalist experience can use to good effect and get a little of the earthy goodness of herbs to counterbalance pharmaceuticals and processed foods. Drop me a line in the comments below if you have any ideas or questions about this. Thanks!

The season of coughs looms but the herb cupboard is well-stocked: Home Medicine Cycle 25

Whether you've been busily flitting from wildflower to wildflower this past summer to gather your herbs or you are looking for a good local supplier of freshly dried and tinctured herbs, this is the time of year to take stock of your herbal supplies. The season of colds, coughs and flu brings infections, seasonal light deprivation, slumps in immune function and other problems that modern medicine has difficulty solving is at hand. 

Wild thyme - Creative Commons image by Summi of German Wikipedia

Wild thyme - Creative Commons image by Summi of German Wikipedia

I dread taking my kids to a doctor for a checkup at this time of year because we're sure to catch something in the waiting room. And if someone in our family is sick with a viral infection, we're much better off staying home to rest with a cup of tea than we would be exposing ourselves (and others) to more problematic infections. As hard as doctors and nurses try (and they do try mightily) to combat bacteria, serious infections from antibiotic resistant bacteria are widespread in hospitals and spreading to all types of medical facilities. When you are already weakened by a virus, your chances of contracting a life-threatening resistant bacterial infection are higher.

As much as I love having a good doctor nearby, I would rather chat with her in line at the grocery story than visit her office. And one of the most important ways to avoid that office at this time of year is to know how to handle a cough on your own. Here are my tips:

Know your cough

There are two basic types of cough--a productive cough (where you are actually coughing up mucous) and a dry cough.  And these different types need different approaches. While most of the pharmaceuticals sold over the counter attempt to suppress a cough at all costs, this can actually lead to worse infection and often simply doesn't work. With a productive cough, you don't need to be hacking and coughing all the time to get the troublesome mucous out. If you can loosen up the mucous a productive cough doesn't have to be a too unpleasant or last more than a few days.

In these posts, I try to stay away from terms that aren't clear to lay people, but there are two herbalist terms that are really worth learning. The first is "expectorant." An herb or a chemical compound that is an expectorant has the property of helping to loosen mucous and make it easier to cough out. You may feel like your cough is suppressed after taking an expectorant herb because you will not have to cough so many times in order to release the mucus, but in reality this type of herb does nothing to suppress a cough. It does, however, make it easier to breathe, prevent further infection, hasten the end of the cough and often reduce the frequency of coughing.

Herbs for a phlegmy, mucousy cough: 

  • Mullein leaf (good as tincture, syrup and tea and it's soothing as well)
  • Thyme (my all-time favorite--makes a delicious tea and a good tincture as well)
  • Ginger (a tasty and helpful addition to any cough tea)
  • Eucalyptus (use one drop of essential oil in a steam bath to clear up congestion)
  • Hyssop (a pleasant tea)
  • Horehound (extremely bitter as a tea but can be made into taste cough drops)
  • Garlic (fresh garlic is good sprinkled on soups and salads whenever you're sick)
  • Horseradish root (It's possible that just smelling the fresh root will cure what ails you! Caution!)
  • Elecampane flowers (good for cough syrups)
  • Anise Seed
  • Black Cohosh root
  • Colt's Foot

For a dry, irritating cough

The other important term is "demulcent." An herb or compound that is demulcent will sooth mucous membranes and help get rid of irritations that cause dry, hacking coughs. This second type of cough--the dry cough--is the kind you do want to suppress. The cough itself doesn't do much to rid your body of mucous or infection. It simply serves to further irritate already inflamed places in your throat and airways. That's why this type of cough can go on for months and become chronic. It is often self-perpetuating and it disrupts sleep, further harming the body's ability to heal. 

My husband has battled dry, chronic coughs in the winter for years and the remedie that has finally brought some relief is a combination of thyme, mullein and ground ivy tinctures along with syrup made from mullein leaves, plantain leaves, elecampane flowers and marshmallow flowers. You may have to experiment to find the right combination for a chronic cough but the most common demulcent herbs are:  

  • Mullein (For chronic coughs I find regular tincture to work best but if you can ensure that you drink the tea every day, that could work as well)
  • Marshmallow flowers (not made into candy but rather into syrup)
  • Plantain (helps to sooth whatever it can physically touch, so it is good for irritations close to the throat)
  • Coltsfoot (another good tea)
  • Lungwort (the flowers particularly make a nice tea)
  • Liquorice
  • Slippery Elm
  • Wild cherry bark (It's said to be a strong cough suppressant but I don't have personal experience with it.)
  • Lemon, and honey (Drink a warm lemonade made with honey. It may only provide temporary relief but sometimes temporarily relief is all your body needs to recover.)
  • Onion (you can make a syrup from cooked onion that is used widely for coughs in some parts of Eastern Europe.)
  • Sage, peppermint and rose hips are good additions to many of these teas and syrups for the nutrients they provide when you are dealing with a chronic cough.

