Originally an article I wrote for Growing Today, about 10 years ago.

Picking Meadowsweet flowers and putting them into big jars of oil I was struck by a real sense of deja vu.  I remembered that as a child, growing up in the English Countryside I had picked handfuls of Meadowsweet and put them into oil, in an attempt to capture their sweet fragrance – unfortunately they turned into a mouldy pulp within a few days.  It seems incredible to me, that here I am, the other side of the world, 30 years older and repeating the same process, successfully and using the resulting oil to help soothe other peoples aches and pains.

Many of the plants that Geoff, my partner, and I use medicinally are wild plants, although these days I would not recommend picking them from the side of the road, where exposure to weed sprays and car fumes makes them very unwholesome.  Most of the plants we gather, we can find somewhere on the four acres we have here, a good argument for not weeding too thoroughly, and the rest we can usually obtain from other local organic properties.

We got interested in using herbs to make ointments and rubs about fifteen years ago and after a number of unappetising attempts, we ruled out using Vaseline, lard or hog’s fat!  Then we came across a recipe using vegetable oil and beeswax –  much more appealing base, which smells pleasant and has the additional healing properties of beeswax.

Initially we made a First Aid mix, with six or seven herbs in it and bottled it in recycled jars that friends saved for us.  Since then we have selected different plants for different ointments; to soothe itching, for burns, insect repellant, for haemorrhoids and so on and we now buy in thousands of jars each year.

The process of transferring the goodies in the plant matter into oil is called “maceration”.  In general, we find the cold method works well for flowers and the hot method for leaves, both are quite simple and do not require any elaborate equipment.  As with any herbal use, it is most important to identify your plants correctly and to use healthy, unsprayed and uncontaminated plant material.  Gather your herbs in the morning after the dew has dried; this is true for picking herbs to dry as well.  Sometimes it is possible to pick all the flowers you need at  one go and for others you will need to pick each day and add to your jar of oil.  Most flower oils will change colour a little, taking on the character of the flowers; the exception to the rule being a striking oil made from St John’s Wort  (Hypericum perforatum).  It has clear yellow flowers and after a few weeks steeping in oil in the sun, a magical transformation occurs, the oil turns a beautiful ruby red.  Not only is it beautiful, it is also an extremely useful oil both for healing deep wounds and burns, and especially for easing aches and pains, rheumatism, arthritis, pulled muscles and lumbago.  Unfortunately St John’s Wort is classified as a National Surveillance plant, apparently it was a pest in Bay of Plenty and South Island in the 1930’s and there are records of stock poisoning.  These days it is hard to come by, sometimes found on river edges and roadsides, flowering in January.  We have a specified departure to crop it commercially but unfortunately can no longer supply plants.  If you have it growing in your garden, it is not a problem, just be aware of how you dispose of the seeding heads if you have any left after making oil.

The name “Hypericum” is derived from the Greek, meaning “over a phantom or apparition” and the plant was believed to be so repulsive to such characters that one whiff would be enough to send them packing.  “Perforatum” is Latin and alludes to the numerous small oil glands which can be seen in the leaf when held up to the light.  An alternative explanation for the spots is that the devil hated the plant so much, he tried to destroy it with a needle – which seems a singularly ineffective method to me.  Because of the red oil, the colour of blood and the perforations, St John’s Wort was assigned as a wound herb by the Doctrine of Signatures.

In the last year, St John’s Wort has become newsworthy for another reason.  In America and Europe the dried flowering tops have been used in capsule form to treat depression, with about an 80% success rate.  What is most exciting is that it is readily available and has no side effects.  Please note if you are on medication for depression, consult your doctor and discuss carefully.  It seems a strong possibility that growers in New Zealand may well be cropping St John’s Wort for this purpose, in the next few years, depending on Council regulations.

The St John’s Wort oil is reputed to benefit aches and pains by increasing the blood flow to the area it is applied to.  Other oils that can be mixed with this are:  Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) which contains salicylic acid, the base of aspirin and acts as a painkiller, also Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) which has antispasmodic properties – in lay terms, it relieves involuntary muscle spasms.  Meadowsweet is not a wild plant in New Zealand but can be cultivated very easily in a dampish spot.  It is an attractive plant with pinnate leaves and tall flower heads, 1 – 1.5m, tall with numerous small creamy flowers which appear during December and January with a distinctive sweet almond scent.  Its common names include:- Queen of the Meadow, Bride of the Meadow and Mead Wort (by the way “wort” – pronounced “wert” means a useful plant, not as some people mistakenly believe, a plant to cure warts).

