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