Summer is a great season to learn about using herbal remedies. Time spent outdoors in the sun is bound to be accompanied by minor mishaps, but with just a little know-how you can use plants to mend a scraped knee, soothe a sunburned shoulder, or comfort a mosquito-bitten thigh.
Before antiseptics were bottled, people turned to plants to prevent infection. Native Americans made poultices from the bark and leaves of witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), a small North American tree that bears golden yellow flowers every autumn.
Extracts from the leaves and bark of witch hazel are still used to take the sting out of minor cuts and insect bites and to stop bleeding. Some scientists attribute these actions to the tannins found in the herb’s leaves and bark. The bottled witch hazel water available in pharmacies and drugstores is made from twigs, dried leaves, and partially dried dormant branches of witch hazel. It generally contains about 20 percent alcohol.
To use, soak a cotton swab in witch hazel water and apply gently to sunburn or scratches. Penelope Ody, author of Home Herbal: A Practical Family Guide to Making Herbal Remedies for Common Ailments (Dorling Kindersley, 1995), suggests making witch hazel ice cubes (label them clearly in the freezer to avoid ingesting witch hazel, which is not recommended). Use an ice cube as a soothing, cooling treatment for insect bites, varicose veins, and bruises.
When you forget to apply sunscreen and linger too long in the back yard, it’s time to slice off a leaf from your Aloe vera plant and use the gel inside. Although it isn’t known exactly how aloe gel works to heal, hundreds of years of use attest to its therapeutic effectiveness. Some researchers believe that aloe gel penetrates injured tissue to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and promote healing.
To use, slice a leaf from your aloe (aloe plants are easy to grow on a windowsill), then cut down the center of the leaf and peel back the edges. Using a spoon, scrape the gel from the leaf and apply carefully to injured skin. Additionally, a poultice made with echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia, E. purpurea) can soothe a burn, bite, sting, or scrape. Echinacea is one of the most popular herbal remedies in the United States and is commonly used to fight colds and flu. It also is commonly used as a topical treatment for hard-to-heal wounds and burns in Germany.
You can make your own echinacea wound treatment. To make an echinacea poultice, use 1 to 2 teaspoons of the dried roots, broken into pieces or powdered, or 3 teaspoons of the fresh herb, broken into small pieces, for each cup of water. (Dried echinacea roots are available in natural food stores.) Place in a noncorrodible saucepan. Bring to a boil and gently simmer for 20 to 40 minutes. Strain and let cool to a comfortably warm temperature. Soak a piece of cotton towel in the liquid. Squeeze off any excess water, then apply the poultice to the wound or burn.