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Herbal Medicine

It's essential to supplement any first aid training with herb-based healing methods, since both prescription and over-the-counter medicine may be unavailable in a long-term emergency. Using herbs is not as unconventional as you might think, considering that half of all pharmaceutical remedies in the United States are derived from plant sources.

Once you learn to identify the healing properties of different plants, you'll be ready to meet the exigencies of a survival situation. With the right herbs, you can prepare teas, poultices, syrups and other remedies to treat many types of injuries and illnesses.

For instance, the active ingredient in aspirin is salicylic acid, traditionally extracted from the bark of a willow tree. Then there's the herb black cohosh, nowadays the preferred substitute for hormone replacement therapy. Many familiar cooking herbs -- like rosemary, parseley, garlic, ginger and cinnamon -- can also be used to treat many common afflictions. In fact, the vast majority of people living around the globe still use bark, leaves, roots and flowers to heal everything from a skin rash to cancer.

In addition to reading up on the subject (see our detailed overview below and book list to the right), consider signing up for seminars, symposiums and field trips sponsored by garden societies and private herbalists. Formal apprenticeships and academic herbal studies curriculums are taught at a handful of private schools, but tuition costs can be a little pricey. If you need help identifying substitute herbs for your medications, one option is to hire a private herbalist for an hour or two of consultation. That way you can focus on getting the information that's specific to your needs.

You should also assemble a small herbal dispensary to supplement your emergency first aid kit. This is easy to do, since most natural food stores carry a good selection of healing herbs in bulk. Be sure to pick up some cheese cloth, wicker tea strainers, gelatin capsules and other accoutrements required for preparing herbal remedies. Any old nose/ear drops bottles should be cleaned and sterilized for reuse as tincture containers.

And don't forget to scour the dozens of plant databases available online, which are surprisingly vast in scope. (See links to the left.) Below we've provided a brief explanation of how to prepare remedies and list common herbs used in the United States.


Herbal remedies are applied both externally and internally. Here are the basic procedures:

Decoctions and Infusions

Better known as "herb tea", decoctions and infusions are a staple of hebal medicine. Infusions are what most people think of as tea. Boiling water is poured into a teapot or directly over a small basket of one or two teaspoons of an herb or combination of herbs. Then the tea is allowed to steep for 5 minutes before drinking.

A decoction involves boiling heartier herbs like roots and barks for 10-40 minutes to extract their flavor or essence. If you want to add more delicate herbs to the brew, just add them for the last couple minutes of cooking time.


To create a more concentrated dose of medicine, you should prepare a tincture. In this type of remedy, an 80 to 100 proof alcohol is used to preserve the essence of the herbs in a bottle or jar.  In expensive vodka, gin, brandy or rum are the typical choices. A couple handfuls of dried herbs are placed in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid, then the alcohol is poured in until it rises two to three inches above the herbs.

The jar is stored for two to six weeks and should be shaken every few days to keep the herbs from settling into a clump at the bottom. Storage times depend on the herbs in question, as well as the local climate and temperature, and the potency level that the herbalist is shooting for. After the storage period is over, the herbs are strained out through cheese cloth and the liquid poured into one or more tincture bottles equipped with a dropper. Be sure to tag the bottle or jar with the name of the remedy, ingredients and date. Alcohol-based tinctures have a long shelf life of several years.

Tinctures are also sold ready for use in natural food stores.  A typical dose of 15 to 30 drops is diluted in a little water and drunk two or three times daily. Some people prefer to substitute either glycerine or vinegar for the alcohol when purchasing or perparing a tincture. Keep in mind that the shelf life is shorter, perhaps one to two years, in this case.

When a tincture is used externally on the body, it's called a liniment. Liniments can treat cuts and wounds, as well as sore muscles.


A sweetener like honey or sugar is added to a decoction of the appropriate herb and heated until it dissolves and thickens the tea into a strong syrup. Sore throats are at the top of the list for syrups.

Powder or Capsules

For this familiar remedy, dehydrated or dried plant material is ground up and placed inside gelatin capsules.  You can also administer the herb without the capsule by pouring an eighth teaspoon of powder (or other appropriate amount) in a glass of water. Note: some herbs can be toxic in high dosages so make sure you know what you're doing or consultant a professional first.

The down side of powdered herbs is that they start oxidizing and losing their potency the moment they're grounded (just like flour), so their shelf life is much shorter than a tincture. Keep them stored in a dark place away from heat and humidity.

Essential Oils

Oil infusions are used externally on the body, rather than consumed. Olive oil is preferred for medicinal oils, as it contains oleic, Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. But it's thick and smelly, so not the first choice for bath and massage oils.

To prepare a remedy, fill a jar with dried herbs and cover the plant material with olive, sunflower or almond oil. (Fresh herbs contain water, which doesn't mix well with oil, so make sure the herbs are dry before starting.) Place the closed jar up to its neck in a saucepan filled with water and simmer for a few hours.  This is the double boiler method. Then strain the herbs into cheesecloth and bottle the oil. For a stronger brew, repeat the process, adding a new batch of herbs to the already brewed liquid.

