In a survival situation, there are many plants which can be used for medicinal purposes. The key is not only being able to correctly identify the plant, but knowing exactly how to extract those components which give it its medicinal properties.
Fortunately, the methods which we use to prepare them can easily be carried out in the bush.
Many modern drugs that we pick up from the pharmacist were originally derived from plants. In fact, hundreds of plants have been identified as having medicinal properties, and there could be thousands more; so, when it comes to medicinal properties, we are touching only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Modern drugs are often purified refinements of plant derivatives – plus whatever else the boffins in white coats do to make them ‘work effectively’, and conform to a host of regulations.
Consequently, when we extract anything for healing from a plant in the wild, the properties we are looking for will be effective, but will take longer to work because of their simplicity. Do not, however, dismiss this form of medicine out of hand.
For example, a decoction of willow leaves and bark produces a constituent of Aspirin called Salicin, which is used to treat headaches and has anti-inflammatory properties. Obviously, Salicin which is in a purified state, and taken in tablet form, will work more quickly than drinking a home-made brew.
As a rule of thumb, plants will be at their most effective during the growing phase just before flowering, as this is when they are rich in chemical compounds. Bear this in mind when preparing your remedies.
With plant-based preparations, don’t expect the treatment to work immediately; it may take several days before a result can be seen or felt.
Also, don’t assume that a larger or stronger dose will work more quickly; it may do more harm than good. It is quite possible to overdose on natural remedies, just as it is with over-the-counter medicine.
Poultice: These are made by reducing the roots, leaves, or all of the plant into a wet (but not soaking-wet), pulp-like consistency. In its basic form, this can be as simple as chewing the plant part and then applying it to the affected part of the body. Hold the poultice in place with a bandage, or failing that, a broad non-toxic leaf. A poultice can be used to treat anything from an insect bite to a burn, or to stem bleeding from a cut.
Expressed juice: Some plants are best used by reducing the stem and leaves to a wet, mushy consistency. It is important that the juice be retained, as this is applied to the wound, and the pulp is spread around the outside of the infected/wound area. As with the poultice, keep it in position with a bandage or non-toxic leaf.
Decoction: Generally made from the plant’s roots, bark, seeds or nuts. These are then crushed, mashed, or diced. Soak a slack handful in three cups of water for 30 to 40 minutes. Bring to the boil, and then simmer until the water has been reduced by one third. If possible, simmer with the pot covered. Avoid using an aluminium pot, as this can affect the decoction. Allow to cool, then strain and drink.
Infusion: To be effective, the leaves or flowers of the plant should be dried in the sun, and then two tablespoons added to a cup of boiling hot water. An infusion is essentially a tea, and draws out the most fragile healing properties of the plant, such as sugars, enzymes, tannins, saponins, glycosides, etc.
An infusion can still be made if no hot water is available, by soaking the plant parts in cold water, and allowing them to steep for four to eight hours.
All preparations should be made from fresh plant parts and administered as soon as possible. Do not keep them for more than about 8 or 9 hours, as their effectiveness will wear off.
Fomentation: This is when a piece of cloth is dipped into a warm infusion or decoction, any excess liquid is wrung from the cloth, and the cloth is then applied to the affected area. It works wonders on boils. A dry piece of cloth, a leaf or a piece of plastic is placed over the damp cloth, not only to hold it in place and to keep the liquid from dripping out, but also to keep it warm.
Pills: To make pills from plants (which isn’t really practical), the plant should first be dried and then pulverised into a fine powder. Add a small amount of water to create a paste. Mix a small amount of marshmallow root (if available) into the paste, to thicken it to a dough consistency. Pinch off a small piece of the mix and mould this into a pill shape. Sprinkle some more dry mix over the ‘pill’, and dry it in the sun or near the warm embers of a fire. Once it is dry, store it in a container of some sort.
Never underestimate the medicinal properties of plants. Although they may not work as quickly as proprietary drugs do, in a survival situation they can make the difference between comfort, and pain. And that has a great bearing on anyone’s state of mind. Í remember having a raging toothache once while I was camping, and I thank myself for having the knowledge to make an analgesic from willow leaves and bark. It took a bit of time to work, but work it did.