Salve Our Souls (and Skin!)
Salves and me haven’t always seen eye to eye, partly because they don’t come as naturally to me as teas and tincture making. So last weekend I decided to spend some time salve making with them with an eye toward thinking about the nature of salves and the making of them.
Many like making their herbal infused oils in the sun over a month or so, but I’m a classic double boiler man where you infuse the oil with the herbs for several hours:
Some are hesitant about doing that – fretting about the water boiling off while they aren’t paying attention or the oil burning, etc. I just use a cooking thermometer and check it regularly to see the temperature is good and if you think you might forget to check just set a timer to remind you every 20 – 30 minutes depending how paranoid you feel on any given day. (Generally you want the water in the bottom pot on a low boil and to not push the temperature of the oil past the low to mid 100 F point too much but don’t obsess about it!) BTW, IMO, digital cooking thermometer is one of my favorite tools for alleviating needless worry in cooking and medicine making. 🙂
While we’re at it here are some of the other tools I use:
While I keep a separate set of everything for working with my herbs as I do from my food cooking, I keep the same rule with both – NO PLASTIC! I use just glass, wood and stainless steel (or cast iron.) But really it is all pretty much the same equipment, especially since my approach to herbal medicine making is a lot like cooking. I’m more a kitchen herbalist than a faux-chemist herbalist – because that’s where the art and magic lays.
That is also one of the reasons salves had always been more problematic for me. It was like my long struggle learning to make omelets right. I had always wanted to check it more, be more involved in the process and it would always collapse because of it. It took me a while to learn to let go and leave the omelet be to set and cook just right. And the same goes with salves as well where patience is key.
I think part of the process that has always bugged me is the lack of feedback and interaction. With teas you can see the color change, smell the infusing herbs and taste the result. With tinctures you get the wonderful color change and can taste the end product. With infused oils and salves you get a lack of strong feedback. When you infuse with olive oil (especially extra virgin) it is already pretty deeply colored and the scent of the oil is fairly strong to begin with.
All that said, let’s look at a salve I made recently focusing on Horse Chestnuts since I had a ready supply.
I gathered up my herbs with a plan to focus on two of my favorite aspects of Horse Chestnut – that it is great for skin tone and healing bruises as well so I decided to add in some herbs as supporting players for each of those to make an interesting general skin salve including Comfrey, Chickweed and Calendula.
Ignore the Lavender on the right, I didn’t actually use it. Lavender just likes to try to force its way into every formula, it’s a bit of an attention hound. Yes, yes Lavender you smell wonderful, make people feel better and have some pretty nifty healing properties (none better than using neat Lavender essential oil for burns!) – but not every formula is about you!
I don’t know if it is just because of the feedback problem I mentioned above but I’ve noticed a number of herbalists who are vague when talking about amounts for teas and tinctures get amusingly exact with milliliters and ounces, etc. for salves and oils. Which I think makes it sound way scarier than it needs to be. I like ratios because they help you scale things and think more flexibility.
For the infused oil part I go with 4 parts oil to 1 part herbs if dried or 2 parts if fresh. But I violate that at whim.
Definitely more than a cup
Does that look like 2 ounces of dried herbs to you? Nope, and it turned out fine.
While the herbs and the oil were going for a couple of hours with me checking to make sure the water was fine in the lower pot and spot checking the oil temperature with my trusty thermometer – I grated me some beeswax!
You can buy smaller thing of beeswax but there is something satisfying about going all out with a big old block and a cheese grater. Admittedly that is not for everyone.
When the oil is done I filter out the herbs (a nice tight mesh strainer and a bit of cheesecloth do the job splendidly) then put the oil back to be heated. Then I add a pile of grated beeswax to the oil and stir until it melts in.
Rather than worrying about the proper amount of beeswax to help the oil set into a salve, I use the spoon method-plus. I put a metal spoon in to gather a bit of the mixture, pull it out and blow on it until it is cooled down and check the resulting consistency. If it is not where I want it, then I repeat adding beeswax and testing until it is. Then just for the heck of it I add some more just in case. And with rare exceptions, I think adding a bit more than you think almost always works out just fine with cooking and herbalism. 🙂
But let me pause a second (I know I’m indulging in an overused rhetorical device, but bear with me…), and circle back to a point earlier on feedback and salves.
One of the key elements of healing to me is how you approach it. I tend to believe that just taking an herb is missing the point if you do it in the same pop and go way you do with a pill. I find it valuable to shift and envelope in the experience of the moment to prepare for it and as you take it. It’s one of the reasons I like herbal teas.
When I use an herbal tea, or when I give it to someone else to take, I recommend taking the time off from other tasks while the tea is brewing. Don’t be fussing with your neighbor, partner, watching the news, working, etc. Pause. Sit calmly as you can. Listen to relaxing or fun music. Smell the tea brewing. Watch the water change colors. Experience it and shift yourself and prepare for it. Then drink it calmly and slowly. I believe it prepares you for healing as well as being healing unto itself.
With salves you don’t have all that but you help it a bit in the making of them and how you approach using them. So there are a couple of things I added it the salve (and others often do too) to help. I had also put in some Turmeric and Sandalwood powders in the oil while it was infusing. Yes they both have some lovely healing properties but really they are there to shift the color naturally a bit so the end product doesn’t have the same petroleum jelly or beeswax appearance a lot of salves too. And while the end product had cooled sufficiently I added some Peppermint Essential oil then quickly poured and capped the end product. So between the two you have a nice visual and scent to help prepare the senses a bit.
When you are applying a salve, don’t just slap it on in anger and haste like an anxious teen covering a blemish before a date. Take a moment and massage the area gently you are applying it too. Spread it across your fingers a moment and feel the texture and apply it with care and awareness. Then gently massage it in. Your sense of touch is such a powerful thing so be with it in service of your healing.
For the record here’s the end product:
Which is what it is all about.
And never neglect having fun making the label…
Aw, welcome to the world salve!