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Make a summer herbal salve for bites, stings and scrapes

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While summer is one of my favorite times of year, I could do without mosquito bites, scraped shins and bee stings. That's why I usually carry a tin of herbal salve with me wherever I hike (or travel, for that matter).

A salve is a thick herbal oil applied to the skin for reducing pain, stopping itch and quickly healing such conditions as bites, stings, cuts, sores, scrapes, burns, and other skin problems. Salves are made with fresh, dried, whole, or powdered herbs.

To use it, you simply scoop out a dab of the salve and spread on the desired area. You can make a salve to address a single condition, such as itching, dryness, cuts and so on, or create a general all-purpose one for many situations.

Oils that readily absorb into the skin are used, such as sesame and olive oil. Non-drying oils are best for dry skin and massage, since they don't absorb as readily as semi-drying ones. Try combining both types, for instance sesame and olive. Castor oil is a nice addition to salves, as it is very thick and an excellent healing oil (but only add in small amounts as it's very sticky). Possible oils include:

  • Non-drying oils: coconut, avocado, castor, apricot, cocoa butter, olive
  • Semi-drying oils: wheat germ, sesame, safflower, sunflower
  • Drying oils: soybean, linseed (flax)

In addition to these ingredients, herbal tinctures may be included to enhance the salve's healing power. For example, calendula tincture added to calendula flower salve makes its healing properties stronger.

Lastly, some Vitamin E oil, or tincture of benzoin (a tree resin), should be included as a preservative. Both also heal the skin.

Summer Salve ideas

Sore Muscle Salve: To help sore, aching muscles, combine equal parts chamomile, elder, gardenia, lavender, mint, mugwort, mullein flower, rose, rosemary and St. John's Wort.

Salve for Itching and Rashes: This single-herb salve is made with fresh chickweed, and very effectively treats itching and rashes. It is even more powerful if you extract fresh chickweed juice and use it along with the herb.

General Healing Salve: My favorite salve, this treats many skin conditions including rashes, swellings, wounds, eruptions and bites. Combine one part each echinacea, yarrow, comfrey and calendula with a half part each plantain leaves, St. John's Wort and chickweed.

Amounts: For about 4 oz. salve, use 2 oz. dried or powdered herbs, or 4 oz. fresh herbs to 1 cup oil, and 1/2 oz. beeswax. Add 1/2 tsp. Vitamin E oil or benzoin tincture as preservative.

Dose: Since salves are rubbed directly on the skin and not taken internally, there's no dosage limit. However, too much salve can be messy.

Storage: Salves keep up to five years or more.

To Make a Salve:

1) Bruise herbs first by rubbing fresh/dried herbs between palms of hands.

2) Place herbs in glass jar.

3) Pour chosen oil(s) over herbs. Cover jar with tight lid and prevent the oil's exposure to air or light.

4) Shake jar daily so herbs and solvent mix together. Do this for at least two weeks.

5) Strain by covering a kitchen colander with a piece of cheesecloth. Place the colander in a big bowl and pour the herbal solution into the colander. If there are still herbs in the strained liquid, strain again. Squeeze the herbs in left in the cheesecloth to extract any remaining liquid.

6) Add a about 1/2 tsp. of tincture of benzoin or break a capsule of Vitamin E into your oil to act as a preservative.

7) Pour the strained oil into a clean glass jar and cover tightly. This is your oil. You will add melted beeswax to this oil to make your semi-solid salve. Continue from step 3 below:

Quicker method:

1) Bruise herbs first by rubbing fresh/dried herbs between the palms of your hands.

2) Place bruised herbs in your chosen oil in a deep pan. Slowly heat and cook herbs gently, covered, until crispy, about 1/2-1 hour (cook roots first, then add leaves and flowers last).

3) Melt beeswax shavings or beads over very low heat in a separate old pot (use one you don't care much for; wax is very messy and leaves a residue).

4) When beeswax is melted, pour into your already-made herbal oil. Mix well.

5) Add Vitamin E oil or tincture of benzoin (if you have not added it already).

6) Test salve for consistency: blow on one teaspoon of your oil/beeswax mixture until it hardens, or put a teaspoon of it in the refrigerator for a minute. When it looks solidified, test it with your finger. If it's too hard, you won't be able to spread it on the skin easily; add more oil. If too soft, it will be too runny and will not stay in place on the skin; add more melted beeswax. In either case, keep testing your salve until your desired consistency is achieved.

7) When this consistency is reached, immediately pour your oil/beeswax mixture into small jar or tin before it begins to harden to room temperature (this hardening process will begin immediately as it cools). Wash out pots with hot water as soon as possible. Put a tight lid on your salve container(s).

Making an herbal salve using the quick method:

Bruising herbs

Simmering aerial plant parts and roots separately

Straining the herbal oil

Testing for consistency after beeswax has been added

After pouring immediately into containers, salve hardens as it comes to room temperature.

Pictures from the medicine-making class with Debra Maya and Dov Shoneman at the East West Herbal Seminar 2009 by intermediate student Inga Bilinkina.

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