Herbal plants have many gifts to offer, and aromatic plants offer far more than just a beautiful scent. In fact, there are many powerful aromatic herbs and resins that have been used throughout history for first-aid purposes in forms like herbal compresses, salves, or infused oils. In this article, let’s explore a handful of botanicals that have been traditionally used for first aid and take a look at their many benefits.
History of Herbal First Aid
Using plants for first aid stems back to ancient times. Historically, Patchouli was used by the Japanese and Chinese to treat battle wounds, abrasions, cuts, and external infections to calm irritated tissues and accelerated healing. Many resins, such as Copal, were also commonly used to heal battle wounds.
In Ancient Egypt, plants such as Cinnamon and Frankincense were traditionally used in topical medicinal oil preparations, as they both have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. The warming qualities of Cinnamon have been used to help relieve bodily aches and pains . Melted Frankincense resin was used topically for its ability to soothe body pains such as muscle tension, joint stiffness, and menstrual cramps. Frankincense was also used externally for various injuries such as wounds, abscesses, bruises and to prevent infection .
How to Use Plants for First Aid
There are many different ways to use herbs topically for first aid. In Ayurveda, there is a type of treatment preparation called “lepana” which can be described as plastering. This essentially means to create an herbal paste or poultice to put topically on to the skin. Herbal-infused oil, salves, and ointments are also commonly applied to soothe minor wounds, injuries, bruises, poisonous bites or bug bites, skin irritations, aches and pains. These topical preparations can help with preventing infections, as well as relieving pain, sore muscles and swelling. All of these preparations can be made at home with a little guidance.
Another example of topical medicine traditionally used for muscle and joint pain is herbal liniments, which are made by infusing herbs in a solvent such as rubbing alcohol, vodka or vinegar. They are generally prepared to either have a heating or cooling action, by formulating with plants such as Mint or Cayenne Pepper.
Using aromatic plants internally as powders, herbal tinctures, or tea can help with many ailments as well, depending on the properties of the plant. Some common first-aid uses of internal herbal remedies could include fever or digestive issues.
Lavender is a common aromatic plant with many benefits. It has antibacterial properties and can be used topically to help heal cuts and wounds as an ointment, salve or paste. Ayurveda considers Lavender to be helpful in soothing muscular and joint tension, reducing inflammation on the skin, as well as regulating the heartbeat and lowering blood pressure.
With antispasmodic properties, Lavender is relaxing to the nervous system and can ease headaches, migraines, anxiety, panic attacks, and insomnia. If the body and mind are stressed from traumatic injury or an accident, Lavender could be a helpful plant to have on hand. Lavender also has cooling properties, so when combined with a carrier oil such as coconut oil, it can also be used topically to help soothe a sunburn.
In fact, Lavender has been used topically as a treatment for different types of burns for thousands of years. It has pain relieving properties, can help speed skin recovery, and even reduce scarring. Today, essential oil of Lavender is the most common form used for burns. Remember to always properly dilute an essential oil before applying it to your skin, and if you have a second or third degree burn, seek medical attention immediately.
Yarrow is a powerful ally when it comes to first aid. It has an affinity for the blood when used internally and externally and can help promote circulation or stop bleeding, while preventing infection. The best way to use Yarrow for stopping a bleeding cut is to grind up its leaves into a paste with a mortar and pestle or other tools – or if you’re out in nature, you can even chew the leaves into a paste and apply it directly to the injury. Using some type of first-aid tape is helpful for keeping the paste in place. In case of a nosebleed, you can crush fresh leaves with your fingers a bit and place them in the nostril.
Yarrow is bitter and astringent in quality, and has a cooling effect. Taken internally, it can be used to reduce fever and inflammation in the body. It can also help soothe inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract and digestive upset.
Caution: Yarrow should be avoided while pregnant and breastfeeding. If you are taking any prescription medications, especially blood thinners, check with your physician before ingesting Yarrow.
Calendula is a great herb for treating issues related to the skin, particularly soothing cuts, scrapes, bruises, burns, skin ulcers and wounds. The petals of Calendula flowers are what tends to be used medicinally. It is commonly added to creams, oils, lotions, salves and ointments for its powerful regeneration effects. Calendula also has anti-fungal and antibacterial qualities which can help to prevent infection. It is also considered antiseptic and anti-inflammatory, and is known to be effective in promoting cellular repair and growth in the case of an injury .
Along with skin conditions, Calendula is known to be helpful in reducing muscle spasms and menstrual cramps. Internally as a tincture or tea, it can help to reduce fever or a sore throat. Calendula has astringent properties and is said to be great at clearing lymphatic congestion .
