Friday, May 12, 2006


Dose of common-sense: I'm not prescribing remedies to you. If you want to make your own medicines, get at least a basic education in herbalism first. If you want to do field identification of plants and herbs, get some good field guides, and verify some plants against knowledgeable persons before imbibing.

What a godawful two weeks.

I got something, perhaps a case of Poison Ivy, about two weeks ago. I know because the grass needed to be mowed again. My partner, Chris (yep, two of us), mowed two weeks ago, having bought a new mower. I was a complete IDIOT and tried keeping him company while he did it -- put on some gloves, and went out to prune some of the crazy hedges and bushes out there. I didn't care that the mower was spewing cut grass at me on occasion -- or that I was breathing in the dusty crud that it was pouring out. I clipped hedges, and gathered up armfulls of brush clippings to the margin of the woods to toss on a pile of deadfall we'd been collecting there.

The next morning, I had some bug bites along my right arm, from wrist to about my elbow. I scratched, didn't think much of it. Mosquito, flea, whatever -- something had snacks on my arm all night. So be it.

Then my left leg behind the knee was itching. Again -- didn't think much of it. We have pets, hence fleas, and anything below the knee is game :P *sigh* So again, I did nothing. This is about Friday night or so.

By Sunday I itched in several more areas, but nothing beat the welts behind my knee. I got some hydrocortisone cream. I figured it was a minor itch/allergy and should be treated as same.

On Monday I knew there were serious problems. Where there were two 1" wide welts behind my knee the night before, now the entire area behind my knee was swollen.

By Tuesday I figured out that it was eczema or contact dermatitis. I got a Benadryl dye free equivalent, and a topical version, some health food store remedies, and made my own ointments from herbal oils I had on-hand.

Plantain Ointment

Creating ointments from infused plant oils requires taking the liquid oil medium and adding solidifying agents to it. Usually the goal is to have something solid or semi-solid at room temperature, but which melts upon contact with the skin. Solidifying agents may vary, but my preference is beeswax, as it is natural, healing and nutritive in its own right, and melts easily into the oil. Other options may include saturated plant fats such as palm or coconut oil, lecithin, and sometimes paraffin, but I've never used these for an ointment so I can't recommend them. By varying the amount of beeswax, one can control the solidity of the end product, and you can get anything from a soft cream to lip balm consistency at room temperature.

Create an infused plant oil: Fill a clean jar with fresh, dry-surfaced, plantain (Plantago spp.). Fill the jar again with olive oil, to the very brim, and then seal it with a cap. Let sit a minimum of 6 weeks (2 weeks in an emergency...mine was in the jar for 9-10 years!). (See notes on making infused plant oils later, there are a lot of rules and notes!)

Pour off oil into a (glass or enameled) pan, removing and squeezing out all plant matter. Heat on the absolute lowest heat setting possible before blowing out the burner (or you can heat it on a radiator/riser in your apartment building ;) ), and add beeswax shavings to the tune of about 2 tsp shavings per 4 oz of oil... it's a fine art depending on how solid you want your ointment. Stir with a wooden spoon until all the beeswax is melted. Do not allow to boil! Keep the heat as low as possible. Pour into clean, wide-mouthed jars you can get your finger completely into (preferably glass, possibly metal tins or old plastic cosmetics jars but they need to be heat-tolerant).

What's left in the pan, you can smear on your face, hands, lips, eyes, etc. Did I just say eyes? Well, use your judgement -- but depending on the plants and the oils you use, this is essentially food.

I slathered plantain ointment on the affected areas. I had enough that I made 3 4oz jars of ointment. If you can't picture it, figure it's a large 12oz soda cup full of goo. I still can't say if it helped but it did keep the itching down, and my skin sucked it up like it was starving. That last may be a problem, though, since it fed my skin (yum!) but didn't necessarily lock in the moisture the way something with mineral oil or petroleum jelly would have.

