I’d like you to meet a few friends of mine, some of whom willingly travel over hill and dale, wherever you want to go, while another needs just a little coaxing to get it to join in. These friends – Plantain, Chickweed, Heal-All, Yarrow, and Cottonwood – are my Five Favorite Weeds for First Aid, and they are just the friends you want hanging out near the garden, along the hiking trail, or wherever else you might find yourself faced with bites, stings, scratches or other common (but not serious) injuries. I will introduce you to each of these plants individually, and explain how to make a simple oil extract using weeds, but first I will discuss the question that I know has been burning in your mind… what is a “weed”?
What are weeds?
Native (indigenous) wild plants are generally not “weeds”. Weeds are usually introduced or naturalized plants, well-established but originating from another area of the country or another part of the world. To quote from Rodale’s All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, “fast, tough and common – that’s all it takes to earn a plant the name of weed.” As any gardener knows, weeds are opportunistic; they know how to take advantage of a situation. Weeds are often drought-tolerant, surviving and even thriving in very dry conditions (such as Mullein, Verbascum thapsis, which is another useful weed but not included in this article). In addition, weeds are very prolific, producing abundant seeds, or easily rooting from broken pieces of stem (chickweed is a good example). Weeds can also send out vigorous root systems, sometimes to the detriment of neighboring plants, such as Knapweed, the wild cousin of the Bachelor’s Button. Weeds are plants that greedy chemical corporate interests and county governments with no foresight have convinced people are “undesirable” and thus encourage the use of dangerous herbicides; do not be fooled by these tactics, they are not the methods you’re looking for. As far as I know, our Weeds for First Aid are not considered “noxious” weeds slated for slow death by the county spray schedule.
Weeds are useful
Weeds are indeed useful, and most are worthy of the status of Herb. They offer healing for the body, inside and out, and also the mind (consider St. John’s wort). Weeds are food; they offer everything from soup to nuts. Bees obtain wildflower honey from weeds, including the above mentioned “noxious” knapweed. Weeds can produce cordage and other fibers; for instance, the trailing blackberry, which can grow into a dense tangle after excavation or logging, was once used to bind roof thatching. Some weeds are indicator species, helping determine soil type, sun exposure, deep or shallow levels of moisture and drainage, and so on. Weeds are also useful as erosion control, helping prevent damaging water run-off.
Weeds are companion plants and allies for garden veggies and hosts to beneficial insects. Their flowers encourage bees into the garden, of benefit to all neighboring plants, especially orchard trees.
And did I mention, weeds can be used for first aid?
Where to pick – and where not to pick – weeds
- Do not pick weeds along railroad easements or roadsides, even if they look healthy. Some plants absorb heavy metals from fuel exhaust. Some trees, such as the Ginkgo, are actually planted near freeways and interstates to absorb CO2 and air pollution, as are Silver Maple and several types of Pine. While these trees aren’t on our weedy first aid list, they show us that plants absorb what is in their surroundings, and no amount of washing on the outside can eliminate what has been absorbed on the inside.
- Do not pick plants in wildlife refuges or state parks, or any protected, sensitive or overburdened area. US National Forest may require you to obtain a permit if you intend to harvest more than a modest amount.
- Do not pick in areas frequented or recently “visited” by animals. Keep an eye out.
- Do not pick in areas sprayed by herbicide. How can you tell? You may detect a chemical odor. You will see certain plants abnormally shriveled for no obvious reason, wilting or turning brown before its normal growing season is over. It’s a sickening feeling, knowing that this method of weed control is so widespread and accepted. Please do what you can to encourage others to try alternative methods.
- DO pick in backyard or garden areas, because this is where you are likely to find these weeds. Pick them anywhere you find the plants (within the parameters set forth above).
- DO pick weeds/herbs where you have permission, from the landowner as well as the plants.
Weeds for First Aid
My Five Favorite Weeds for First Aid will help remedy ant bites or bee stings (unless you are allergic, in which case you already have your EpiPen handy); they also make a good mosquito bite remedy as well as repellant. These weeds can soothe minor scrapes and burns; ease the pain of bruises and muscle aches; and can make for absorbent wound dressing. Let’s meet our new friends!
Just a little note here about terminology: Botanical names are based on a Last Name first/First Name last system, and are usually italicized when spelled out. In other words, my name would be written Shababy doreen in Botany-speak. When I talk about a European species or a North American species, what I am actually referring to is their first name; they share the same last name, like a family. This all helps a great deal with identification because you will know that as a family they share a certain characteristic, such as serrated leaves or air-roots.
