Lifestyle feature: Bushcraft with John Rhyder

Avens image for herbal first aid piece
Avens image for herbal first aid piece

This month John Rhyder from the Woodcraft School takes us on a tour of herbal first aid

With our herbal first aid course coming up in July, I have been out and about in the woods and hedgerows to see what is growing in the local area.

Burdock image for herbal first aid feature

Burdock image for herbal first aid feature

I run this course with Tim Lane, a good friend and medical herbalist. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of plant remedies and illness and the active ingredients available in plants, together with the effects they have on the body.

However, to deal with common and simple issues where self-diagnosis is possible, high degrees of training are not necessary.

After all, you perhaps don’t need a medical expert to tell you that you have a cold, or have just cut your finger.

Before going further, it is worth exploring the effectiveness of herbal remedies as there is a good deal of scepticism around the subject.

Woundwort image for herbal first aid piece

Woundwort image for herbal first aid piece

Often times these medicines are described as non-scientific new-age nonsense that cannot possibly be effective.

Personally I think it is useful to consider whether or not plant chemicals can affect the body at all.

I don’t believe anyone would argue that the effect on the body of hemlock, for example, could and indeed has been, measured by science. For me it is not too large a leap of the imagination to consider some plant chemicals may have a positive affect.

Especially when you consider many modern medicines such as aspirin and quinine have their roots (pun intended) in the plant world.

If you stick to simple remedies and basic plants, then it is pretty near impossible to poison yourself.

Many of the herbal cures used are also foods.

Indeed there is much talk in conventional medical circles with regards to food as medicine.

Many of us will have enjoyed the channel 4 program The Food Hospital.

In terms of taking these drugs, there are many options, a great revelation to me when talking with Tim was that it doesn’t matter how you take them, so long as you do.

It is possible to use alcohol to both extract the active ingredients and preserve them, it is also possible to use them fresh or dried as teas.

Teas may be either drunk or cooled and applied externally depending on their use.

In an emergency, chewing leaves up and applying directly to a bite, cut or graze will also be effective.

This is particularly appealing to those of us who may spend protracted time out of doors and are limited to what can be carried.

It is only complex chemicals such as tree resins which are difficult to deal with and may need extracting using distillation.

Alcohol and water are just not powerful enough to do the job.

A few of the most effective plants can be found in your garden and local woods and are very common.

They also often have a multitude of uses. Take greater plantain for example, a scourge of lawn-keepers everywhere, this plant is a very effective in dealing with itchy bites and stings, especially nettle.

Its fleshy leaves can be pulped and applied directly to the area. It is more effective than dock leaves, in my experience.

It also contains the carbohydrate mucilage which as well as being a great addition to the wild diet, has a great soothing action.

Burdock is used herbally as a treatment for skin conditions, especially eczema, it is also often used to stimulate digestion.

As a wild food its root is a great and frankly rare source of carbohydrate. Care must be taken not to confuse it with foxglove which although medicinal, has a dramatic effect on the heart and should not be experimented with.

Hedge woundwort is a nettle-like plant, which is quite tall at this time of year, unlike the nettle, it doesn’t sting and has square stems.

It is also unpleasantly aromatic and is so hairy that if you squeeze the leaves, they crunch. The name suggests its wound-worthy and indeed this is another great one for promoting healing of bites and the like.

It has an astringent action, tightening muscles and promoting blood flow.

Finally, try herb bennet, also called wood avens, the young trifoliate leaves can be eaten but the root is the real gem. It contains the same chemicals as cloves and can be use in the same way, helping toothache, settle stomachs and as a flavouring.

I hope this little piece encourages you to try some remedies for yourself, but be sure you identify plants correctly and stick to simple ones. Especially consider ones also used as food. After all, it is difficult to overdose if you take five carrots instead of four.

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