Herbal Essentials for Outdoor Living

Calendula officinalis is an herb available in ointment form, suitable for treating wounds.


Now that the warm weather is here, most of us will be spending a lot more time outdoors playing, working or just hanging around. All of this outdoor activity is not without its perils. Cuts and scrapes, bites and stings, bruises and strains, sunburn; you name it, it’s bound to happen at some point. This month I will be focusing on some of the herbal essentials that everyone who enjoys the great outdoors should have on hand.

When it comes to first aid, it is important to be prepared. Healing will occur much more quickly if we begin treatment immediately. The longer we wait, the less effective the treatment. As a result, I recommend that everyone keep most of the following remedies on hand.

Bruises, Strains, Sprains, and Rheumatic Conditions

In these cases, it is preferable to use ointments or oil-based products containing essential oils. This is because essential oils contain small, highly lipid-soluble, constituents that are better able to penetrate deep into tissues. There are excellent brands of essential oils available, and it’s easy to combine them to make your own blends for different purposes. For this you need an oil base. I usually use olive oil or a 3:1 mixture of olive and coconut oils because these oils are relatively stable. I also recommend adding vitamin E as a preservative – use the contents of one 400 IU capsule for every 50 ml of base oil. Add your essential oils to the base oil at a ratio of one drop of essential oil for every millilitre of base oil. Therefore you will need a combined total of 50 drops of essential oil if you want to make a 50 ml blend (not 50 drops of each essential oil).

One combination that I like to use for treating bruises and strains is lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), marjoram (Origanum majorana), black spruce (Picea mariana) and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) in a ratio of 5:2:2:1. It works best if the essential oils are added to a base oil that is infused with leopard’s bane (Arnica spp.) and/or St. Johnswort. I will sometimes add other essential oils for specific purposes. Black spruce is sometimes difficult to find. You can use other spruce species, fir (Abies spp.), or pine (Pinus spp.) as a substitute. Other essential oils that can be used for this purpose aside from fir and pine include yarrow (Achillea millefolium), frankincense (Boswellia carteri), Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), lemon (Citrus limon), blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus), German chamomile, and peppermint (Mentha x piperita).

As well, a number of homeopathic and other ‘energetic’ remedies are useful for wounds and injuries. Homeopathic Ledum (Labrador tea) is helpful for any puncture wounds, including stings. Apis (honey bee venom) is also good for stings. Arnica is recommended (both topically and internally) for the first day or two after any traumatic injury. If the injury stiffens up and feels worse when at rest, but is better when it limbers up from moving around, it will respond better to Rhus Tox (poison oak). Poison ivy will also respond to this remedy. All of these can be taken in a 6X, 12X, 6C or 30C potency, three to twelve times per day depending on the severity of the symptoms. Three to four doses per day is typical for minor complaints.

Bug Repellents

The warmer months of the year always come with their fair share of biting insects. This is becoming more than just a matter of personal comfort with the spread of Lyme disease. Commercial bug repellents are extremely toxic to us and the environment. Natural alternatives are readily available, but we must accept that they don’t work quite as well as products that contain DEET and must be applied more often.

You can make your own insect repellent by adding essential oils to a base of two to three parts water to one part vodka. If you add about 5% glycerine it will work even better because glycerine doesn’t evaporate and it helps to keep the essential oils on the skin longer. (However, if you use more than 5% glycerine it will leave a sticky coating.)

I have found this blend to be an effective combination of essential oils for repelling bugs. It consists of four parts:

(1) A lemony component consisting of two of the following: lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla), lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus), citronella (Cymbopogon nardus), lemon or lemon balm (Melissa officinalis).

(2) An evergreen component consisting of two of these: fir, spruce, pine, or juniper (Juniperus spp.).

(3) One or two of: yarrow, blue gum, hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), lavender, peppermint or spearmint (Mentha spicata).

(4) Both sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) and catnip (Nepeta cataria).

Combine your essential oils in equal proportions using an overall proportion of one drop of essential oil for each millilitre of base (e.g. 50 drops of all essential oils combined in 50 ml of base). Put it in a pump spray bottle. The best way to apply it is to spray it on your hands and then rub your hands on your skin. Make sure you spread it everywhere – the bugs are great at finding the spots you missed. As I mentioned above, your repellent will need to be applied regularly, usually every 30-60 minutes.

Keep in mind that natural repellents work partly by disguising our smell. Since everybody’s skin smells different, it may be necessary to experiment a bit in order to find a blend that works best for you.

Wound Healing Ointments

There are many different brands of natural creams and ointments available in retail stores. It is best to use those for which the proportion of herbs is high. Ointments are generally better. If they are sufficiently potent they will be relatively dark in colour and have a strong ‘herby’ odour. The better ointments will have a very simple base as well, usually some kind of vegetable oil, beeswax, and a natural preservative such as vitamin E or benzoin.

For wounds, it is preferable to use ointments that are made primarily from whole herbs rather than essential oils. Some of the better herbs that are readily available in ointment form include yarrow, pot marigold (Calendula officinalis), purple coneflower (Echinacea spp.), St. Johnswort, lavender, German chamomile, plantain (Plantago spp.), heal-all (Prunella vulgaris), goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and common comfrey (Symphytum officinale). Caution: Ointments that contain comfrey should not be used by pregnant or nursing women, or children under three years of age.