Plantain, Broadleaf (Plantago major) and Lanceleaf (P. lanceolata) – These plants, which can be used interchangeably for our purposes here, are native to Europe, and the Broadleaf Plantain is sometimes called “white man’s footprint” in North America since it grew wherever the immigrants journeyed; use by Native American herbalists is widely recognized. Plantain leaf is a topical-relief analgesic and anti-inflammatory, and contains mucilage which soothes the injured skin, tannins which tighten and protect, and allantoin, a compound also found in comfrey (Symphytum officinale), which encourages the healing of wounds and rehydrates injured tissue.
Use plantain leaf for external skin irritations, stings and bites, anything that itches. Simply “squish & apply”, which is basically an herbal poultice; you can even chew it up into a pulp and slather it on your boo-boo. Plantain makes a good healing balm, either alone or with all the other plants on this list.
Chickweed (Stellaria media) – Sometimes called Starwort (“wort” is an old-timey word for “herb”, as in “wort-cunning”), this species is native to Europe although there are some species native to North America. We’re talking common weedy chickweed here. As a salad weed, the taste is mild and very agreeable, delicious when lush and green; do not eat in excessive quantities as chickweed contains saponins which could cause stomach upset.
For immediate first aid, this vigorous but dainty-looking weed makes an excellent cooling poultice for minor injuries, especially slivers, and is also useful for blisters. Analgesic, anti-inflammatory chickweed poultice can be placed on bruises and sprains. In addition, and since it usually grows in abundance, chickweed poultice or fresh juice could be applied to large areas as for sunburn, skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, nettles rash, or itching of any kind. It has a very soothing effect. Use the whole plant, leaves and stems.
Heal-All (Prunella vulgaris) – This plant is also called Self Heal, and is native to Eurasia; there is also a native North American species, P. lanceolata, or Lance-leaf Selfheal, and either can be used (did you notice one of the species names of Plantain, lanceolata?). Heal-All makes a soothing poultice and eases the inflammation and pain of bites, scrapes and bruises – use the whole, above-ground plant. This purple-flowered weed is a member of the mint family – it has square stems but little aroma – and contains betulinic acid, a triterpene that shows definite anti-inflammatory activity in addition to other properties; this compound is also found in the bark of White Birch, Betula alba, trees (for which it is named) and rosemary herb. You can even take a few stems of Heal-All, twist them together a little bit to soften them, and lay directly across the forehead and closed eyes for a while after a day of too much sun and fun; a gentle cooling effect will be experienced.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) – Also called Woundwort and Carpenter’s Herb (clues to its usefulness), this plant originally native to Europe and Eurasia is now circumboreal in distribution, meaning it grows in all regions of the northern hemisphere from the temperate zones to the Arctic Circle. The herbal materia medica of all these northern cultures have a tradition of using yarrow for much more than first aid, including remedies for fever and infection.
Yarrow flower and leaf contains aspirin-like compounds, as well as the anti-inflammatory azulene, and makes for a useful pain-relieving poultice on bruises. The fuzzy fern-like leaf – millefolium means “thousand-leaf” – is astringent and can be used to halt the bleeding of minor injuries and nosebleeds. Yarrow leaf can be squished and applied to mosquito bites as well as rubbed on the hair and arms for a mosquito repellent.
Some people are allergic to yarrow, such as for ragweed, and others may experience contact dermatitis. (If this happens, you can treat it with Chickweed or Heal-All!)
Cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa, P. spp.) – This is our First Aid Friend that needs a little encouragement to get her to share her healing properties. All poplars, including Quaking Aspen, contain salicin, from which our modern analgesic aspirin is developed, and the name of which is related to the name of Willow family, Salix. (See what I mean about learning Botany-speak? The relationship of words is very enlightening.)
The resinous, aromatic leaf buds, collected in late winter and early spring before the actual leaf emerges, make an incredibly fragrant oil extract, a truly sensual experience. Just walking outside on a spring morning, you can smell the fragrance in the air, balsam-like yet sweet, and very intoxicating, at least for this herbalist. The oil can be made into a balm by adding natural beeswax to the oil extract of this or basically any plant. Some people call Cottonwood resin the “Balm of Gilead”. Cottonwood oil or balm can be rubbed into achy joints, sore muscles or tired feet, and can be used on any tender tissue including burns and hemorrhoids, for a natural pain-reliever.
Don’t want to make your own Poplar Bud Salve? you can purchase here: https://wildnweedy.com/product/poplar-bud-salve/
Making an Oil Extract with Weeds
This is a fun project and one where the whole family can be involved, from picking the weeds to testing the final product.
