Field guide: wild medicine

Bushcraft instructor Fraser Christian gathers wild plants from the forest floor to make handy extras for your first aid kit, from antihistamine tinctures to skin-protecting balms

Fraser making his antihistamine nettle tincture

Fraser making his antihistamine nettle tincture

My great-grandfather was a gypsy healer – he made wild medicines for Romany families and their animals. He would chew poultices of medicinal herbs and spit them into the mouths of horses. His son, my grandfather, said I am the last of the true gypsies in our family because I’m happy as long as I have somewhere warm and dry to lie down after I’ve been fed. He taught me the rule of threes, how in extreme conditions you can survive three hours without shelter, three days without water and three weeks without food. I teach this on my courses today.

Here, deep in the woodlands of rural Dorset, you are always aware of your heritage. Not just your parents and grandparents but that deep heritage – the splits in our genealogy when we diverged from the other animals. What was gained then? What was lost? The things I’m learning aren’t new – it’s old knowledge, waiting to be re-learned. Nature is chaotic, anarchistic, but there are patterns in it, too. It wants us back.

I’ve had three years out here, watching and listening. You have to adopt a different pace. If you can hear your footsteps, you’re moving too fast. The animals give clues through their movements and their habits. I watch what they eat, when they sleep, how they move, and how they treat themselves when they’re sick. This knowledge is not consigned to the forests. When I was in Bristol I found 12 medicinal plants on a patch of wasteland behind Temple Meads. Our native wild plants are tough and they find a way. Knowing how to use what’s around you is invaluable, wherever you live.

Guidelines for picking

  • Different parts of the plant are better to pick at different times of the year. Look at the plant and see where it’s putting its energy – the roots, the leaves, the flowers or the seeds. This is the part to use.

  • Picking after rain can save on washing, but make sure you dry the flowers before using them.

  • Using your non-dominant hand, pinch below the part that you want to take, so as not to tear it, and then pluck the top of the plant with your other hand. Pick nice examples, not tired ones. Only gather from an established community, and always leave two-thirds of the plant. Pick individuals, rather than clumps – it is all too easy to gather a similar-looking poisonous species.

  • Walk as far away from your base as possible and pick back towards the camp – you want to leave the closer plants for emergencies and times when you might not be able to walk so far. You could even seed the most useful plants just outside your front door, as I have with yarrow.

  • When I’m foraging I always carry waterproofs, a head torch, a survival blanket, sandwich bags (for storing what I pick), a knife, a lighter, a tick removal pen, a standard first aid kit and a tin of bushcraft balm (see recipe).

Identify common medicinal plants

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Cleavers (Galium aparine): You may know this plant as the one that sticks to your jumper when you’re on a walk, hence its nickname sticky willy. These are best to pick when around three inches tall. Take just the tip and use it for its cleansing properties, in a tea or a tincture. When my cat had cystitis I fed her a poultice of cleavers in the same way my grandfather treated the horses.

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Nettles (Urtica dioica): Nettles are a great first plant to forage because everyone knows what they look like. Pick the youngest tips to use in a tea or a tincture. They are a powerful antihistamine and contain huge amounts of vitamin C. The sting can promote an anti-inflammatory response. When weeding a polytunnel without gloves, I got stung all over my wrist, which was stiff from martial arts and skateboarding injuries. It felt better for three months afterwards.

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Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): This feathery plant is a powerful astringent (causes the skin and other tissue to tighten) so it’s ideal for treating small wounds. I’ve planted them outside my front door in case I cut myself. Achilles carried it with him to treat his troops during battle, hence its Latin name. Use as a poultice or in a balm.

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Plantain (Plantago lanceolata): Plantain grows in abundance on verges by motorways and railways, but can be found almost anywhere. It has distinctive lance-shaped, ribbed leaves and ‘rat tail’ seed heads. It is full of B vitamins, which makes it useful in a tea for coughs and colds, and is brilliant used as a poultice on cuts, blisters and bites.

Bushcraft balm

A tin of balm is essential in my kit, handy for rubbing on aches and pains and protecting and healing dry or sore skin, among other uses.

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Sterilised jar
Sterilized screw-cap tin
Sunflower oil
Plants (for this I use plantain, yarrow leaves and flowers, mare’s tail, self-heal and water mint)
Campfire or other heat source
Cooking pan


  1. Put your plants in a jar and cover with sunflower oil. Together, the medicinal properties of these plants protect against bleeding, burns, allergic reactions, inflammation and other common problems you might encounter while out in the wild.

  2. Leave the jar in the sun or another warm place for a month.

  3. Strain the plants from the oil. You can use a sieve or your hand – squeeze the plants in your fist with your thumb pointed down over the jar – the oil should trickle down into it.

