Come January we are in complete hibernation mode and missing many of our plant friends dearly. Simply rubbing a few needles between fingers or allowing some sticky resin to linger on our skin does wonders for our sense of smell and psyche. Wintergreen playfully covers the forest floor with a pop of cheery red berries beckoning us to taste their spicy, sweet and cooling flavor. White pine needles gently decocted transforms water into a deliciously potent tea full of vitamin C, perfect for mid-winter blues, colds, and flu. The inner bark of lovingly harvested branches (I prefer the freshly fallen ones for little to no impact on the tree) can be made into a syrup with excellent warming, drying and expectorant qualities. Combine with other immune system loving plants such as mushrooms, elderberries, astragalus, Siberian ginseng, rosehips, autumn olives and mucilaginous plants like mallow, violet leaf, fenugreek and mullein for your go-to healing powerhouse formula. All parts of Pine and other conifers are anti-microbial, anti-oxidant and diuretic as well. The materia medica is extensive and well worth diving into.
Most commercial “vapor” chest rubs are created using petrolatum as its main ingredient. In the 1850s, chemist Robert Chesebrough started the process of distilling and cleaning the thick gel found on oil wells to create a cheap, non-renewable, and possibly unsafe addition to our body care products. It has been shown to cause dermatitis and contain cancer-causing chemicals and crude oil by-products. Knowledge is power. Being an herbalist and mother, I wanted to create my own version for relief to congested airways on my child’s delicate skin. Below is my tried and true formula and recipe for a plant-infused salve that can be applied to the chest, back, and bottoms of feet:
- Fresh evergreen needles (whichever species is local to you), resin, inner bark from twigs, juniper berries (crushed), dried or fresh orange peel
- Hempseed or olive oil, beeswax (the best you can find…support your local beekeeper), menthol crystals, essential oils of camphor, eucalyptus, and rosemary. (I prefer to purchase my essential oils from Mountain Rose Herbs and Eden Botanicals.)
- Fill a mason or similar jar with plant material. Don’t pack too tightly and leave an inch or two of space at the top. Cover with oil of choice and stir out air bubbles. Place this jar in a warm spot (behind a wood stove or inside a closet) for 4-6 weeks, checking periodically to make sure oil is always covering needles, etc. If you are in a hurry, the crockpot or water circulator method works just as well.
- Once strained, place oil and beeswax in a double boiler (one ounce by weight of beeswax per cup of oil) and warm gently until wax and oil combine. Next, place 10 menthol crystals in this warm oil. Word of caution…the vapors are very strong so have a window open. Lastly, add 10 drops each of essential oil and pour into jars and allow to cool before covering to prevent cracking on top.