There are many medicinal herbs that are wonderful for emergency situations! Keeping a well-stocked first-aid kit that includes the best of both modern and herbal medicines, along with the knowledge of how to use them, is an essential part of survival. But what happens if you don’t have your emergency kit with you, or you don’t have enough supplies to last through the emergency? I think it is important to know how to identify and use at least a handful of medicinal plants that grow in most areas of the U.S. If you know how to identify and use the resources that grow around you, you’ll never be helpless in medical emergencies!
There are about 115 species of Pine growing in many parts of the world. North America has 65 species of Pine and the United States has 36 different species of Pine. Luckily, we don’t need to know how to differentiate between the species of Pine trees because medicinally they are all used in the same way! Before we talk about its many medicinal uses let’s learn how to spot the differences between Pine and its other conifer cousins.
Coniferous trees replicate by means of cones that produce pollen and seeds (male and female cones can be found on the same plant). The Pine tree is a type of evergreen conifer; it keeps its leaves all year long. To identify a Pine tree, look for the number of needles that come out of the same spot on a twig. If a twig has needles in groups of two, three, or five, it’s a Pine. The leaves of other conifers grow in larger bundles or do not form bundles at all.
The Pine tree provides both medicine and food! Pine nuts are a great source of protein and good fats and all Pine trees produce them. In the U.S. the Pinyon pine and the Colorado pine are the only pines with nuts large enough to justify the effort of making them a dietary staple, but all Pine nuts are worth the effort to have a little snack. You can harvest the newly opened cones and simply pry the scales back with your fingers to free the pine nuts, but if you wait until the cones have opened you’ll be competing with squirrels and other animals for the precious nuts. I recommend harvesting the largest green, unopened cones you can find. You can then make a ring around your campfire with the cones. This will help them dry enough to begin to open, and then you can dig the nuts out. You’ll probably get a bit messy in this process from the pine sap, but that’s okay, the sap is great medicine!
Pine trees normally have a thick scaly outer bark. Just inside the outer bark is a thin, white layer of soft, moist, inner bark and it tastes delicious! Now don’t start thinking that eating bark is weird. Well okay, maybe it is a little weird, but people have been doing it for thousands of years. A tribe of Native Americans in upstate New York got their name Adirondack, the Iroquois word for “bark eaters,” from their practice of eating Pine bark. In Scandinavia dried Pine bark was powdered and used to extend flour supplies in times of shortage. Now if you have tried eating the inner bark of Pine and found it unpleasantly bitter or tasting of turpentine don’t give up, I have some tips to making edible treats out of Pine bark.
The first step in getting a tasty meal out of a common tree is to remove a piece of the bark. If you remove the bark from a living tree there is a good chance you will kill the tree. So unless you are in a survival situation you should practice this on a recently downed Pine tree (the longer the tree been down the harder to remove the bark). Make a cut using a chopping tool (a hatchet works nicely) in a straight line completely through all the layers of bark to the hardwood. Then slide the edge of a sturdy knife or hatchet into the cut you made so that it is forced between the bark and wood. Work the tool back and forth and the loosened bark should pull right off. Now you should have a slab of thick outer and inner bark. The bigger the tree the more inner bark it will have, in fact, in trees less than a foot in diameter the inner bark is so thin that it probably isn’t worth trying to harvest. The tastiest part of the inner bark is that which is closest to the hard woody part of the tree. The farther out the inner bark is, the more stringy and resinous. I recommend slicing the inner bark in half and using the sweet innermost bark for food. The farther out more resinous inner bark, can be saved for medicine.
Raw, white pine inner bark can be chewed while on the go to provide some natural sugars and vitamins, but it’s too fibrous to eat very much of. However, if you fry the inner bark in a little olive oil, bacon fat, or any oil of your choice until it is a golden brown, it has the taste resembling that of a sweet potato chip!
