Earth-Centered Practices for Everyday Mystics, Healers, & Creatives

First Aid with Wild Herbs, Part 2 (Celebrating Plants in the Springtime)

in Herbs, Nature, Wheel of the Year

Gaian Tarot Teacher. Can you identify two plants depicted that the author discusses in this article?

Treating Trauma, Cuts, Headache, Pains, Colds and Other Infections

Guest post by Chris Chisholm

This is the second in a series of five articles that Celebrate Plants in the Springtime, written by my good friend and naturalist Chris Chisholm (founder of Wolf Camp and Wolf College).

As I mention in Part I of this series, the “fourth tenet of herbal medicine” is to learn the plants in your area, and to test them to see what works for you as an individual.  It can be overwhelming to think about learning all the plants in your area, so do what I did: create your own “niche” to study.  I chose to focus only on plants that were native or widely naturalized in my region, and more specifically, plant medicines that would be important for wilderness first aid.

Another idea for creating your own niche would be to focus on plants that grow wild in your neighborhood. For instance, one of the ten herbs Susun Weed chooses in her book Healing Wise is dandelion.  Susan says that a “wise woman” only needs a repertoire of ten potent herbs in her cupboard.  Dandelion is certainly one of those potent herbs, and no doubt it grows in your lawn.  Perhaps you can limit your studies simply to plants growing in your yard.

However, it can be more difficult to identify yard weeds than native plants because field guides tend to focus on plants native to one region, while weeds in your yard may come from all corners of the globe.  So to start, learn to identify plants by distinguishing their “family characteristics.”  Just identifying which family a plant belongs to is, in fact, your key, and if you take a day to learn this identification method, you’re golden.  The book Botany in a Day by Thomas J. Elpel is where you should start.

Samples of My Wilderness Apothecary

I’m going to return to the task of identifying plants later in this series of articles, but first, let’s discuss some of the herbs I use for first aid and general health in the backcountry.  By the end of this series, you will know all of the plants I use for wilderness first aid.  To start, here is a sampler:

Trauma:  External use of Arnica, Yarrow, Fir, and Red Alder.

Headaches, Pain: Willow if not due to bleeding.

Sore Joints & Muscles: Arnica and Nettles.

Colds & Infection: Internal Use of Yarrow, Arnica, Willow and Nettles; External Use of Red Alder and Oak.

Douglas Fir Cone

Douglas Fir Cone. Notice the “mouse tail” bract extending from the scales, each covering a “pine nut” seed.

In part one of this series of articles, I told a story about arnica.  Arnica species, in addition to being anti-inflammatory, are anti-bacterial when applied to wounds, so they can be a good choice for all kinds of trauma.  Further, it is a great remedy for sore muscles.

Used internally, Arnica increases body temperature, so it is good to ward off chills, and induce fever in case of colds.  I’ve still never used it straight from nature, but rather carry it ready-to-go in my first aid kit, so you’ll have to ask elsewhere for processing instructions. However, I am planting Arnica in my garden this year, so I’m looking forward to researching it more.

Willow species are the source of Salicylic Acid, aka Aspirin, which is a great pain-killer for headaches and certain other aches, but cannot be used when a person is bleeding because it thins the blood.  To use, just make a decoction (simmer for a few minutes) of the bark and/or twigs, and drink a cup which is often equivalent to one or more aspirin.

Yarrow is similar to Arnica in that it, too, increases body temperature or induces sweating when taken internally, so people use it as a tea (hot infusion) to treat colds and flu, hoping to kill the virus.  It’s also good for cuts, because when applied externally, it stops blood flow and helps wounds heal.  I just apply the leaves straight on, but I’m not sure how antibacterial it is, so always take care to avoid infection by flushing simple wounds with pure water.

Nettles and Waterleaf

Stinging Nettle plant growing in early March, surrounded by Waterleaf plants.

Fir species pitch, and in fact probably all species within the pine family to which fir also belongs, have always been used to patch up cuts, but like all these remedies, there is a proper way to do it.  It would take a full article to explain how each medicine can be used, so I’ll keep my statements short and rely on you to research further.  Take a look at my article on pines for more benefits of this great family of plants.

Nettles are very useful for many reasons, and you can read about their many herbal uses in a fun chapter by Susun Weed in her book Healing Wise, but in the backcountry, their external application (whipping) can stimulate blood flow to cure sore joints, while their internal consumption is great nutrition, especially to treat anemia after blood loss.  Further, nettle tea shortens the duration and intensity of colds because it contains vitamin C and zinc.  Take a look at my article on nettles for more information.

Red Alder and oaks are great trees to cleanse the skin, as the tannic acids create an inhospitable habitat for bacteria, so if you don’t have any soap, at least rinse your hands with an alder decoction before eating, after eliminating, and if you don’t have a modern alternative, in case of infected cuts.  See my article on oaks for more information.

Coming next week:

Treating Anemia, Diarrhea, Bleeding, Allergies, Asthma and More Infections. Plants covered will include Knobbly Berries, Oregon Grape, Elder, Usnea Lichen, Sphagnum Moss, Cranberry, and Sundew.  The article will also include an introduction to identifying plants by learning their “family” characteristics.

Chris, Kim and Skye

Chris Chisholm is founder of Wolf Camp and the Wolf College and author of the Wolf Journey Earth Skills Training Course which Joanna Powell Colbert studied as part of her research for the Gaian Tarot. Chris appears as a model in two Gaian Tarot cards, the Explorer of Air and the Five of Earth. (Chris, his wife Kim and their beloved Skye shown in the photo above.)

Chris and Kim Chisholm are leading several evening classes on Wild Edibles & Herbal Medicines throughout Washington State during the month of March which can be found  on the Wolf College Calender. They are also leading a week-long Wild Ethnobotany & Herbalism Training this summer, July 31 – August 5, 2011.

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