Whooping cough

Another kind of cough is whooping cough and this is quite different from a the two other kinds of coughs. True whooping cough (pertussis) is a dangerous bacterial infection that can sometimes be fatal in infants. The signature sound of whooping cough is a cough followed by a whooping noise. The noise comes from the sick person (usually a small child) trying desperately to pull air in through swollen tissue. You can see the hollow at the base of the throat depress as the child strives to take a breath and this is a critical sign of danger.

My son had a cough like this when he was two and again last winter, although he wasn't treated with antibiotics at the time. Sometimes a whooping-type cough comes even when a child has been vaccinated against pertussis and it is frightening and possibly very dangerous. One of the ways that whooping cough is treated in an emergency room is to put the child into a cool steam tent. The reason is that the cool steam soothes the swollen tissue that makes it so difficult to breathe. This is also why many people start out to bring a child with a terrible whooping cough to an emergency room, only to have it disappear by the time they arrive, because of the exposure to the cool, damp air (given that most attacks of whooping cough occur at around 10:00 pm to midnight). 

I learned this the first time my son had such a coughing attack and couldn't breathe. After trying several things that work with other types of cough (to no good effect), I took him out at night and the cough subsided within a half an hour. I didn't get much sleep the rest of the night but he did. The second time it happened, I didn't wait but immediately bundled him up and went outside, where I held him until the attack stopped. Interestingly enough, as a child of barely four, he cried and insisted that he didn't like the cold air. The cough was so powerful, he though he would vomit but couldn't and within ten minutes it passed. 

Please be aware that I'm not a doctor and this isn't medical advice for any specific ailment. My experience shows that the only thing you can do at home for something resembling whooping cough is cool steam or night air. Otherwise, I would seek out professional medical attention.

Other times to seek out professional help with a cough

Coughs can be a symptom of a number of bacterial infections or other breathing problems. Beyond whooping cough, there are times to leave the home herb cupboard and find professional medical help, particularly if...

  • There is a fever for more than several days,
  • A fever, wheezing or headaches are severe or get worse rapidly,
  • you develop fast breathing or chest pain,
  • it is difficult to get a breath,
  • you cough up blood or rusty-colored phlegm,
  • you become sleepy or confused,
  • a cough lasts for longer than four weeks or keeps coming back.

Please feel free to add your comments and experiences with herbal cough remedies in the comments. 


For the love of a cup of tea: Home Medicine Cycle 24

The first frost has passed and the cold and dark half of the year has come where I live. This is the time for drawing inward and the time for tea and fires on the hearth. That gives me the opportunity to write about one of the most basic of herbalist arts--making tea.

There are herbal teas that I use for their specific medicinal properties, though I find that a lot of first aid can be handled with salves, fresh herbs or tincture. But when you're dealing with something beyond first aid, a chronic illness or the need to strengthen the body or treat a systemic imbalance, tea is often the best answer. It keeps you well hydrated, which is an often overlooked facet of healing, and it can provide a long-term, sustained intake of beneficial compounds that are otherwise difficult to isolate. 

Wild oregano - Image by Arie Farnam

Wild oregano - Image by Arie Farnam

And then there's the fact that tea is simply comforting, tasty and relaxing. I have met herbalists who claim--in all seriousness--that a large part of their healing comes from the fact that they have to take the time to calmly prepare and consume tea. While tincture and a hurried glass of water gives you a lot of the same nutrients and compounds,, tea does a lot to heal beyond the immediate and the physical. The experience of sitting, breathing deeply and drinking tea by a fire is one that is almost absent from so many modern lives, and those same lives tend to be wracked with intractable, chronic and systemic health problems that western medicine has such difficulty treating. 

That's why many of the herbal teas I drink regularly come from cooking herbs, that are safe for daily consumption and are unlikely to precipitate dramatic health changes one way or the other. I specifically gather herbs that are of general benefit to the immune system and biochemical health without the intent to treat a certain ailment and then I use these for daily teas. 

The most important part about drinking daily tea is to do it in an environment where you can get the benefit of the warmth and relaxation the tea offers. Here are few tips to make it more possible to get to drink regular cups of herbal tea and to ensure that they retain as much of their nutritious and medicinal properties as possible.

