With fire season stretching to summer’s end and possibly into early fall, poor air quality can irritate and inflame our bodies in many ways. Luckily, plants abound that can help. Here are some of my favorites for soothing lungs, eyes, and heart during smokey times.
Top on my list is Marshmallow (Althea officinalis) root, flower, and leaf. Marshmallow, the original source of the popular campfire confection, is high in polysaccharides, a mucilage that cools, coats, nourishes, and repairs inflamed mucous membrane tissues. You can purchase Marshmallow root in any health food store that sells herbs in bulk, or you can seek out other Mallow (Malvaceae) family plants that have similar properties. Use Common Mallow (Malva neglecta), which grows as a weed, or use garden flower favorite, Hollyhock (Althea rosea). Keep in mind common sense practices for harvesting: avoid any plants that may have been sprayed with chemicals, are close to roadsides and contaminated areas, or lie underfoot.
Please note: If you are taking medications orally, you may want to take them 1-2 hours before or after drinking Marshmallow, as some professionals feel that the mucilage in Marshmallow may temporarily decrease absorption of the medications.
Other mucilaginous and cooling plants you could use are Violet (Viola spp. — yes, your garden Johnny Jump ups can be fine help!) leaf and flower, and Heal-all (Prunella vulgaris) leaf and flower. Note that the best way to extract the mucilage contained in these plants or in the Mallow family plants listed above is to prepare any of these herbs via cold infusion. That is, let the plant material sit in cool water — flowers and leaves for 2-3 hours, and roots for 4-6 hours or overnight, then strain and drink.
I also turn to my other plant allies for soothing and healing mucous membranes (bronchial and gut). Children who learn about herbs for first aid invariably learn about Plantain (Plantago spp.) and Calendula (Calendula officinalis) — both of which are vulnerary (wound healing), cool inflammation, and offer other healing gifts. As with the mucilaginous plants, both of these plants are superb allies when our lungs are irritated, or when we find ourselves inflamed in other ways (our gut for instance). Use the leaf of Plantain, and the whole flowering head of Calendula. Note that an important medicinal concentration within Calendula is found in the resinous bracts, contained in the green base of the flower. If you only work with the petals, you’re missing out on some potent goodness!
Please note that if you are allergic to any members of the Aster (Asteraceae) family (such as Chamomile, Echinacea, etc.) you may be better off avoiding Calendula.
Lesser known as a wound healer, but also a great ally, is Rose. Rose works a little differently. As an aromatic and astringent (tissue tonifying) plant it cools and calms our inner ecology and mind. If you’re feeling anxious, irritated, or grief-stricken by the assault of the smoke or the destruction caused by fire, include Rose petals (the more aromatic the better) in your beverages. On its own, Rose can be drying, so combine it with one or more of the other herbs mentioned here.
Plantain, Calendula, and Rose can all be prepared as either a cold infusion or as a tea. As a hot medicinal tea, use -1-2 tsps of the dried plant or 1-2 tablespoons fresh per 8 oz cup, and let steep in just-boiled water for 15-20 min. Press the herbs with the back of the spoon to include some final medicinal extraction.
For eye irritation, you can splash cooled Rose, Calendula, and/or Plantain tea in your eyes, or for a calming treat, you can purchase Rose hydrosol. When too much smoke has me down, I like to spray Rose hydrosol in my face — a refreshing mist that soothes both eyes and spirit.
One last herb: if poor air quality for days on end has taken a toll on your lungs, turn to Mullein, a superb tonifier of the respiratory system. To make a nourishing infusion, fill a quart jar a quarter way with Mullein leaf, then fill the jar with just-boiled water, and let sit for 2-3 hours. Important next step: filter the liquid through a coffee filter. This is absolutely essential to do, as Mullein contains tiny hairs that can irritate the throat — not what you want to drink when you’re trying to heal your bronchial passages!
Combine any of the plants listed above into a tea, and feel free to include other plants, such as mint or kitchen spices (ginger, cinnamon, etc) for flavor and their own healing properties.
As wildfires rage, stay cool. Soothe and replenish your body and spirit by turning to our green neighbors, the plants!
Rebecca Altmann, “Wildfire smoke and Our Bodies.”
Juliet Blankespoor, “Calendula, Sunshine Incarnate: an Edible and Medicinal Flower”
Kiva Rose Hardin, “Three Faces Under a Hood: the Many Aspects of Violet..”
This article is for educational purposes only. If you are on medication, are pregnant, or have other health considerations you are advised to check in with your doctor or other healthcare professional regarding use of these or any herbs and their preparations.