Making an Herbal Salve

June 26, 2014

Chopping comfrey and plantain leaves 

Credit: Margaret Boyles
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Herbal salves (a term often used interchangeably with ointments, creams, balms, and unguents; I've never found definitions that differentiate them clearly) have come down through the ages as the premier household first-aid for scrapes, burns, wounds, itches, stings, bruises, diaper rashes, and more.

Often expensive to buy, they’re relatively cheap and easy to make.

Early to midsummer is a great time of year to try your hand at it. Many healing herbs are in full leaf and have just begun to flower, concentrating their active healing constituents in their aboveground parts. (Fall is a good time to make root-based salves.)

I like to start with an herb-infused oil, which involves slightly wilting, then chopping and bruising the leaves or flowers I’ve collected, packing them loosely into a clean glass jar, and covering them with oil. I cover the top of the jar with a piece of cheesecloth or a coffee filter secured with a rubber band. This lets moisture that would otherwise spoil the salve escape from the jar.

Then I just leave the jar in a sunny windowsill for two or three weeks, shaking or stirring the infusion whenever I think of it, usually once or twice a day. I use a long wooden spoon for stirring.

When the herbs have infused long enough, I strain the plant material out with a cheesecloth, catching the oil in a glass pitcher, twisting the end of the cloth to squeeze as much oil as possible from the leafy material.

The final step: melting pure beeswax (use a double boiler on the stove or a pyrex cup within a glass bowl in the microwave), and adding it to the infused oil in a ratio of about five parts oil to one part melted wax. Stir with a wooden spoon and store in a sterilized glass or metal container.

It’s easy to adjust the consistency of a salve by adding a bit more oil to make it more spreadable or a bit more beeswax to thicken or harden it. Homemade salves without any preservative agents will last about six to eight months at room temperature out of direct heat and sunlight. Refrigerated, they’ll keep for a year or more.

Today I’m making a general-purpose household salve of comfrey and plantain leaves--the comfrey has just begun to flower at the edge of my vegetable garden, and the plantain grows abundantly in the lawn. I added the chopped leaves to a combination of grapeseed and coconut oiI, though I could have used olive, sunflower, sesame, or one of the exotic (and expensive) nut oils. Our ancestors didn’t have access to pressed oils; they made their healing ointments from bear grease, lard, and other animal fats, which reportedly have healing powers of their own.

I also could have used burdock, lemon balm, yarrow, self-heal, or one of dozens of wild and cultivated plants that flourish around here. Later in the season, I plan on making flower salves from mullein, calendula, and St. John’s wort. It’s fun to experiment and learn about the herbs and their uses as you go.

Although herbalists no longer recommend comfrey for internal consumption, it enjoys wide renown as a wound healer (in fact, it helps new skin form so fast, herbalists don’t recommend using it for deep wounds that require slow healing). Plantain enjoys equal renown as an anti-itch, anti-inflammatory herb.

My comfrey-plantain salve is versatile. I’ll use it on itches and stings, chapped hands and lips, cracked heels, ragged cuticles, nicks, cuts, and scrapes. It also works wonders on diaper and heat rash.

One caution: Clean and disinfect a fresh wound, then wait for it to stop bleeding before applying any salve. You don’t want to seal in an infectious agent.

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Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.

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