Monday, June 1, 2009

Relishing in the abundance of the forest: Arnica

I made it home from my month-long trip to California just in time to see the arnica blooming on the forest floor outside of my home. Today I was able to grab my gathering basket for a little stroll along the arnica paths to harvest some for liniment and oil. I also did a video for Herbmentor that should be up soon.

Arnica has many different species, and I don’t try to differentiate between them. It is a member of the Compositae family and when it goes to seed, it looks much like dandelion.

They have rhizomatic, roots which helps them to spread out inLink such dense patches. The leaves can be heart shaped, or sometimes are a thinner lance shape. The stems and leaves of this particular arnica are hairy, but I’ve read they can also be smooth. They can have 2-4 pairs of opposite leaves on the stem, with another pair of leaves at the base of the plant.

Arnica is hands down my choice for traumatic injuries such as bruising, sprains, strains, and even the trauma of broken bones. It is a magical plant that quickly clears blood stagnation, reduces swelling, and thereby decreases pain and increases healing time. It does this by dilating blood capillaries to increase blood flow to and from injuries.

It’s also great for achy muscles that have been overworked, or are chronically sore. Again, because it opens up circulation to an area and reduces inflammation it can also be used for arthritis (especially osteoarthritis) and bursitis.

Because arnica is a topical irritant, it works best on closed wounds, so if I have an injury with bruising and a cut or scrape I reach for something else. I’ve never had this happen to myself, but some people have reported a rash with extended use.

Most herbalists agree that arnica could be used internally, but only with A LOT of caution. Side effects include cardiac arrest and internal bleeding. Michael Moore, in his book, Medicine Plants of the Pacific West, has interesting notes about using it for sore throats, and other internal uses. Of course it is often used internally in homeopathic doses.

Arnica is ready to harvest when it is in full bloom, and looking vibrant. To harvest arnica I use a pair of scissors to clip the stem a couple of inches above the forest floor leaving a pair of leaves intact. I like harvesting arnica without gloves smelling the rich scent of arnica on my hands. It's smell is not unlike the sap of the pine trees which is where it likes to grow.

Arnica rhizomes help to aerate the soil, so I walk along the edge of arnica patches clipping a plant here and there to add to my basket. Also, because they can help reduce soil erosion I harvest arnica on flat surfaces, rather than hillsides.

Today I’ll be making both a liniment and oil. The liniment (an alcohol extraction) I made shortly after harvesting, but I let the arnica wilt a bit longer before infusing them in oil.

Arnica can easily be spoiled in oil, so I really baby this one by stirring every day, leaving a cloth lid on for about a week, and being extra sure there is no plant material above the surface of the oil. (Good tips for whenever you are making infused oils from fresh material.)

I often combine arnica with other plants in my salves, but I also like it as a simple with some lavender essential oil.

Further reading:

Medicine Plants of the Pacific West, Michael Moore
From Earth to Herbalist, Gregory Tilford