When I’m working in my garden late and the mosquitoes are biting, I usually rub an aromatic plant on my arms and face to minimize bites and keep welts from rising. For those times when I’m away from my garden, I recently learned how to make a simple bug spray using native plants.
At a talk sponsored by the Gardening with Natives group of the California Native Plant Society, Alicia Funk, an expert in plant-based medicine, said mugwort was an especially effective bug repellent. To make it, she fills a glass jar with the plants, pours boiling water over them and lets them steep overnight. In the morning, she strains the overnight infusion and puts it in a spray bottle. Other plants that can be added to the mixture include California Bay, Mountain Pennyroyal or Coyote Mint, Yerba Santa or manzanita.
I’m delighted to find this practical use for mugwort, because it’s a vigorous plant that needs to be pruned regularly to keep it within bounds.
For poison oak, Funk makes a spray using manzanita leaves in the same way: Fill a jar with manzanita leaves, pour boiling water over them, let the mixture steep overnight and strain. Put the liquid in a spray bottle for easy application. The astringency of the leaves dries rashes and is a very effective treatment, she said. Other plants that have been used to treat poison oak include mugwort, California Bay, Yerba Santa, acorn shells and Grindelia.
Did you notice that bay, manzanita and mugwort could be used in both formulas? One of the first things I noticed when I began studying herbs was that the same herbs seemed to be used for many different conditions, which made me think it was a scattershot approach. But as I learned more, I realized that this is a strength, because you can substitute what’s available. For first-aid uses, often all you need is a certain property. For an insect repellent, you need aromatics that repel bugs. For poison oak, you need something that calms the itching or that’s anti-inflammatory.
Funk’s household cleaner for the past four years is also an overnight infusion she makes from native plants. She uses California Bay leaves and the bright-green tips of Douglas Fir branches and adds distilled vinegar to the strained mixture. It’s an all-purpose spray she uses to clean wood floors and disinfect countertops.
"If you can boil water," Funk said, "you can make these useful concoctions."
Even her 5-year-old knows about yarrow. When someone has a minor injury, instead of getting a Band-Aid, he runs to the garden to get some yarrow leaves. Lightly crushed and applied to a cut or scrape, the leaves stop the bleeding and quickly reduce pain. The most effective varieties are the native white or Island Pink Yarrow.