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Bushcraft: Preparing and administering natural medicines

In this series of articles we have looked at some of the many plants that are available in the natural environment and which have useful properties. Some have edible parts such as fruits, leaves or roots, some can be used as firewood or to fashion implements and many have medicinal properties.

Any serious outdoor enthusiast should take the time and trouble to learn about some of the useful plants in the areas they frequent. You never know when this knowledge may come in handy and it may even prove to be lifesaving in a survival situation.

It is all very well to know that some plants have medicinal properties but if you do not know how to get these useful substances out of the plant it is pointless. Plant cells have walls made of a complex carbohydrate chain called cellulose. Humans do not have the digestive ability to break down cellulose and if we wish to get at the active ingredients locked into the plant cell we have to process the plant in different ways.

This article – the last in the current series on useful plants – will look at how we can go about preparing natural remedies and how we administer them. Remember when using plants for medicinal purposes try, if at all possible, to remove only part of the plant and not the plant in its entirety.

The method of preparation of plant medicines is extremely important and involves using the correct amount of plant material, addition of a solvent such as water or alcohol to extract the medicinal substances and, possible boiling or partial burning of the plant part – be it leaves, bark or root. These processes may be necessary to not only extract useful substances but also to neutralise or destroy harmful compounds.

Methods of preparation

Making an extract means drawing out active ingredients with a solvent such as alcohol or water. The plant or plant part is mixed with water, alcohol or some other useful solvent and shaken up so that the solvent is thoroughly mixed with the solid plant material. The extract can then be separated from the solid material and administered in liquid form or the solvent can be evaporated off leaving behind the extracted principal in concentrated or dry form. Castor oil, the stuff our moms used to give us when we were young to induce bowel movements, is extracted from the seeds of the castor oil plant Ricinus communis.

Start off by macerating the plant. Maceration means physically breaking up the plant material into a very fine texture. This can be achieved by thorough chewing or grinding the plant material between smooth stones or using a mortar and pestle. This action breaks up the cells and releases the active ingredients. The macerated plant material is then shaken up in cold or warm water before being allowed to stand for awhile to extract the medicinal substances. This is known as an infusion. See figures 1 and 2.

The medicinal substances sometimes found in bark or roots cannot be extracted by cold-water infusion. In this case the bark or roots have to be boiled continually for up to a few hours for the active substances to be released. See figure 3.

As mentioned under infusions, plant material can be chewed or ground in a mortar and pestle to produce finely constituted material and used directly. See figure 4.

Methods of administration
Once the active ingredients of a plant have been extracted in some way or other the material or extract can be administered in variety of ways.

Some medicinal plant extracts are volatile and the vapours (or smoke from burning parts) can be inhaled to relieve the congestion caused by colds, flu and upper respiratory tract infections. Some medicinal plants are dried and rendered into powdered form and sniffed up the nostrils. This is generally referred to as “snuff” See figure 5.

A poultice usually consists of finely constituted plant material which can be applied directly to wounds, abscesses or bruises to relieve pain and counter infection. Hot poultices are often used to draw out pus and relieve inflammation. See figure 6.

Liniments are liquid or semi-liquid preparations intended for external use only and are used to relieve sore muscles, aches and strains.

Eye, ear or nasal drops
Some natural medicine extracts or juice directly from plants can be used as eye or eardrops to relieve earache or conjunctivitis. Obviously you must know what you are doing as some plant juices can cause severe eye irritation or even blindness (eg the Euphorbia family).

These are produced by boiling away the liquid content or allowing it to evaporate so as to end up with a semi-solid mass of extract which may also be mixed in a suitable base of animal or plant origin such as fat. Ointments are mostly for external use.

A linctus is a “syrupy” liquid containing sugar and a medicinal extract for oral use. It should be slowly sipped and not diluted with water as the syrupy texture is intended to be soothing to the throat or to induce coughing to get rid of phlegm on the chest.

Tinctures are alcohol extracts of medicinal plants intended for oral administration.

Lotions are liquid preparations used externally on the skin to bring relief to rashes, itches and allergies or to treat skin conditions. They may have a water or alcohol base or may be mixed with oils to produce a milky suspension.

Enemas are watery or oily solutions inserted into the rectum to relieve constipation, to hydrate a dehydrated patient or as a means of getting medication into a patient who is finding it difficult to take medicine by mouth (eg someone who is very nauseous and cannot keep anything down).
The use of natural medicines requires a lot of knowledge and should not be attempted if you do not know anything about them. There is a lot of literature available should you be interested enough to find out more.
This concludes this section in the “Bushcraft” series on useful trees and plants. In the next issue we are going to start a series on identifying and interpreting animal behaviour – something which is of utmost importance to the hunter.

Updated: Friday, May 20, 2011 10:47 AM


About the Author

Cleve Cheney

Cleve Cheney

Cleve Cheney,  hunting and environmental editor of Africa’s Bowhunter is a very well known figure in bow hunting and in conservation circles in South Africa. Cleve Cheney has been in conservation for 27 years, of which 20 years were spent with the National Parks Board – most of it in the Kruger National Park. During the time spent in the Kruger National Park Cleve culled no less than 50 elephants with a rifle and he has hunted most African game during culling operations.

Cleve has also been an avid bow hunter for 22 years and he has an extensive technical knowledge on bows, arrows and broadheads. Cleve is also an accomplished bowyer and has built many recurves over the years. He began offering bowhunting education courses more than 15 years ago. Until recently, Cleve was a lecturer at the South African Wildlife College where was a lecturer and instructor. He has a diploma in Nature Conservations and a MA degree in animal Physiology. Over the years Cleve has written more than a hundred articles on tracking, hunting, survival skills, and bow and rifle hunting. He started an 18 month long professional hunters course at the SA Wildlife College where he trained the first group of professional hunters.

Cleve has trained many bow hunters and his educative articles on how to hunt African game, as well as many other articles on different aspects of archery bow hunting an bush skills has been published in Africa’s Bowhunter, Game and Hunt magazine, Universal Hunter and many other magazines. He has been the lead article writer for Africa’s Bowhunter for more than 14 years.

His book on tracking, The Comprehensive Guide to Tracking: In-depth information on how to track animals and humans alike, is probably the most in-depth study on this subject available. For those who want to learn more than the basics, this book is a treasure trove of tracking information, insights, methods, and knowledge. The book is divided into logical sections: teaching yourself to track; understanding wildlife behavior; identification of tracks and signs; gait patterns and pressure release; blood trailing; tracking specific animals; track, stalk, and approach; bird, reptile, and invertebrate sign; man tracking; and dangers in the bush.


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