First have your equipment ready. I use a mini slow-cooker, which is a fairly inexpensive investment, especially if you can pick one up at a yard sale, but you could use any small, non-reactive saucepan such as enamel or stainless steel. (The heating method will be slightly different than for the slow cooker.) You will also need a sharp knife and cutting board or scissors and a bowl; a wooden spoon; a strainer or sieve; and a funnel. As for the ingredients, you will need some of the above described weeds, approximately 16-ounces (or more) of olive oil or coconut oil, and 2 to 3-ounces of grated beeswax.
Chop or snip your weeds so that they make 2 to 3 cups of plant material, and place in your crock. Cover with oil. (I usually use olive oil for green salve, coconut oil for certain others.)
Do you want to boil your weeds in oil? No, you do not. If using the slow cooker, place the weeds and the oil together in the crock, cover with the lid, turn to the lowest setting, and leave until it starts to get warm… then remove the lid and stir. Let this crock simmer away for a few to several hours – in the case of Cottonwood buds, I leave it go for a couple days, shutting it off overnight (covering with a cloth), and resuming the next morning. If using a saucepan over the stovetop, you want to get just the barest of simmers going, and you may find you have to turn off the heat now and then to keep it from getting too hot. Heat is important though, because it helps the moisture in the plant material evaporate, otherwise you will end up with rotten leafy matter floating in oil – disgusting! Too much heat and you scorch the herbs. It’s a very organic, experiential process, making herbal oil extracts, but it is not difficult and it is fun. You will know the oil is finished when it has turned dark green from the plants (and hopefully not brown from too much heat) and the plants aren’t so green any more, but rather pale in comparison to their freshness. (The Cottonwood bud oil will be deep red.) Let cool for about an hour, then carefully strain into a very clean jar or bottle for later use.
If making a salve or balm (a hardened oil extract), strain the oil while still warm into a jar or bowl, wipe out the pan, and return the oil to the pan. Stir in some grated beexwax, 2-3 ounces for a pint of olive oil extract, a little less for coconut oil. Test by putting a spoonful onto a saucer, placing in the fridge for a few minutes, and checking the hardness; add more beeswax if too runny (if it is too hard, add a spoon of oil); test again. Carefully ladle into small dispensing containers for home use and gifting.
You can purchase Grandma’s Magic Healing Salve here: https://wildnweedy.com/product/grandmas-magic-healing-salve/
Take a walk on the wild and weedy side
I have chosen Plantain, Chickweed, Heal-All, Yarrow and Cottonwood as my five favorite weeds for first aid because they are so common. These plants can be found over most of North America, and they adapt to their surroundings. I discovered diminutive yarrows and velvety-leaved violets growing out on Smokey Bear Flats in California, over 9000-feet in elevation and very dry. Plantain grows through the cracks of every sidewalk in the USA. Heal-All is a common sight in grassy meadows and at the edge of woodlands. Chickweed can actually become a pest in the garden bed, but when you find it growing out back near the water spigot, it’s worthy of a cheese and grainy mustard sandwich.
And as for the popular Populus, the Cottonwood tree will grow just about anywhere it can take root, which is why I call it a weed; common, opportunistic, and generous with its medicine.
© Doreen Shababy
- Hitchcock, Leo C. and Arthur Cronquist. Flora of the Pacific Northwest. Seattle, WA: The University of Washington Press, 1973.
- Lakshmi T, et al. “ Yarrow (Achillea millefolium Linn.) A Medicinal Plant with Broad Therapeutic Use – A Review.” Global Research Online. Publishing date July 25, 2011. globalresearchonline.net/journalcontents/volume9issue2/Article_022.pdf
- Weed, Susun S. Healing Wise. Woodstock, NY: Ash Tree Publishing, 1989.
- Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West. Santa Fe, NM: The Museum of New Mexico Press, 1979.
- Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Santa Fe, NM: Red Crane Books, 1995.
- Kowalchik, Claire and William H. Hylton, editors. Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, Inc., 1987.
- Shababy, Doreen. The Wild & Weedy Apothecary. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2010.
- De la Foret, Rosalee. “Cottonwood Benefits.” Herbs with Rosalee. Accessed October 15, 2016. www.herbalremediesadvice.org/cottonwood-benefits.html
- PFAF. “Stellaria media – (L.) Vill.” Plants For a Future. Accessed October 15, 2016. www.pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?LatinName+Stellaria+media
- Whelan, Richard. “Plantain.” Richard Whelan Medical Herbalist. Accessed October 15, 2016. www.rjwhelan.co.nz/herbsA-Z/plantain.html
This article has been adapted from one first published in Llewellyn’s 2018 Herbal Almanac, https://www.amazon.com/Llewellyns-2018-Herbal-Almanac-Gardening/dp/0738737801