The great thing about using herbs to treat minor cuts, scrapes, bruises, burns, or insect bites is that you don’t have to be a professional herbalist to stop the bleeding, soothe the irritation, reduce inflammation, speed healing, and protect against infection. You don’t have to search pharmacies or health-food stores for the right product or assemble a bewildering array of ingredients to concoct a remedy. And you don’t have to eat them.
The practice of poulticing herbs must be nearly as old as human existence. Fresh herb leaves are simply bruised between the palms or with a mortar and pestle and placed directly on the skin. (When an herb has irritating hairs, a thin layer of gauze or muslin may be placed between the herb and the skin.) Dried herbs are usually mixed to a paste with a little warm water before being applied.
When I tended the herb gardens at the Sabbathday Lake, Maine, Shaker Community in the mid-1970s, I gained firsthand experience with the medicinal properties of common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), which grew in abundance at the edge of the gardens. One day, as one of my helpers was harvesting our bed of thyme, her sickle slipped on the tough, woody stems, raking the blade across her knuckles. The cut was small, but it bled profusely enough to make me take action. I quickly picked some flowering tops of yarrow, crushed them to a green-gray mush in my hands, and applied them to the wound with pressure. In less than five minutes, the bleeding had stopped, and the wound had closed. Since then, yarrow has been my remedy of choice for stopping bleeding of minor wounds. (Because yarrow closes a wound so quickly, the cut must be thoroughly cleaned before applying crushed yarrow flowers or leaves.)
Yarrow’s generic name, Achillea, commemorates this very use. Legend has it that the Greek warrior Achilles stanched the bleeding of his wounded soldiers with yarrow poultices. Achilleine, an alkaloid found in yarrow, is considered the primary constituent of the plant responsible for stopping bleeding.
Yarrow’s pharmacology has been little studied, although its use is well established in European folk medicine. The British Herbal Compendium suggests its use for slow-healing wounds and skin inflammations. Belgian and French government publications about yarrow’s medicinal uses note that it is traditionally used to soothe irritated skin. The German regulatory text does not address traditional uses, but it warns that application of the flowers to skin in rare cases has caused hypersensitivity resulting in reddening and pimples.
Common plantain (Plantago major) and English plantain (P. lanceolata) also have a good reputation among folk healers as herbal bandages. In his Family Herbal (1814), the English herbalist Robert Thorton states, “[Plantain] appears to be the great vulnerary of the ancients, and the leaves are now outwardly used by the common people to all fresh wounds. It is curious that it is the chief remedy for the cure of the bite of the rattlesnake, for which discovery an Indian received a great reward from the assembly of South Carolina.”
Turning to Francis P. Porcher’s “Report on the Indigenous Medicinal Plants of South Carolina” (1849), I found no mention of an Indian’s receiving acclaim from the state’s legislators, but Porcher writes of English plantain that “[t]he [Scottish] Highlanders attribute great virtue to the leaves or an ointment for healing up fresh wounds.” As for common plantain, he cites the recommendation of an eighteenth-century Dutch physician: “The fresh leaves applied to the feet will ease the pain and fatigue occasioned by walking, and the whole plant is esteemed useful in healing and consolidating ulcers and recent wounds, and as a dressing for blisters and sores.”
The healing qualities of plantain are valued on the other side of the world as well. In the Philippines, where both common and English plantain are naturalized, the leaves are applied to wounds, inflamed skin, and sores.
Despite having a folk reputation matched by few herbs, plantain, like yarrow, is relatively little studied. However, in 1995, Japanese researchers reported that five phenylethanoid compounds isolated from common and English plantain and an Asian species, P. asiatica, were strongly anti-inflammatory. In addition, a team of Norwegian and Japanese researchers found that fourteen polysaccharide fractions from the leaves of common plantain (P.major) stimulated the immune system.
When fresh yarrow and plantain aren’t available, I reach for calendula (Calendula officinalis). Twenty years ago, smarting from a minor sunburn, I applied a homemade calendula salve given to me by a ninety-two-year-old friend. It took the heat out of the burn, and my skin was soon back to normal. I’ve continued to use calendula ointment beneath adhesive bandages to speed the healing of minor cuts and scrapes. It can also be used to soothe and speed the healing of bruises, rashes, chapped lips, and minor scalds or burns. Calendula salves that contain about 5 percent of the crude herb are widely available in Europe. Those that are available in the United States are mostly homeopathic preparations.
Several European studies have shown that calendula ointments can accelerate wound healing, perhaps by increasing collagen metabolism at the wound site. Calendula has also been shown experimentally to be antibacterial, antiviral, and immunostimulatory. There are no reported adverse reactions to topical calendula preparations.
We have only scratched the surface, so to speak, of topical herbal preparations for cuts and scrapes. Using herbs for minor wounds is another good way to get more use and enjoyment from them.
• Bradley, P. R. (ed.). British Herbal Compendium 1. Bournemouth, Dorset, England: British Herbal Medicine Association, 1992.
• Leung, A. Y., and S. Foster. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Foods, Drugs and Cosmetics. New York: Wiley, 1996.
• Murai, M., et al. Planta Medica 1995, 61:479-480.
• Porcher, F. P. Transactions of the American Medical Association 1849, 2:677-862.
• Samuelsen, A. B., et al. Phytotherapy Research 1995, 9:211-218.
• Thorton, R. J. A Family Herbal. London: B. & B. Crosby, 1814.