In our last post, we talked about some wild plants that aren’t even safe to touch. Of course, this doesn’t mean that every plant is out to get us. In addition to the plants that can cause us harm, the wilderness is full of plants that can heal, seemingly making up for their unfriendly kin. Let’s take a look at some common plants that can actually help your skin, particularly after touching a harmful plant.
If you have handled poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac, you’re likely in for an itchy rash—as most people have an allergic reaction due to their phenolic substance called urushiol. But the maddening itch of this form of contact dermatitis is avoidable, if you can get to the jewelweed within an hour of contact. Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) contains a hennotannic acid, also known as lawsone. This red-orange dye is present in the leaves of the henna plant (Lawsonia inermis), as well as jewelweed. If you know or suspect that you have come into contact with poison ivy or its relatives, crush a juicy jewelweed plant (stalk and leaves), and scrub your skin for a minute or two with the gooey mash. Rinse the affected skin with ample water, and you may not have a single itchy bump. In its raw form from jewelweed, the lawsone seems to have no significant shelf life. For best results treating and preventing poison ivy, simmer jewelweed puree in water, and freeze the resulting fluid in an ice tray to prevent degradation. These jewelweed “ice cubes” can be used year-round to counteract poison ivy.
The common plantain (Plantago major) has nothing to do with the banana-like fruit at the grocery store (other than the same name). Plantain is one of the most common lawn weeds throughout the Northern Hemisphere, often sprayed with weed killer, because it’s considered a nuisance. But this is a shame, as it provides an excellent source plant medicine. It’s most effective use is counteracting bee stings. Just crush the leaf into a paste and apply directly to burning stings and bites from insects and arthropods. Relief will follow shortly. This crushed leaf poultice can also be used on cuts, scrapes, scratches, burns, and rashes. The juice from the leaves contains tannic acid, which is very healing to the skin when used externally. The leaves also contain allantoin. This compound is also present in the comfrey plant and several other plants, and in the urine of cows and most other mammals. Allantoin is known for increasing the water content of the extracellular matrix of skin, and enhancing the flaking and peeling of upper layers of dead skin cells. This increases the smoothness of the skin, promotes cell proliferation and wound healing. And the funny part is, you’re already using it! Allantoin from a urea source is frequently added to toothpaste, mouthwash, and other modern oral hygiene products.
I frequently tell my survival classes to think of yarrow as Mother Nature’s Neosporin. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a plant that was originally from Europe, but brought to North America by European settlers. The fern-like leaves can be found all year in the lower half of the US, but the biggest leaves will be found in summer. The plant blooms in early to mid-summer, with a stalk that is about two feet tall and bearing a flat-topped cluster of white flowers. The yarrow plant also has a long history as a powerful healing herb used topically for wounds, cuts and abrasions. This medicinal use is also reflected in some of the common names, such as staunchweed and soldier’s woundwort. These are just a few things it can do.
1. Styptic – yarrow can stop bleeding quickly, due to its astringent and vasoconstricting compounds.
2. Anti-bacterial – the crushed leaves, fresh or dried, contain compounds that have an anti-bacterial action. This leaf material can be applied directly to wounds, or soaked in water to make a tea which can be employed as a hot compress.
3. Diaphoretic – a strong yarrow tea can increase perspiration, helping to break a fever.
4. Anesthetic – crushed fresh leaves can have a numbing action (but not for everybody). If it does work for you, this desensitizes the nerves and helps with toothaches, cold sores and boils.
Have you used any of these plants to treat your ills? Tell us about it! Please leave a comment.