The inner bark that was closest to the outer bark, or the inner bark of smaller trees, is high in natural oils and resins. These natural oils and resins are wonderful antiseptics and expectorants, and are especially suited to treating coughs and lung infections. You can simply boil a handful of the inner bark in water for 20 minutes and drink pine bark tea several times a day as a warming expectorant when you feel a cold coming on. You can also shove the inner bark into a glass jar and cover in brandy or any alcohol that’s at least 80 proof to make a Pine bark tincture. When you feel a chest cold coming on or you are coughing up thick yellow or green mucus, take ½ teaspoon several times a day in a glass of warm water.
When a Pine tree gets injured sap oozes out of the injury and dries into an almost solid ball of resin. This thickened sap protects the trees from infection by insects, bacteria and fungus. Just like the pine tree uses this tarry substance to prevent infections to its injured areas, we can use it in the same manner. Pine sap and resin are strongly antibacterial and antifungal. Besides killing off harmful critters that like to live in open wounds and create infection, pine sap helps to stop bleeding and draws pus, splinters and anything else that doesn’t belong out of open wounds. So, as you are walking in the forest keep your eyes open for clear sap oozing out of Pine trees and cones or tarry balls covering old scars. The thicker tarry balls will normally soften up when warmed by your body temperature and both the softened tar balls and the clear sap can be applied directly to any cut or wound. You can also take the sap and dissolve it in a little high proof alcohol. This dissolved pine sap can be sprayed onto wounds to help seal them from infection and also can be sprayed directly onto the back of the throat to help with strep and sore throat.
Finally, but not less in importance, we come to Pine needles. Pine needles contain fairly high amounts of Vitamin C. In fact, without Pine needles the United States might not exist! When the first settlers arrived to America during a long New England winter, right after an arduous ocean crossing, they were malnourished. In fact people were dying of scurvy! The Native Americans taught the settlers how to make Pine needle tea, which cured the disease. So while scurvy isn’t a big problem now with the availability of citrus and fortified foods, Pine needle tea might play a role in preventing disease at some point in our future. So, grab a handful of Pine needles and boil them in water for 10 minutes. Pine needle tea is a tasty and warming beverage, especially good for cold winter nights!
Oak is one of the best emergency medicines known to man! In herbal medicine White Oak or Quercus alba, is the primary species used. For emergency medicine any Oak species will do. Oaks are not difficult to identify.
Oak leaves have alternate lobes
As opposed to the Maple leaf that has symmetrical lobes
Another easy to identify characteristic of Oak trees is that they have acorns! Acorn size and shape varies a little from species to species, but they all still look like acorns. So check under a tree and if you see acorns and alternately lobed leaves, it is an Oak tree!
Oak leaves, bark and acorns all contain a chemical called tannin or tannic acid. Tannins are astringent, they tighten tissue, and they are also a bit anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. Tannins also have the fairly unique property of binding to proteins and alkaloids. Tannins can, in large doses over time irritate the stomach. Coffee and tea have tannins, which is why adding a little milk to coffee and tea can reduce the stomach irritation because the tannins bind to the proteins in milk! The binding action of tannins to proteins is important because all insect venom is built on proteins. So, by applying oak bark or leaves to a bite or sting you neutralize the venom, speeding up healing and reducing pain and swelling. The astringent action of Oak also makes it useful for bleeding, Oak chemically squeezes the tissue and blood capillaries, slowing or stopping bleeding. It is also antiseptic, killing off the microbes on contact that cause wounds to become infected. When you apply an herb topically it’s called a poultice. Poultice is just a fancy term meaning moistened plant material applied directly to the skin. The easiest way to do this in emergency situations is to simply grab a handful of oak leaves, chew them up until they are soft and apply them directly to bites, stings, swellings and open cuts or wounds. A poultice of oak leaves is also great to apply to hemorrhoids; it acts like Preparation H and shrinks the inflamed tissue. In fact, an Oak poultice applied to any red, irritated tissue — no matter the cause — can be beneficial.
Oak bark or leaves can also be boiled into a tea and taken internally. They have the same astringent or squeezing action internally as they do externally. This astringent action, combined with its antiseptic action, makes oak great for diarrhea. Simply simmer a big handful of oak leaves or bark in a quart of water for 20 minutes. Strain the plant material out of the water and drink 1 cup of the tea every 1 to 3 hours for diarrhea.