Meadowsweet, along with Water Mint and Vervain, were held as three of the most sacred plants by the Druids.  It was used to make garlands and posies for wedding celebrations and was a favourite stewing herb in Tudor times.  It is also frequently mentioned for its use in flavouring wines and meads – we have yet to sample this treat for ourselves!

Mullein or Aaron’s Rod, flowers at the same time and is frequently seen on dry, rocky places, stony river beds and the edge of the road.  It too has a long history of domestic use, the Greeks and Romans remarked that figs stored wrapped in its felt-like leaves did not rot.  The long stems were dipped in wax or tallow and used as tapers for funeral processions.  The plant is well-known for its beneficial effects on lungs, both as a tea or smoked in herbal tobacco mixes.  If used as a tea, it should be well strained through muslin to remove all the small hairs which can be an irritant.  Mullein flowers steeped in olive oil are a  traditional remedy for earache and eczema of the outer ear; we have had good results for both of these but please bear in mind that any persistent earache should be checked out by your doctor.

The ointment we use most frequently at home is a mix of Comfrey and Calendula oils, both are very effective oils and some people prefer to use them singly.  Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) is a hardy perennial in the Borage family – it is an extremely persistent plant, so care should be taken in choosing its site, because once there it will be determined to stay.  If you dig the original plant up every broken piece of root left in the soil will grow into a new plant.  In a small garden it can be tucked into a neglected back corner or a large pot and will thrive quite happily with minimal care.

Comfrey has numerous common names including “Knitbone”, “Boneset” and “Bruise Wort” which indicate clearly its traditional uses as a healing plant for wounds, bruises and broken bones.  The Homeopathic Symphytum is used to treat broken bones also.  Both roots and leaves are rich in Mucilage, Allantoin and Choline.  Allantoin promotes cell production and nowadays it is also made artificially and may be found in numerous skin products and baby lotions.  Choline promotes the proliferation of red blood cells.

Comfrey has been well known as a valuable herb since the Middle Ages and plants were grown by the Monks in their Physic gardens and seeds sold on to Nurserymen.

Comfrey leaves are available from Spring through to late Autumn here in Hawkes Bay, although I prefer to use them earlier in the season, picking medium sized leaves, not the old weather-beaten ones, nor the young juicy ones.  Make Comfrey oil using the hot maceration method.

Calendula Officinalis, or English Marigold, is still easily grown and a common garden plant.  The orange flowers are the most efficacious. I remember as a child being told to put butter on burns, now it is not something we would consider doing, but the practice did originate from sound beginnings.  In the early days of hand milking and butter making the seasonal changes in the cows diet would sometimes produce pale cream and butter.  Marigold petals would be used to enhance the colour of the butter which did indeed ease burns.

Calendula flowers are available in the garden in the period from mid-Spring through to Autumn and can be turned into a valuable oil using the cold maceration method.  The Calendual oil, or ointment on its own, is a useful remedy.  If rubbed onto warts for 5 minutes each day it will loosen them away.  It is also reputed to help heal old scar tissue, ease chilblains and varicose veins and help to alleviate cradle cap in infants.

Now you can see what a powerful brew these two plants are when combined.  We mix the oils 50:50 Comfrey and Calendula and then thicken with beeswax.  This really is a brilliant First Aid Cream, excellent for childrens’ scrapes and cuts.  It seems to take the pain out of injuries straight away especially those silly little digs and scrapes that seem to hurt more than you think they should (I must admit I get a fair number of those working in the garden).  If your hands or feet are prone to cracking, put a dab of ointment on last thing at night and cover with a sticking plaster.  I leave the plaster on until it falls off – sounds hygienic I know, actually it rarely survives the day.

The Comfrey and Calendula mix also seems to be very effective at healing up ulcerated legs.  We have had people call in here with ulcers they have had for up to five years, covered with great big bandages.  A week or two later they come back with just a tiny dressing and much freer movement, well on the way to recovery.

The last thing I want to mention is Comfrey and Calendula for nappy rash.  I think in every case I have heard of, the ointment fixes the rash overnight – it seems too good to be true.  It has even remedied cases of nappy rash that steroid creams do not seem to touch.  One word of advice – it always pay to look at the cause of nappy rash, fine if it is a teething rash, but if it is a reaction to detergents, bleach, whatever, then that will still need to be remedied.

