A few years ago, my partner, Michael, got a very bad cut on his foot through a strange series of events involving a heavy, pointed rock, while we were interior camping in Killarney Park. Of course, we didn’t have a first aid kit – we had been camping many times in the past and never needed such a thing. The only resources we had at hand were tea bags and wild herbs.
The cut (really a nasty gash) was so deep that you could see muscles and tendons and other strange matter that you don’t usually see (or want to see, really) in the normal course of life. Needless-to-say, we were up s**t crick without a paddle. Well, we had two paddles, actually, but we were way, way, way far away from ‘civilization’, deep in the interior. What to do???
And it started to pour rain…
After the initial shock of the situation, we both remembered that we were herbalists and realized we had a whole amazing first aid pharmacy growing all around us. While Michael huddled under our pathetic make-shift shelter with blood and other stuff oozing out of his disconcerting wound, I went about harvesting plants that were growing near our campsite. After I’d gathered the plants, we chewed them up in our mouths and then applied them directly to his wound. We covered the herbs with a bit of plastic and then tied all that on with a bandana. Included in the poultice was boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), plantain (Plantago major), meadowsweet (Spiraea alba), and St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum).
The properties you want in herbs used to poultice an opened wound are antimicrobial, vulnerary (wound healing), astringent, emollient and rubefacient (brings blood to the area). You need to keep the wound moist and covered to prevent infection. The poultice should be changed a minimum of three times a day. The area should be allowed to ‘breath’ for around 30 minutes in between poultices.
The next morning we redressed ‘the wound’ with greater preparedness than the night before. This time we chopped up the herbs and steeped them in a little hot water for 10 minutes along with some flaxseeds. Flaxseeds keep wounds moist and help the other constituents go deeper into the tissues. When using a poultice on an open wound you need to use some gauze to prevent plant matter from getting into the wound. We didn’t have such luxury, so we opened up some black tea bags and used the empty bags as a gauze substitute. We also added a bit of the tea to the steeping herbs because of its antioxidants and tannins. Tannins astringe tissues, thereby drawing them together, decrease inflammation, and help prevent infection.
After much discussion, the decision was made to end our trip early and hike out immediately. Through the help of some pretty remarkable people we managed to make it out easily, and word was sent ahead that there was someone injured. When we arrived back on the mainland, there was an ambulance waiting for us to take Michael to the hospital. The ambulance attendants asked to see ‘the wound’, so Michael removed the poultice, but what was once a mangle of torn flesh and strange ooze was now totally sealed and looked like a little boo-boo. We tried in vain to make the attendants believe us that the boo-boo was in fact a terrible injury, but though they were very nice, they didn’t buy it. They were also completely disinterested in how we had used herbs to seal the nasty wound and stop infection. They told us to go to the hospital anyway, but instead we drove straight home.
Michael continued with the poulticing for the next few weeks using various herbs growing wild on his property. After a few weeks everything healed beautifully. Today, there is only a faint scar to remind us of the experience.
I now always carry an emergency first aid kit when we go camping that includes gauze and a few other important items such as homeopathic arnica, symphytum, lavender essential oil and Rescue Remedy, but I’ll always rely on the wild herbs as my main pharmacy.
If you’d like to learn more about wild first aid herbs and other wonders, please come to my herb walk on July 23rd!