Plantain, the herb not the banana, is next on our list of wonderful emergency medicines. Plantain or Ribwort is a common plant that grows most places where people live. The seed is easily spread and can take root and grow in the most inhospitable places. I commonly see Plantain growing in cracks in sidewalks, it’s almost like this plant loves abuse. It comes in several varieties but the most common are long leaf and broad leaf plantain. It can be identified by the five parallel veins running the length of each leaf. Broadleaf Plantain, Plantago major
Plantain leaf is both a mucilant and an astringent. Plantain contains a compound, very similar to that found in Aloe Vera, called mucilage. Both work to sooth and calm hot, red conditions inside and outside the body. A Plantain poultice (remember just grab a leaf, chew for a minute and apply directly to skin) is wonderful for burns. I have seen Plantain poultices, when changed frequently, work on even third degree burns! It seems to draw the heat and pain out of the burn. Plantain also draws splinters, pus and infections out of wounds. It is the primary ingredient in most of the “drawing salves” popular 50 years ago. Applied topically in the form of a poultice or salve, Plantain works well on inflammatory conditions of the skin that cause prickling, itching or burning pain like: sunburn, burns, poison ivy, acne, eczema, bites and stings. You can even take a wad of fresh Plantain leaf and pack it over an abscessed tooth to draw out the infection and reduce the pain and inflammation.
Plantain works well on irritated tissues internally also. It has a soothing action on the body’s mucus membranes. Plantain is great to soothe the mucus membranes of the lungs in anyone with a dry cough. It also soothes the mucus membranes of the intestines and bladder, making it wonderful to take for cystitis, urinary tract infections with burning painful urination, ulcers, colitis, inflammatory bowel disorders and painful diarrhea. Take a large handful of the leaves and simmer them for 20 minutes. Let the leaves steep in the hot water for an hour and then strain and drink 1 to 5 cups a day.
Yarrow is a common herb that has been used for emergencies for thousands of years. In fact, its common name in antiquity was herbal militaris, referring to its use by soldier to staunch blood flow. Yarrow is not quite as widespread as Plantain, Oak or Pine, but it is still commonly found in the wild and flower beds throughout the world. It is easily identified by its delicate, fern like leaves. The leaves are dissected, meaning one leaf is divided into many deep, narrow segments that appear almost feathery.
Yarrow leaves applied topically are the best herbal remedy for bleeding known to man! There are reports of Yarrow being able to stop bleeding from severed arteries. Yarrows uses go beyond just bleeding though. The young leaves with purple tips are anodyne, helping to numb pain when applied topically. Young leaves are wonderful for tooth aches, helping both the pain and inflammation. Yarrow leaves can also be made into a tea and taken internally for bleeding anywhere in the body. It can decrease heavy menstrual flow and even stop bleeding ulcers and hemorrhoids.
Yarrow flowers contain aromatic oils that are very medicinal. Yarrow flowers are anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and immune boosting. A hot tea of the flowers induces sweating and helps with fevers and infections. Take a handful of the flowers and put in a pot with boiling water. You should place a lid on the pot to keep the volatile oils from escaping and let it steep for at least 30 min. Drink several cups at the first sign of a fever and wrap yourself in blankets to help the sweating process. A cold infusion of the flowers is beneficial for urinary tract infections and gastric upset.
Garlic, while not as common in the wild as some of the other plants we have discussed, is one plant that I would not be without. Garlic contains thiosulfanates, sulfur compounds that act as a broad spectrum anti-infective.
Garlic is antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral and anti-parasitic! It kills off a wide range of unwanted critters. The antimicrobial compounds in Garlic degrade pretty fast, so most of the commercially available garlic supplements are weak, if not entirely ineffective. Fresh Garlic has plenty of active compounds waiting to unleash their wrath on infectious bugs. The best way to take Garlic is to chop it up, cover it in honey and swallow it down. The sulfur compounds in Garlic are especially active on intestinal infections and lung infections. Fresh Garlic can be applied directly to wounds to prevent infection! You can also crush a clove of Garlic to release its juices and gently place it in the opening of the ear. The Garlic juices will run down in the ear and kill the bacteria causing the common ear infection.
So now you know five readily available remedies for emergencies!