  1. Unless otherwise directed for a specific herb, use about a tablespoon of dried herbs (two if fresh) to make a cup of tea.  
  2. When an herbalist or book recommends a "hot infusion" be made from a certain herb, that means regular tea, where you pour very hot water over it. (Most herbs will make better and more potent tea, if you boil water and then wait two or three minutes for the water to slightly cool before pouring it over your herbs.)
  3. If it is recommended that you make a "cold infusion," you simply pour cold water into a jar with herbs and store it in the refrigerator over night. You can also make sun tea by pouring lukewarm water over herbs in a clear glass jar and leaving it in direct sun for a few hours. Many medicinal compounds will degrade in sunlight however, so unless this is specifically noted for a particular herb, I reserve sun tea for general daily drinking, when I don't acutely need the specific medicinal properties of a plant. 
  4. When an herbal recipe calls for a "decoction," that means, you should simmer the herbs (usually roots or bark) in a pan with water.
  5. Whether you let an infusion brew or simmer a decoction, you will get more medicinal potency out of the tea if you let it brew or simmer for at least 10 minutes. For maximum effect, let it sit or simmer for 45 minutes, but this will often result in a very bitter draft and need sweetening.
  6. The herbalist tradition of "simpling" holds that the most benefit is gained by ingesting large quantities of diluted medicine, rather than small quantities of pure medicine. That is why it may be preferable to make a nice warm cup of tea and let it brew only ten minutes, drink it and make more, rather than trying to force yourself (or your child) to drink one bitter infusion that has been sitting for most of an hour. Still there are times when what you need is strong medicine and some herbs are better prepared as a strong infusion than as a tincture. So, this depends on your purpose and the herbs you are using.
  7. Many herbs react with metals and lose some of their medicinal potency. For that reason it is preferable when possible to use an enamel pot for simmering decoctions and a bamboo strainer for all kinds of herbal teas. Some will go so far as to recommend a special wooden or ceramic spoon. I again tend toward the philosophy that it is better to drink good herbal teas often rather than to be so perfectionist about achieving maximum potency that you only rarely get to drink them. But if you have special, non-metallic spoons and strainers, by all means use them.
  8. For those who are busy and truly need the comfort and stress-reduction of a cup of herbal tea, choose a few safe and beneficial herbs or a mix. Then build into your daily routine a time when you can boil water and return to it in a few minutes. This can be the routine of turning on a timed or self-regulating kettle before you get into the shower in the morning, meaning that your water is slightly cooled when you get out. Pour the hot water over your tea and again build your routine so that you have another short task that takes between five and ten minutes while your tea brews. Then ensure that your routine allows for fifteen minutes of peace (even if that means putting your kids in front of the dreaded television) and sit down in a comfortable place to drink your tea. 
  9. Other ways of getting the benefits of herbal tea are to take a travel mug full of tea on your commute or taking an extra cup to sip while you work or study.
  10. if you have small children at home most of the time, you will have to build your own tea into the routine, so that there is a time when you know you need to be making it before the time when the children will be preoccupied with their screen time allowance or other distractions. Accommodating tea in a household of small children is a significant challenge for me but it is worth making it a priority for the reduction of stress and clarity of mind that result.

As for choosing which teas to make, you can make tea out of just about every medicinal herb and many of them are quite tasty. When I list specific herbs in the Home Medicine Cycle, I usually note if a tea from some part of the plant is specifically used for a certain acute problem. But when I use teas for general beneficial purpose, I don't always include that in the specific listings. So, here are a list of my favorite tea herbs for supporting a healthy body and peaceful mind. These are also herbs which are usually easy to grow in a northern climate. All of those listed are good for making a hot infusion (regular tea).

