Bog Myrtle Balm – Not Just For Insects

Bog Myrtle plant in Ireland boggy ground
Bog myrtle is a common plant of wet bogs, heaths and lake edges and is well known traditionally as a natural insect repellent. Photo: Alison Delaney.

Midges and mosquitos have quite the discerning palate, apparently. They greedily munch on some whilst leaving others blissfully untouched and unaware. Me, well I fall into the midge magnet camp; I’m a walking mosquito picnic.

Living in the peaty Irish Midlands, I’ve been keeping a small population of midges well fed and healthy during my rambles over the years. If I stand still for even the smallest amount of time, which I frequently do whilst gathering wild food, the midges take the opportunity to avail of whatever flesh is exposed.

A little fed up of returning from foraging forays with a basketful of greens and a neat line of itchy red bumps just above the waistband of my trousers, I felt compelled to experiment with plants to find my own wild solution to the irritation.

With peatland and all its associated wetness there are midges, yes, but there are also plants that provide comfort for those afflicted by the little bast…biting things.

Bog-myrtle, Myrica gale is a common plant of wet bogs, heaths and lake edges and is well known traditionally as a natural insect repellent. It is a twiggy stemmed deciduous shrub that tends to grow up to two metres tall in dense thickets. From April to May, yellow and red catkins appear before the emergence of the leaves. The oval to lanceolate leaves are grey green in colour, spirally arranged and have a finely toothed margin. The resinous fragrance from the crushed leaves is unmistakeable and gives hint as to its medicinal properties.

It’s a fantastic resource when you’re on a peat bog and can grab handfuls of the aromatic leaf to rub over your skin or pop a sprig behind your ear as did the farmers, hunters and ramblers of old. It’s not so brilliant though when you’re being eaten alive and the bog-myrtle isn’t conveniently close by. I wanted to make a portable balm in a tin much like Nordic Summer, a product I love.

Nordic Summer contains beeswax and pine tar which give it that characteristic smoky scent. I wanted the smell of bog-myrtle to be prominent in my own concoction but liked the idea of using pine resin for its antiseptic properties much like the balsam fir resin used by Paul Kirtley here:

Pine resin in a tin next to a sprig of pine
Collecting pine resin into a tin. Photo: Alison Delaney.

Pine sap is produced by the tree in order to seal wounds and protect itself from insect attack, fungal and bacterial infections caused by broken limbs and such like. The oozing sap which is like molten dripping candlewax is clear when fresh, quickly turns to white and then amber brown when older. A wander around any pine forest with a tin for collection and an old knife for easing the soft and flicking the dried resin off the trunk will easily yield sufficient without the need for digging into a tree and forcing the sap from it.

It is also worth remembering that the sap has a job to do in protecting the tree and collection should not interfere with this. I prefer to only use resin that has dripped away from the main point of damage on the tree.

Collecting pine resin can be a sticky business though so it’s best not to get any on fingers or clothes if at all possible. Its smell is one of the finest in the natural world and I defy you not to steal long sniffs of your resinous harvest as you wander through the woodland. I was very lucky to find a newly broken limb from a pine on one of my regular walking routes; the resin was pure white, abundant and took just a couple of minutes to collect. I used a generous handful for this project which was enough to make ten 50ml tins of balm.

brown cone like structures of bog myrtle buds
The collected bog myrtle buds. Photo: Alison Delaney.

Normally, it is the leaves that are used as a repellent but I made this balm at a time of year when there were no leaves to gather. The buds however were plentiful and have much the same essential oils that I needed.

Jar of oil with white pine resin lumps in it.
Pine resin and bog myrtle buds infusing in olive oil. Photo: Alison Delaney.

With pine resin and bog myrtle buds collected it was all go for operation repel. Pine resin is oil soluble and I needed to dissolve as much as I could whilst at the same time infusing the oil with bog-myrtle buds. I placed a generous handful of resin and buds, or the more preferable bog-myrtle leaves if using, into a glass jar and covered generously with olive oil. I probably used double the quantity of oil to resin.

