10 Herbs to Take to A Deserted Island

Dr. Tieraona Low Dog

I was recently asked in an interview what ten herbs I’d take if I were stranded on a desert island. Though it’s hard for me to only choose ten herbs (I love them all!), I created the following list of first aid botanicals to cover a wide range of emergency medicine.

— Tieraona Low Dog, M.D.

Dr. Low Dog’s 10 Survival Herbs

I was asked by an interviewer recently what ten herbs I would take with me if I was going to be stranded on a deserted island. It was an interesting question and one that I wasn’t entirely prepared for. Living out in the mountains, foraging for food and medicinal plants, being pretty good with a knife, making fire, and first aid, I’d like to think I’m somewhat savvy when it comes to fending for myself. But being alone and stranded sounds rather scary. Finding food, a fresh water source, and making a shelter would be my top priorities. I’d hope there were plants on the island I could use for food or medicine. But back to the interviewer’s question. I chose ten herbs that together could build a survival kit that would help get me through many of the potential injuries, illnesses and struggles I might encounter:

1) Osha Root (Ligusticum porteri)

Because of its antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal properties, this aromatic member of the parsley family, is one of the best when it comes to fighting off infections. I’ve used it for more than three decades and consider it one of the most potent plants I’ve encountered. The root can be used to ease sore throat, fight off a respiratory and digestive ailments, or burned to ease a headache or open the sinuses. It can be powdered and applied topically for wounds. I could even use some of the powdered root to season any fish I might catch. Osha would be near the top of my list.

2) Goldenseal Root (Hydrastis canadensis)

Having goldenseal on hand would be crucial for overcoming gastrointestinal problems that might arise from drinking contaminated water or food. Diarrhea could prove deadly if I were stranded on an island. Goldenseal contains the alkaloid berberine, which has been shown to be active against numerous gut pathogens, including protozoa and amoeba, that can cause diarrhea. I could use it as a mouthwash for gum problems, mouth sores, or tonsillitis (it tastes terrible) and topically for scrapes and cuts I would likely acquire from climbing, digging and other things necessary to build shelter and survive.

3) Kava Root (Piper methysticum)

Kava is a marvelous and magical plant that has been used for centuries by the native peoples of the South Pacific islands. Because of its relaxing, euphoric effect, this herb would be one I’d reach for when the anxiety of being trapped on a deserted island set in, as I’m sure it would eventually. I could use it to as a sleep aid and its relaxing effects could help relieve muscle cramps and pain resulting from dehydration, and muscle soreness from lifting, pulling, and digging. I can’t help but hope my desert island would be somewhere in the South Pacific and I would have an endless supply of kava…..

4) Arnica Flowers (Arnica montana)

Used since the 1500’s for its medicinal properties, arnica is one of my favorite herbs for muscle aches, sprains, bruises and broken bones. I have used it for decades and find it invaluable for both humans and animals. When working to survive alone on an island in the middle of nowhere, chances are, there will be bruises, aches and potentially broken bones. If not treated, these conditions could end up being life threatening injuries, so quick mending is key. Arnica is a potent anti-inflammatory and its analgesic effects would make it a perfect fit for my first aid herbal survival kit.

5) Yarrow Herb (Achillea millefolium)

It is said that Chiron, the physician centaur of ancient Greece, told Achilles to take yarrow with him into battle in case he or his men were wounded. Indeed, yarrow was standard issue in soldier’s gear all the way through the Civil War. Yarrow contains a unique compound, achilleine, which can help stop bleeding. This would be key in the case of a wound or injury that would cause heavy bleeding. Add this to the pain relieving qualities of yarrow, and this herb is a must have for my island herb kit. By chewing the fresh leaves or mashing them with water, a poultice can be made to apply to cuts, scrapes, bruises (would combine with arnica), burns and skin inflammation (would blend with aloe vera) . Taken internally, it can help relieve stomach cramps and diarrhea. An all-purpose plant.

6) Cannabis Herb (Cannabis sativa)

I realize that this a plant with some baggage in the United States but when thinking about what I really want to take to this deserted island, Cannabis definitely makes the short list. It has well-documented antispasmodic, anxiety and pain relieving properties, all of which would be important in a survival situation. I would also rely on the plant fibers to make rope and/or a net for fishing, and if I planted some seeds, I could grow enough to make tightly woven baskets to carry food and water. Definitely a multi-purpose and highly utilitarian plant.

7) Licorice Root (Glycyrrhiza glabra)

Licorice has been used for centuries in Greece, China and Egypt to ease gastrointestinal problems including helping to heal stomach ulcers and recovery from food poisoning (it would blend nicely with goldenseal for this). Licorice eases cough and aids in expectoration and can be used as a mouthwash to help prevent tooth decay, something that could be a real problem on an island without a toothbrush! Licorice can be used to make shampoo, which would be nice to have. Topical licorice can help relieve skin rash symptoms, such as redness, swelling, and itching. All of these qualities have earned it a place in my herbal survival kit.

8) Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum)

So let’s get real. If I fell off a cliff, out of a tree, or got stung by a giant jellyfish, I’d want strong pain relief. Being in severe pain would restrict my ability to get water, food, and survive. There is nothing to compare in the herb world to opium poppy and I’d want some with me on my deserted island. Opium contains numerous alkaloids, including morphine, that offer powerful pain relief and sedation. Indeed, “somniferum” means to induce sleep. It also contains codeine, which is a powerful cough suppressant. I would save some seeds to plant but could also use them as a food source.

9) Aloe vera (Aloe vera)

When I think of a deserted island, I think of sunburn and skin irritation. A bad sunburn would hasten dehydration and increase the risk for heat exhaustion. I’d want to do what I could to prevent it of course, but I’d also want something to hasten the healing. That makes me instantly think of aloe vera. Beyond its inflammation relieving effects on the skin, it also soothes the tissues of the mouth and gastrointestinal tract. Rinsing my mouth with aloe could ease canker sores, mouth ulcers, and also reduce tooth decay. No brainer on this one.

10) Uva Ursi Leaves (Arctostaphylos uva ursi)

I would do my best to maintain good hygiene but let’s face it, it will certainly be harder than staying clean at home. One risk would be getting a bladder infection that could definitely turn serious without proper attention. While goldenseal could be helpful, there is one herb I’d want to have with me that is highly specific for the urinary tract: uva ursi. Uva ursi is still recognized in Europe as a traditional herbal medicine for relieving symptoms of mild lower urinary tract infections. Uva ursi contains arbutin, which when metabolized yields hydroquinone, a compound with antibacterial and astringent properties. Combined with goldenseal, I’d be in pretty good shape.
So, there you have it. The ten herbs I’d want to take with me if I was to be stranded on a deserted island. Thinking about how I’d tackle all the potential problems that could arise without the benefit of modern medicine or hygiene products, was fun and also hard, there were so many plants to choose from! Just thought I’d share.
And if you are interested in learning more about the art of herbalism, please join me for my Herbal Medicine Making course where you get to know the herbs and learn recipes and preparations that are extremely useful for staying healthy in your own home… or maybe even a deserted island.