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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sterilized screw-cap tin
Plants (for this I use plantain, yarrow leaves and flowers, mare’s tail, self-heal and water mint)
Campfire or other heat source
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.
Leave the jar in the sun or another warm place for a month.
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.
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.
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.
Sterilised glass vial with a dropper
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.
Let the leaves steep in the jar in a warm place for about a week.
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.