I then left the jar on the range to gradually heat and help the resin dissolve giving it a vigorous shake whenever I remembered. This actually took quite a bit longer than I expected, over two weeks and so, in my impatience, I eventually stuck the jar in the dehydrator whilst I was drying out some fruit leathers. I know that some people use a double boiler to dissolve the pine resin into the oil, keeping the water well below boiling point, the idea is to warm not boil. Whatever you and your patience can handle, I suppose.

Once satisfied that all of the resin has dissolved and the bog myrtle has had sufficient time to infuse (the two weeks plus on the range did that for me), remove the buds or leaves, gently heat the infused oil in a double boiler and add about 1 oz of grated beeswax, stir until melted, pour into suitable containers and leave to set.

Small metal screw-top tins containing hard balm made of bog myrtle and other ingredients
The finished balm in tins. Photo: Alison Delaney.

Note the adorable bog myrtle bud decoration on some of these, while pretty, didn’t turn out so well. They turned mouldy a month or two after being made, so I wouldn’t recommend copying this not-so-fantastic idea.

Since making this natural insect repellent, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to test whether my irresistibility to midges is lessened when using it. Smearing a little onto my skin before heading out into the swarms was quite exciting for a change. The midges definitely didn’t back off in the way that I’d expected and still danced annoyingly around me, but they didn’t land and they didn’t bite. Well mostly this is true, there have been a couple of red bumps on occasion, but nothing close to the number I was receiving. A very happy success.

Another benefit of this bog-myrtle and pine resin balm came as a bit of a welcome surprise to me. I expected the balm to be a reasonably effective repellent, which it is, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so wonderfully effective as a healing balm. I perhaps should have had an inkling considering Paul’s earlier experience using balsam fir sap, but sometimes you don’t fully appreciate something until you try it out for yourself and see the results first hand.

I don’t usually get spots, but recently I got the mother of all blind spots on my chin. I did exactly what you’re not supposed to do, I squeezed it and squeezed it some more and just made the whole spot situation a thousand times worse than it ever needed to be. It still hurt but, instead of looking like a small raised bump, I now had Mount Vesuvius firmly planted on my face.

It was so large and inflamed, I worried that I might knock people out with the thing if I turned my head too quickly. In desperation more than anything else, I reached for the tin of bog-myrtle balm and applied it to the monster of a thing I’d created. Surprisingly, after just a few hours the redness and swelling had gone down significantly. I applied some more and within just two days, you’d never know I’d had a spot at all let alone been foolish enough to squeeze one.

I’m a little nerdy when it comes to plants so this was really exciting stuff. I gave some balm to a young lady I know that has suffered with acne for a number of years and she too was amazed at how quickly her skin improved when using it. The power of plants never ceases to impress me. Bog myrtle, pine resin, beeswax and oil were all that were used to make this insect repelling, wound healing, acne fighting, sensational smelling balm in a tin. What’s not to like about that?!

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Alison has spent many years sharing her enthusiasm for all things nature with both children and adults in her roles as primary school teacher, green schools and environmental awareness co-ordinator, scout leader, guide with the Irish National Parks and Wildlife Service and latterly via wild foods via Nibbling On Nature. Alison has worked with Frontier as a course assistant since 2013.

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4 Responses

  1. Dave Welsby
    | Reply

    Excellent article Paul, I can’t get the Nordic Summer Product here in Canada and have often thought about making my own.

  2. Liam Gadd
    | Reply

    Lovely article… I love learning about the way we can utilize the properties of plants.
    Quite often when studying different plants for identification they say that said has “medicinal” uses of is edible etc.
    Very few actually explain how to make use of them, of course their meant as identification guides.

  3. Matt Allen
    | Reply

    Wonderful Alison thank you. I have terrible trouble with boring insects and I’ve always hated using off the shelf products. But that and the medication I use sometimes causes my skin to break out I may well have to give this a try. The top of the boiler came to mind or next to the wood stove perhaps.

    Once again, thank you

  4. Kim
    | Reply

    What a fabulous article, gave me a bit of a giggle about the spot situation , I live in the midgy capital of Scotland and they love a good munch of my skin, we do not have pine trees here due to living on a small island, however, legend has it that a clansman was tied to the midgy post (a stake no less) and was eaten alive. The post is still there, we have lots of bog Myrtle growing here, will try it in my salves!

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