This winter I’ve come down with a chest cold that just won’t shift. In fact, I seem to have developed a tendency to always catch winter coughs and bronchitis. When this happens, my usual go-to immune-boosters just don’t seem to help that much, which means that this isn’t just a random bug but a constitutional or energetic trait. So I wanted something that would be warming and stimulating to get things loose and moving and open up my lungs.
It seemed like a good opportunity to try a chest decongestant salve, something that I’ve never used before. I know many people swear by Vicks VapoRub, but I haven’t touched the stuff since my mom put some on my chest as a little kid and it burned like the fires of hell. Seriously, I don’t remember much from that time in my life but I do remember how much that stuff burned! Also, it’s made from petroleum jelly and petroleum-derived mineral turpentine, which I don’t really want on me. I mean I wouldn’t eat it, so I don’t really want to massage it into my skin, you know?
I’ve seen various recipes for DIY decongestant salves, most of which are dominated by eucalyptus, peppermint, and/or camphor essential oils. If that works for you, awesome. Those are certainly effective choices. Unfortunately I don’t have any camphor, and while I do have peppermint I actually don’t like it much. I don’t deny it generally works, so I do keep it on hand, but I had already tried peppermint and eucalyptus on an earlier iteration of this cough without much success. They helped a bit, for a little while, but I wasn’t wowed and I thought this would be a good excuse to try something new to me. If my concoction doesn’t work, I can always go back to the tried-and-true formula.
But meanwhile, I was reading some old-timey herbal recipes which called for various tree resins–mostly frankincense and myrrh–and turpentine. I remembered that I have some some myrrh and frankincense (I don’t normally buy them because the trees that produce them are severely over-harvested, but happily I had received some as a free sample) and I also had another tree resin which has traditionally been used as a source of turpentine–pine tar. I collected this resin earlier this year from Loblolly pines (Pinus taeda), one of the “yellow” pine varieties. Yellow pines have a more turpentiney smell than “white” or “red” pines do. But that’s cool because the turpentine is what clears the lungs. Sidebar: I think most people think of scary chemicals when they hear the word turpentine, but the name actually derives from the Greek terebinthine, the name of the pines from which it was extracted in ancient times. Natural turpentine is just an extract of pine resin. Vicks VapoRub, and most modern applications, do not use the natural stuff, but a “mineral turpentine” derived from coal and petroleum, which is actually chemically completely different.
So anyway, I decided to base my decongestant salve on these resins, with their antiseptic, lung-opening, and drawing properties, and I added mullein (an expectorant), juniper berries (a warming stimulant), and just for good measure a fourth antiseptic tree resin, Balm of Gilead (the resin from poplar/cottonwood buds). Finally I added essential oils of rosemary, fir needle, and cedarwood.
I think it smells fantastic–like trees!–and I’m pleased to say it has been very effective at loosening things up. I decided to name this salve “Ancient Forests” in honor of the source of these beautiful-smelling, cleansing resins.
Notes on working with resins
Tree resins require heat to “melt” and impart their medicinal qualities to an oil. You can do this the slow way, by solar infusing (if it’s warm enough where you live) or placing it by your stove, but I want to try it NOW so I decided to use the “folk method”–heating the oil in a double boiler. Also right now, there just isn’t enough sun to do the job.
One bit of advice for anyone who hasn’t made an oil or salve with resins: they will most likely stick to whatever you are heating them in, and whatever you’re stirring them with, so if possible content yourself with the prospect of disposing of those items, or dedicating them permanently to resin processing. (I’ll be adding more oil to the residue in the jar I used to heat the oil, to let it slowly absorb the smelly resinous goodness.) If you get sticky stuff on your hands or elsewhere, the rule is oily counteracts sticky. A good rub with oil should get everything nice and clean.