and related species... Other Names: Heartleaf arnica, Leopard bane.
Family: Compositaceae (sunflower family)
Arnica is a well-known herb, with several species occurring in North America, all of which are highly medicinal and effective for their uses, and so are interchangeable. Which species you may use will depend upon your location if you make your own medicine, and if not, the three most popular species in North America and Europe are Arnica montana, Arnica cordyfolia, and Arnica latifolia. The species pictured on this monograph page is Arnica cordyfolia (arnica with a heart-shaped leaf).
All the Arnicas love to grow in medium sized colonies, in forested mountain areas, where they receive more moisture, and are at least partly shaded by stands of connifers, within the mix of low-growing understory plants. They are most easily identified when in bloom, by their nearly luminous yellow flower heads, which are not entirely symetrical, but instead have a slightly irregular head shape, exhibiting a dozen or so ray flowers around their edges. The plant reaches a height of 16 to 18 inches, though individual stems may reach over two feet as they grow their way into the sunshine from a shaded area under the reaches of a bush.
The leaves of Arnica cordyfolia are dark green, and are heart-shaped. They are the predominant part of the plant which is seen, although this may not be realized at first, since our eyes tend to focus on the brighter flower parts, which sprout up at the edges of the colonies, but also occur in other areas where they recieve a bit more sunshine.
A Colony of Arnica beauties in the mountain sun
The leaves are opposite, and are much larger at the base, becoming much smaller or absent as one proceeds up the stems. They are irregularly toothed along the leaf margins and have a distinctly-interesting texture, and veining, which gives them a slight, wave-like three-dimensionality, and keeps them from being flat and straight. The leaves are also quite thin, and their uneven three-dimesionality is likely an adaptation allowing them to absorb more moisture from the atmosphere, or perhaps better capture sunlight.
The stems of these beauties are hairy and fairly rough. In areas where I collect, the plant blooms from June through mid August, when you will begin to see a browning of the leaves, and the flowers become masses of fuzz, overnight, as they disburse their dark brown seeds on the breezes, carried by the white, translucent fibers, like mini parachutes.
The whole plant is medicinal, though the roots are the strongest in their effects. The aerial parts contain more volatile oils, while the roots contain more resins and aromatic components.
Gathering & processing:
When gathering, ethical harvesting should be practiced. I concentrate on gathering mostly the aerial parts, however, when pulling them by hand, parts of the root breaks off and remains attached to the upper body, which is fine, since I prefer the wider array of plant contstituents in this mixture of parts. First, clean the root parts so they are free from soil, by cutting the root parts free from the aerial part. Rinse in a clear mountain brook, and pat dry on a towel. Dry separately, as this part takes longer to dry thoroughly.
If gathering while traveling, I've found that a good trick is to place the plants loosely into a light cloth bag, with the tops at the bottom of the bag. The cloth allows air to circulate around, preventing mold growth, and drying them nicely. When using this method, the plants should be brought out and fluffed up a bit, perhaps a couple times each day. In one or two days, the flowers will wilt, and dry out, producing their fuzzy white filament mass (irritating when inhaled). The leaf and root require several days to completely dry out (in dry weather). More care must be taken in wet weather to prevent molding, but nearly complete drying is still possible if the plant material is fluffed up several times each day.
At home, I prefer to lay the whole plant on shaded drying racks (mine are inside a shed). A layer of fine screen material is laid onto the hardware cloth (larger metal mesh wire material), so that when dry, the whole bundle can be rolled up and easily taken from the racks. These rolls can be placed, end-first into a cardboard box or bag, removed via gravity and shaking, while positioning the screen to prevent spillage. Cut into smaller sized pieces with a hand sheers or loppers. After drying and chopping, I recombine all parts of the plant material (roots and aerial parts), and place them in paper bags first... attaching a name tag to the outside of the paper bag, indicating common and Latin names, date harvested, and a batch or lot number. You can include information about where it was gathered or just keep your own private memory of where. After the bag is half to two-thirds full, I slip it into a large plastic bag, and press the air out well before using a twistie to tie it shut. This is immediately put into the herb storage pantry where it is dark and the temperatures are cool. The dried, cut plant is stable for up to two years as long as it is kept completely out of the light, and is stored in cool, dry conditions.
