When I delivered my first child nearly 30 years ago, my direct-entry midwife recommended we both climb into the herbal bath as soon as possible. She prepared this, I later learned, by steeping 3 herbs and a whole bulb of garlic in the household’s largest pot filled with water, then pouring this infusion through a strainer into a bathtub filled with water and a generous handful of salt. To this day, the earthy scent of this brew simmering takes me back to that moment. The three herbs are described below:
Named for its triangular, pouch-shaped seedpods, this herb has been used for centuries in many cultures for treatment of excessive bleeding, urinary complaints, hemorrhoids and diarrhea in people and livestock. When wet, the mucilage in the seedpods becomes sticky. It was used to stop bleeding during WWI. It is hardy, and this delicate flower even can be seen blooming in the cracks of sidewalks in downtown Detroit.
Also known as Bearberry, and many other names, this low-growing shrub has been used for centuries to treat urinary ailments and inflammation of tissues. Bears are said to be fond of its fruit, hence the Latin name, uva meaning grapes and ursi meaning bears. It has astringent and antiseptic effects. The plant can be found growing along the shores of the Great Lakes, where it plays an important beach-stabilizing role. Make sure this is responsibly obtained, if you buy it, and do not harvest it from sensitive natural areas. Uva ursi thrives in sandy, infertile soil in full sun, but cannot compete with other plants in more hospitable environments.
This medicinal herb has many historic names, including knitbone, boneset, knitback, and its botanical name, Symphytum, derives from Greek roots meaning to cause to grow together. Comfrey is known for its abilities to reduce inflammation and foster new skin cell growth. Its use was documented by early Roman physicians. It is a hardy plant, with large, hairy leaves, which propagates easily. This is a potent herb, and in 2001, the U.S. FDA issued a warning against taking it internally, as the pyrrolizidine alkaloids it contains are toxic to the liver. In the official warning it states that there is concern that it can be absorbed through the skin, particularly through open wounds. So this traditional midwives’ treatment may be effective, but there are theoretical risks to its use.
The addition of garlic should not be skipped. Garlic has been shown by modern research to be effective at fighting bacteria, fungi, viruses and parasites. It contains Allicin, which is the active ingredient that is so powerful. I’ve seen herbal baths sold online where there is no garlic, but lavender instead. That is not a good swap. The garlic makes it smell medicinal, but it is medicinal, so that is as it should be.
To make this infusion, add 1 c. each of the dried leaves of the three herbs to 2 gallons of water. Add a whole, unpeeled bulb of garlic. Cover and bring to a gentle boil. Simmer 45 minutes, covered to retain the oils. Draw up a bath of warm water in a very clean bathtub. Add 2 c. of coarse salt to the tub. Pour ½ of the infusion through a sieve into the tub. (Save the other half, refrigerated, for a second bath.) Traditionally, the new mother and her baby both bathe in this, using care to keep baby’s face above the water. My midwife claimed that this was the best way to speed the drying of baby’s umbilical cord. This is also used in sitz baths, and a poultice can be made of the boiled herbs.
These Traditional Midwife’s Herbal Baths can be purchased from the Indigo Forest Natural Family Specialty Store in Ann Arbor at 4121 Jackson Rd., 734-994-8010, http://www.theindigoforest.com.