The Sweetest Cheeks

When my nephew Jake was a baby, he had persistent eczema on his face. He was miserable, and we were miserable for him. Most of us in my family have some experience with eczema. Elbows, eyelids, hands, cheeks – at any given moment, at least one of us is likely to have an eczema outbreak somewhere. Baby Jake was simply the latest sufferer. My sister tried a variety of products. Some eased the redness and itchiness for a time, but none seemed to truly clear it up. This made me wonder how earlier generations of our family soothed their skin.

As I paged through my many book devoted to medicinal herbs and their uses, I found there were many plants that have been used for skin rashes. Calendula, chickweed, and lemon balm are among those listed as beneficial for eczema and other itchy rashes. Lavender, oatmeal, and rose can nourish dry skin. Plantain and lavender can ease the effects of an encounter with poison ivy. A well-planned kitchen or herb garden, then, could provide many possible aides for a baby’s red and itchy cheeks.

As I researched, I began to entertain the idea of creating a salve for my nephew. I wanted to use locally-sourced beeswax in order to thicken the oil infusion and to help the skin retain moisture. I also wanted to create something that did not have a strong odor. My sisters and I are all sensitive to fragrances, and I didn’t want his mother to avoid using the salve in order to spare herself the sneezes. In the end, I settled on two plants whose historic use had been confirmed through modern research: burdock and violets.

Violets that grow in my yard.

Burdock was native to Europe and has naturalized widely both in North America and in Asia. Also known by the common names cockleburr and Beggar’s buttons, burdock is a hardy biennial that grows enthusiastically and impressively wherever its seeds happen to land. In 1649, Nicholas Culpeper attributed burdock’s uses to its astrological connection to the planet Venus: “By its leaf or seed you may draw the womb which way you please, either upward by applying it to the crown of the head in case it falls out; or downwards in fits of the mother, by applying it to the soles of the feet: or if you would stay it in its place, apply it to the navel, and that is one good way to stay the child in it.” Our certainty that wombs wander has (thankfully) become a relic of the past, and some of Culpeper’s other suggested uses for burdock, such as applying it as a poultice to the feet to ease the symptoms of gout, also have faded from use. There are other folk uses for burdock, though, that persist, including its benefit to skin conditions. Burdock is considered a detoxifying herb, with the ability to draw toxins, infections, and irritants out of the body. It has antibacterial and antifungal properties as well.

Violets have been symbols of romance since ancient times, and their medicinal qualities were recorded in Arabic medical texts and later copied into European herbals. The common blue violet that appears in late spring lawns is edible and is as cooling, gentle, and nourishing as you would expect this sweet plant to be. It’s no wonder that folks once believed that drinking an infusion of violets could heal a broken heart. While that quality might be debatable, there is some evidence that violets can act as an anti-depressant. Violet’s anti-inflammatory properties are beneficial to skin conditions, particularly hot, red rashes such as eczema. In Germany, the violet is well-regarded as a skin-nourishing plant, especially for children.

I prepared my burdock and violet salve and sent some to my sister. About a week later, my sister sent me this photo of my nephew and the message that his cheeks were finally clearing after using the salve for a couple of days. It had been five months since his cheeks were free of the flaming red rash. A couple of weeks after this, another sister informed me that, in a moment of desperation, she had applied Sweet Cheeks to my niece’s fierce diaper rash. Apparently it’s good for those cheeks, too!

Sweet Cheeks is available in two forms: a spray bottle and a balm stick. The spray bottle will ensure that there is no contamination from the diaper area; the balm stick is easy to apply to faces, elbows, and other areas. My nephew M. thinks applying it himself is a hoot! He also likes to apply it to the couch and the kitchen counter…

The burdock root and violets used in my Sweet Cheeks salve were sourced in Grinnell, Iowa. The violet grows in abundance in my backyard, and there are massive burdocks growing in my nearby friend’s garden. One specimen we pulled was, from leaf to root, nearly longer than my friend is tall! When these supplies run short, I supplement with herbs purchased from Mountain Rose. The beeswax comes from a backyard hive maintained by another friend who lives off a gravel road just outside of town.

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