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Plantain and nettle balm
In May and June, smooth plantain (Plantago lanceolata), commonly known as ribwort or narrowleaf plantain appears in meadows, verges and even lawns. The plain, ribbed leaves will have been there for a while, a background green, but suddenly the flowers - a fancy head dress of pollen - dance amongst the grasses.
Plantain is the greatest survivor amongst plants - currently being studied at Trinity College in Dublin for its ability to adapt to survive in all conditions, from drought to flood, in all parts of the world apart from Antarctica.
As well as adapting to climate it also is happy being mowed, chomped and harvested - the flowers are mainly wind pollinated but it also attracts flies and bees with its easily available pollen as a back up.
Plantain has long been an important herb in traditional herbalist's cabinet. Chock full of vitamins, A,C and K along with calcium it is one of the bitter herbs that were used in early spring to supplement early spring diets. The leaves are VERY bitter and, to my mind, are better in a mix than on their own, but the flower buds taste of mushrooms and can be eaten raw in a salad or simmered up into a mushroom tasting stock.
It also is antiseptic and contains anti-histamine, perfect for external treatment of insect bites and stings. You can use the leaves to rub directly on stings but if you don't have any to hand then this balm is a great back up.
This recipe is for a really simple balm - I combine the plantain with nettle tops to increase the anti-histamine - and then infuse the oil before adding beeswax (or soy wax for vegans). The finished balm is ideal for carrying around in your handbag or rucksack to treat minor scrapes, bites and stings.
- Jam jar
- Enough plantain and nettle leaves (50/50) to fill 2/3 of the jar when chopped up
- Enough plain oil (rape seed, olive, almond, whatever you have will be fine) to cover the herbs in the jar
- Beeswax or soy pellets (10% of the volume of oil you get from your jar)
- Muslin, fine sieve or cloth to drain oil.
- Metal or glass bowl
- Pan that bowl can fit onto
- Small jars or tins for balm
- Essential oils (optional)
Step 1 - Infusing the oil
Chop the leaves finely and put in the jar - don't cram them in.
Cover with oil and stir to get rid of any air bubbles.
Gently push the leaves under the oil as any leaves protruding through the oil may get mouldy.
Leave for 1-4 weeks on a sunny windowsill, checking every couple of days and stirring around.
Step 2 - Draining the oil.
Once the leaves have been steeping in the oil for a few weeks, tip the mush of leaves and oil into a sieve or piece of muslin over your bowl and leave to drain.
Carefully squeeze out the remains of the oil.
Step 3 - Making the balm.
Weigh the oil and measure out 10% of the weight of the oil in beeswax or soy wax pellets. This gives you a medium ointment like balm. If you want it more solid simply increase the amount of wax.
You need to gently heat the oil just to the point that the wax melts - you don't want the oil to heat more than this or you risk destroying some of the goodness. How you do this depends on your attitude to risk and the controllability of your cooker.
I think of it as very like how you choose to melt chocolate on a stove - you can put a bowl over your pan, keeping it above simmering water, which is very slow and risk free, or you can use a small pan direct on the ring and gently heat, continually stirring and taking away from the heat as soon as you see the wax beginning to melt, letting it finish in the heat of the oil.
Add in 12 drops essential oils per 100 g oil at this point if you are using them.
Pour into jars. I find that 100g oil gives me 5 tiny jars balm (the kind of jars you get hotel jam in).
These balms keep for 6-9 months. They are naturally antiseptic and contain antihistamine - apply to insect bites, nettle stings and grazes.