It is best to allow a wound to dry out before applying an ointment, otherwise it will be washed away by blood or lymphatic fluid. Apply the ointment two to six times per day depending on the severity of the injury, less often as it heals.

First-aid Poultice: Most of the above herbs grow locally. If we know how to recognize them we can use them on the spot when injuries occur. This can be really helpful when we are out hiking in the woods and don’t have any first-aid products available. The best way to use this type of herbal first-aid is to pick a bunch of leaves and chew them until they are well masticated. Don’t mix them with lots of saliva because they will be too runny. When they are sufficiently chewed, plaster them on the wound so that it is well covered. If it is an open wound it should be cleaned off with water first. If you do not have drinking water, then water from a creek or lake will do if it’s not too polluted. The general rule of thumb is, if you wouldn’t swim in it (assuming it was deep enough), don’t use it. If you don’t have water use saliva, preferably from the person who is injured.

After cleaning the wound, wipe it off with some dry clothing. Then apply the herbs. When herbs are applied this way it is not necessary to wait until the wound dries up. Of course, don’t attempt this unless you are 100% positive that you have accurately identified the herb(s).

Some people might be concerned about a risk of infection from applying herbs mixed with saliva on open wounds. All of the abovementioned herbs are very antimicrobial, especially when being used in such a concentrated form. Saliva itself is also slightly antimicrobial.

If the person who is injured chews the herbs there is no risk. There is also virtually no risk if it is done by someone from their immediate family. After that, the risk is the same with everyone. Obviously no one should do this if they have any communicable diseases that can be transmitted by saliva. I have used this approach for decades and recommended it to hundreds of students. No one has ever gotten an infection. If anything, they have decreased their risk of infection.

The above ‘survival poultice’ isn’t just effective for wounds. It can be used on rashes, burns, bites, stings, bruises, strains and sprains as well. Ointments can also be used in these situations, except for the treatment of burns. It is not recommended to use oil-based products on burns (including sunburn) until they are almost completely healed.

Natural Sunscreens

In general, it is best to use low-SPF sunscreens that contain inorganic substances like zinc or titanium compounds that work by reflecting sunlight away from the skin. These are preferred over sunscreens that absorb sunlight (such as avobenzone or oxybenzone which absorb UV radiation through their chemical bonds and might be more harmful than the sunlight itself). The better products will have other ingredients that benefit skin such as lavender essential oil, aloe gel, vitamin C, vitamin E, etc.

In my view, because of our thinning ozone, it is still best to minimize exposure of skin to direct sunlight between 11 am and 3 pm. We should use sunscreen if we are outside for any significant period of time during that part of the day. It is also a good idea to get some sun exposure without sunscreen before 10 am and after 4 pm to allow the body to utilize its own natural sun protection methods – producing vitamin D and melanin, our natural skin pigment.

Burn Remedies

These are a bit different than other wounds. As I mentioned above, they should not be treated with oil-based preparations. Two readily available remedies are excellent for burns, including sunburn. Probably the most effective is lavender essential oil. If applied immediately (i.e. within a minute of getting burned), it will usually prevent blistering altogether. Lavender is one of the few essential oils that can be applied neat (undiluted) and this is how it should be applied for treating burns.

The second most important remedy for burns is aloe vera gel. It is significantly more effective when fresh. This means we have to grow it ourselves. I recommend growing Barbados aloe (Aloe vera) because Cape aloe (Aloe ferox) is much more prickly and harder to work with. The aloe plants that are sold almost everywhere are Barbados aloe.

Aloe plants spread by rhizomes. Several months after being planted in a pot, new shoots will sprout up out of the soil and before long you will have a whole colony. It is best not to start harvesting leaves from your plant until the original is a good size and there are lots of babies. If you give them what they need you will have lots of plants in a couple of years and can harvest enough leaves to meet your needs.

When applying aloe gel to a burn, it must be applied fairly thick and allowed to dry on the skin. If fresh aloe is not available, the next best choice is food grade aloe gel. This is a bit more difficult to work with because it is a lot more watery. The only other option that I recommend is to use the organically grown, stabilized, 99% aloe gel. As with lavender essential oil, the sooner you apply it the better. Within seconds is best.

There are other important uses of lavender essential oil and aloe gel. Lavender essential oil can be used on its own or in a base oil for wounds and injuries as indicated above. We can massage it into our temples, neat or in a base oil, for headaches. It can be infused through the air to help reduce stress and anxiety. For those particularly stressful days, add some to bath water and relax in a nice hot bath. Aloe gel also makes a great aftershave. Simply spread a thin layer on your skin and let it dry.

There you have it: a summary of the basics of natural summer first-aid. It is best to be prepared! Stock up now so you don’t regret it later. And don’t forget that one of the most important prescriptions for healing is having fun!

Catch Michael Vertolli on August 7 to 12 when he will conduct a 6-day Intensive Workshop to teach participants to expand their awareness and experience a deeper connection with nature and the healing power of herbs. Visit: http://www.livingearthschool.ca for more information.

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