Herbs and Salves
One of the reasons I love working with herbs is their accessibility. Yes, I can make an herbal product for you, but with the right know-how, you can also make the same product. When you grow or harvest that herb yourself, that makes that self care product your own. You begin to step into the role of your own healer.
That’s why I enjoy teaching herbal workshops. I feel like I’m empowering folk in both self care and connection to the plants growing around them. I have a workshop on salve making coming up and I wanted to share a little information about some of the herbs that I will be using in that workshop. These three herbs are easily grown up here in northern Vermont and more than likely can be grown or wildharvested where you live.
This lovely yellow-orange flower is an attractive annual that is pretty easy to grow. It’s even been known to reseed itself in my garden to unexpectedly surprise me the next spring. Happy to live in a flower bed looking for a touch of gold, this beauty is also well known for its medicinal qualities. One of the first things that you will notice after harvesting a few of these flowers is the sticky resin. That’s the medicinal magic of this herb.
This herb is known for its skin healing properties, as well for its antifungal and anti-inflammatory abilities. It is gentle enough for the skin of a baby, but the first herb that comes to my mind in speeding the healing process for bruises. It’s also used internally for complaints like diarrhea and lymph issues (as well as a lovely edible garnish for salads), but for today I want to focus on how it’s one of my go to herbs for salves. There are a lot of beautiful varieties of calendula out there, but for the purpose of medicine the most resinous tend to be the yellow-orange varieties. Usually the seed catalogue that I order them from mentions the most resinous (and therefore the most medicinal) variety out of all that they offer to make it easy. If you are just buying the flowers harvested and dried, then I’m sure the variety that the company is offering for medicinal use is appropriate.
When I acquired my first comfrey plant over a decade ago, I was sure that I had found the perfect spot for this vigorous perennial. I distinctly remember my friend Annie dubiously watching me with the plant, warning me that I should choose the spot carefully. Once it was in there, I wasn’t getting it out. I don’t think I properly believed her warning. Now, years later, my planned comfrey patches are nowhere near that original plot, as that spot is part of my larger garden. The comfrey doesn’t care. I weed it intensively every year. Every year, it returns.
Comfrey is an amazing herb. It also seems to be borderline invasive if you don’t give it a spot with clear borders (like a mown lawn). It has a long history of medicinal use that is revealed through its older common names like knitbone and boneset. The plant contains high levels of allantoin, a constituent that promotes cell growth. This is why it’s amazing in salves. It can speed the healing process of cuts and wounds.
While the debate about certain constituents known to be harmful to the liver in high amounts that comfrey contains still continues, it is generally considered safe for topical use. The research often cited involves incredibly high levels of said constituents (specifically pyrrolizidine alkaloids, if you’re feeling sciency) tested on rats. While I don’t know of any examples involving people taking normal dosage, it is still usually skipped in medicines that are taken internally. When it comes to using comfrey in salve, I believe we do far worse things to our livers on a day to day basis than apply comfrey salve to a wound.
St. John’s Wort
This plant can be found in fields and roadsides across Vermont. The Latin name perforatum comes from the fact that when one holds a leaf of St John’s Wort up to the light, little pin pricks can be seen. These holes are actually oil glands. This plant is another one with a long history in both medicine and magic. I happen to use it for both. Focusing on the medicinal side of this amazing plant, it is the flower and the flower bud that is used for salve. You know the flowers are ready when you squeeze a flower bud and it “bleeds” a dark purple sap. When extracting the flowers into an oil for use in a salve, the finished oil takes on a rich red color.
This herb has been used topically as an antiseptic and a ally for nerve healing for centuries. I recall a story (though I can’t remember where I read this) a story of soldiers on the way to one of the Crusades packing a sack of oil with these flowers before they left. The sun would beat down on the oil sacks and extract the properties of the flowers as they traveled. By the time they reached Jerusalem, the now red oil was ready to help heal any wounds that would be inflicted on the soldiers. This herb actually has a lot of interesting Christian lore attached to it (which is unsurprising considering its name and solar energy). If you’re interested in reading one a story that connects it to Jesus and Mary Magdalene, click here.
To use these herbs in a salve, you have to infuse them into an oil. To learn that art and how to turn those oils into salves, there are a lot of places to find information and recipes to try out. Or, you could sign up for my workshop on the 18th at 6pm by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org . If you live close by, I’d love to have you at the workshop.