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Grow Arnica for a Homemade Sore Muscle Salve

If you’re like me, you tend to overdo things when the weather is beautiful and you’ve been cooped up all winter. Just last weekend, we had 70 degree temperatures in February. I ran outside in a t-shirt and began aggressively cutting back dead flower stalks to make room for new growth. I yanked weeds, turned the compost, pulled the mulch off the strawberries, and spread seeds for a new bed of poppies. It was glorious! However; my body — still accustomed to winter’s lazier habits — was not happy the next day.  The backs of my legs were super sore, and if I’d been better prepared I would’ve had some of my homemade arnica salve on hand.

Arnica montana in field
Fotolia/Didi Lavchieva

Arnica’s Healing Properties

Arnica is used topically to help ease the pain of sore muscles and heal bruises. According to the German Commission E’s arnica monograph, it’s an approved anti-inflammatory with analgesic (pain-relieving) and antiseptic properties. In a 2007 study, arnica gel was found to be as effective as Ibuprofen gel for relieving pain and inflammation associated with osteoarthritis.

Gels and ointments containing arnica are available as over-the-counter applications in most pharmacies, however they contain petroleum, preservatives, and other ingredients that can easily be avoided by making your own simple arnica salve with homegrown or store-bought arnica flowers.

Arnica is not safe to consume internally and should only be used topically.

Arnica montana close up

How to Grow Arnica

The most commonly used medicinal arnica species is Arnica montana, which is an herbaceous, clump-forming perennial that’s hardy in zones 4 to 9 and is native to the mountains of central Europe. It grows best at high elevations, with 6,000 feet above sea level being its sweet spot. The folks at Strictly Medicinal Seeds have successfully grown arnica at 2,000 feet above sea level (Williams, OR), and they’ve also heard reports of it being grown successfully up to 8,000 feet above sea level. Those of us who live at lower elevations should try growing meadow arnica (Arnica chamissonis), which is less dependent on elevation and is hardy in Zones 4 to 10. The German Commission E has determined that meadow arnica is interchangeable with A. montana in terms of its anti-inflammatory affects.

Both arnica species should be started from seed indoors and then transplanted outdoors after danger of spring frost has passed. Germination can take up to 14 days, and soil should be kept moist in the meantime; arnica is a light-dependent germinator. Established plants prefer slightly acidic, moist soil in a sunny location. Seeds for both arnica species can be purchased from Strictly Medicinal Seeds.

Harvest yellow arnica flowers in mid- to late-summer and spread them on a screen or paper towel to dry.

Arnica montana rocks

Homemade Arnica Salve

Rub this salve on sore muscles and bruises or massage into hands when osteoarthritis pains flare.

  1. To first step is to make arnica infused oil. To do this, first fill a pint jar 1/3 of the way with dried arnica flowers.
  2. Fill the jar with the carrier oil of your choice (olive, almond, sesame, etc.)
  3. Cover and let sit in a warm, sunny location for 4 to 6 weeks.
  4. Strain the plant material from the infused oil. Compost the spent flowers and set the oil aside.
  5. To make the salve, measure the infused arnica oil and then find ¼ as much beeswax. For example, if you have 1 cup of oil, then find ¼ cup beeswax.
  6. Add the oil and beeswax to a double boiler and heat until the beeswax is thoroughly melted.
  7. Pour finished mixture into tin cans or small jars and let cool completely before using.


 Hannah was inspired to write this blog post during her time enrolled in The Herbal Academy’s online school where she worked her way through the Entrepreneur Herbalist Package. She is managing editor for Heirloom Gardener and senior editor for Mother Earth News. Read all of Hannah's posts here.

How to Grow, Forage, and Use Yarrow

 achillea millefolium
Fotolia/Marta Jonina

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a drought-tolerant perennial with feathery, fern-like leaves and tiny flowers that are spread out over large, flat heads. A number of showy yarrow hybrids have been bred to display an entire rainbow of colors, however; if you’re growing yarrow for its medicinal properties then stick to the traditional white-flowered heirloom, which most resembles its wild and hardy ancestors. Yarrow often grows in the disturbed soil of roadsides and along fields and meadows. A popular choice for pollinator gardens, yarrow can become invasive because it spreads by both its creeping roots and dropped seeds.   

Yarrow’s genus name, Achillea, comes from the Greek mythological warrior Achilles. Legend says that Achilles used yarrow in the battlefield to help heal his soldiers’ wounds and to stop the bleeding, which also explains why yarrow’s other common names include soldier’s woundwort, knight’s milfoil, and herbe mĀ­ilitaris. As a battlefield herb, yarrow was picked fresh, chewed or mashed, and then applied directly to the wound as a poultice.