  4. Heat the oil in a bain-marie over a flame at a heat where the water is just breaking into bubbles but not boiling. This should be roughly 68°C (154°F) – the temperature for pasteurisation without denaturing the oil.

  5. Shave in small amounts of beeswax, then test the consistency of the balm by dropping the oil solution onto a cold surface and letting it set, then scraping it with your fingernail. If you want to make a salve, leave it quite soft. For a balm, add more wax until it reaches the desired consistency. Store in the screw-cap tin.


A tincture is a concentrated extract of a plant. Depending on the plants you use, you can take a dose of tincture to promote a restful sleep, aid digestion and ease nausea, heartburn and allergies. For this recipe I’ve chosen to make an anti-inflammatory and antihistamine tincture using nettles.

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Sterilised jar
Sterilised glass vial with a dropper


  1. Pick young nettle tips (would be a good idea to wear gardening gloves for this) put them in a jar, and cover with neutral grain spirit. Ideally this would be pure ethanol, but this is only available under license in Britain, so the best alternative is a high-percentage vodka.

  2. Let the leaves steep in the jar in a warm place for about a week.

  3. Strain out the plants and store in a sterilised glass vial with a dropper. This tincture will keep for a year or so. You can make it double-strength by steeping more nettles in the same vodka. Drink it like schnapps or pour a dash of boiling water on two drops of tincture to make it non-alcoholic.


This is a moist mass of plant material applied to the skin to relieve soreness and inflammation, drawing out toxins as it dries. To make one is easy – just chew the plant up, form a pad, then apply it to the affected area. It should fall off naturally when it dries – replace with a fresh one, if needed. Depending on the plant, these can be used on cuts, splinters, burns, bites, stings and infections.

NB: Take a reputable guidebook with you when foraging. Consult your GP before taking herbal medicines as some plants cause contraindications with prescribed medication.

This article originally featured in issue 5 of Ernest Journal

Fraser Christian is founder of Coastal Survival School, based in Dorset

Metoposcopy for females

Are you ‘good with the household’? ‘Sensible in marriage’? A ‘little hypocritical’? If you’re not sure, worry not, this 18th-century forehead reader from the Wellcome Collection will be the judge…

Female forehead reader, image courtesy of Wellcome Library

Female forehead reader, image courtesy of Wellcome Library

Among the many unusual items that find their way into the Wellcome Library is this forehead reader (above), printed in 1785 in Nuremberg to accompany a 32-page pamphlet written in German. These small, painted cardboard inserts have survived remarkably well, held within a slipcase containing instructions for revealing character and making predictions. You, too, can now enjoy recreating this parlour game that was partly designed to help those looking for potential partners. At least you will have some fun deciding if the subject is indeed, ‘very stingy’ or ‘a friend of pretty clothes’.

This particular period of European history marked a renewed interest in discerning people’s personalities through their facial features, aka physiognomy. This was largely due the amateur enthusiasm of Johann Casper Lavater (1741-1801), a self-styled connoisseur of faces, who brought a lavish, expensive five part set of books to the attention of the cultural elite. It was popular among those who could afford it, so a certain Dr Silbermann sought to capitalise on Lavater’s success by producing a cut-price, dramatically reduced version.

Lavater’s efforts attempted to give a more ‘scientific’ kudos to the practice of measuring angles and accurately tracing silhouettes of profiles. The idea was to promote self-awareness in order to improve your moral values. In contrast, Silbermann looked back to earlier beliefs in astrology and reintroduced fortune telling into the proceedings. Judge for yourselves if anything is ‘written’ on your forehead.

How to use it: Cut out the female forehead reader template (above - click on the image for full size). Trace the lines of the subject’s forehead with a pen (non-permanent, mind). Place the reader on the forehead, so the pen lines appear through the cutout sections. Mark the numbers where the lines appear, then look up the numbers in the key (below) to reveal the characteristics.

Reader key:

Words: Danny Rees, Wellcome Library

Stay tuned for Metoposcopy for Males, coming soon…

The Toynbee Tiles

Over the last 30 years, cryptic messages have been found embedded into the tarmac of roads across America. No one knows who made them or what the messages mean.

Images courtesy of Kendall Whitehouse

Images courtesy of Kendall Whitehouse

In the late 1980s, a cryptic message from an unknown creator began to appear in the streets of Philadelphia. ‘TOYNBEE IDEA IN MOViE `2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER’ was embedded into roads, pavements and even the middle of busy highways. The Toynbee Tiles, or TTT as they soon became known, were linoleum floor panels, into which words had been carved with a knife and filled with different colours. Each tile was secured into the ground using layers of tar paper which, once driven over by a passing car, would effectively glue them in place. Over time, the layer of paper at the top would be worn away by traffic and weather to reveal a Toynbee Tile. It was an ingenious way of getting a message across – whatever that baffling message actually was. Was it a joke, haiku, cryptic code or just meaningless nonsense?