One word of warning, do not put Comfrey and Calendula ointment on infected wounds as it seals them up too quickly.

While I am still talking about Comfrey there is one more remedy I would like to share, a recipe for splinter drawing salve.  This is made using the methods listed but using castor oil specifically.  Use half the castor oil to make a hot maceration of Comfrey root and the other half to make a hot maceration of leaves of:  Betony (Stachys officinale), Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria) and Basil (Ocimum basilicum) thickened with beeswax.  A small pot lasts for ages.  For persistent splinters break the skin with a needle, if it’s not already looking like a pin cushion, put a dab of ointment on and cover with a plaster – repeat if necessary.

Hypercal lotion is an easy to make substitute for antiseptic lotions you may buy from the chemist.  It has 101 uses, usually used diluted 1 tsp to ½ litre of warm water.  Use it to bathe any cuts, scratches, skin infections, burns, blisters, dental procedures, eye injuries etc.

Hypercal is a tincture (see recipe for Basic Tincture) made from equal parts St John’s Wort flowers and Calendula flowers.  Store it in a cool dark place and discard if the liquid starts to look cloudy or has floaties in it.

If you are looking at stocking your First Aid Cupboard with some natural remedies a jar of Plantain and Chickweed ointment is a valuable addition.  This combination is a cooling and soothing salve which contains natural anti-histamines and so rapidly eases itching, rashes, the effects of measles and chicken pox, reactions to insect bites etc etc.

Plantain is an easily recognised weed.  Its common names include:  Waybread, Ratstail, Kemps and Ribwort; Geoff says he always knew it as “Soldiers’ Heads” and played games as a child flicking the flower heads off with the stalk.  Interestingly, as I have been reading about Plantains I came across its common name of Kemps, which is connected to the old Anglo Saxon name for a soldier, which was “cempa” and refers to an old game that country children played with the flower heads.  Plantain belongs to a large family of about 200 varieties, the commonest are Plantago major – Greater Plantain, which has large rounded leaves, similar in shape to a Hosta, with well defined ribs and the distinctive ratstail flower spikes.  There is also Ribbed Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) which has strappy, narrow leaves.  We also grow Bronze Plantain, (P. major purpurea) and a native brown leafed Plantain, (Kopa Kopa).

It is common now to buy a preparation called Psyllium – which is made from the seeds of Plantago pysllium which contain a high percentage of mucilage and are used taken in water or sprinkled on food to treat constipation.

Plantains are also wound herbs, containing tannins which act astringently and help to staunch bleeding and promote healing.  In Saxon times Plantain or Weybroed as it was know was one of the nine sacred herbs and it is recorded as being a remedy for madness of dogs, snakes and spider bites also “spreading scabs, tetters, ringworm and shingles”.

In our gardens Chickweed (Stellaria media) appears as a low growing plant when the weather starts to cool down, disappearing again as the summer heats up.  Occasionally we find a plant growing in a shady, damp corner.  Chickweed is similar in habit to Scarlet Pimpernel but has little white, star-like flowers.  One sure way to identify it is to look very closely at the stems,  Chickweed has an unusual arrangement on its stems, the hairs grow in a single straight line down the stem, changing 90° in position at each leaf node.  The leafy tops of Chickweed make a tasty alternative to lettuce in the winter, and are delicious in Vegemite sandwiches, they can also be boiled like spinach.  The leaves are rich in copper.  It is recorded as being used in Britain in the fourteenth century to reduce swellings and help set  broken bones.

If you can find both plants at the same time you can cook up a hot maceration of the two using Plantain leaves and the whole of the chickweed plant above ground.  Otherwise you may have to make each as they are available and then combine the oils and thicken with beeswax.

As you can see this introduction to Herbal Ointments is really the tip of the iceberg and represents some of my personal experience of the plants I have available.  There are many other plants, both wild and cultivated that can be used.  A few hours spent at the library will reveal a wide range of plants which can be used to heal an equally wide range of external problems.  I must repeat again the importance of correct identification and the use of healthy plants obtained from a spray free area

All of the remedies I have talked about are equally suitable to use on animals.  We have developed an animal salve which has a little of everything in it and seems to be very effective to soothe rashes, heal wounds and keep the flies away.

The herbs we use include:  Comfrey, Plantain, Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) – a plant which stops bleeding, Self Heal (Prunella vulgaris), Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris), Calendula and Elder.  We also add a little Kanuka (Ti Tree) Oil and propolis from our hives.  You can see this as a starting point to making your own animal salve, depending on what plants you have available.