Cottonwood and Poplar buds, also referred to as Balm of Gilead, are amazing first-aid botanicals to have in your medicine chest in some form. These highly resinous buds have strong antimicrobial properties and can be used topically on cuts and wounds to help prevent infection and promote faster healing. They are commonly used for skin irritations such as chapped skin, insect bites and stings, eczema, psoriasis and rashes.
They are anti-inflammatory and antirheumatic, making them helpful for healing burns and sunburns, as well as relieving aches and pains associated with injuries and muscle tension. They can make a very effective addition to your DIY stiff and sore muscle preparations, and are also used to treat arthritic symptoms. To learn how to make your own herbal-infused oil and salve with Cottonwood buds, check out our article: “Making Poplar Bud Medicine”.
Pine needles, resin, and bark have been used traditionally for respiratory conditions such as bronchitis, asthma, cold and cough. The smoke, incense or steam of Pine can be used as an expectorant to clear mucus and congestion. The essential oil or Pine cough drops can dilate the bronchioles and support the lungs.
Pine has been traditionally used internally for its effects on immunity, and is associated with longevity. When used topically, it can help heal cuts and wounds as well as rashes, due to its anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and antibacterial properties. Prepared as a tea decoction, Pine can also be a great remedy for stomach issues or fever.
Topically, Pine resin can be used to heal cuts, scrapes and wounds due to its antiseptic, anti-inflammatory properties. There are many ways to prepare Pine resin into various topical preparations. Pine has also traditionally been used externally to treat issues such as rheumatic pain, arthritis, acne, eczema and psoriasis. For these purposes, Pine resin is typically prepared into balm, salve, herbal infused oils or ointment.
Spruce resin can be used topically as an ointment or salve to help the healing process of cuts and wounds and soothe irritated skin. It is a very effective remedy used for wound care, infections, burns, ulcers, fungal infections and other topical skin injuries, as well as a more modern day use for gunshot wounds in clinical and hospital settings.
Similarly to Pine and other Evergreen trees, Spruce has also traditionally been used to aid cough, congestion and respiratory related issues. To learn more about how to make tree resins into various medicinal and aromatic preparations, explore our Botanical Resins & Gums Course here.
Plantain is known to draw toxicity from the body, and has been used traditionally to cleanse the blood . It has cooling properties that can aid digestion and is known to help in cases of hepatitis, liver problems and jaundice if taken internally. Externally, Plantain can aid with a variety of skin issues including insect bites, cuts, wounds, inflammation, and eruptions of the skin . Plantain is astringent in quality which, similarly to Yarrow, can be used to help stop bleeding.
To use Plantain topically, the leaves can be chopped up and made into a paste or poultice and applied directly to the skin to help prevent infection and stop bleeding. Alternatively, one could add Plantain leaves to a medicated herbal oil, ointment, balm or salve.
Plantain poultice is said to be especially helpful in removing slivers that are too deep, and relieving irritation from insect or poisonous animal bites, as it draws out poisons from the skin (always seek medical attention if bitten by a poisonous animal). To make a poultice, crush up the leaves into a paste and apply them directly to the skin, then put a damp cloth over top to hold it in place.
Helichrysum is another great first-aid plant. When added to a salve or ointment, it can be used to help prevent infection in a cut or wound due to its antimicrobial, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties. It can be useful in preventing scarring, as it aids in the regeneration of cells.
Helichrysum is commonly used in the form of essential oil for a variety of health concerns, including inflammation of the muscles and joints, insomnia, allergies, acne, colds, coughs, and promoting immunity. Helichrysum is calming when used topically, making it an overall supportive plant for skin issues and conditions.
Plants are healers
Sometimes it is conceived that aromatic plants are solely for working on the subtler aspects of the body, such as the mind and nervous system. Hopefully this article has helped expand your understanding that aromatic plants are dynamic and can offer potent medicine for a wide range of purposes.
Plants are magical, mysterious beings that are here to help us along our walk on Earth. For every ailment, subtle or profound, there is a plant existing with the intention to bring healing.
Plants are our allies and offer love unconditionally. Let it be comforting to know that plants all around you are there to support you on your journey. Our Mother Nature is always here to pick you up when you fall down.
Article Written By Dawn Gibson
1. Lad, V. & Frawley D. (1986). The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine
2. Lad, V. (2012) Textbook of Ayurveda, Volume 3: General Principles of Management and Treatment
3. Tierra, M. (1988). Planetary Herbology
4. Gladstar, R. (2012) Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide
© 2022 The Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. All rights reserved.
*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA, and are for educational purposes only. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This article should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your physician before you use this information for health purposes.