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While I’ll be the first to agree that we’ve made wonderful advances in medicine in the last century, I do think that we’ve lost a lot too, and that being able to harness some of nature’s ‘freebies’ – or at least having the knowledge on how to – is an essential skill (you know, in case of zombie apocalypse, or something 😉 )
I’ve recently read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, where the main protagonist, Claire is a World War 2 nurse who falls through a circle of standing stones in Scotland of 1948 and lands in Scotland of 1739, just before the doomed Stuart Rising. The series is fantastic in its own right, but one of the things in that I’m fascinated by is Claire’s knowledge of herbs and how she puts it to use in a world pre-penicillin and medicines in pill form. There have been some things that I’ve felt a thrilled jolt of ‘hey, I do that!’ such as the use of lavender for pain relief, but there have been other things new to me, like the use of Comfrey, good for haemorrhoids, broken bones and heavy periods alike.
If you can’t pick fresh comfrey, you can find it dried online.
Garden Weed: Comfrey
Now, while Claire often brews comfrey as a tea, there have been concerns raised in real time, in the real world about toxic properties that can cause liver cancer. And if you’ve ever made Comfrey as a fertiliser for your growing plants, you may have concerns about drinking it too! (It smells. Really bad.)
Before making use of plants as medicinals, it’s REALLY IMPORTANT to know what you’re doing. Comfrey, can be used topically, according to my big book of Nature’s Medicines (and other sources, but check for yourself anyway!) Start here: there’s a whole page, but the short is that comfrey topically has been shown to act as an analgesic in muscle and bone pain, but orally can make you very sick, quite quickly. By very sick I mean liver disease.
As it happens, on my allotment plot I have two large comfrey bushes, so I decided I wanted to make a comfrey ointment to rub on my wrists, which often ache from too many hours spent at the computer – comfrey is also known as Bone-Knit in the books, and is used for arthritis and muscle and joint pain. If it doesn’t work, at least the coconut oil makes my skin nice and soft!
While I was ‘harvesting’ (aka picking!) my comfrey, I realised that my plot really needed weeding as it was covered in plantain – the weed, not the small banana – and a memory tweaked somewhere in the back of my mind that plantain is also really very good for the skin, everything from rashes to insect bites, so I grabbed some of that for my ointment too.
Garden Weed: Plantain
According to my big book of Nature’s Medicines, plantain leaves contain iridoids called aucubin, and flavonoids – antioxidants that strengthen blood vessels and are often anti-inflammatory.
Plantain is a fascinating herb, actually. It has been shown to work in wound healing activity, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antioxidant, weak antibiotic, immuno modulating and antiulcerogenic activity [ref]1. Samuelsen, Anne Berit (July 2000). “The traditional uses, chemical constituents and biological activities of Plantago major L. A review”.Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 77 (1-2): 1. doi:10.1016/S0378-8741(00)00212-9. ISSN 0378-8741[/ref]. It has been used traditionally to treat to treat wounds[ref]Duke, James (2001). Handbook of Edible Weeds. CRC Press. p. 151. ISBN 9780849329463.[/ref], as well as to treat fever and respiratory infections[ref]Duke, James (2001). Handbook of Edible Weeds. CRC Press. p. 151. ISBN 9780849329463.[/ref]. A tea of plantain leaves can be ingested to treat diarrhoea or dysentery. Due to the high vitamin and mineral content, plantain tea simultaneously replenishes the nutrients lost as a result of diarrhea[ref]Duke, James (2001). Handbook of Edible Weeds. CRC Press. p. 151. ISBN 9780849329463.[/ref]. Adding fresh plantain seeds or flower heads to a tea will act as an effective lubricating and bulking laxative and soothe raw, sore throats[ref]Tilford, Gregory L. & Gladstar, Rosemary (1998). From Earth to Herbalist: An Earth-Conscious Guide to Medicinal Plants. Mountain Press. p. 160. ISBN 9780878423729[/ref]. And the amazing thing about plantain? It’s everywhere! I see it in the park, in the fields, on sidewalks… everywhere you find lawns!
If you can’t pick fresh plantain, you can buy the dried leaves online.
Garden Weed: Marigold / Calendula
I also had a surplus of Marigold or Calendula in my plot this year, thanks to some heavy-handed sowing. Marigolds have a huge array of medicinal uses from circulatory problems to oral hygiene and eczema and more – again, according to the book. I’ve also used it in the past in herbal sitz baths, post birth and when my daughter had a nappy rash no cream seemed to touch, a calendula balm healed her quite literally overnight, so I am a big believer in its healing abilities.
