I have to admit...had I not experienced this simple treatment myself years ago (with staggering success) I may have ignored the time worn method with some scoff and skepticism. But witness it, I did: An old time mustard plaster artfully applied to my son by a sweet visiting nurse when he was just a wee lad. He was sick with pneumonia and starting a second round of antibiotics. Me? I was sick with worry and exhaustion after his three week stint of coughing around the clock. I was so grateful for the offer of help and welcomed the opportunity to learn anything that I could do that might help him. I had followed all of the orders prescribed by the doc, which honestly didn't seem to be helping very much. The threat of potential hospitalization loomed and only added to my helplessness.
It was a relatively simple procedure in the scheme of things, but the nurse's quiet confidence and gentle care of us both, not only helped my son to turn the corner on his healing, but instilled new confidence in my ability to 'do something' useful for my sick child. In honor of that turning point so many years ago, I thought I'd share the procedure, step by step, the way I was taught.
A mustard plaster will bring nearly immediate relief and warmth to a respiratory system plagued by long lingering coughs, congestion, bronchitis or cold damp pneumonia. It works mainly by increasing circulation and introducing deep heat to congested lungs, thus stimulating the loosening and expectoration of mucus.
Tool Gathering List for Plaster Preparation:
*Tablecloth or towel folded lengthwise to protect table when prepping the plaster
*A length of linen or muslin 24 inches wide by 36-48" long. Lovely well-loved old linens are relatively easy to come by at thrift shops and yard sales and are my plaster fabric of choice. The pieces are often stained or frayed at the edges but I still see a beauty and usefulness there that collectors glance over. The linen can be washed out and used again and again.
*Mortar and Pestle.If you have time and your guns can take the workout, Great! If not, a small electric coffee bean grinder works well to powder the mustard seeds. (Spoiler Alert: if you plan on using the same coffee grinder that your honey uses to make his morning cuppa, it is likely that his FairTrade Organic Peruvian Dark Roast will forever be touched by the sharp flavor of wasabi horseradish. Just sayin'. It's best to have a grinder dedicated strictly to coffee and another for everything else!)
*Bowl or basin for immersing the rolled up cloth plaster
*An extra towel to layer on top of the plaster once it has been applied to the body will help to keep the warmth in.
*If you are so inclined, plastic wrap offers some modern convenience to the process, but is not necessary. A layer of plastic wrap on top of the plaster and wrapped completely around the body will hold it nicely in place.
*Large safety pins can also be helpful especially if the plaster cloth is long enough to wrap around the torso to overlap and pin in back. Other wise, folding a towel in half length wise and wrapped around the body on top of the plaster will keep it warm and in place.
*Whole black or brown mustard seeds (ordinary yellow mustard powder will do in a pinch but quite possibly may lack the 'zip' needed to bring good circulation to the area.) Fresh ground powder is always your best choice. You'll need 1/2 cup for this batch
*Flour, any kind of flour: 2 cups
*Water to activate the' heat' in the powdered mustard seed and to bind it with the flour to make a nice spreadable 'schmutz'.
* Lay a folded towel or table cloth out across a table to protect the table. On top of that spread open your linen fabric. You can see that mine has been folded into a trifold and the fold lines are important to the assembly process.
*Next, mix together the 1/2 cup mustard powder and the 2 cups of flour until well blended. Take half of the dry mix away for the next plaster treatment. Store in a glass jar with tight lid. Set aside. With the remaining half, blend with little additions of water until the mixture resembles thick paste. (See photo) It cannot be too dry or too runny. You want it to retain a spreadable consistency.
~ Spread the mixture out thoroughly over the center part of the trifold, judging how much you will need to cover either the chest or the back. Doing both is a good idea. Remember that often the underarm area can be pretty sensitive, too, so don't spread the paste the whole length of the cloth. I've found that a person will tolerate pink tingling skin a bit longer when their sensitive spots aren't screaming to be unbound from the cloth!
*When the plaster has been spread sufficiently, fold the other two sides of the trifold over the center so that you have two layers of cloth, a layer of mustard mixture and a final layer of cloth. Flip the entire plaster over so that the single cloth layer is facing up and the two cloth layers are on the bottom. Roll each end in toward the center so that it looks like this....
~Next you'll need to put some very warm water in a basin. In this water, the rolled up plaster will be submerged into the water until the water becomes cloudy. You will likely get a good strong whiff of volatile oils that are activated by the water, smelling a bit like horseradish. Once the plaster has been activated, squeeze out the excess water and be ready to quickly unroll and apply to the body.
Afterthought Note**Before preparing the plaster itself, it's important to have the person receiving the treatment ready, reclining and warm with blankets covering waist to toes. They will need to remove upper body clothing at the very last moment. No need to invite a chill. An old sheet or towel should be placed over the pillows to protect from any potential splash and a quilt or blanket close by to throw over the shoulders for warmth. Perhaps, if modesty is a real concern, an extra sheet can be used to drape the entire upper body during the treatment.
Unfortunately, I couldn't get anyone in the house to volunteer for the pre-plaster prep today, let alone allow me to photograph them for this particular blog photo. So I've used Venus de Milo as a stand-in to demonstrate a very important first step: Man, woman or child~ All must protect very sensitive tissue from irritating mustard oils! I use small squares of linen, muslin or gauze pads and slather one side with a nice dollop of a gentle salve or honey and apply to the aforementioned sensitive tissue as demonstrated here by Venus. They will stay nicely in place if dolloped generously. Carry on....
~Next, unroll the plaster so that the single layer of cloth (with the mustard layer next) is facing the chest. Center the mustard plaster on the chest and wrap the sides under the arms. Pin in back if possible or use a dry towel topper pinned in front. This same process can be applied to the whole back above the waist...after all, the lungs are situated there, too.
~Leave the plaster in place for 10-30 minutes at the most. This procedure is likely to promote perspiration and reddening of the skin so you will need to be vigilant at checking underneath the plaster edges to asses the condition of the skin every five minutes or so....particularly if you are applying to a child's skin. You want to see nicely pink....not blazing red skin! If a person experiences discomfort, promptly remove the plaster and wash the area with warm soap and water. There are vast variations in skin sensitivity and in the potency of different mustard seeds. Every treatment may be different. Commit to stay close by for the entire treatment...beginning to end. Offer plenty of liquids to the receiving person before and during the plaster. It is important part of the treatment. When the plaster is removedencourage a warm soapy shower to remove any lingering mustard oils as they will continue to irritate the skin. Afterwards, bundle up your charge and allow them to rest for a minimum of 30 minutes. This procedure can be repeated up to two times per day while increasing fluids. It is likely that expectoration will occur with greater ease.
I like to show others how to do this in 'real' time ...it was a bit of a challenge with photos. If there are any parts that need deeper clarification, please don't hesitate to ask.
About the Farm...
I am witness to many moments of simple beauty, living and working here on this early 19th century farm. Often, the moments are fleeting and I am the only one to see. I'd love to share a few words or images here as they move me through the seasons. When you have a moment, please stop by the website to check out the Farm at Coventry herbal products line, the 'Homestead Herbalism' nine month course curriculum and monthly 'Herbal Hands' workshop schedule.
Farm at Coventry
Farm at Coventry