2001 A Space Odyssey, based on a book by Arthur C.Clarke, is an extraordinary and ambitious film, the meaning of which has drawn endless speculation. Monkeys? Obelisks? Why does Mr Rigsby from Rising Damp turn up? And what about the ending in which astronaut Bowman – part of a team on a trip to Jupiter – appears to enter another dimension where he encounters himself as a giant baby? For TTT fanatics, this scene could easily be interpreted as ‘resurrect dead on planet Jupiter’.

Images courtesy of Kendall Whitehouse

Images courtesy of Kendall Whitehouse

As for the name Toynbee, many believe it to be a reference to the English historian, Albert Toynbee. Others connect it with a short story by American author Ray Bradbury, The Toynbee Convector, about the future survival of humanity. To add to the confusion, Arnold Toynbee is also the name of a spaceship in another Arthur C. Clarke story, Jupiter V.

Over the next three decades, Toynbee Tiles continued to appear in roads all over the US from New York, Boston, Baltimore, Kansas and Chicago to Washington. To date, over 600 Toynbee Tiles have been spotted and photographed, many more lost or destroyed. Few remain in their locations for long before the authorities see fit to remove them. Whether the tiles were the work of one person or a legion, here was an extraordinary act of monomania made all the more amazing by the fact that after 30 years, not a single person had ever reported seeing their creator at work.

Words: David Bramwell

For more curious tales pick up a copy of our book The Mysterium: Unexplained and extraordinary stories for a post-Nessie generation (Chambers, 2017)

Ballast flora

A study of the plants and trees around our ports can tell us many things about the history of colonialism, commerce and migration

Illustration: Joe Latham

Illustration: Joe Latham

Cargo ships have to weigh a certain amount in order to sail well. When travelling without goods, this weight is attained by the use of ballast – any heavy material loaded into the bottom of the hull. From the late 17th century to the early 1900s, that weight was made up from waste materials gathered near port. This ‘dirt’ would be dumped at the boat’s destination and some of the seeds, plants and whole trees it contained would germinate. Trade routes can thus be determined through surveys of the non-native plants around ports - so called ‘ballast flora’.

Artist Maria Thereza Alves, creator of Bristol’s Ballast Seed Garden writes how the study of these plants, ‘reveals patterns, temporalities and instruments of colonialism, commerce and migration going back many centuries’.

In 2017, a team at Rutgers University concluded that about 80 of the species identified in the first formal surveys of the ballast heaps found in late-19th century American port cities were still present in the country’s flora today. These survivors have clearly made lives for themselves in the ‘nation of immigrants’, giving a very literal meaning to the Statue of Liberty’s welcome to ‘the wretched refuse of your teeming shore’.

Words: Guy Lochhead

This article originally featured in issue 8 of Ernest Journal, on sale now.

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Becalmed: changing terrors of the Sargasso Sea

Bring to mind ocean journeys, and you might well imagine high seas, rogue waves, ships dashed on rocks – tales of human resilience pitted against a wild and omnipotent ocean. But what of places where the elements relent, leaving boats to flounder in a windless sea?

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There is one such place renowned for its disquieting calms – the Sargasso Sea, a shoreless oval of water in the North Atlantic measuring some 2,000 by 700 miles. Bounded by ocean currents on all sides, the water rotates clockwise in an ocean gyre, slowly revolving like the eye of a hurricane. The area has struck terror into the minds of sailors for centuries. It was once known as the Horse Latitudes, after becalmed Spanish ships were forced to throw their horses overboard to save drinking water. Tales of ghost ships abound, their skeleton crews left to starve or go insane while their sails hung listlessly.

Despite its fearsome reputation, this singular place plays a vital role in the wider North Atlantic ecosystem, renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle calling the Sargasso Sea ‘the golden rain forest of the ocean’. A knotted mass of free-floating sargassum seaweed covers the surface, picked over by crabs, shrimp and curious fish. Young sea turtles shelter in the thick mat of vegetation, and most of the world’s freshwater eels are spawned here.

Sadly, these revolving ocean currents also pull in vast amounts of ocean plastics, which knot together with the sargassum to form so-called windrows: long rafts of free-floating debris. Even more disturbing, below the surface a fog of microplastics is steadily making its way into the marine food chain. The most terrifying ocean journey of all is one of our own making.

The Smog of the Sea chronicles a one-week journey through the remote waters of the Sargasso Sea;