The Poultice: Ancient Medicine, Modern Methods

Poultice preparation

The poultice has been used for healing over thousands of years; in fact, we can consider the poultice to be one of the earliest forms of medicine. Among the first that we know of, are mud and clay poultices.

Poultices in the BioStar Lab:

I became intrigued with poultices while I was down the rabbit hole studying the published research on soil organisms, and the microbiome.

Healthy soils have an abundance of beneficial microbes and fungi that share a symbiotic relationship with plants and mammals. Soil is one of the fundamental classical elements described in Chinese, Hindu, Greek, Buddhist, and Japanese systems of thought: fire, water, earth, and air.

For me, it began with drinking clay water, which was a whole lot more appealing than the idea of actually drinking dirt. Clay water is made the night before, and is consumed the very first thing in the morning, followed by a full glass of water. As a part of my daily regimen for 4 weeks, it gave a new dimension to “I need caffeine.”

Surprisingly, clay water is pretty bland, but not the kind of beverage one would serve for brunch. Clay taken internally has what I call a “mop-up” effect: because it is negatively charged, it attracts positively charged ions (cations). Edible and external use clays are very alkaline, with a pH on average of 9.7.

I figured it was about time I mopped up my GI tract from my younger, wilder years….

I did not have poultices on my radar until the day I tripped on a small, unseen dog hole, and fell like a crashing oak to the ground. My knee was twisted and the torrent of swear words coming out of my mouth in quick succession could probably be entered in the Guinness Book of World Records. I dragged myself into the house, and crawled onto the couch. My partner, Peter, applied ice packs and pillows and I thought surely in a few hours I would be walking again.


While the swelling had come down from the ice packs, I could not bear weight at all on the knee. Then the idea came to me: earth element, healing ….poultice.

Mixing two clays, a hydrosol, arnica essential oil, and witch hazel, I slathered my knee with the cool, dark mixture, wrapped it in flannel and waited. When the clay had dried, I reapplied the poultice again, and four hours later I was able to put weight on the ball of my foot and the bruising was considerably less. It was one of those small eureka moments.

When I was back to normal, about five days later, I set about putting poultice on anything that moved. This included horses, dogs, Peter, cats, an unhappy rooster, and an unsuspecting toad. I even managed a poultice fly-by on a hen’s leg.

It became clear to me that one poultice wasn’t going to fit all the various needs of horse and dog owners: there needed to be a specific poultice for legs/muscles/ joints; a specific poultice for wounds/insect bites/ hives/ scrapes; and another poultice for feet/abcesses/hoof packing.

The Art and Science of Making Poultices:

Clay is clay, isn’t it? That’s what I thought until I began researching and testing clays. Where the clay is from, from which clay family it is from: kaolinite, Illite, Smectite or Vermiculite; whether it absorbs or adsorbs or both, what mesh it is, what efficacy rating it has, and how it is ultimately prepared as a poultice can significantly affect how effective the poultice is.

The adsorbing and absorbing clays like Calcium Bentonite cannot be made with metal; they cannot be mixed in metal or stirred with a metal utensil as the clay’s electromagnetic charge will act on the metal, limiting the clays ability to draw when applied to the skin.

Essential oils are a whole other kettle of fish. What grade of essential oil to use, how does Arnica oil differ in a glycerine base versus an alcohol base versus an olive oil base? (In case you are wondering, yes I tested all of them). And the answer lies in what actions you want from the essential oil and its carrier.

How Poultices Work:

Poultices were once referred to as drawing salves, because of the actions that removed or assisted the flow of debris through an opening in the skin (wounds, boils, ulcerations, bites, and abcesses ). Poultices increase circulation, which, in turn, increases oxygen to the area being treated.

Poultices that contain smectite clays or glycerin are powerful osmotics that help to remove excess fluid, allowing fresh tissue fluid to circulate into the area, bringing protective blood cells, nutrients, and oxygen to the site.

Artisan Poultices:

It became apparent to me on the clay journey that for BioStar to provide poultices, the poultices would have to be Artisan… that is, made by hand. Commercial poultices are made in stainless steel mixers, blended with stainless steel blades, which can reduce the action of the clays. Metal does not render clay useless, but it does reduce the osmotic benefits.

By committing to Artisan poultices, we can stay true to the fundamental basics of BioStar: ingredients, based not on cost, but on the highest available quality and efficacy ; eco-consciousness of how the raw material is cultivated, grown, harvested, and prepared or in the case of clays: how it is extracted, cleaned, graded.

Other Kinds of Poultices:

The ancient Egyptians used honey, tree resin, meat and lard for poultices, the early Chinese Dynasties used specific herbs and foods: carrots, bran, mustard, capsicum, opium, and ginger. In India, the early Ayurvedic practioners made poultice bags filled with herbs, and dipped the bag in warm oil, then massaged the body with the bag. The purpose of this poultice was to increase perspiration, and thus a release of toxins.

In the seventeenth centuries, there were porridge poultices, and flax meal poultices. On ships bread or biscuits were used for poultices by combining crumbs from the biscuits with boiling milk and herbs: Sumac for strains and sprains, marshmallow and hops to relieve migraines, charcoal or black powder for wounds. Even dried horse manure boiled in urine and applied for gangrenous wounds is quoted as a poultice by Mrs. Child’s in her book: The Family Nurse, published in 1837.

American Indians made poultices from clays, various foods, and plants including: roasted onions, pumpkins, bloodroot and red clover.

Potato poultices were common in the 19th and early 20th centuries for eye problems such as conjunctivitis. Another popular poultice was comfrey for sprains and strains. Dandelion poultices were used for itchy skin and rashes. Cabbage leaves were applied as poultices for gout, rheumatism, varicose veins, and for breastfeeding mothers to decrease discomfort.

Chinese Martial Arts practitioners today, particularly in China, rely on poultices of various Chinese herbs and clay.

Poultices for Equines and Canines (and even a feline): 

While poultices are common in most barns, and tack trunks, using poultices on dogs and not just horses is less common.

Strains and sprains, particularly of joints in dogs, respond very well to poulticing, and can be wrapped with something as simple as a wash cloth. A poultice on the sore pads of a dog paw works very fast to reduce inflammation. I also dab poultice on tick bites, using the clay as a drawing salve.

I have also used a poultice on a cat: an abcess below the ear from a cat fight (barn cat versus house cat, and the barn cat won), which healed up amazingly fast from a poultice made of clay, Collodial Silver, and Calendula Hydrosol (also known as Floral water). As fast as the poultice worked was the other interesting reaction from the cat: he never tried to rub the poultice off, either by rubbing his head against the furniture, or using his monkey-cat paws to clean the area. One less visit to the vet!

Poultices for Humans:

I have found that having clay on hand has become one of my staple go-to ingredients for a wide variety of issues including swollen joints, bee stings, bug bites, spider bites, tick bites, sore muscles, strained muscles, and a nice relaxing facial.

There is something, elemental, earthy about poultices. They can be mixed with fresh herbs, coconut oil, vinegar, dried herbs, tea-bag herbs, essential oils, hydrosols, manuka honey, colloidal silver, witch hazel, cabbage leaves, crushed cucumber.

Poultices provide an essential earth medicine that no household or barn should be without.


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2 Responses

  1. vanda burns says:

    sounds good- where are your recipes and ingredients. 72 yo and still learning retired nurse. thanks, vanda