Healing with Poultices

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Plantain (Plantago major) can be used for first-aid care on small abrasions and wounds.
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Fuzzy mullein (Verbascum thapsus) leaves can be steamed for a hot poultice.
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Plantain is easy to recognize in the wild, with its low rosette of broad leaves on long stems and its upright flower spikes.

An international traveler was touring in Botswana when he exposed himself to far too much sun and experienced tremendous heat, pain, and blistering on his face, chest, arms, and legs. Some large Cape aloe (Aloe ferox) plants grew close to the hotel. He severed a couple of fleshy, 3-foot-long leaves, went up to his room, split the leaves to expose the glorious cooling gel, and applied them directly to his body. Ah! He was saved! The aloe relieved the pain of the blisters.

This anecdote illustrates some of the signal aspects of healing with poultices. Poultices are simply whole or mashed herbal material — leaf, root, or seed — layered or spread on skin without extraction or complex preparation. They use local ingredients, offer speedy relief, and cost little or nothing.

A fascination with the fragrance, shape, color, taste, and texture of plant leaves has led me to study the art of poulticing, which I call “laying on leaves.” Poultices may be applied as hot as 105 degrees Fahrenheit to increase circulation to the affected area, or they may be applied cold, which is especially effective for cooling burns. They fight infection and infiltrate the injured area with healing substances from the plant, such as antiseptic essential oils or tannins that shrink tissue and ease pain. Poultices also pull poisonous or infected matter from wounds. Properly applied, the poultice may help resolve cysts, pustules, and splinters by reducing associated inflammation.

Because the plant material is most often applied directly to the skin, you should avoid spiny plants and common allergens. I’ve had good success using aloe, burdock, castor, chickweed, comfrey, dandelion, jewelweed, marshmallow, mullein, and plantain for making poultices. My herbal teacher always told me, “For a poultice to be good, it has to suck.” By this, he meant that the herbal material must adhere closely to the skin so its healthful compounds can permeate the tissues and the moisture can draw out foreign bodies or infection.

Remembering all the times I’ve seen poultices used, or used them myself, to treat long-standing conditions or emergencies, I can think of one commonality — they worked every time! An herbalist can apply the beneficial compounds of the plant immediately and directly. The activity isn’t diminished through processing or storage, nor is an intermediary agent, such as alcohol, added to dilute the plant material. Poultices are an unadulterated and intimate communion between plant and patient. That’s why I feel the poultice works so well. 

Basic Plantain Poultice

A general drawing and healing poultice can be made by picking fresh plantain (Plantago major) leaves and kneading them with your fingers until they’re well-bruised, softened, and freely emitting their juices. Then, layer the leaves on the injured skin to exert their healing influence. Plantain contains the well-documented cell proliferant known as allantoin, and can promote rapid regeneration of healthy skin when used to treat abrasions, wounds, and ulcerations. The best healing herbs are multifaceted, and plantain is no exception: It also contains soothing mucilage and a great deal of tannin, which astringes body tissue, increases muscle tone, and reduces pain. One of the best clues for differentiating plantain leaves from look-alikes are the strong, elastic fibers that run from the base of the stems to the margins of the leaves. You may notice these fibers when picking a leaf — they usually extend somewhat from the end of the broken stem. These fibers help hold the leaf together, even after it’s been bruised and exuded its juices.

Layer the bruised leaves on the injury and use the longest leaf to tie the poultice in place. This method once came in handy when I witnessed a child slam his thumb in the car door and become inconsolable. I picked plantain leaves from nearby, flexed them in my hands within view of his teary eyes, and layered them on his already swollen, red thumb. By the time I tied off the poultice with strands of plantain fiber, he had stopped crying, as much due to fascination with the process as from the analgesic activity of the leaf. When in crisis, perform magic!

