If you get bitten by an insect, fall over and bruise your knee, get a cold or cut yourself, then the first place you go to is a medicine cabinet right?
Well not if you are a forager like myself. Many people who come on my courses are shocked to find that they can rush to their local park, wood or even out to their front lawn in search of a decent first aid kit.
Yarrow has long feathery leaves and it grows on grassland across the UK and across the Northern Hemisphere. It is one of those plants that, once successfully identified, you will see growing in abundance almost everywhere. Yarrow can be found in parks, grass verges and perhaps even on your back lawn. When fully grown it can be mistaken for some poisonous plants such as hemlock, so do be careful and ensure that you cross reference at least two sources before successfully identifying it.
That said I think considering the second part of its Latin name - 'millefolium' or many leaves - it is really unmistakable as its leaves look like they are made up of many other leaves.
Yarrow is without a doubt one of the most useful plants in the forager's first aid kit. In fact it has been in use throughout history by the Romans, Celts, and ancient Greeks, and evidence even suggests that it was in use right from the birth of civilisation.
Yarrow's most miraculous use is to stop the flow of blood. Here's a case in point.
I had read that yarrow was used by Greek and Roman soldiers in battle to treat sword wounds and that they always carried it with them. Then, one afternoon I was given a knife as a present and, of course, being slightly ham fisted at times, I managed to cut myself pretty deeply.
The cut did not stop bleeding and I was due to take a group of people around on a guided forage around the Eden project. I quickly located some yarrow and held it on the wound. Within seconds the bleeding had stopped. I have since experimented and found that it works well when you nick yourself whilst shaving or rolled up in a ball and shoved up your nose to stop a nosebleed.
It is noteworthy to say that yarrow works so well and heals so fast that you have to ensure that you have cleaned the wound as you can trap dirt and grit into it, which could then turn septic.
Yarrow has also been used to treat internal bleeding, for digestive complaints and as a relaxant like chamomile. On top of that, when mixed with mint and elderflower as a tea it is a great cold and flu remedy, in my opinion far better than anything you can buy.
So you have cut yourself and healed it with yarrow and now you want to cover it up with a plaster. You are out in the woods and miles from a chemist. Worry not - just use some fungus.
Okay that sounds grim, but bear with me. Look for fungus growing on a Birch tree, known as Birch polypore or Strop fungus. Again ensure that you do positively identify Birch polypore and not some poisonous species as even though you are not eating it, a cut will absorb any poison.
Remove the fungus from the Birch tree and, using a clean knife, score a rectangular plaster shaped pattern onto the smooth side of the polypore. Don't use a tired old looking Birch polypore for this - would you really want to put that on a cut? Next cut under the shape to make your plaster. Careful does it, as it would be daft to cut yourself again trying to cover a cut. Slightly stretch the plaster over the area you wish to place it. It should bind to itself and you have a plaster.
Plantain grows on patches of disturbed soil. The tribesmen of what we now call America would have seen many more instances of it growing where the European immigrant white population first walked with their big heavy boots. It would have grown in abundance in their wake, hence the tribesman calling plantain 'white man's footprint'.
The most common types here in the UK are ribwort, spear and greater plantain. All have similar medicinal uses. I use it whenever I have a nettle sting or an insect bite. I simply crush it between my fingers and press the leaf where it is needed. I find that especially for nettle stings, it is much more effective than dock leaves.
I have also heard of Plantain tea being used as expectorant to treat chesty coughs and a diet aid.
Okay, not essentially something you would forage, but I bet you could forage from a friends plant! Aloe Vera is fantastic when it comes to sunburn, simply break off one of the leaves and rub the sap on the affected area.
Comfrey grows freely across our shores, and is often grown by allotment holders for use as a fertiliser.
In times gone by, it would have been seen alongside pathways and next to inns. You will undoubtedly find some if you keep your eyes open along ancient routes. One of the common names for comfrey pretty much tells us how it can be used - namely that of 'knitbone'.
When my brother Dave broke his wrist after swinging on a rope swing last year it was thought he would have to have a metal plate put in. He shoved some comfrey leaves up inside his cast and his wrist healed without any complications. Other than some wilted comfrey being discovered when the cast came off.
I do have to point out that the use of comfrey is controversial as in high doses it has caused liver disease in laboratory animals. It is advisable not to eat comfrey as a vegetable, but as yet no restrictions have been put on using comfrey tea or using it externally.
The information contained in this article should be used at your own risk. Please contact a medical herbalist before undertaking any herb cures or remedies.
Andy Hamilton is co-author of The Selfsufficient-ish Bible (£20, Hodder & Stoughton)
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