If you prefer, you can use the solar method. Place the herbs in a wide-mouthed jar and cover with oil. Let the jar sit in the sun (e.g. on a window sill) for two weeks. However, once the herbs are removed from the oil, don't leave the oil in the sun any longer, as it will go rancid. Also, watch for any moisture forming on the inside of the rim. If this happens, open the jar and wipe it away, since bacteria gravitate to the water.

Be sure to store oils in a dark place away from heat and humidity.


Also known as ointment, a salve is an essential oil to which beeswax has been added. A quarter cup of beeswax is added for each cup of oil, then the combination is slowly heated until the beeswax melts, creating a thick consistency. Then pour the blend immediately into glass or tin containers. Store salves in a cool, dark place.


Soak a cloth in a hot decoction, squeeze most of the liquid out, then apply the compress to the affected area of the body. Once the compress cools, repeat the process as needed. It's also common to add essential oils of other herbs to the liquid for a greater effect.


Poultices have been used for thousands of years to treat boils, abscesses, sprains, chest colds and respiratory infection. Mix fresh herbs or powdered seeds into boiling water to make a pulp. Then wrap the pulp in a piece of cloth and apply to the affected area while hot. According to GardenGuides.com, calendula cream can be spread on the skin first to prevent the poultice from sticking.

Steam and Inhalants

Use steam for skin problems like acne and an inhalant for bronchial problems like sinusitis and laryngitis. Add a strong decoction, one or two drops of essential oils, or 2 teaspoons of tincture to boiling water. Have the patient lean over the tub with a towel over his or her head, so they can breathe in the healing vapors.

Common Herbs

Angelica (dong quai)

Used to combat digestive problems, gastric ulcers, anorexia, and migraines. The root can be eaten as food but is also used as local anesthetic. Angelica's anti-bacterial properties also make it good for teeth. Just chew on the root.


Used to treat neuralgia, gout, rheumatism and sciatica, and to reduce muscle spasms.

Birch leaves and bark

The white birch tree, which thrives in the U.S. and Canada, provides leaves that heal rheumatism, arthritis, gout, arteriosclerosis, water retention, cystitis, kidney stones, skin rashes, psoriasis and eczema. The astringent effect of the tree's sap also helps tones the skin and combats oily and greasy hair.

Black Cohosh

A perennial shrub native to the eastern deciduous forests of North America and widely prescribed substitute for hormone replacement therapy.  Also effective against PMS and other menstrual dysfunction.


Prescribed for fever, flu and to calm nerves.  Also given to small babies and children for colds, stomach trouble and colitis.


For chest infections. hemorrhoids, varicose veins, psoriasis, inflammation, ulcers, vaginitis, boils, abscesses and allergies.  An anti-inflammatory used to support healthy urinary tract function and cystitis. Also used to treat sore throat and flu symptoms.


A rich source of vitamins and minerals. The leaves are commonly added to green salads. Dandelion roots are brewed as a coffee substitute. As a blood purifier, dandelion aides liver, gallbladder and kidney function, especially in conjunction with Milk Thistle. 


The famous flu prevention herb and natural antibiotic, Echinacea is a wildflower native to North America and Europe. It enhances the body's immune system and treats infections. Apply internally or externally.


The stem, leaves, and flowers of Eyebright can be used internally and externally (eyewash or compress) for a variety of vision and respiratory problems, including cataracts, eye infections, pollen allergies and sinusitis.


The oil of this plant is the key ingredient in products like Vics vapor-rub. The plant treats numerous symptoms in both humans and animals, including distemper, muslce aches and skin irritations. It's used as an antiseptic gargle and a stimulant to increase cardiac activity. You can also rub the oil on your temples and above your nose to relieve sinus pressure.


Fennel water mixed with sodium bicarbonate and syrup is used to treat flatulence in infants. Fennel tea is made by pouring half a pint of boiling water on a teaspoonful of Fennel seeds. 


This herb is a preventative for migraine, and numerous clinical studies have proven its efficacy. For best results, drink feverfew tea regularly, since the plant is high in serotonin. (For the actual headache, you can try peppermint tea, willow bark and other pain-relieving herbs.)  Feverfew also promotes the onset of the menstrual cycle.

Golden Seal

A natural antibiotic, Goldenseal is a multi-purpose remedy used to fight infection and fever-based illnesses.  Like prescription anti-biotics, you can develop a yeast infection from overuse, so use only when needed and remember to replace your pro-biotics with lactobacillus culture found in yoghurt or something similar.  (Note: an ounce of chlorophyll extracted from a plant can be inserted in the vagina with a turkey baster to combat a yeast infection.)


An anti-viral and calming herb. Heat water, add the lavender, then breathe in the fragrant steam to cleanse the alveoli in the lungs, where respiratory infections begin.

Lobelia (a.k.a. Asthma Weed)

Helpful in treating asthma, epilepsy, tetanus, diphtheria and tonsillitis.


