I grew up in an herbal household- my grandmother and mother both grew a wide variety of herbs in their gardens, so I suppose I come by my love for all things herbal as a matter of course. They used most of their herbs for cooking or enjoyed their beauty and ability to attract birds and butterflies, but I went on to explore the health benefits of herbs by working at natural food stores and taking correspondence courses. Nothing beats hands on experience with herbs, though, and I have had plenty of time to explore the practical side of making and using herbal preparations as well.
Really learning herbalism means acquiring an entirely new mindset when it comes to viewing health and the human body, but in this article I would like to share a few herbs and preparations that I consider to be must-haves for my personal herbal first aid kit. There are many herbs that are good for first aid uses, but in my experience, these are the best: angelica, elder, catnip, hawthorn, mullein, peppermint, rose, yarrow, and valerian.
If you aren’t sure where to start in learning about herbs for preparedness, this list is it. These herbs are all easy to grow, readily available, and extremely versatile. Take time to thoroughly research each herb from several sources, and you will see what I mean.
Angelica alone can be used for digestive issues, coughs, immunity, sore throats, certain types of joint pain, bladder and kidney problems, and topically to help clear bruises. Actually, angelica, peppermint, and hawthorn can all be used for digestive discomfort, but of different types. That’s why it’s important to learn about each herb in depth- a good herbal resource will help you learn the finer points of using angelica as opposed to peppermint, or hawthorn as opposed to angelica for digestive complaints.
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Simple Solutions Using an Herbalist First Aid Kit
Each one of the herbs on the list can be used on it’s own, a practice called “simpling.” Don’t let the word “simple” fool you though- learning about just these nine herbs will keep you busy for quite some time! Here’s the short and sweet info on each herb to get you started:
Angelica: This herb is often used for digestive discomfort, coughs, to boost immunity, and for emotional support.
Elder: Both elderflower and elderberries can be used, and both are expectorant. Elderberry is also immune supporting, while elderflower can help with fevers, allergies, or be used as a calming tea.
Catnip: This herb is great for colicky children (or adults!), and can be used as a calming tea to help promote a good night’s sleep.
Hawthorn: Traditionally used for indigestion, healthy circulation, and as a tonic for heart health, hawthorn is also top notch for emotional support- especially when blended with rose and angelica. Perfect for the emotional fallout that may occur after an emergency situation, or even just a particularly stressful day.
Mullein: Most well known for it’s use as an oil for ear and skin first aid, mullein also has a host of other traditional uses that include support for proper healing from broken bones and as an ingredient in herbal cough formulas.
Peppermint: This tasty, well known herb is helpful for indigestion, cooling for fevers, and useful as a topical for sore muscles, bug bites and stings.
Rose: Excellent topically for skin problems, rose is also beneficial as a tea or in extract form for emotional support. Rose petals can offer herbal support for stress related headaches, allergies, dry coughs, and sore throats; rose hips are a great source of vitamin c, and are also sometimes used instead of cranberry for urinary tract health.
Valerian: Valerian is a lesser known herb, but is great for nervous system support. It was used in Britain during WWII to help people feel calmer and less panicky and stressed during the air raids. It is also a valuable antispasmodic used for muscle cramps and can be added to cough support formulas for the same reason.
Yarrow: Yarrow is an excellent fever herb, and can also be used as a natural styptic, helping to normalize blood flow as an adjunct to wound care. Women can use yarrow to assist in normalizing a heavy menstrual flow and combine it with valerian to help with uterine cramping. Yarrow, Elder, and Peppermint blend together nicely for a traditional cold and flu season tea that can be used when you first start feeling under the weather or running a low fever, to support the body’s ability to fight off an invading cold or flu.
Formulas for Success
In addition to these simples, I also keep a few compound formulas on hand. My must have herbal combinations are:
Herbal Salve: Most commonly based on plantain and/or chickweed, these ointments can contain many other herbs as well. Traditionally, such blends are used for cuts and scrapes; boils; to help pull out splinters or soothe chapped skin- basically any needed skin support. I like a plantain and goldenseal blend the best, but there are many great recipes out there.
Syrups: There are plenty of good herbal cough syrups on the market, especially ones based on cherry bark, grindelia, or elecampane. The one I like is based mainly on wild cherry. I also keep elderberry syrup on hand at all times for immune system support, and usually like to keep violet leaf and flower syrup for coughs. I find that simple syrups like elderberry are most cost effective if you make them at home yourself. Both elder and violets grow in my backyard, which also explains why they have become such a staple in my herbal pantry.
Vinegar Liniment: For muscle comfort and skin support, I like using an easy to make Three Flower Vinegar: a blend of elderflower, rose and lavender in a base of apple cider vinegar. Another workhorse of multipurpose herbal formulas, this liniment can be great for sore muscles, as topical help for sunburn or contact burns, for acne break outs, or can be used diluted with cool water on a washrag to help get comfortable during a fever.
Herbal Throat Tea and Throat Spray: Usually a blend for throat comfort has marshmallow, licorice and other soothing herbs. I keep both a tea and a spray on hand. The spray is great for convenience (like when you first wake up in the morning, or are on the go and don’t have access to hot water), but I usually use them together throughout the day for best results.
Mullein Oil: Use either plain mullein or mullein mixed with garlic and other herbs, this is great for any kind of ear discomfort- allergies, pain, tinnitus, or even just helping to clear wax build up gently and naturally. I have also used this inside the nostrils when everything feels dry and stuffy from allergies but there isn’t much mucus production going on.
Herbal eyewash: I am a wimp when it comes to eye pain- most other things I will gamely suffer through, but the least little problem with my eyes drives me nuts. The eyewash I use is an alcohol extract that has rue and fennel, and is meant to be diluted before use. I find that it is great for basic, multi-purpose eye relief- allergies, eye strain, and even soothing pink eye pain until you can make it to the doctor to get checked out. An eye cup is helpful to have for this, especially if you don’t enjoy using eyedrops.
Notes on Quantity and Expiration
For each herb, I like to keep at least 4 ounces of alcohol extract- sometimes referred to as “tinctures”– on hand. A single ounce of extract lasts anywhere from 15 days to a month of daily use, depending on the serving size. Since none of these are meant as daily use- just as first aid supplies- 4 ounces is probably overkill. But if you make your own extracts at home, they are inexpensive and it’s perfectly feasible to indulge in a slight bit of overkill here. I also like to keep at least 4 ounces of each herb in dried form, so I have plenty available to make tea, salves, or other projects.
The thing to remember with dried herbs, though, is that they don’t store as long as extracts. Usually just a year, as opposed to an extract’s five years or more (if kept out of light and away from extreme temps), although I have kept some dried herbs for longer than a year in airtight containers kept in dark pantries. They will lose their color and fragrance when they’re no longer good. At that point, they make a great addition to the compost pile if you have one, but I can usually find ways to use them up and rotate in fresh stock before that happens.