15 Acres of Adventure in the Heart of Leicester

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

The Woodland Wanderers Guide to plant remedies.

or Five plant remedies every Outdoors person should know.

by Chris Murnin.  APIOL

Since 2006 I have been based in the Midlands, and as with anywhere you spend a lot of time, you start to become familiar with the surroundings. I started to see the seasons pass, and recognised plants flourishing, or re-appearing in the same spot each year. As my interest in bushcraft grew, so did my thirst for knowledge. What was the plant that filled the bottom field with a beautiful scent signalling the start of the summer, and what was sprouting, and encroaching on the paths in the shade?

In today’s society medical supplies are readily available. Pain killers in the check out at the super market, cough sweets at the news agent or plastic gloves and wound dressings at the petrol pumps. We have never had it so easy... or have we? As with most conveniences nowadays, our ancestors had equivalents that were derived from nature.  In this article we will explore a few easily identified plants that are not intended to replace a simple first aid kit, but in the absence of one, or for longer term, can ease a few common ailments.

Firstly we need to look at a few ways to work with the materials we find whilst out and about. To be most practical to be used on the move, it should involve minimum kit or processes.

  • Poultice: Take the material and mash it all up. This could be done between two smooth (cleanish) rocks or with a spoon in the bottom of a mug. This process loosens up the fibres, releases the juices and gives you a nice mushy lump that can be moulded around a wound. If working with dried material, add a little water, a wee bit at a time until the correct consistency is achieved. In haste I have grabbed a few leaves and chewed them up to produce a usable dressing. Cover with a large leaf and secure with a bandage or cordage if you need to keep mobile. 

  • Infusion: Place the mashed up material in a container and pour over boiling water, allow it time to steep to produce a medicinal tea. Straining the liquid through a sieve (T-Shirt) will save you getting bits stuck in your teeth, or choking on a twig. Without access to fire or a suitable metal container, well worked material left in a small amount of liquid in direct sunlight for as long as possible will create an alternative brew. Or you could just rough it out, chewing the material, swallowing the juices and spitting out the fibres. 

  • Decoction. This is the most involved process of the three. Bring the macerated material to the boil, then simmering it to reduce the volume of liquid making a more concentrated, potent treatment. 

Knowing how to take the material you have found and turn it into the treatment you require is a useful skill, but it is irrelevant if you cannot confidently, positively identify the plant in the first place. Also there is potential conflict if you are currently under other medication, pregnant or breast feeding. If this is the case, please seek medical advice before using any of these remedies. 

Greater Plantain- Plantago major, also Ribwort Plantain –Plantago lanceolata.  

Greater Plantain
Ribwort Plantain
  A great wayside remedy, as it’s very often found on paths and trails where it populates well travelled ground. This earned it the common name of Cart Track Plant or White Man’s Footsteps. A perennial so can be found all year round in the UK. Both varieties sport tough internal ribs that can remain intact when the leaves are stretched and split. They sprout tall seed bearing stems (May- October) that act as flags for the observant forager. This plant is a standalone treatment for skin ailments, excelling in easing bites and stings. Renowned forhaving antibacterial, antimicrobial, antitoxic and anti-inflammatory properties ensure any broken skin will benefit from a plantain poultice. I have had great results by refining this plant a bit further and creating a salve from infused oil and bees wax, which a colleague of mine swears by!

Yarrow- Achillea millefolium

An ancient remedy whose many names infer its medicinal uses. Soldiers Woundwort, Nose Bleed, Staunchweed, and if your wood work is anything like mine, Carpenter's Weed. If it’s good enough for the warrior demi-god Achilles it’s good  enough to treat cuts and grazes we experience out and about. Its astringent properties staunch blood flow, its antiseptic properties reduces the chance of infection whilst its analgesic effects lessen the pain. It’s said that dried and powdered yarrow leaves are the most effective (They may sting a bit!), but in a pinch, a rough poultice of fresh growth will do the job. 
Whilst working in Inner Mongolia, in the build up to winter we were given teas containing Yarrow, as an immunity booster. A tasty tea infusion of Yarrow, 1 tsp dried leaves (or 2 large leaves) in one cup of boiling water is a recognised cold and flu remedy, which once cooled can also be used to wash out cuts and grazes.
It has also been noted that fresh leaves can be directly applied to relieve tooth ache.

Meadow Sweet- Filipendula ulimaria 

Meadow Sweet
This misnomer could potentially have you seeking this plant in the wrong habitat, rather than rolling meadows, it favours the damp soils of marshes and river edges. The name actually refers to the honey based alcoholic beverage “Mead” in which the flowers were used as flavouring.  
A potent anti-inflammatory, an infusion of the flowers is said to remedy heartburn, gastric complaints and nausea. Records state that meadowsweet may have been the original Aspirin with uses recorded back to the time of Hippocrates 400BC. High in the compound salicin, which the body converts to salicylic acid, this pleasant drink will relieve headaches whilst out on the trail. 4 tsp fresh flowers (or 2 tsp dried) in 250 ml boiling water will make a tasty tea once it’s been steeped for 10 minutes.
As a quick fix without too much processing, a few roots cleaned up can be chewed to release the healing juices, as long as you don’t mind that TCP/ Germoline taste. 

Willow- Salix family  

A prevalent tree in the British isles, found near water, Willows also contain salicin, White Willow-Salix alba, has some of the highest concentrations, easily identified by its long pointed leaves, with a lighter (white ) hue underneath. Its anti inflammatory properties can aid joint and muscle pains.
An infusion of the leaves has been recognised to have a calming effect, and can be used to remedy insomnia.
As a pain reliever, an infusion of willow bark (1 tsp steeped to 1 cup water) can relieve headaches and other pains. Again in the absence of equipment, chewing on the inner bark would give some pain relief. Often compared to Aspirin, willow is reported not have the stomach-irritating or blood thinning side effects. 

Bog Moss- Sphagnum Recurvum  

Bog Moss
Anyone who has spent in the hills has misjudged a patch of green as a safe haven and ended knee deep in a bog, often thanks to a clump of bright green moss that blankets our peaty uplands and boggy lowlands. Once dried, bog moss can absorb over 20 times its own weight before becoming saturated. This married with its antiseptic properties made it an invaluable medical commodity over the ages. Other than a dressing to cover battle wounds, it has been used to line baby’s nappies and as sanitary towels.
This plant became so heavily revered during World War 1, that in its final year over 1 million moss dressings were being produced each month! The labour intensive task of collecting the moss was mainly carried out by volunteers such as the Boy Scouts.  
For best results use ground up naturally dried moss, this increases the surface area of the material, fully utilising the antiseptic and absorbency properties. This bound under a cloth bandage will see most casualties off of the hill.  A rough field dressing can be made from a hand full of moss which has been squeezed and wrung out. 

These plants can aid us when we really need them, but at that stage we don’t want to be wary of our identification. Learn to identify these plants in all seasons, and you will have access to an array of medicines for a variety of ailments.

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