Foragers First Aid Kit

Cottonwood Salve

After a long time foraging, I finally realized a few years ago that the same plants I was harvesting for food could be used as medicine. Thanks in large part to herbalists I've met along the way, especially Rebecca, Kiva, Rosalee, and Ananda, I've learned much of what I need to know to heal everyday ailments with plants.  I wouldn't claim now, nor would I ever want to be, an herbalist. But I've enjoyed learning how the plants whose tastes I already enjoy can be used to remedy minor maladies. If you'd like to learn more about herbal medicine, I recommend you follow the links to the ladies' sites. They are all excellent and generous teachers. 

I've got to warn you, though, that once you become interested in herbal medicine, you will want to make medicine out of every plant in your area. In the beginning, I certainly did that. Throughout the years, I've found that the medicines listed below are the ones I use most frequently, both for myself and my family and friends. I use these remedies both at home and when I'm out foraging. All of these medicines can be made easily, and with common ingredients. And when you make them yourself, you can be assured that only the finest ingredients have been used.  There are other medicinal uses for all of the herbs listed.  I'm only writing about the ways I've successfully used them myself.

You can purchase small containers for storing your herbal potions at the health food store and at apothecaries. You can also boil and reuse old tincture bottles, chapstick containers, and baby food jars.


1.  Cottonwood Salve - I make this salve by gently heating high quality beef tallow with the first resinous buds of cottonwood trees for a few days on a coffee mug warmer. I find that using beef tallow makes for a very nice salve that is easily absorbed by the skin, doesn't smell, and stays relatively solid even in summer temps. But if you can't get beef tallow or want a vegan product, you can get the same results using olive oil and a touch of grated bees wax. Cottonwood salve is multi-purpose, and can be used on bumps, bruises, and small scrapes. Additionally, it does wonders for aches and pains. My father uses it on his arthritis. I've also had people tell me they've successfully used cottonwood salve as chest rub expectorant.

2.  Rose Vinegar - When the wild roses bloom, I hunt down the most fragrant ones and pick whole flower heads. I place these in a mason jar, cover them with vinegar, and let them sit for at least six weeks. The resulting rose vinegar can be used on all manner of burns, from sunburn to kitchen accidents. Simply dip a wet cottonball into the rose vinegar (you can also dilute the rose vinegar and place it into a spray bottle) and apply it to your burn. Repeat this as often as the burning sensation reoccurs. You will be amazed at how well, and how quickly, this heals burns.

3.  Elderberry Elixir - Strip ripe purple (not red!) elderberries from their stems and place them into a mason jar. You may also add a slice of ginger, a few rose hips, and/or some dried elderflower blossoms. By eye, cover the berries halfway with brandy and the other half with honey. Cover the jar and let it sit in a dark place for at least six weeks, shaking occasionally. Elderberry elixir is what to reach for during cold and flu season, as it helps the immune system do its job. At the very first tickle of a cold, start taking a few drops (more isn't necessarily better) every hour.

4.  Monarda Flower Honey - Not only does this taste amazing, it is very soothing for colds and sore throats. Place entire Monarda flower heads into a jar and cover them with honey. That's it! I like to stir this into a cup of tea for colds, but it can also be taken directly from the spoon. My friend has also used it to heal a gum infection.

5.  Plantain Leaves - I smile to myself because everyone in my crew knows how to make a spit poultice with plantain leaves. And you should know this simple medicine as well. Take a plantain leaf, chew it up until its juices are released and mixed with your saliva, then spit it back out and apply it to bug bites or other skin irritations. Plain plantain leaves can be applied to minor wounds as a bandaid. When I'm about to head out foraging, I always grab a few leaves and stick a few in my backpack. This really saved me last summer when I was alone at a high mountain location and was stung (bitten?) by a beetle. The bite started to swell and feel painful instantly, and I believe that applications of plantain kept it from becoming more serious. Fresh plantain seems to work best, but when it looks as if winter is just around the corner, brew up a small batch of plantain salve to use throughout the cold season.

6.  Horsetail Tincture - This is the very first homemade herbal medicine that I used, and the one that made me a believer. Apparently a tincture isn't the normal way of giving horsetail, but it is what worked for me. I used to have knee problems that were so bad that I couldn't bend my knees at all without pain. This meant that riding a bike, squatting, and sitting cross-legged were all extraordinarily painful if not impossible. After about 1.5 months of taking 10 drops of horsetail tincture per day (fresh spring horsetail plus brandy left to sit six weeks), I recovered 90% of the mobility in my knees, and eliminated the pain. I've had friends use it for minor knee and shoulder strains to good effect, too.

7.  Hops Tincture - If I were to tell you that hops are related to marijuana, then you'd start to understand their medicinal effects.  I use hops tincture (green hops strobiles tinctured in brandy for 6 weeks) to settle my nervous stomach any time I'm am upset or anxious.  I also use hops tincture to help me feel relaxed and sleepy before bed.

8.  Yarrow - Yarrow is an excellent remedy for clean cuts. It kills pain, stops bleeding, and prevents infection. I've found that young flowers and basal rosette leaves work best. This is what I applied to my leg when I took a tumble down the mountain last year and gashed open my leg. It wasn't a life-threatening wound, but it was bleeding profusely. I was fortunate to have seen some nearby yarrow, and wasted no time in applying it directly on top of the cut. I also used yarrow after I sliced my thumb with a knife, on a rug burn, and a few popped blisters.

9.  Catnip Leaves - Rub yourself down with catnip leaves to protect against mosquito bites. I will be the first one to tell you this isn't the most effective method out there. But it is natural, and works just as well as all of the "natural" bug repellents I've ever purchased commercially.

10.  Nettle "GatorAde" - Nettles are very nutritious and mineral-rich. They make an excellent drink to help you cope with sports, heat, and extreme foraging. I will share my recipe in my next post.

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