In the Garden:
Upper South
June, 2004
Regional Report

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The native jewelweed, a wildflower growing in moist woodlands, is an antidote to poison ivy rash.

Battling Beasties and Other Gardening Hazards

One of my favorite times for working in the garden is at dusk. Unfortunately, that's also the time the mosquitoes are particularly fond of buzzing around and munching on me. Mosquitoes are just one of the hazards of gardening, which also include poison ivy rash, sunburn, scrapes and cuts, and aching muscles. The good news is that the garden (or natural food store) yields a wide variety of remedies for these assorted ills.

Poison Ivy
Surely, only the most pristine suburban lot is without the three-parted leaves of this ubiquitous vine or upright bush. Even after being killed with herbicides, the dead stems can generate the tell-tale blisters caused by the potent urushiol oil when you try to remove them. The best defense is to immediately wash the affected skin with soap and cool water or sponge with alcohol to remove the oily resin. Even if you don't know if you've interacted with poison ivy, be aware of a tingling or itching of the skin, which occurs before the blisters appear.

One of the best natural remedies for poison ivy is often found growing wild nearby. The juicy stems and leaves of jewelweed, a native impatiens, provide effective relief. Also known as touch-me-not because of the explosive seed capsule, jewelweed is found growing in woodlands, especially near streams. You can simply pick a branch and rub it on the affected skin. A "tea" can be made by picking the entire plant, roots and all, and simmering with water for about 30 minutes, or until the water turns orange. Strain out the herb and store it in a clearly marked glass container in the refrigerator.

Bentonite or green clay, available at health-food stores, can also be used to remove the poison ivy oils and sooth the itching. Mix the clay with water and apply it to the rash. This is also effective on bug bites. An oatmeal bath is another effective remedy. Mix up a pot of water and oatmeal and cook until done. Strain out the water and add it to tepid bath water. Put the remaining cooked oats in a sock or cloth bag and use it to sponge the skin.

Repelling Bugs
To avoid bug bites in the first place, apply natural repellents at least every two hours, or as needed when outdoors. Although the chemical DEET is effective in repelling bugs, it can cause rashes and eye irritation, and it has been linked to neurological damage. The essential oils of various plants have been found to be much safer. Catnip is the most effective, and other effective oils include pennyroyal, eucalyptus, lavender, citronella, and geranium. Commercial products using at least some of these oils are available, or you can make your own by adding 1/2 teaspoon of each oil to 4 ounces of distilled witch hazel. Wild yarrow (Achillea millefolium) can be made into a tincture by soaking the flowers in vodka for six weeks, then straining the mixture and putting the liquid into a spray bottle.

Relieving Bug Bites
Common plantain (Plantago spp.) works amazingly well for relieving the irritation of bug bites. Simply crush the leaves and apply to the skin. Lemon juice, baking soda, apple cider vinegar, lavender and peppermint essential oils, oatmeal, green and bentonite clays, witch hazel, and raw onion are other natural remedies.

Other Gardening Ills
Aloe vera gel and apple cider vinegar both soothe the inflammation of sunburn. Either can be applied directly to skin, or add vinegar to tepid bath water. Commercially available arnica gel should be in every gardener's medicine cabinet for sore muscles, sprains, strains, and bruises. A salve that contains calendula and comfrey is good for scratches and cuts. Calendula is astringent, antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory, and it has wound-healing properties. Comfrey stimulates growth of new tissue and helps heal wounds. Commercial preparations are available at health-food stores.

To make your own calendula-comfrey salve, combine 2 tablespoons each of dried, chopped calendula petals and comfrey leaves in a glass container with 1/2 cup olive oil. Cover and let steep in a sunny window for one week. Strain and combine the infused oil with 1/2 ounce finely chopped beeswax in a small, heavy saucepan. Place over low heat until beeswax is melted. Pour into a small glass jar, cover, and label.


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