A fresh herb extract can be made in the field, by cutting the fresh plant into small pieces, packing them into a canning jar, and pouring in enough 95% pure ethyl alcohol to cover the plant material with an inch of liquid. This is the field equivalent of a 1:2 strength, which is what is recommended for fresh plant extracts. If you have the fresh plant material at home, you may prefer to use a scale. To achieve the 1:2 strength, the ratio must be followed. It indicates the relationship (ratio) of plant material weight to volume of liquid used. In other words, the 1:2 ratio indicates that 1 ounce (weight) of fresh plant material is to be used with 2 Fluid Ounces (volume) of pure ethanol.
A dried plant extract can be easily made as follows. For a dried plant extract, the ratio of its strength is 1:5, indicating that 1 ounce (weight) of dried plant material should be used with 5 fluid ounces of solvent. However in this case, the % of alcohol within the solvent, is pre-determined, according to solvency ratios, which were scientifically determined back in the late 1800's. Much of this work was done by Uri Lloyd, a famous chemist of the period, for a whole gamut of plants... (back when the medical establishment used plant medicines almost exclusively, and obviously knew and valued their medicinal properties)... in any event, the percentage of alcohol in the solvent is between 50% and 60%, the former % is used for aerial parts, while the latter % is used for roots. As always, put a plastic sandwich bag over the top of the jar before putting on the lid and ring. This provides a great seal, and also prevents degredation of the inner surface of the lid, allowing its re-use. After sealing, be sure to label the jar well, including the date of preparation, and then shake vigorously twice a day for at least two weeks...(however, if you're bumping along in your truck all day on back country jeep trails, your extracts will be shaking themselves).
After decanting, straining the liquid, and pressing the remaining liquid from the plant material, through a muslin cloth, you'll have a pleasantly green extract, which can be used as described below.
An infused Arnica oil (oil extract) can be made either from the fresh or dried plant, using the same ratios as above for either fresh or dried materials. In either case, it is preferrable to wet the plant with either some alcohol, or the already made extract of Arnica. In the case of a fresh plant infused oil, this will act to kill any mold spores or bacteria which are inevetably present on all fresh plant material. In the case of the dried plant, it (the plant extract) will work to slightly rehydrate the material, and in both cases, the addition of an alcohol/water extract will act as an intermediate solvent, loosening the constituents within the plant tissues, allowing their more complete extraction, and increasing the strength and usefulness of your medicines. With either form, the wetted material should be placed in a covered non-metal container and allowed to "digest" for at least several hours, and preferrably, 12 hours, before the herb and chosen oils are placed into the cooking vessel. (I like grapeseed and hazelnuts best, as they are drawn into the skin, rather than sitting on top for a long while). Cook at approximately 105-110 degrees F., for at least 4 or 5 days, stirring often during the days and evenings. If you wish to stick to the folkloric methods, you can place the material into a jar, which is then placed into a heavy dark cloth bag or paper bag. When sitting the lid should be slightly loose to allow for expansion and contraction. Several times each week, the lid should be tightened, and the mixture shaken for several minutes. Then, loosen the lid, and again let sit. After the plant material has been cooked (or heated in the sun) for the required time, strain through a heavy muslin cloth and press out the remaining herb material, removing all the oil you can. A simple hydrolic press can be an invaluable tool for removing as much liquid as possible, (for both infused oils and alcohol/water extracts), and will soon pay for itself many times over. In the case of the dried plant extract, you can place the oil into an appropriately sized container immediately. With the fresh plant oil, you may wish to let it sit for a day or two to allow any water to accumulate in its own heavier layer on the bottom. This allows the oil to be easily poured off the top leaving the water part for the compost pile. After filtering and placing in jars, label, and refrigerate. Adding 1 fluid ounce of mixed tocopherols to each quart helps extend shelflife.