Bibliography:

The MacDonald Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants
Published MacDonald & Co Ltd

A Modern Herbal by Mrs Grieve
Published Tiger Books International

The Complete Book of Herbs & Spices by Claire Loewenfeld & Philippa Back
Published AH & AW Reed

A Country Herbal by Lesley Gordon
Published Peerage Books

Grandmother’s Secrets by Jean Palaiseul
Published Penguin

The Family Guide to Homeopathy by Dr Andrew Lockie
Published Hamish Hamilton Ltd., Penguin

The Make Your Own Cosmetic & Fragrance Book by Elizabeth Francke
Published AH & AW Reed

A Flower Book for the Pocket by MacGregor Skene
Published Oxford University Press

The Herb Book by John B Lust
Published Bantam Books

The Complete Family Guide to Natural Home Remedies
Editor Karen Sullivan
Published Element  Books Penguin Australia Ltd

Sources:

Millstream Gardens, Pukehou, Private Bag, Napier

Contact us for a list of “Lotions and Potions”, a range of herbal ointments, rubs, creams for eczema and babies bottoms, serious hand creams for gardeners and others who give their hands a hard time and Animal First Aid Salve.  A range of medicinal herb plants is also available, mail order catalogue costs $2.40 in stamps.

If you have trouble obtaining yellow beeswax, Arataki Honey Ltd., PO Box 8016, Havelock North (Ph:            06 877-7300 / Fax  06  877-4200) are happy to mail order to you.  The beeswax is $9.50 / kg plus postage and they are happy to send any weight from 25gms upwards.

Cold Maceration – most suitable for flowers

1.    Pick flowers in the morning after the dew has dried.

2.    Put in a clean glass jar.

3.    Cover with vegetable oil.

4.    Put lid on, label jar and put outside in a sunny position.

5.    Leave in the sun for up to a month, shaking now and then.

6.    After a month or when the process is obviously complete – ie the flowers look spent, or the oil has changed colour, either strain out the flowers and store oil in a sterile container or gently heat oil and flowers in a stainless steel saucepan, or double boiler, until flowers are crisp.  Then strain and store, don’t forget to label each bottle.

Hot Maceration – ideal for leafy herbs

1.    Gather clean and healthy leaves and stalks and shred into a large stainless steel saucepan.

2.    Just cover with vegetable oil and simmer gently until leaves are crisp – usually between 30 mins and 1 hour (The leaves bubble as moisture is released).

3.    Watch carefully as the leaves begin to crisp to avoid burning.

4.    Strain into a clean bottle and label.

Hot Maceration for Roots

1.    Take a quantity of cleaned, grated or finely chopped roots, cover with water.

2.    Simmer until tender.

3.    Strain out the roots and keep the liquid.

4.    Wash pan carefully to avoid any pieces of root sticking to it.

5.    Measure the liquid and add about twice as much vegetable oil, simmer gently.

6.    When nearly all the liquid has evaporated pour the oil into a clean bottle, leaving any watery residue behind.

7.    Don’t forget to label the oil.

* This recipe can also be adapted to use for dried herbs, make a strong herb tea, strain then cook under oil, as for steps 5, 6 and 7

Basic Ointment Recipe:

1.    Measure amount of oil/oils into a jug.

2.    Put oil in saucepan with beeswax – use 10gm wax to 100ml of oil (Post Office scales are excellent to weigh the wax).

3.    Watch carefully until wax is completely dissolved, stir with a kebab stick.

4.    Pour into clean, sterile jars and label.

5.    Store in a cool, dark place.

Basic Tincture Recipe

1.    Make up a mixture of 2 parts water, 3 parts vodka.  For each 200gm dried herb or 400gm fresh herbs, allow 1 litre of vodka/water mixture.

2.    Put herbs in large, clean glass jar and pour the liquid over them.

3.    Seal and store in a cool dark place, shaking daily – leave for 2 weeks.

4.    Strain mixture through muslin, squeezing out all the juice.

5.    Bottle and label with name and date.

Ointments made with Tinctures:

Herbal tinctures can be stirred into a firm ointment (ie not hot) in addition to herbal oils or instead.   Aqueous Cream from the Chemist can also be used as a base.  Add 1 part tincture to 3 parts cream or ointment, mix thoroughly.

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