My Lady Badger and I were out bog-walking a few days ago when we happened upon a surveyor’s trail through the taiga. We followed the trail until we came to a bog filled with marshmallow-scented flowers.
They looked familiar, so we decided to pick a few, key them out (determine the species using a dichotomous key), and see if they had any interesting medicinal properties. Because we’re nerds like that.
After a few dead ends, we identified the flower as Sweet Coltsfoot, a dwarf variety common to the taiga that’s purported to have healing and skin-soothing properties. All I know is that it smelled like cake frosting, and I wanted to preserve it. I thought for a moment about making a hydrosol, but decided on the portability of a salve.
I’m a salve-loving nutcase. Toss a tin of it in your pocket and it won’t melt or leak. It lasts forever and it beats out alcohol-based lotions for lasting power. You can use it for dry elbows, lips, hands, and feet, or for minor cuts and scrapes.
Salve presents a simple way to draw out the goodness of fresh herbs and flowers. Tahitian monoϊ oil is a good example of how this French perfume-making technique is still used today. But instead of the ultra-refined lard or tallow, which was common in the old days, we’ll use some nice vegetable oil.
Beeswax: If you’re concerned with the plight of the bees, you can use candelilla or carnauba wax.
Oil of your choice: Apricot kernel and coconut are my favorites, but any oil will do. Just be conscious of the scent. Olive oil is good with stronger herbs like rosemary and mint, while grape seed or jojoba are better for florals.
Herbs: I used the wild herbs I gathered, and I urge you to forage for medicinals in your area—just be sure to identify them correctly. There are loads of region-specific books about medicinal plants, as well as great online resources. You can also just pick up some lavender or sage at the farmers’ market.
Containers: Upcycle something! LUSH’s little tins work perfectly. I usually use little canning jars because I have them on hand.
Ingredient measurements change depending on the type of salve and yield. I usually make bigger batches with about a cup of beeswax to 3/4 cup oil. This makes for a thicker, waxier salve, which I need in the summer for my gross sandal feet and garden hands.
STEP 1: Prepare your herbs and/or flowers.
Cut the buds off and discard the stems. If using very aromatic herbs, mince or masticate them in a coffee grinder (a good investment for any DIYer!) to get the most out of them. If using farmed herbs, make sure to give them a good rinse before chopping them up!
STEP 2: Infuse the oil with scent.
You can soak your herbs in the oil overnight, for a fortnight, or right away over low heat on the stovetop. Keep the burner as low as it will go so that the oil is moving, but not simmering. I usually warm the oil, mix it with herbs, and put the whole shebang in a jar and refrigerate for a few days. Tip: Most herbs like peppermint only need a few days to infuse; any longer and they might mold.
STEP 3: Heat and sieve.
Once your oil is sufficiently infused, it’s time to extract all the plant material. It’s easiest to heat up the oil just a tad--100F is sufficient--then press it through either cheesecloth or a sieve. I use a sieve so as not to lose any of the oil when it soaks into the cloth.
STEP 4: Test for consistency and store.
Now that you have your infused oil, you can gently warm your wax in either a microwave or double boiler. Once the wax is completely melted, stir in your oil. Dab a few drops onto a sheet of paper and let it cool. Test it on your hand for consistency; you can add a tablespoon of wax or oil to thin or thicken. When it’s perfect, pour it into clean, dry containers for cooling. Let it cool completely! Otherwise it’ll separate and you’ll end up with weird, waxy chunks all over the damn place.
Once you get the process down, you can add in all kinds of fancy things like shea butter, cocoa butter, essential oils, or vitamin E. I was really happy with the way the sweet coltsfoot salve turned out. I used beeswax and coconut oil, so it has a nutty, sweet scent that’s reminiscent of the creamy scent the fresh flowers.
Are you a salve fan? Apart from Surfer Salve--which is the ultimate--I love Rosebud Salve and Burt’s Bees Hand Salve. But I don't love Bag Balm, even though the tin is precious. Too many references to “chapped udders” for me.