If you can’t pick fresh calendula, you can buy the dried leaves online
Drying Your Garden Weeds
Once picked, I had to decide how I intended on utilising these leaves since I have tried infusing leaves in oil before, only to end up with mold due to the water in the leaves, so the first job was dehydrating the leaves. I have a lovely shiny new dehydrator, so I put it to use immediately, drying out the leaves. Now, in some herbs, the potency will increase due to drying, but since we’re not eating or drinking this ointment, I’m okay with that.
I’ve made these ointments with olive oil, but it has a filmy consistency and an odd smell, and it seems less adaptable to temperature changes. Coconut oil might go to a clear liquid on a hot day, take a few days as a lumpy looking mess, but it will return to its solid state, eventually.
The ointment can also be made and kept for a really long time in that ‘ointment’ state. I keep it in the jars (pictured above) and transfer it to smaller jars as required so that I’m not always dipping my finger into the main jar. This can then also be decanted out to make a moisturiser, lip balm, or whatever.
Quantities are very loosely defined here. I don’t think you can really get it ‘wrong’ and when I say ‘a cup’, I don’t necessarily mean a 250ml measure, though if that’s what you want to use, go for it. It’s more about keeping the quantities relative to each other.
There are three ‘steps’ here, each with a different result. I have made it the following way.
For the dried herbs:
- 1 loosely packed cup each of comfrey, calendula and plantain
In a dehydrator, or in a low oven, dehydrate at 70C for 12 hours – or follow the settings for your machine. The main point is for them to be free of moisture.
For the basic coconut oil infusion:
- Place each herb type in its own jar. I use these, with a layer of brown paper inside the lid to cover the hole. You can use regular jars, Kilner jars, or whatever fits conveniently into your slow cooker or crockpot.
- Bring the coconut oil to a liquid state – in a sink of warm water if your kitchen isn’t warm enough.
- Pour the coconut oil over the leaves to cover them and put the slow cooker on it’s lowest setting. You DON’T want to cook this mixture, you just want to keep the coconut oil liquid enough to extract the oils from the plants, and keeping the leaves warm enough to help release them.
- Add a cup of water to the slow cooker, put the sealed jars inside and place the lid on. Leave it on the lowest setting for at least 24 hours, 48 if you can.
- You’ll see the colour of the oil starting to change before too long, and the colour will deepen as the natural oils are extracted from the leaves.
- After 24 – 48 hours, discard the hot water and use coffee filters or a fine mesh bag to filter the leaves out of the oil. You should now be left with beautifully coloured liquid coconut oil. Put this aside to cool and harden, or pour some into smaller jars for regular use, to keep in your handbag (really useful for insect stings or nettle stings!)
To make a moisturiser
The reason I make the infusion in bulk is partly because I like using a home made moisturiser, but as it is water-based, it doesn’t have the shelf life of a chemical moisturiser. That said, I still use a jar in about 1 – 3 months, so it doesn’t have to be made up weekly or anything.
For this moisturiser, I use a mixture of the coconut oil infusion, a couple of tablespoons of grated beeswax and about 1/2 – 1 cup of water. Remember, the size of the cup isn’t as relevant as the quantities in relation to each other, but I use a 250ml cup. The more water you use, the thinner it will be. I quite like it hardening to its coconut oil state and turning almost to liquid in my hand, so I use:
- 1 cup coconut oil infusion (I tend to use a mixture for general body moisturising, otherwise a calendula and plantain mix for my face and comfrey for my hands/wrists.)
- 2 tablespoons beeswax
- 1/2 – 1 cup water
Bring a pot of water to boil and fit a mixing bowl over it so that you can place the beeswax in the mixing bowl to melt it without boiling it. Once it’s melted, add the oil infusion.
Remove from heat and using an electric mixer, beat it to combine. Slowly, in a trickle, add the water while mixing all the time and it will start turning into a fluffy white emulsion, (a bit like making mayonnaise!)
Keep adding water till the cream reaches the consistency you like, move to a sterile jar, cover and use as required.
For the Thermomix®:
- Add the beeswax to the Thermomix® bowl 50C/2 minutes/speed 2 (if it’s not thoroughly melted, leave for longer. Ambient temperature can affect melting speed).
- Add the coconut oil and mix 50C/30 seconds/speed 4
- Turn the Thermomix® on to 2 minutes/speed 4 and add the water in a thin stream. After adding 1/2 cup of water, check consistency and see if you’d like it thinner. If so, add more water. Transfer to jar.
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