Living in Denver is lots of fun. You’re a stone’s throw away from the mountains, and especially in summer it feels wonderful to escape from the hustle and bustle (and heat!) of the city into the foothills and beyond. My pups and I like to venture into the woods, breathe in fresh air, and explore. However, when you’re as clumsy as I am, and when the woods are as rife with beetle-kill tree windfall as around here, you’re bound to get some scrapes and bruises. Trees are wonderful but sometimes making your way through them can get a bit prickly!
So, it is nice to be prepared with a first aid kit in your pack, but just in case you’re not- here are five helpful herbs that you can forage for while out in the woods on your hike or backpacking trip! Now, I do live in Colorado, but many of these herbs- or to the layman’s eye, weeds, can be found all over America and beyond- they’re the ones you remove from sidewalk cracks or your garden or find scattered about the broken soil near your trail, often overlooked but very useful. With a little herbal knowledge you can identify and use them while out and about! Make sure to take a peek at the YouTube video I’ve embedded at the end of this post if you want to see up-close shots of each of the herbs I mention here!
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Yarrow is one of the single most helpful herbs on the trail. It has everything from anti-inflammatory and sedative properties, to being great for bleeding scrapes and cuts! Its Latin name actually comes from the story of Achilles who was fabled to use yarrow to help heal his warriors when they were bleeding and yarrow’s clotting properties are well known today!
- Yarrow is a styptic, meaning that it aids in reducing clotting time. It uses its alkaloids to help stop blood flow from cuts. You can use a full leaf slowly pressed along the cut, or create a poultice from the mashed leaves and filtered water.
- The same poultice can be used to soothe bug bites and burns.
- Rubbing yarrow leaves on exposed skin can also be used as a bug repellent.
Yarrow is often found in broken ground (common in gardens), can grow to nearly three feet tall, and has fernlike leaves that alternate as the plant grows. Flowers are lace-like and generally white but can skew towards pink-ish as well!
Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)
I use mullein so much that I harvest it and have it drying in my kitchen! The thick fuzzy leaves have both practical and medicinal uses.
As for practical uses, these are the ones you’ll most likely use on the trail.
- Mullein leaves are both anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory so they are perfect for bandages on the trail.
- The thick fuzzy leaves are great for extra padding in your shoes to prevent blisters and also can be used as toilet paper or napkins in a pinch!
- And for the avid backpacker, if you happen to get a cold, mullein leaves contain mucilage, which soothes mucus membranes. Steeped in hot water mullein leaves create a tea that will help! Consume in limited quantities and always check with a professional before consuming a new herbal remedy.
Mullein’s thick leaves grow in rosettes and feel felted and fuzzy. Their flowers come from a single spike that grows from the center of the plant. This center stalk can grow up to six and a half feet tall!
Hair Lichens (Usnea)
Until recently I had always thought that the pretty little lichens hanging from trees throughout the woods were beautiful, but not particularly useful. Turns out, it is more than just nature decorating its branches.
- Usnea contains ‘usnic acid’ a naturally occurring antibiotic. Damp Usnea can be pressed into a dressing for a wound.
Light green hair-like tufts of lichen can be seen hanging from tree branches.
Plantain (Plantago major)
Plantain is an often overlooked ‘weed’ that can be seen in broken ground everywhere. I’ve seen it growing in sidewalk cracks here in Denver and near boulders in the deep woods!
- With their anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial flavonoids, and astringent tannins to help stop bleeding, plantain leaves can be used in a poultice (mashed plant matter and filtered water) to soothe insect bites and stings, poison ivy rashes, blisters, and burns and cuts.
- Plantain leaves can be heated and applied to swollen joints.
Plantain leaves grow in clumpy rosettes of green leaves with a central stalk that can be 1-7 inches long.
I saved arnica flowers for last because while it is an incredible healing herb (I use it in my sore muscle salve as part of my skin care line) you have to super cautious while using it. Used internally or on broken skin it can have toxic effects. However, when used correctly it is incredible for aches and pains and strains!
- Used ‘in the field’ as a poultice arnica flowers can be applied to swollen joints or muscles topically to relieve pain. The flowers’ extracts help to stimulate circulation for relief of inflammation.
Arnica is a sunflower-esque looking plant with branched clusters of flowerheads with pairs of leaves. There are a few different kinds of arnica, but the one I see the most here in Colorado is the ‘leafy arnica- Arnica chamissonis’ but generally speaking when you purchase arnica leaves they are Arnica Montana, a varietal from Europe!
When it comes to identifying herbs I’ve had some help. My mom is an naturopath and an herbalist, which pretty much means that every time we’ve gone a walk or a hike together I get a lesson in foraging from a veritable walking encyclopedia of plants. Which, if you ask me, is both incredibly useful and definitely warrants a checkmark in the ‘cool mom’ box. Pair that ‘out in the field’ knowledge with my ever-growing library of herbal books and I feel that maybe someday I’ll be able to give my encyclopedia of a mom a run for her money!
If you don’t have an herbalist in your back pocket, great books are the way to go! With full color pictures and explanations as well as uses lined outlined, everything you need is in one place. A few of my favorite books that I’ve consulted for this post are ‘Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Rockies’ by Linda Kershaw which is my go-to for any of the plants found around Colorado, but it works for plants in the mountains from Alaska through New Mexico, the National Geographic Guide to Medicinal Herbs, and Healing Herbs by Tina Sams- this one has lots of fun useful recipes as well!
Before you use one of these plants on your body, make sure that you can absolutely identify the plants without a doubt! Also, even if you’re sure, make sure to spot test poultices etcetera making sure your skin doesn’t have an adverse reaction.
I am not a doctor nor a certified naturopath. This post is not meant to be a substitute for a medical opinion or self-diagnosis. Be sure to consult a professional before using natural remedies. Some links are affiliate links.