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More Resources

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Foraging for wild edibles

First Aid Primer

Recommended Books

Growing 101 Herbs That Heal by Tammi Hartung.

Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner's Guide and Family Herbal: A Guide to Living Life with Energy, Health, and Vitality by Rosemary Gladstar

Jude's Herbal Home Remedies: Natural Health, Beauty & Home-Care Secrets by Jude C. Todd

The Herbal Home Remedy Book: Simple Recipes for Tinctures, Teas, Salves, Tonics, and Syrups by Joyce A. Wardwell

Aromatherapy: The Complete Guide by Kathi Keville and Mindi Green

A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: Eastern and Central North America by James A. Duke, Steven Foster, and Roger Tory Peterson

The Herbal Medicine Maker's Handbook: A Home Manual by James Green and Ajana Green

Prescription for Nutritional Healing by Phyllis A. Balch

Schools and Training

Directory of organizations in the U.S.
Groups Worldwide

Sierra Institute of Herbal Studies

The Philo School of Herbal Energetics

Sacred Plant Traditions

Home Study Course
Sage Mountain

Heartsong Farm
New Hampshire

Oak Valley Herb Farm
California (offers field trips abroad)


Traditional Formula Guides
Southwest School of Botanical Medicine

Henrietta's Herbal

Guide to Herbs and Herb Gardening
by Suzanne DeMuth, USDA

Herb and Food Substitutes for Top Ten Prescription Drugs

Mountain Folk Herbalist Blog

How to prepare herbal remedies
Remedies for specific complaints
GardenGuides.com (scroll down the page)

Backwoods Remedies
blog post

Foods that Heal
Global Health & Fitness

Folk remedies

Herbal Preparation Methods

The Woman's Guide to Herbal Medicine
by Carol Rogers

Herbs for First Aid PDF

Medicinal Herbs Guide

King's American Dispensatory(1898)
Classic text on plants and their uses.

Making tinctures

Materia Medica: the Tinctures (1901)
Classic text on remedies.

Making a salve

Herbal oils and creams

An introduction to flower essences
by Suzanne E. Sky

Herbal remedies - women's health


Medicinal Herb Encyclopedia
From HerbNet.

Henriette's Herbal Homepage

Essential Oils and Herbal Extracts
Oak Valley Herb Farm

Wild Berries - nutrition and medicinal uses
by Katsi Cook, Akwesasne Mohawk

More herbal remedy suggestions

You-Tube: "How to Dry Herbs"

You-Tube: "How to Make Tinctures"

Milk Thistle

Aides nursing mothers with lactation.  Studies have shown it to be extremely effective in promoting a healthy liver and healing any deficiencies in this organ. 

Mustard seed

The mashed seeds are used as a poultice to relieve muscular and skeletal pain.


Boil the herb and drink to combat anemia, hemorrhage (especially in the uterus), heavy menstrual bleeding, hemorrhoids, arthritis, gout and eczema. The roots are used to combat allergies and reduce prostate enlargement.

Oregon Grape Root

Grown in Oregon and California, the root is for skin diseases and as a treatment for prostate infection. It's a blood cleanser, promoting healthy liver and gall bladder function.  Can be used as a mild laxative. Externally, the bark serves as a liniment for arthritis.


The dried leaves make a tea that effectively treats acid indigestion and other stomach discomfort.


American Poplar has anti-septic and anti-inflammatory properties. Used for intermittent fevers, chronic diarrhea, arthritis and urinary infections.


Nostradamus successfully used rose petals as a primary herb for fighting the plague in the 16th century. Rose geraniums, oregano, bay laurel and rosemary all posess anti-viral properties.


The tree's oils disinfect and clean the lungs. They treat a variety of respiratory functions.  Spruce needles are an excellent source of Vitamin C.  Boil them to make tea and you'll get as much C as a glass of orange juice.


Stevia is a sugar substitute not only for diabetics, but anyone wanting to avoid refined sugar.  Stevia does not have the negative renal side effects of other artificial sweeteners.

Slippery Elm

Treats sore throats and stomach distress.

St. John's Wort

This trendy anti-depressant is also used to treat pulmonary complaints, dysentery, worms, diarrhea, hysteria and jaundice.

Tea Tree Oil

Anti-fungal and anti-biotic. Apply externally or as an infusion. May be strong enough to knock out a staph infection or even MRSA, but the tree only grows in Australia.

Witch Hazel

A standard remedy used by Native Americans, you can apply the leaves and bark of withc hazel as a poultice on wounds, burns, hemmoroids, sprains, arthritic limbs, tumors, bruises, acne and insect bites. Witch hazel helps to shrink and contract blood vessels back to normal size. It's present in hemorrhoid medications and can also be used to treat postnatal tearing of the perineum. As a tea, it's prescribed to treat colds, fevers, diarrhea, dysentery, ulcers and tuberculosis

Wintergreen oil

Useful in combatting the chronic discharge of mucous.


Used as an anti-septic to heal cuts and wounds.