  • Wild oregano flowers - This is my all-time favorite general purpose tea. Wild oregano is much milder in flavor than the usual cooking oregano and I use the flowering tops, rather than the leaves for tea. It grows abundantly in my garden and has a delicious flavor that aids in maintaining healthy metabolism. 
  • Primrose - Wild primroses grow in the highlands of Bohemia and they are somewhat harder to obtain for me, but they have a light, earthy flavor and make a brilliant yellow tea that is a joy to look at in a glass tea pot or cup.
  • Linden flowers - Linden or lime (not the citrus kind) treas have beautiful golden flowers, made famous by J. R. R. Tolkien's rapturous descriptions of the Elven realm of Lothlórien. They also make a very good tea in the winter months when colds and flu are a danger and they taste wonderful, light and flowery just as you would expect an magical drink to taste. I personally find the literary associations to be very relaxing as well.
  • Borage flowers - Borage is a funny little plant that some people .like to eat as a prickly sort of green, although I have read mixed research n the subject. There is no controversy about the flowers however. They are astoundingly beautiful dried--little packets of bright purple and blue that remain beautiful all through the winter. Their flavor is so sweet and good that it is often recommended as a children's tea.
  • Chamomile - There is a reason why chamomile tea figures in many old books and stories. It has been used by herbalists for hundreds of years both for acute ailments and as a general tea. Brewed correctly it is actually a bit bitter, but it can be helped by honey and then it has a good flavor. It has very beneficial effects for those with fevers or digestive troubles.
  • Huckleberry, rasberry and strawberry leaves - When you're out collecting edible berries in the late summer, don't forget the leaves. Most edible berries (those that are not sprayed with pesticides) make excellent teas with a lot of nutrients and minerals and a pleasant tangy flavor without the sour heaviness of tea made from dried fruit. Raspberry leaf tea is known as a uterine tonic which is often taken to help regulate menstruation, to help a woman get pregnant or just before giving birth, but it isn't recommended during pregnancy, because of the unpredictability of such effects.
  • Mint - Mint is one of the most common herbal teas, but brewing mint from a local plant is a completely different experience from the tea bag variety, which is not only stale but also often treated with chemicals. You haven't really had mint tea, until you have had some locally grown mint tossed into your cup. It can help to calm an upset stomach. And mint tea from fresh mint has an astoundingly different (and quite pleasant flavor) as well. Dry and fresh mint cannot really be considered the same tea at all because of their differences in flavor and content.
  • Lemon balm - Lemon balm is one of those herbs that is surprising science in recent years with discoveries about it's amazing antiviral and anti-bacterial action that is not well understood due to the lack of harsh chemical compounds. It also remains one of the mildest and most pleasant general teas. Given the research, I will probably lean toward using lemon balm in times of sickness, but I have yet to see any caution on its use as a general tea. It is wonderfully calming, delicious and popular with adults and children alike.
  • Plantain - There is no such thing as too much plantain! Plantain tea has a rough caramel like flavor particularly when sweetened a bit. It is great for sore throats, coughs, irritated stomachs and urinary tract infections but it is also good for just tea.
  • Echinacea flowers - I definitely use Echinacea tincture and even tea for flu and cold prevention specifically. You don't want to drink it all the time because that may lessen it's needed effects in the season when viruses are rampant but it is generally useful enough and delicious enough to merit a mention here. Drink it as a daily tea whenever there are colds going around your workplace or local schools. It has a distinct, hearty taste that reminds me of the pleasant smell of bee hives (not just the honey but the hives themselves). 
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I hope this list can inspire others. There are surely many more fragrant and delicious herbal teas for daily use. Let me know below if you have a special one or a particularly favorite blend. Keep in touch and happy tea drinking.

Nature’s band aid: Home Medicine Cycle 8

There's a Czech proverb usually ascribed to various alcoholic beverages that claims “Where it flows it heals.” I can’t vouch for the truth of this statement with regards to Moravian wine, South Bohemian beer or even highland herbal liquor. 

Creative commons image by Sannse via Wikipedia

Creative commons image by Sannse via Wikipedia

But there is one substance of near miraculous topical healing power that I can vouch for (and if you own a small plot of grass it is very likely that you’re already growing it whether you want to or not). That is the humble plantain herb.

To avoid confusion, be advised that this herb is in no way related to anything resembling a banana. Fried plantain bananas are delicious and reasonably good for you, but this kind of plantain is something completely different. If you don’t know it already, it’s likely that you often mistake it for a odd sort of grass.

Medicinal plantain is a plant with long thin leaves. It can be best identified by the deep, stiff ridges that run the length of the leaves. Otherwise the leaves are shaped like long blades. There is a broad-leaf variety with the same ridges but it’s medicinal potency isn’t as strong. 

Narrow-leaf plantain, which grows in yards and other places where brush is cut back in a wide variety of climates, is such a staple of the herbalists cupboard that it is the first herb I would teach children to actively use. It is best used fresh and is essentially nature’s band aid. 

Here’s how to use it for the most basic first aid.

Please note that even small scrapes heal faster if you can wash and disinfect them. But you can’t always do this right away. Pull out any stingers if the problem is a bee sting. If near home, I’d opt for a baking soda and water paste first to suck out any accessible venom and then a plantain poultice. But if you’re out on a hike and don’t have anything with you, plantain is your best friend. 