Crushed Comfrey Poultice

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale or Symphytum x uplandicum) is probably the most commonly used plant for poulticing, proving triply effective because it contains skin-soothing mucilage, helps dissolve and remove dead tissue, and speeds healthy reparation. Like plantain, comfrey contains allantoin. Comfrey poultices are often employed to speed the healing of pulled muscles and ligaments, bruises, broken bones (after they’ve been set by a doctor), bed sores, burns, ulcerations, infections, smashed fingers, and other traumatic injuries. However, comfrey therapy isn’t a good choice for puncture wounds because it may promote overly quick healing of surface tissues, which can then trap hidden infection that may reside in deeper tissues. Note: Comfrey also contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which are known to be detrimental to liver function. We recommend avoiding comfrey for treating open wounds, especially if you have a preexisting liver condition.

To make a comfrey poultice, dig the roots and wash them using a scrub brush and elbow grease. Chop up the roots and combine with an equal portion of fresh, green comfrey leaf. Blend in a blender, using only enough purified water to create a mucilaginous paste. Spread this paste 1 inch thick directly on the injured area, and then cover with a clean cloth. Apply the poultice before going to bed, and then scrape away and wash it off in the morning. If you’d prefer to apply the poultice during the day, secure it in place with a long strip of cotton cloth. Continue these applications until the problem is resolved. If the infection or injury doesn’t respond quickly to herbal therapy, you should consult a licensed health practitioner.

Steamed Burdock and Mullein Poultices

Leaf poultices may also be rendered soft and juicy by steaming. Pour a small amount of water in a saucepan, insert a steam basket or perforated pan to hold the leaf material above the water, fill with leaves, put a lid on the apparatus, and boil on high heat until the leaves are hot and flexible. This usually takes about 3 minutes of steaming, depending on how fragile the leaf material is and the mass of the leaves. Apply the leaves directly to the affected area while still hot, layered generously to a thickness of at least 7 leaves, and then cover with a thin layer of plastic and insulate with towels. Steamed poultices work quickly and may be removed after they’ve cooled, which usually takes 20 to 30 minutes. As with most herbal therapies, the treatment must be repeated several times throughout the day to be effective. For severe problems, poultices may be applied up to 5 times daily. To help prevent injuries from becoming infected, application once or twice a day should suffice.

I’ve used steamed burdock leaves (Arctium lappa) to treat staph infections that didn’t respond to other therapy. The poultice reduced pain, shrank the lesion, returned surrounding tissues to their normal color and tone, and promoted rapid healing. Burdock is well-known in traditional herbalism to help expunge toxic metabolic debris and speed healing of skin lesions. In herbal therapies, the herb is commonly paired with dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), which can be consumed raw in salads or taken as a tincture of the whole, fresh plant. Dandelion is a proven diuretic, able to rid the body of toxins through the urine.

Yet another example of a simple, effective poultice is hot mullein leaf (Verbascum thapsus) for treating mastitis in nursing mothers. This condition occurs most frequently when breasts become engorged soon after childbirth — when the baby may be unable to efficiently empty the breasts of excess milk — but may also be associated with the weaning process, while the mother is still producing large quantities of milk. Feeding the baby frequently to alleviate excess pressure will help ease the discomfort. A hot mullein poultice may also ease discomfort from mastitis. Mullein leaf contains saponins and glycosides that help move lymph and break up blockage in the milk ducts, which will reduce redness and swelling, thus returning the breast and breast feeding to normalcy. As with any herbal therapy, the earlier one recognizes the symptoms and employs the remedy, the more effective the cure.

Many of us grow herbal gardens, or at least incorporate a few good herbs into our vegetable gardens or home landscaping. Herbs gladden a garden and its gardener with their unique aromas, textures, and colors. How much more satisfying, then, to use the same herbs in simple therapy that helps alleviate suffering? Poulticing is a simple, effective, nearly magical practice, ideal for an herbalist who’s just beginning to explore the possibilities of natural remedies.

Richo Cech is the founder of Strictly Medicinal Seeds, an all-medicinal seed and plant company based out of Williams, Oregon. He has also written three books on herbalism, including Making Plant Medicine, available in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store.