Summer is a wonderful time for getting outside and visiting new places, but it brings with it its own share of problems from heat, insects, too much sunshine, or getting too close to certain plants. Luckily, safe, effective (and inexpensive) relief may be as close as your backyard. From poison ivy to prickly heat (small, painful, itchy, red bumps and dry skin caused by plugged sweat glands), do-it-yourself remedies made from houseplants or even backyard weeds can provide relief that's as effective as the best over-the-counter medications. Just keep in mind, when foraging for plants, that you want to be sure to know your plant, harvest in areas away from traffic exhaust, leave plenty of plants to keep growing, and get permission if it's growing on someone else's property. For any ailments not listed here, visit the Rodale Remedy Finder to find other herbal remedies for common health problems.
Here are seven simple herbal remedies that could save your summer:
#1: Aloe vera.
The natural sap from a cut aloe vera leaf eases a whole host of ailments: bug bites, poison ivy, sunburn (and any type of mild to moderate burn), skin irritation, and prickly heat. It also speeds healing of scrapes and cuts. Keep a plant or two on hand for your entire summer. Hardy in Zones 9 through 11, aloe vera is easy to grow in a pot; to avoid root rot, allow the soil to dry out between waterings. To use, harvest a leaf by cutting it close to the center of the plant, slice it in half lengthwise, and use a spoon to scrape the jellylike interior away from the skin.
#2: Plantain (Plantago spp.).
Having nothing to do with the banana-like fruits of the same name, this plantain is a common and ubiquitous weed. Its leaves contain natural astringent, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antihistamine, and wound-healing compounds, and they're also brewed as teas for coughs and bronchitis. The plant's seeds are the source of the fiber laxative Metamucil. Chances are you've been walking on plantain all your life and barely noticed it. Look for it along the edge of paved areas or in lawns.
To sooth insect bites or stings, sunburn (or any type of mild to moderate burn), skin irritation, minor cuts, infections, or boils, prepare an herbal paste (also called a poultice): Pick a handful of fresh leaves, rinse off, and mash/grind them with a mortar and pestle or blender, and add a little water to make a thick paste. Apply the paste, and leave it there for at least 10 to 15 minutes (you can cover it with a clean cloth to help keep the paste in place and reduce the chances of staining clothing).
For quick, in-the-field relief, chew up a few leaves (its taste is not unpleasant) and pop the result onto the affected area.
Pastes are usually applied fresh, but can be frozen for convenient later use: drop spoonfuls onto natural waxed paper or a silicone sheet, freeze, and store in an airtight container; when needed, thaw and use immediately.
#3: Chickweed (Stellaria spp.).
This tender, light-green weed is often found in low-growing mats in gardens and fields, even in the winter or very early spring before much else is growing. A paste made from the leaves and stems (see directions for plantain leaves), will help soothe skin irritations, bites, and stings. It is also useful in salads, tasting much like spinach (not bitter like many wild greens), and can be made into pesto or chopped into cooked dishes.
#4: Peppermint (Mentha x piperita).
Peppermint is a hardy and easy-to-grow perennial that will tolerate most conditions, but prefers moist soil (where it can get downright invasive). Drinking peppermint tea can fight or prevent headaches, indigestion, bloating, and gas. Cold tea applied to the skin soothes itchy, irritated skin, as does an herbal paste (poultice; see plantain entry for directions) made by grinding or chewing fresh leaves. To make mint tea, cover 2 teaspoons of minced fresh leaves or 1 teaspoon of dried leaves with 1 cup of boiling water, allow to steep for 10 minutes, strain, and enjoy. Tea can be also be frozen into ice cubes to rub on your skin for instant relief (they are tasty in iced tea, too, so make lots!) or stored in a spray bottle in the fridge and used to cool and freshen your hot face or any areas of irritated skin.
#5: Jewelweed a.k.a. "touch-me-not" (Impatiens capensis).
If you suffer from poison ivy/oak/sumac or have stinging nettles growing nearby, you need to know jewelweed! It is a fleshy-stemmed annual weed that grows up to five feet tall, and has blue-green leaves with small horn-of-plenty-shaped yellow or orange flowers. Later in the fall, those flowers are followed by plump seedpods that pop violently, throwing their seed contents many feet. A common wild plant throughout North America, look for it in moist areas, along creek banks, for instance, or in partial shade. For your herbal first-aid kit, you'll want to use the stems, which are fleshy and can be used like aloe leaves for the same skin woes. Use it fresh by slicing the stem open and smearing the jelly-like juice where it is needed. If you happen to touch poison ivy and can't get inside to wash off the rash-causing oils, look for some jewelweed right away and rub the juice over the exposed area to prevent a rash. It is also a fast way to put out the fire of a close encounter with stinging nettle.
To store the goodness for later use, you can make jewelweed tea and then freeze or refrigerate it. Cut the entire plant into 1-inch chunks, cover with water, bring to a boil, turn off the heat, cover the pot, and allow it to steep for 20 minutes before straining. Store in the fridge for up to a week, or freeze in cubes for longer storage. Jewelweed tea is also a good base for making a soothing lotion.
#6: Oats or cornstarch.
When prickly heat, sunburn, multiple bug bites, or poison ivy/oak/sumac rash strikes—and you can't alleviate it with any of the previous plants—a soothing herbal bath is the best recourse. Add 1 cup of organic oatmeal, whirred in a blender until it has a flour-like texture (don't put loose whole oatmeal into the water or you will be calling the plumber later), or 1 cup of organic cornstarch, to a tub of warm water. Soak for 20 to 30 minutes, frequently pouring bathwater over parts of you that aren't under water. It will soothe irritation and help unplug pores. Repeat as necessary.
If motion sickness threatens to put a damper on your vacation, a tea made from fresh minced ginger root (a 1-inch chunk for 2 cups of water) or dried powdered ginger (1 teaspoon) simmered in water for 15 to 20 minutes will often help prevent or sooth the upset. The tea is good hot or cold and can be sweetened with honey or stevia, if desired. Chewing a small bit of candied ginger is a more portable remedy that will yield the same relief. Ginger beer or natural ginger ale that contain real ginger are also options, but note that most commercial versions don't.
Farm gal, library worker, and all-around money-pincher Jean Nick shares advice for green thrifty living every Thursday on Rodale.com.