Mind & Spirit

Plants that heal

By: Connie Jodry

Author: Canadian Living

Mind & Spirit

Plants that heal

By: Connie Jodry

Kathy Marshall*, 15, longed to wear an elegant strapless dress to her school dance. But going to the ball in the dress of her dreams seemed as unlikely for Kathy as it had been for Cinderella. In Kathy's case, though, it wasn't a wicked stepmother holding her back, but eczema, a condition she has struggled with for years. Conventional hydrocortisone cream treatments hadn't worked for Kathy. So three weeks before the dance, with ugly red patches breaking out all over her body, she consulted Isla Burgess, a professional medical herbalist whose holistic approach includes treatment with plant medications.

Burgess is also director of the International College of Herbal Medicine, a web-based college with instructors from around the world. As a fundamental part of Kathy's treatment, Burgess prescribed a skin wash of chamomile flowers and chickweed juice. The outcome? Kathy's wish came true. She went to the dance, happily showing off her smooth, rash-free arms and shoulders.

Even if you don't suffer from eczema, with summer upon us, there's no escaping insect bites, sunburn and minor cuts and scrapes from outdoor activities. Here in Canada you can grow all the plants you need to soothe and heal your skin, right in your own backyard. (Too easily, some gardeners might complain, as they dig plantain out of their lawns.) Though herbs can help with many skin problems, consult a medical professional before using them for anything other than superficial skin conditions.

This primer shows you how five common plants can help save your summer skin from minor cuts, bites, burns and rashes.

*Name has been changed.

First steps
Before buying seeds or using plants, check their Latin names to avoid confusion. If in doubt, ask an expert to help you identify ones that grow in your area. Do not use plants that have been fertilized or sprayed with insecticides or herbicides.

The plants we recommend are considered safe to use, but if your skin is sensitive to plants or skin-care products, use them with caution.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
What it does
Calendula reduces inflammation, inhibits growth of bacteria and fungi and encourages healing.

Planting and harvesting
Plant seeds in spring and harvest when the golden flowers are completely open, from midsummer until frost. Pick often to promote continual bloom.

How to use
Use flowers to make an infused oil, an ointment or a wash (see page 3 for instructions), applying as needed to abrasions and rashes.

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
What it does
Chamomile's antiseptic volatile oils combat infection and promote healing.

Planting and harvesting
Scratch seeds into the soil in spring and by midsummer you'll have a patch of delicate, apple-scented white flowers with yellow centers. Gather flowers regularly throughout the blooming period.

How to use
Use flowers to make an infused oil, an ointment or a wash for minor rashes or abrasions. For sore, irritated eyelids (and for tired, irritated eyes), brew a pot of chamomile tea, enjoy the tea and save the tea bags; once they're cool, place them on your eyelids (remove contact lenses first) to relieve irritation, says Danette Steele, a clinical herbalist and teacher in Toronto. Note: Although side-effects are rare, people with ragweed allergies may be sensitive to chamomile and should avoid using this herb.
 

Page 1 of 3 -- Discover how to apply chickweed, plantain and St. John's wort to protect and soothe your skin on page 2.
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
What it does
Chickweed's emollient and anti-inflammatory properties soothe the skin and reduce itching and swelling.

Planting and harvesting
This spreading plant thrives in cool, damp places. If chickweed hasn't already crept into your garden, plant seeds in spring and harvest the above-ground parts throughout summer.

How to use
Process stems, leaves and flowers into a paste in your food processor and apply to minor rashes, insect bites and itchy spots (including rectal itching).

Or try this recipe from Lois Hare, a naturopathic doctor from Berwick, N.S., who uses natural therapies to treat and heal: Cover a handful of chickweed with olive oil, pulverize it in blender and let sit in a covered jar for three days, shaking the mixture each day. Apply to irritated skin. Refrigerated, this mixture will keep for a week. If you empty a capsule of vitamin E into the mixture it will stabilize the ointment for longer storage.

Plantain (Plantago major)
What it does

Steele includes plantain in all her skin ointments. The allantoin in plantain promotes healing of skin cells, while the tannins combine with protein to form a temporary protective barrier on your skin.

Planting and harvesting
You'll find this low-growing, broad-leafed plant in your lawn and along paths, driveways and cultivated areas. Harvest leaves throughout the summer. (You can grow this in containers to keep it from spreading throughout your garden.)

How to use
Make an infused oil, an ointment or a wash from the leaves and apply to insect bites, rashes and minor wounds; for minor burns, apply wash. If you're outdoors and need quick relief from a blackfly or mosquito bite, pick a plantain leaf, chew it until soft and plaster it on the bite. Immediate application will reduce or eliminate swelling and itching.

St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
What it does

Healing and anti-inflammatory St. John's Wort is a particularly valuable remedy for mild burns.

Planting and harvesting
This sun-loving perennial grows wild throughout Canada in fields and along roadways. Sow seeds in early spring, or plant root cuttings in autumn. Harvest the bright yellow blossoms when newly open, mid to late summer.

How to use
Use the flowers to make a wash, infused oil or ointment for minor burns, sunburns and abrasions. Note: Use with care if your skin is particularly sensitive to sunlight. If you're using an oil or ointment, don't apply to a burn right away – you risk making it worse. Wait until a new layer of skin has formed over top.


Page 2 of 3 – Learn how to make your own infused oil and ointments at home on page 3.

To make an infused oil
Harvest: Pick plants on a dry morning before the sun bakes the leaves but after the dew has dried (since excess water may cause spoilage).

Prepare: Determine what parts of the flower to use, remove any that are damaged, chop finely and pack loosely into a clean, dry four- or eight-ounce jar. Add olive oil to cover, stirring until all plant matter is submerged.

Set aside: Place the jar on a saucer (the oil might drip) and store away from light. Check frequently and add more oil if necessary to cover.

Strain: In four weeks, strain the oil through cheesecloth; compost or discard the plant material. Let the oil sit undisturbed for a day to allow sludge to settle to the bottom.

The infusion: Pour the oil into a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid and add in the contents of one vitamin E capsule for eight tablespoons of oil, or two capsules for 16 tablespoons. (Vitamin E helps preserve the oil.) Store in a cool dark place for up to a year.

To make an ointment using infused oil
Measure three tablespoons of infused herbal oil into a heatproof nonaluminum container – such as a Pyrex measuring cup. (For an all-purpose ointment, combine two or three different oils. My favourite is a mixture of calendula, plantain and St. John's Wort.) Add 1-1/2 tablespoons of grated beeswax. Pour a few inches of water into a pot. Set the container of oil and beeswax into the water and heat at medium-low; stir until the wax is melted. Remove from heat and pour the oil into a clean dry jar. Cool completely before capping.

Ointments keep for up to a year if stored in a cool dark place. Note: Utensils coated with beeswax can be difficult to clean. You may want to dedicate a pot and grater specifically for this purpose. Do not pour melted beeswax down the drain.

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Plants that heal

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