Soon it was a week of intensive itching, I was desperate, and I was no longer satisfied with my normal regime of simples (one herbal remedy at a time). I suspected it might be Poison Ivy (oak, sumac, who cares?). I saw that I was going to run out of ointment at this rate, I got more creative (read: desperate), and I made a jar of ointment (same steps as above) out of lance-leaf plantain that had soaked (for about 10 years) in almond oil, then after filling one jar I added mugwort oil (Artemesia vulgaris) to the pan that had been soaking in olive oil, and a little more beeswax. I poured that into a jar for one jar of plantain/mugwort ointment. Then I punctured and squeezed out about 4 capsules of Vitamin E oil (Carlson E-Gems - d-alpha tocopheryl acetate from soy in sunflower/soybean oil, beef gelatin (?), glycerin and water), and poured a jar of the plantain/mugwort/vitE ointment. Then I added goldenseal powder (Hydrastis canadensis, store purchased), and poured the remaining 3 jars of the huge combo of plantain/mugwort/vitE/goldenseal. In the end I had a total of 6 more jars of ointment. Final 3 jars ingredients, approximated for proportions: olive oil, almond oil, mugwort, plantain, beeswax, vit E and goldenseal powder.

Having plantain and mugwort sitting in oil on my herb shelves for 9 years is a very long time. I simply had no overwhelming need to decant (pour the oil out of) the jars, and I had been slowly edging back into making remedies since moving upstate. However, this was a full all-out plunge back into being an herbalist. I researched, because I didn't see any jewelweed (Impatiens aurea or biflora, a poison ivy remedy) whatsoever in my poison-ivy haven of a yard. Mommy N doesn't work that way -- where there's a problem, there's a cure. Since there was no jewelweed, I knew there must be an alternative cure somewhere in my yard. I looked for eczema remedies. I poured over my class notes from too-many-years-ago. I thought for a moment that I might need to upgrade my field guides -- I upgrade all my techie manuals for programming languages and web languages, don't I? But wait --

Plants don't mutate over 20 years. Of course my field guides are still accurate. :P

And then I found another answer. Cleavers (Galium aparine), a very distinctive little plant, and I had noticed it growing everywhere in my yard. I even had identified the plant instantly by name around the grounds, even though I had never worked with her as a remedy for anything. The suggestions were for using the juice of the plant rather liberally, but I didn't have the heart to take that much of this not-very-juicy plant in order to attempt to make several teaspoons of juice a day. I opted to make a tincture, less effective but much more efficient in use of my green friend -- it wouldn't be ready in time for what is going on now, but I have a feeling this won't be the only time and next time I'll know what's happening and have a (hopeful!) cure handy.


A herbal plant extract occurs when plant is infused in a liquid menstruum that breaks down cell wall materials and carries nutrients, minerals, alkaloids, and other active ingredients out of plant materials and into the liquid solution.

Fill a clean jar with clean fresh plant material. Fill it again with your choice of any alcohol, glycerine or vinegar. Preference for 100 Proof vodka, or raw/organic apple-cider vinegar.

Vodka is the most efficient "menstruum" (liquid carrier) and makes a medicine called "a tincture" requiring the lowest amount of liquid per dose. Glycerine menstruums are non-alcoholic and create an "extract", while vinegar menstruums create a "vinegar". Thus you can have cleavers tincture (in alcohol) or extract (in glycerine, but all of these are extracts), or vinegar.

2-6 weeks minimum, then pour off into a new clean jar, squeeze out the plant materials to the best of your ability, seal and label.

Tinctures and glycerine extracts are usually dispensed from dropper bottles, and the dose varies depending on the plant used -- the most potent/poisonous plants usually call for being mixed with other tinctures or teas and 4-5 drops are used, while less strong, nutritive, or edible plants may call for an entire dropper-full of liquid several times a day. Vinegars usually have a dose 2-3 times that of other extracts (perhaps a teaspoon or more, depending on the plant used), are usually used only for plants that are otherwise edible, and may be used in salads to carry the benefits to the user.

You may infuse in rubbing alcohol, which makes a liniment -- FOR EXTERNAL USE ONLY!

Note that vinegars will erode metal -- use a pickle jar to make a vinegar infusion, because the cap is lined to prevent erosion.

I also replenished my stores of plantain oil by starting a jar of plantain oil, and at the same time I started a jar of yarrow oil (Achillea millefolium) and a jar of ground ivy tincture (Glechoma hederacea).

Notes about creating herbal oil infustions

  • Do not confuse infused oils with essential oils. They are quite different. Essential oils are made in a laboratory, using distiller equipment. Herbal oil infusions use a liquid oil medium and are soaked for a long period of time (2-6 weeks or longer), and can easily be made in your kitchen.