Yarrow is well known for its vulnerary (wound healing) and diaphoretic (perspiration inducing) properties. Applied topically as a poultice or rinse, this antimicrobial, styptic, and astringent herb helps promote the growth of healthy tissue while protecting against infection and preventing blood loss. Taken internally as an infusion or tincture, yarrow’s diaphoretic properties cause a light sweat, which helps cool the body and reduce fevers. A uterine stimulant and antispasmodic, yarrow is also traditionally used for relieving painful and delayed menstruation (but should be avoided by pregnant woman).

 yarrow tea


Fever-Breaking Yarrow Tea Recipe

All of the herbs in this recipe are safe diaphoretics that will induce a sweat to cool the body, break a fever, and eliminate toxins. Elderflower is also an expectorant, which will help release mucus from the lungs, and catnip is an anti-catarrhal, which will help prevent more mucus from forming.

  • 2 parts peppermint
  • 1 part yarrow (aerial parts)
  • 1 part elderflower
  • 1 part catnip (optional, if congestion accompanies fever)

Combine the herbs and steep ¼ cup tea blend in 1 quart hot water for 15 minutes, covered. Strain and drink warm, taking small sips over the course of a few hours. To help induce a sweat, also wrap yourself in a warm blanket and put a hot water bottle at your feet.


How to Grow Yarrow

Yarrow is a fantastic choice for a medicinal herb garden, especially one that’s being established by a beginning gardener. Yarrow is easily grown from transplants or started from seed and is hardy from USDA zones 2 to 9. I purchased yarrow seed from Strictly Medicinal Seeds when I started my medicinal garden and was impressed with the germination rate. The seeds are light-dependent germinators, so cover them with only a sprinkle of soil – if at all – and keep them moist until they sprout, which should take between seven and 14 days. When established, transplant to a well-drained, sunny location after all danger of spring frost has passed.

 country garden with yarrow


I spaced my yarrow seedlings 12 inches apart and by the end of the first year they had already expanded to fill the 3-by-4 foot bed. My yarrow bloomed its first year and has proven its evergreen status by remaining one of the few green spots in my Zone 5 winter garden.

Part of the reason I love growing yarrow is for its hardy, no-fuss nature. It doesn’t need to be watered often, if at all, and I’ve never had any problem with pests. Although pests stay clear, pollinators flock to the tiny white flowers and, more often than not, I’m gifted with the site of butterflies or bees buzzing around my yarrow patch. Consider planting yarrow as a companion plant in your vegetable garden.

 cut yarrow

To harvest, hand-cut yarrow a few inches above the base when the plants are in the early stages of flowering. Garble to separate the flowers and leaves from the large stalks, and then either use the herb fresh or dry it for storage. Yarrow’s potency and aroma hold up well in storage and will keep for a year or more.


Foraging for Yarrow

Yarrow grows wild in every U.S. state and Canadian province. It blooms from late April to early July in the south and from mid July to mid September in the north. There are two other white-flowered perennials — both of which are also in the parsley family (Apiaceae) — that you may confuse with yarrow: Queen Anne’s lace and Hemlock.

Although very similar at first glance, yarrow differs from Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) in both its flower and its leaves. Yarrow’s white flowers form in clusters at the tip of its many branched shoots; whereas Queen Anne’s lace has a flatter umbel that’s attached to one main stem. Yarrow also has feathery, fern-like, finely divided leaves (hence its species name millefolium, which means “a thousand leaves”), and Queen Anne’s lace, on the other hand, has fewer leaves and they look like flat carrot or parsley leaves. Queen Anne’s lace is edible and its roots are considered survival food by many. So, if worse comes to worse, you’ll have the wrong plant but you won’t get sick.

yarrow and queen annes lace infographic 

Another plant with flowers that resemble yarrow is Hemlock (Conium maculatum), which is one of the deadliest plants in North America. Ingesting even a tiny bit of hemlock can be fatal, and it’s the plant that supposedly poisoned Socrates. Bring a guidebook with you and don’t ingest anything that you even question as possibly being hemlock.

One way to tell the difference between yarrow and poison hemlock is the stem — yarrow’s is a little bit fuzzy and green, whereas hemlock’s stem is completely hairless and often has purple splotches near the base. Hemlock can also get much bigger than yarrow, up to 8 feet tall, and has significantly more foliage, which is flat and parsley-like.

hemlock infographic 

The YouTube video "yarrow, poison hemlock and Queen Anne's lace - a close look at the differences" is a helpful resource for comparing the three plants side-by-side.



Hannah was inspired to write this blog post during her time enrolled in The Herbal Academy’s online school where she worked her way through the Entrepreneur Herbalist Package. She is managing editor for Heirloom Gardener and senior editor for Mother Earth News. Read all of Hannah's posts here.


