For the most part, a poultice is the most potent method of application of herbs to a localized area. This is because as the constituents of the herbs are absorbed into our tissues through the layer of moisture covering our skin, they are immediately replaced by more constituents from the herbs that diffuse into the layer of water. Also, the concentration of constituents is very high because the ratio of herb to liquid is very high. We are using a lot of herb and very little water.
We usually use dried herbs, but I often apply what I call a "survival poultice" if I get some kind of injury or bite when I'm wandering around in the fields and woods. In these circumstances I will find one or a few good healing herbs in my immediate area, chew them up and apply them where needed. I used to do this for my kids when they were small and we were on a hike or camping trip. You don't need to worry too much about bacteria in saliva because the antimicrobial properties of the herbs are very concentrated when applied this way and will take care of any risk of infection.
Here is the bowl of dried herbs I'm using for this particular poultice.
When using dried herbs, they should be coarsely ground. I usually rub them between my palms or use a mortar and pestle. We apply just enough boiled water to moisten them but so that they are not runny.
The herbs after moistening them with boiled water.
The purpose of the poultice I am preparing is to help heal the incisions from my surgery and to penetrate deeper into my leg to help heal my broken tibia (shinbone) as well. This poultice consists of 1 part common comfrey leaf (Symphytum officinale), 1 part stinging nettle leaf (Urtica dioica), 1 part purple loosestrife herb (Lythrum salicaria), 1 part pot marigold petals (Calendula officinalis), 1 part Canada goldenrod herb (Solidago canadensis) and 1/2 part whole flax seed (Linum usitatissimum). It is essential that a poultice is very mucilaginous. Comfrey is one of the few herbs that is mucilaginous enough that it doesn't require the addition of a more mucilaginous herb. However, since comfrey is only making up 20% of this formulation, it is necessary to add something to make it more slimy. My preference is to use a small amount of whole flax seed whenever I prepare a poultice. It will add the extra mucilage that we need and has important healing properties of its own. Never use ground flax seed. We just want the mucilage. We don't want to release the oil.
Getting ready to apply the poultice. At this point I had been poulticing the smaller incision on the right twice per day
for two weeks and the larger incision on the left for one week. There is clearly a difference between the two.
When applying a poultice I always put some gauze between the poultice and the skin. This serves two purposes: firstly, it ensures that small particles of herbs can't get into an open wound; secondly, it allows the poultice to be easily lifted off when finished without having to wipe bits of herb off the skin. This is important because when we remove the poultice we want any remaining herb infused liquid to dry on the skin. We use the minimum amount of layers of gauze to prevent bits of herb from getting through. The number of layers will depend on the thickness of the gauze.
Laying the gauze in preparation for the poultice.
When we apply the poultice we must completely cover an area a bit larger than the area we are working on with the moistened herbs and press down on them so that there is good contact with the skin. I usually apply it with a spoon and use the spoon to press the herbs once they are applied.
Beginning to apply the poultice...
...and finishing it off.
Under normal circumstances our skin is water-proof. In order to get the constituents of the herbs in our poultice to penetrate through our skin our skin must be hydrated to eliminate its water-proof characteristics. To accomplish this it is necessary for the entire area where we wish to apply the poultice to remain moist. We can't allow the skin to breathe. To accelerate this process it is also necessary that the poultice be applied as hot as we can tolerate and remain warm for the duration of the application. This process also takes time. The longer the poultice is in contact with our skin, the more hydrated our skin becomes and the better the penetration. I usually recommend a minimum of 30 minutes, but an hour or more is sometimes necessary, depending on the severity of the condition being treated. To facilitate the hydration of our skin it is best to wrap the poultice in plastic so that our skin remains in complete contact with herb infused liquid from our poultice and isn't able to breathe (no contact with air). Most types of plastic wrap are made of polyethylene which isn't known to leach any toxic chemicals. After wrapping the poultice I recommend pushing down on it once more to make sure there is good contact with the skin and no air spaces between the plastic and the herbs.
The poultice wrapped in plastic.
This whole process must be done as quickly as possible so that the herbs are still hot. Once the poultice has been wrapped in plastic it is necessary to cover it with a towel or something similar to help insulate it to keep it warm. If is going to be applied for a long period of time it may be necessary to apply a hot compress over the plastic. A cloth soaked in hot water that has been wrung out so that it isn't dripping will do. The cloth can be reheated periodically when it cools down. If the area where we need to apply the poultice isn't too large, a hot water bottle will also work and is more convenient than using a compress.
Covering the poultice with a couple of layers of towel.
Once we are done we can remove the poultice. For my leg, I have been applying a poultice for 45-60 minutes twice per day. When we use gauze the whole thing will lift off really easy.
The poultice has been uncovered and is ready to be removed.
When we remove the poultice the skin will be moist with herb infused liquid. We don't want to wipe this off. Let it dry completely before covering the area.
After removing the poultice we let the remaining liquid completely dry on the skin.
Notice the larger droplets of herb infused water.
Once the remaining herb infused water has dried completely the process is complete. We can bandage the area, if necessary, or cover it in some other way. We can also apply an ointment or liniment to the area, if appropriate, to further assist the healing process.
Which herbs we use, how often and how long we apply a poultice will depend on the situation, but the basic elements of applying a poultice will always be the same.