Plants that heal

Five backyard plants that soothe summertime burns, bug bites, minor cuts and rashes.

By Connie Jodry

Calendula and chamomile
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.

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