Arnica is used in inflammatory kinds of conditions, especially in cases of injury to the tissues of the body, with its resultant swelling and bruising. It seems strange to me that there is no sensation of heat or cooling when applying arnica, as is present in many analgesic balms, and yet, the effects of arnica are truly profound, (as I was able to see first hand, when a friend playing basketball tried to catch the ball with his fingernails, two of which were peeled back from the nail bed significantly, while every finger, his palm and part of his wrist were very badly bruised. Several ligaments were badly stretched. I mean, this injury was UGLY! Even so, after application of the infused oil, the bruising was all but gone within two days; within a week, hardly a trace of the injury was left, besides the dark, loose nails, which were trimmed off, and eventually grew back, as good as new).
I cannot stress the following enough: In the case of an injury such as the one described above, it is critical to treat it as quickly as possible, in order to limit or lessen swelling and congestion, and to begin the healing process. The plant constituents within Arnica cause dilation of the finer capillary networks, providing better blood supply, fluid transport, and removal of damaged tissue. The increased flow of blood to this fine network also facilites the transport of the raw materials necessary to repair injury and together, these effects can dramatically speed healing.
"All in all, the classsic use of Arnica is for joint, muscle, and cartilage pain that is aggravated by movement and helped by rest. Usually when something just sits there and throbs, you need to apply cold to the area, or an aromatic balm--or take an aspirin. After a day or two, however, it may stop throbbing and only hurt when you use it. That is an Arnica moment"... (Michael Moore) (Ref.1 below)
Arnica should NOT be applied to broken tissue, however if care is exercised, it can be applied to the area around a break in the skin, helping to repair the surrounding tissue. If using arnica internally, care should be used, as using too much of the plant internally can cause intestinal blistering. If one uses it in smaller doses of 10 to 15 drops, twice a day, taken in a full cup of water, it should work to stimulate healing nicely.
In several references to medicinal plant use by Native Americans, the plant was used for toothache, by binding a poultice of the leaf (fresh or dried), to the cheek over the toothache. Also, an infusion of the roots (not the tops) was taken for backache. (Ref.2 below)
A compress or foementation can be useful for promoting healing. This is accomplished by combining 1-2 teaspoons of the extract with 16 fluid ounces of water ( 1/2 liter). (Warm water is suggested for this). Next, take a clean, absorbant cloth, and place into the liquid. Remove cloth and fold. Remove the excess liquid by wringing or pressing gently... so that the cloth is quite moist, but not dripping wet. Apply to the injured area. I suggest a towel be placed under the area being treated to catch any runoff, and that the entire compress can be covered with wax paper (if you can still find it), or a piece of plastic, which is substantial enough to allow its re-use many times. This serves to keep clothes or bedding from becomming wet. This poultice should be re-wetted and re-applied at least 3 times each day, leaving it on for at least an hour each time.
For stronger effects, Arnica can be applied directly as a crushed, fresh plant, or used as a linament, (though some skin sensitivities can occur), or taken internally (in minute doses of 10 to 15 drops, diluted in a cup of water, ingested twice daily) for the conditions described before.
For people with skin sensitivities or autoimmune (hot) conditions, either the plant itself (in any form), or the method of administration, may be aggravating to the conditon, and so it is recommended to try rubbing the infused oil into the worst joint area for a couple of days, as an experiment. If it feels better, then it is probably going to help you, however, if the skin becomes red and irritated, it is probably not the herb for you to use, and should be immediately discontinued. Arnica can be useful in osteo-arthritis, improving circulation to the joint and its internal tissues.
Commercial forms and preparations:
Various sports gels and lotions containing Arnica are available, and it is also available in a homeopathic form, which I recommeded trying if the infused oil or tincture is too irritating.
"Do not continue topical use if the preparation causes a rash. Do not use topically at the same time youare using aromatic balms or DMSO, or if the skin is seriously abraded. Do not use internally if you are pregnant, have chronic intestinal inflammation, or have any overt disease involving blood vessels, blood clotting, heart function, the liver or the kidneys."(Michael Moore)(Ref. 3 below)
1)."Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West", by Michael Moore; 1993, pg. 50.; (ISBN 1-878610-31-7)
2.) "Medicinal Plants of Native America" Volume One, Museum of anthropology,University of Michican, technical reports, Number 19, Volume 1. (ISBN 0-915703-09-2)
3)."Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West", by Michael Moore; 1993, pg. 50.; (ISBN 1-878610-31-7)