Medicinal Plants for Backpackers
Why learn about medicinal plants? Certainly,
backpackers shouldn't leave the first aid kit home, but it can be
useful and interesting to know a few plant medicines too. Whether
you are someday in a survival situation, or you just lost your first
aid kit and have a terrible headache, wouldn't it be nice to find
You can. There are many effective medicinal
plants. Some are also dangerous, just like synthetic medicines can
be. I won't discuss those here. This is a quick guide to a few safe
Plants For Pain Relief
Fill the bottom of a cup with shredded willow
bark, and make a cup of tea with it. Let it steep for a few minutes
before you drink it. The active ingredient is salicin, closely
related to salacylic acid, which is used to make aspirin. You might
also try chewing on a few balsam poplar buds.
Sap from "blisters" on balsam firs is a strong
antiseptic. Pop the blisters on the trunks of young trees, and the
sap will ooze out. You can spread it over cuts and small wounds to
prevent infection. It is very sticky, however, and it will be
difficult to wash off (At least it smells nice).
The crushed leaves of Saint John's Wort can be
used as an antiseptic dressing as well. I once put a wad of the
mashed leaves on a nasty gash in my foot, replacing it occasionally,
and the cut healed faster than I've ever seen a cut heal. St.
Johnswort has anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal properties.
Medicinal Plants For Diarrhea
You can drink tea made from the roots of
blackberries and their relatives to stop diarrhea. Just fill the
bottom of the cup with the cleaned and shredded roots and pour
boiling water over them. Let the mix steep for five minutes before
Oak bark and other barks containing tannin are
also effective. I have also used the twigs to stop diarrhea when I
was backpacking in Mexico. Make tea with a spoonful of the bark or
chopped-up twigs. Tannins can be hard on the kidneys, so drink just
one cup of tea, or use oak only if you don't have other options.
You can relieve the itch from insect bites,
sunburn, or plant poisoning rashes by applying a poultice of
jewelweed (Impatiens biflora). I have seen a poison ivy rash cleared
up overnight using the juice from jewelweed. It is also said to work
on sunburn as well as aloe vera.
Make a tea of witch hazel leaves (Hamamelis
virginiana), and you can use it for relief from insect bites, and
sunburn. Witch Hazel used to be a common astringent that women used
as a "tightening" face wash.
There are hundreds of wild medicinal plants that
could be useful to hikers and backpackers. You don't need to become
an expert to benefit from them. Just learn to identify and use a few
of the most widespread and safest ones.
Helpful Wild Plants)
Steve Gillman is a long-time advocate of lightweight backpacking.
For more on medicinal plants, plus tips, photos, stories and a new
Wilderness Survival Guide, visit The Ultralight Backpacking Site:
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