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Poultices and compresses are very useful ways to utilise herbs for ailments both external and internal. They are not much used in today’s herbal medicine, primarily because they are a little more time consuming and potentially messy than bottles of tincture, teas or capsules and unfortunately, most of us in today’s world are always in a rush.

Still, they can be powerful aids to healing and are well worth having a play with for conditions as diverse as skin rashes, constipation, wounds, sprains, IBS and respiratory problems.

Compresses and poultices are both external applications that involve placing a herbal preparation over the affected part of the body to enable the healing constituents of the herb to absorb into the tissue. The difference between them is only that poultices use whole plant material, either fresh or dried, and compresses use a liquid preparation of the herb, such as a tea. I prefer to use compresses for aches and pains, digestive issues and headaches and poultices for skin irritations, minor wounds and burns. I find both to be helpful for respiratory problems.

Compresses:

Compresses involve soaking a cloth or flannel in a liquid herbal preparation such as a tea, diluted tincture or an oil, wringing it out well, then placing over the body. They are usually applied warm but can also be used cold in cases of swelling, inflammation etc. For ease they can be wrapped in cling film to keep in place and avoid staining clothes, sofas, beds etc. In cases where a deeply warming action is needed, a towel and a hot water bottle can then be placed on top. They would usually be left in place for about 10 minutes and sometimes repeated with fresh liquid once or several times.

Compresses are particularly useful where heat or cold are appropriate as it is easy to warm up or cool down liquids to a suitable temperature. Here are some ideas for using compresses at home.

  • A compress of strong lavender tea can be useful at the onset of a headache. You can apply it warm to the base of the neck if muscular tension is a contributing factor or chilled across the forehead if the headache feels hot and throbbing.
  • A compress of hot thyme tea is useful laid over the lung area for coughs, colds and other respiratory problems where there is phlegm and congestion.
  • A chamomile tea compress on the stomach may soothe nervous digestion. If the digestion is sluggish, nervous or constricted it is particularly nice to apply alternating compresses of hot and cold chamomile tea across the abdomen to increase circulation and stimulate vital force. Make the tea and keep half in a flask so it stays hot, then chill the other half in the fridge. When it has chilled completely soak a flannel in the hot tea (it should be as warm is as is completely comfortable, be careful not to apply anything too hot to the skin) and apply to the abdomen for 1 minute, then soak another cloth in the cold liquid, remove the hot and apply the cold for another minute. Alternate between hot and cold 5 times each, beginning with hot and ending on cold.
  • Alternating hot and cold compresses are also particularly useful for sprains to speed healing and repair. Herbs such as elder leaf, ginger, comfrey or horsetail could be of use here.
  • Warm compresses of ginger tea can be useful to strengthen kidney function if laid over the lower back. Don’t do this if you are suffering from a kidney infection, though it can help to prevent them if used at other times.
  • Castor oil packs. Many people have heard of castor oil packs for easing congestion and I find them very useful in practice if people have the time and inclination to do them. They are useful for easing period pains, liver stagnation and constipation when applied over the abdominal region. To do a castor oil pack you need to warm about two tablespoons of castor oil very gently in a pan then pour onto a clean, slightly damp, warm flannel. Check carefully not to overheat it as you most definitely don’t want to be applying too hot oil directly on to your skin. It should be nice and warm but quite comfortable on the skin. Apply the flannel (oil side against the skin) over the abdominal area either centrally or slightly to the right over the liver area. Wrap with cling film and cover with a towel and hot water bottle. Lie down and relax for at least an hour before removing and washing off the oil.
  • Rose water and apple cider vinegar, or rose infused cider vinegar diluted in water, can be used as a compress for sunburn. Aloe vera juice is also lovely applied cool on a soft cloth.
  • In the absence of fresh plant material a compress can be used in place of a poultice such as a cool calendula tea for rashes or some plantain or yarrow tincture for minor wounds.
A good rule with compresses and poultices is that if it feels uncomfortable then remove it immediately. Anything that is too hot or causing irritation or itching is best removed and allowed to cool or discarded.
You can also make compresses with a few drops of essential oil dispersed in warm or cold water in place of teas or tinctures.

Poultices:

Poultices use whole herbs, usually mashed up into a paste and applied onto the problem area. The simplest form of poultice is the spit poultice, made my chewing up a bit of herb and applying to the skin. Plantain can be applied this way to stings and minor wounds and yarrow is great for staunching bleeding if you cut yourself whilst out walking and need a spot of first aid. A plantain poultice is also useful for drawing out splinters and boils. You can also mash the herbs with a little water and honey in a pestle and mortar or blend then down and apply directly to the site. You can also grate the plant material, as with ginger or potato which was used traditionally as a poultice for boils. If using spicy herbs such as ginger and mustard, you need to put several layers of fine muslin cloth between them and your skin to prevent irritation. Maurice Messegue, the French herbalist who was famous for his many cures, often used only external preparations such as foot and hand baths and poultices. He writes, “the herbs can be placed in a bag of finely woven cloth before being placed on the area to be treated. Which one of these methods is chosen depends on how strong the active elements in the plant are. If it is a gently acting herb, such as cabbage, there need be no hesitation in letting it come in contact with the skin. But if it is irritant or acid, with a tendency to cause redness, then it needs a brake on its action and the skin should be protected by a cloth. This precaution must always be taken with the true revulsives such as mustard.”