  1. If you have a scratch, scrape, small cut, insect bite or sting while outdoors, look around for some plantain. 
  2. Chew or mash a leaf or two of plantain with a little water or saliva.
  3. This is called a poultice. Pack it generously over the affected spot. 
  4. If possible secure with a band aid. But just rubbing it in and holding it on for a few minutes will suffice for most minor scrapes.
  5. Also wet a leaf of plantain and stick it to the skin as a temporary band aid. Children who know from experience that mashed plantain reduces pain willl be doubly soothed by having a plantain band aid.

The plantain will not only lesson the immediate pain significantly, it will also cause the wound to heal much faster than it would on it’s own. 

This is the primary property of plantain. It assists the regeneration of cells. It isn’t particularly disinfectant and lacks antibiotic properties, so it is good to combine it with something disinfectant for any significant wound. However, where plantain is strong—in healing tissue—it is very strong indeed.

Here are the easiest uses of plantain in the home medicine cabinet:

A. In salve for poorly healing wounds: Next week I will post my super quick and easy salve recipe for plantain and other herbs. I have seen plantain salve from this simple recipe do what prescription antibiotic and healing salves could not. In the village where I live I have run into now three people with skin cracks or badly healing sores on areas that are hard to keep absolutely clean and disinfected. Each of these people had already sought out medical advice from doctors and received multiple prescriptions for pharmaceutical ointments—without relief. Each of them found that the cracks or sores closed after a week of using simple plantain salve. Keep in mind that these were cracks and sores from injury, not eczema or an allergic skin condition or a wound requiring antibiotics. But they were serious enough to cause significant pain and they were problems that standard pharmaceutical ointments didn’t heal well. These are the types of wounds where plantain is most helpful.

B. As a base for general skin care salves and washes: If I have enough plantain from the harvest I try to include at least some plantain with most of my general purpose salves, because of its amazing healing power. It is also great to have some dried plantain around to make an infusion to add to bath water for general skin care. It is so healing and soothing to whatever part of the body it touches that your skin will thank you and some conditions that require quick healing before an irritant or infection can set in may clear themselves up, even if the plantain doesn’t address their underlying allergenic or microbial basis.

C. In syrup or tea for stomach troubles, sore throats and coughs: It is good to remember that Czech proverb I mentioned in relation to plantain. Wherever it flows, it heals. Whatever it can physically touch, it will heal. Plantain hasn’t shown much ability to address systemic problems but it's great for the relief of symptoms because of its ability to immediately sooth irritated tissue and promote cell growth and regeneration. Certain types of stomach problems resulting from ulcers or irritation of the walls of the stomach may be helped by drinking strong plantain tea or syrup. Bronchial coughs where the irritation is primarily in upper air passages can be soothed and sore throats will benefit from plantain tea and syrup. Plantain can also be added to teas used for urinary tract infections and kidney stones. Again, plantain won’t solve the root problems of these ailments alone but it can mitigate the pain involved. 

D. As food: Plantain leaves are an excellent source of iron as well as calcium, magnesium and vitamins A, C and K--far better than most garden greens. The taste of young plantain leaves is mild when chopped in a salad. Fresh plantain leaves have many of the same benefits as tea and syrup, so they can be added to food both for the nutritional benefits and to help with symptoms. There is no specific limit on how much plantain a person should consume, but as with all herbs, moderation is a good idea.

E. Vitamin B supplements:  The unremarkable, brown flowers and seed heads of plantain are so high in vitamin B that they can practically be considered a vitamin supplement in and of themselves. Pick them and put them on salads to keep anemia and other health troubles at bay.

Warnings:

I must always end with the warnings, if for no other reason than to let you know what the current research says. Plantain is among the mildest herbs and it is safe for almost everyone. However, there are rare plantain allergies and people who are allergic to melons may have some reaction to plantain as well. Beyond that plantain hasn’t been studied enough when it comes to use in pregnancy, so responsible sources will generally warn off pregnant and breastfeeding women on general principle. 

I add one other warning specifically for plantain because of where it grows rather than because of the plant itself. Please be aware that many grassy areas are sprayed with extremely toxic chemicals. While you can find plantain in great abundance in many parks and other lawns, keep in mind that unless you know for certain that an area of mowed grass is NOT sprayed with pesticides, the chances are very good that it is. Choose your harvest locations with care.

And as with all herbs and medicines, keep in mind that I’m not a doctor and this doesn’t constitute medical advice. While there is a lot you can do for yourself, it is always a good idea to seek out medical help with any significant injury or illness.