Herbal salves (a term often used interchangeably with ointments, creams, and balms) 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 quick and simple to make at home.
A salve is simply an oil (olive oil, almond oil) infused with herbs and combined with a wax (beeswax) to thicken them into a solid state at room temperature. That’s it! It takes about 30 minutes start to finish.
Salves are great for gardeners for those small scrapes from branches, occasional nettle rash, and insect bites. (And it’s very satisfying to use herbs from the garden to cure scrapes from the garden!)
Summer is a great time of year to try your hand at it. Many healing herbs are in full leaf and flowering, concentrating their active healing constituents in their aboveground parts. (Fall is a good time to make root-based salves.)
Making the Herbal Salve
- Start by picking the flowers and leaves fresh from the garden. Take these slightly wilting plants, then chop up and pack loosely into a clean glass jar and cover 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 6 to 8 months at room temperature out of direct heat and sunlight. Refrigerated, they’ll keep for a year or more.
Which Flowers or Plants to Use
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.