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How to make an herbal salve

Herbal infusion

About a month ago, I started some plantain and comfrey leaves steeping in olive oil for salve.  At first, I remembered to swirl the jar now and then to mix the contents, but after a while the activity faded out of my daily routine and the jar simply sat.  Despite my neglect, the active ingredients seeped out of the leaves and into the oil, creating an infusion.

Pour off oil

Sunday, I decided to process my infusion and turn it into a salve.  The first step was to separate the herbal-infused oil from the leaves.  I could have sent the jar contents through a strainer, but was feeling lazy (and not wanting to dirty extra dishes), so I just carefully poured the oil off, using a spoon to push the leaves back into the jar.  I ended up with about three quarters of a cup of dark green oil.

Weigh wax

To turn an infusion into a salve, you simply add a bit of melted beeswax to solidify the concoction and make it stick to your skin when applied rather than running off.  A quick search of the internet suggests that one ounce of beeswax is about right for a cup and an eighth of infusion, so I chopped some wax off my movie star neighbor's gifted block and weighed it.

Melting beeswax

I'd just made a pie, so put the wax in a washed-out peanut butter jar (glass) and placed the container in the oven to take advantage of residual heat while I cooked lunch.  Twenty minutes later, the wax was liquid.

I'd read that you need to preheat your infusion so you won't solidify the wax when you join the two ingredients together, but I'd also read you don't want to get your infusion very hot or you'll denature some of the active chemicals.  I opted to simply let my measuring cup of green oil sit on top of the stove while melting the wax, but that turned out to be not enough preheating --- little bits of wax came out of solution when I poured in the warm oil.  No problem --- I just put the jar back in the warm oven while we ate our first homegrown watermelon of the year, by which point everything was nicely dissolved.

Melted salve

Most folks pour their salve into small glass jars for storage, but what I had on hand was one cup food storage containers, so that's what I used.  The warm salve poured in like a liquid, but set up within half an hour into a soft but solid salve.  At the rate I go through anti-sting ointments, this should last me the rest of my life.

Homemade salve

Rather than cleaning out my wax-melting jar, I simply set it aside with my beeswax for later.  As easy and fun as salve-making turned out to be, I think I might try my hand at a pure comfrey salve this year too.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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This is great. I have read about this process, but it's much different to see step by step photos. Please let us know how effective the salve is.
Comment by Jason Mon Jul 30 10:37:23 2012
I used a comfrey poltice to cure ringworm on one of my sons arms. It was easy and worked great.
Comment by Mona Mon Jul 30 15:08:19 2012

Jason --- I highly recommend it. Most homesteading projects turn out to be more complicated than you think, but this one turned out to be much easier --- a fun surprise!

Mona --- I usually just put comfrey on as a poultice too, but it would be nice to have it on hand for easy access in emergencies (or in the winter). It's a pretty miraculous plant --- I once used it to heal a huge gash in my foot that should have had stitches. (Yes, I do like to run around barefoot, even on glass....)

Comment by anna Mon Jul 30 16:52:22 2012

Interesting to see that the cut up leaves don't begin to decompose. Since commercial preparations are usually sterilized or contain preservatives, I wonder how long this would last, and how do you know when it goes bad?

According to the practical herbalist, essential oils or vitamin E oils are used to keep the oil from going rancid.

Comment by Roland_Smith Mon Jul 30 18:41:47 2012
I find it odd too, but preserving plant matter in oil seems to be a traditional food preservation technique. Since we'll only apply the salve externally, presumably it can't do much harm even if it eventually degrades. (I doubt it'll actually last a lifetime, though. :-) ) Presumably, you can tell when it goes bad if it starts to smell funny, although I'm not sure that rancidity will actually cause any prloblems on your skin.
Comment by anna Mon Jul 30 19:38:40 2012
It wouldn't be rancid oil that I'd worry about, because you can smell that. I would worry about clostridium botulinum that is capable of producing strong neurotoxins in anaerobic conditions unless the enviromnent is sufficiently acidic.
Comment by Roland_Smith Tue Jul 31 15:51:36 2012
Roland --- But you have to eat something to get botulism, and salves are only used externally. "Skin contact with botulinum toxins will not lead to botulism since the toxins do not readily pass through intact skin," explains one heath department factsheet.
Comment by anna Tue Jul 31 16:10:43 2012

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