If I am at home I often use dried herbs in powder form to make a poultice as this is straightforward, not too messy and can be done all year round even if there is no fresh plant material available. I mix my herbs with an equal part slippery elm powder which is healing, demulcent and drawing in its own right, then add a little warm water and honey (preferably herbal infused honey if I have some to hand) and mix into a thick paste. I then spread it over the area in question and bandage in place.

Here are some useful poultices that are easy to prepare at home:

  • Cabbage. The cabbage poultice must be one of the most traditional of kitchen remedies around. Used for inflammations and swellings, particularly mastitis, it is very simple to prepare. All you do is iron a few cabbage leaves to warm them up and break them down a bit then wrap them over the offending area and secure in place. Many women with mastitis just wear the leaves inside their bras.
  • Mustard. Another traditional poultice for respiratory problems, make sure the skin does not come into direct contact with the mustard, see above. The onion poultice is another variation often used for respiratory ailments though in truth, I tend to stick to thyme compresses for such issues.
  • Calendula and yarrow. Great as a spit poultice or made into a paste from powdered herbs to treat minor wounds and skin rashes.
  • Comfrey. Well known for its usefulness in speeding the healing of sprains, strains and broken bones, you can mash up the herb and apply directly on the site or, if it is in plaster, just apply to the area above and below the cast.
  • Clay. An effective drawing poultice for splinters and infections, clay packs are popular amongst naturopaths and horse owners!
What are your favourite compresses and poultices?

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Viper’s Bugloss is without doubt one of the most visually arresting plants that grow wild on the Downs. It’s tall stems of vibrant blue blooms seem almost out of place amongst the mostly small and inconspicuous flowers of this chalk grassland habitat.

Still it is an incredible pleasure to happen upon them, growing in abundance, on a fine summers day. As this area of Downland is protected, I grow Viper’s Bugloss in my garden rather than harvesting from the wild but in some areas, where it is an introduced and somewhat invasive species, I’d have no qualms about wildcrafting it.

Viper’s Bugloss, Echium vulgare, is a biennial or short lived perennial native to Europe and parts of Asia. It has rough, hairy, lanceolate leaves and can grow up to nearly a meter in height. The flowers start off pinkish in the bud but open to reveal beautiful blue flowers with pink stamens. According to Culpepper, “After the flowers are fallen, the seeds growing to be ripe, are blackish, cornered and pointed somewhat like the head of a viper.” This is perhaps where it got its common name from.

It is beloved by all kinds of wildlife, especially bumble bees, honeybees, painted lady butterflies and these striking burnet moths. In fact, The Bumblebee Conservation Trust referred to it as the very best plant for bumblebees, making it a great addition to any wildlife friendly garden.

A member of the Boraginaceae family which also contains Borage and Comfrey, it has a long history of medicinal use though its fallen out of fashion in recent years. This is partly due to the presence of the infamous pyrrolizidine alkaloids that are found in various members of this family and have caused much controversy around the use of Comfrey. My purpose here is not to discuss the arguments for and against so I suggest you inform yourself well and decide whether or not you feel happy using this herb. Personally I feel comfortable using it internally to treat acute conditions such as those described below, especially as a few drops on the tongue is the usual dose and it is only taken short term. It may be used externally on unbroken skin without the need for caution. I’d avoid internal use if you are pregnant or have compromised liver function.

Medicinally it helps provoke a sweat and has diuretic properties too, thus helping the body expel toxins. Like comfrey it contains allantoin which makes it useful for healing injuries by promoting growth of new cells. It has also been used as a poultice for healing boils. Like borage it was said to dispel melancholy and being demulcent it was used particularly in chest complaints with dry coughs. Hilda Leyel considered it a cordial herb similar to borage and writes that it is “very useful in feverish colds and chest complaints; and cooling and cheering and decorative in wine cups and summer drinks.”

Above all however Viper’s Bugloss, as its name suggests, has been considered one of the main local remedies for snake bites. I learnt recently from Surrey based herbalist and member of the Herbarium, Stephen Church, that the tincture can be used both externally and internally for any number of insect bites as well. He has used it topically with remarkable success for treating bee stings and a friend of mine who is a beekeeper keeps it on hand to stop the reactions she has been known to have to stings. Stephen also tells a tale of his niece who was badly bitten by the dreaded sandflies whilst on Fraser Island in Australia. Cases like hers can require several rounds of anti-biotics to treat and patients are often left with scarring. Luckily he had equipped her with a bottle of Vipers Bugloss tincture before she left the UK and after using it liberally, the Doctor said he’d never seen bites heal so well.

Though I have not found much evidence beyond the anecdotal, it has been enough to convince me to keep a small bottle of Echium tincture in my first aid cabinet to dab on any insect bites I may happen to incur over the summer months. Earlier this year my parents’ dog was bitten by an adder and needed some very strong anti-venom and a stay at the vets in order to ensure his survival. Whilst I would, of course recommend he be taken to the vet as soon as possible, I’ll also be giving my parents a small bottle of tincture of Vipers Bugloss with instructions to use topically and internally, just in case he were ever to stick his eager nose in the path of a grumpy snake again!

For me Vipers Bugloss is a winner all round. It’s beautiful, a very handy first aid plant and perfect for attracting wildlife. I hope my garden will never be without it.

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