  • If you're in a rush, a quick infused oil can be made by heating your liquid oil gently in a pan, and adding almost an equal amount of plant material to it. Stir, do not allow to boil or burn, and in about an hour you will have an oil that will have most of the properties of a cold-infused oil. In the process of heating the plant, the cell walls break down quicker than soaking in oil over time, but you sacrifice heat-sensitive agents and nutrients in the end product, both from the oil you choose and the plant.

  • Olive oil has its own healing properties (as do other types of oil) and a good cold-pressed extra virgin oil, while expensive, has tremendous healing qualities in itself. If you can't afford or don't have the best oil on hand, any liquid cooking oil will do in a pinch.

  • When making oils it is exceptionally important that there is no water on your plant materials before you add them to the jar. Some "sweating" occurs when fresh plant materials are placed into plastic baggies, so when buying or collecting fresh herbs, put them in paper bags for better results. If there is too much water on your herbs when placing them in the jar, you may end up with mold in your oil.

  • If mold develops in your oil, transfer clean materials to a clean jar, discard any dubious materials, and top off with oil.

  • Keep the jar full to the top -- this also prevents mold.

  • Filling the jar to the top with oil may cause seepage -- oil has a way of finding its way through the lid. Place on a surface that will not mar from oil, or place in a bowl.

  • Expect that the plant materials will swell and release air bubbles, poke down the plant materials with a clean bamboo chopstick or a clean undyed popsicle stick, shake the jar to loosen air bubbles and allow them to float to the top. Then top off the jar with more oil.

  • Keep infusions out of the sun, unless you are using sun &/or moonlight to add additional (presumably magical) properties to the infusion.

  • If your house is moldy, clean your jars and boil them before making infusions.

  • Edible plants in edible oils make edible infused oils. You can create infused oils of garden herbs, for example. Pesto is something similar to an infused oil, except that you blend the basil and other ingredients in instead of squeezing them out at the end. Use sparingly, as garden herbs may have powerful effects in concentration. For example, add 1tbs infused oregano oil to a salad dressing or marinade. Be careful when making oils from other non-leafy cooking plant parts, such as garlic, as they may contain too much water and cause your oil to spoil.

  • If your oil gets very "gassy" -- a lot of air bubbles causing excessive leaking of oil out of the cap -- check for spoilage or mold.

  • Leaking oil makes it VERY difficult to put an adhesive label on a jar. Label the outside of the bowl you place it in, put the label on the top of the cap of the jar, or use a permanent marker on the outside glass of the bottle before starting to make the infusion -- you can remove the markings later with rubbing alcohol, but they should survive being leaked on with oil.

The good news is that in spite of (or perhaps aided by) my attempts to self-medicate, the eczema/dermititis is fading off. I have no idea whatsoever whether what I did to myself helped or not -- I know I suffered a great deal of intolerable itching, weeping, large portions of both legs covered in dry itchy patches, peripheral itching over my arms, back and belly with mild bumps and redness, skin peeling, etc. No cracking or bleeding, which is probably only thanks to the aggressive moisturizeing/nourishing of my skin.


  1. I brought home some jewelweed, I think thats what its called, from a trip to vancortlandt park and put it into the freezer. However, I was told by the class that it would probably not be of value after freezing it. Perhaps I could of made an ointment or something except that I wonder why this would'nt heve been already marketed as I have never come across it. Does it have to be the fresh plat?

  2. Hi, Jim!

    I've made Jewelweed ointment before -- but I don't have any right now (when I finally developed a poison ivy allergy!). Burt's Bees has a poison ivy soap containing Jewelweed, and while the juice may be most effective, I am fairly certain the same or similar qualities would be found in the oil/ointment.

    Jewelweed is just coming to maturity in my area, no flowers yet for 100% positive identification. I'll be waiting for it to be in flower before making oils from it.

    I would think it's possible to use the frozen jewelweed. With many things, the best way to find out is to try. Unless you're like the FDA and insist on spending millions of dollars in lab research ;) Plants have been healing allies for humans and other animals for long before there were bunsen burners and beakers, so I often place my money on folk wisdom.