How to Make a Materia Medica

making a materia medica
Image credit: The Herbal Academy

A materia medica is a body of work used to study and record information about medicinal plants. Crafting your own materia medica is a fantastic way to thoroughly study one medicinal plant at a time while creating detailed, creative plant profiles. These useful reference tools include monographs for the plants of your choice, and each monograph includes an image of the plant along with its Latin and common name, botanical features, harvest information, medicinal use, parts used, recommended dosage, folklore, and any other information that you’d like to keep handy. For the plant’s image, you can tape dried plant material to the pages (read How to Make a Flower Press to learn more) or you could sketch or paint the plant you’re studying. If you don’t trust your artistic nature, then consider picking up an inexpensive copy of the Medicinal Plants Coloring Book; after coloring your selected plant you can cut and paste the image into your materia medica. (Confession, this is what I do!)

dover coloring book
Image credit: Dover/Ilel Arbel

Homemade materia medicas can be structured in a three-ring binder so they lay flat, written in a composition notebook, or organized on a collection of note cards. They can even be typed on a computer or iPad so the files are easily searchable. Consider creating reusable, printable templates. And most importantly, have fun! A beautiful, well-made materia medica is a custom-to-you resource tool that you’ll find yourself reaching for time and time again.

Materia Medica History and Inspiration

As you start mentally designing your future materia medica – or making small adjustments to the one you already have – consider some of these classic materia medicas as inspiration.

Most of the following images are from various translations of De Materia Medica by Dioscorides. Dioscorides was a Greek physician and botanist in the Roman army, and he published the five-volume work between 50 and 70 AD. Volume one covers aromatics, volume two focuses on animals to herbs, volumes three and four focus on roots, seeds, and herbs, and volume 5 covers vines, wines, and minerals.

One of the longest lasting natural history books, De Materia Medica was widely read for more than 1,500 years before it was replaced with revised herbals during the Renaissance. Several illustrated manuscripts survive and one of the most famous is the Vienna Dioscurides manuscript that was used as a working hospital reference for more than a thousand years.

blackberry vienna 

Credit: wikipedia public commons

This illustrated page (above) features blackberry vines and is from the famous Vienna Dioscurides - early 6th century.


mandrake naples

Wikipedia public commons

This illustrated page features mandrake root and is from the Naples Dioscurides, 7th century. 


physicians arabic 

Wikipedia public commons

This illustrated page features a physician preparing an elixir and is from the Arabic Dioscorides, 1224 AD.


whole book byzantine 

Wikipedia public commons

 This Byzantine materia medica is from the 15th century.


tibetan materia medica

Wikipedia public commons/Wellcome Images

This anonymous materia medica is written in the 'Trungpa' ('khrungs dpe) genre of Tibetan medical literature and deals with various plants, animals, and stones.

Linnaei materia medica

Wikipedia public commons/Wellcome Images

 This beautiful title page accompanies Caroli Linnaei’s Materia Medica, 1749 AD.


chinese materia medica

Wikipedia public commons/Biodiversity Heritage Library

This Chinese materia medica by Li Zhongli contains 12 volumes with 379 illustrations and was first published in 1612. The illustration is of the blackberry lily (Belamcanda chinensis).


Free Herbal Materia Medica Course

If you’re still not quite sure how to build your own materia medica – or if you’re overwhelmed by all the options - then check out the Herbal Academy’s online Herbal Materia Medica Course, which is FREE for the entire month of January (2017). By the end of the course, you should know how to study a plant thoroughly, how to find the best resources for your studies, and how to research a plant’s botanical characteristics, growing conditions, harvesting guidelines, active constitutions, safety, herb-drug interactions, and more. You’ll also receive advice from the Academy’s teachers about how to transform the herb from a name in a book to an integrated part of your everyday well being. This course is for beginning and advanced students alike and no prior knowledge about medicinal herb is required.

materia medica screenshot 

For those enrolled in the free course, The Herbal Academy provides free downloadable resource charts to help with botanical identification along with thoughtfully designed templates for students to print and fill out as they built their own materia medicas. There’s also an option to upgrade your enrollment with the purchase a beautifully bound Materia Medica Journal, which you can work through as the course progresses. You can share photos of your homemade materia medica on Instagram using the hashtag #myherbalstudies.  

my herbal studies 

Hannah was inspired to write this blog post during her time enrolled in The Herbal Academy’s online school where she worked her way through the Entrepreneur Herbalist Package. She is managing editor for Heirloom Gardener magazine and senior editor for Mother Earth News. Read all of Hannah's posts here.