Humans have been pooping in the woods for millennia, and commercially-packaged toilet paper has only been around for just over 150 years, since 1857 when Joseph Gayetty started selling the first packaged toilet paper in New York City.
The ancient Greeks and Romans had some methods involving shards of clay and pottery, as well as shared sponges on a stick rinsed out in saltwater. The earliest-known mention of paper being used in bathroom routines comes from AD 589 in China. Yet it still took centuries for it to catch on.
So, what happens if you find yourself camping or backpacking in the wild sans toilet paper? Well, first you can rejoice because your backpack has been liberated from unnecessary weight, and secondarily the re-wilder in you will have a chance to blossom. To help out in your time of need, we compiled a list of some of Mother Nature’s best TP based on comfort, ease of use, and absorbency. Here’s what to look for…
(Special Note: Obviously, never pull out an entire plant while harvesting nature’s TP, and only harvest 1-2 leaves from each healthy plant.)
Woolly Mullein photo via Wikimedia Commons
Even hard men want a soft leaf. If the cowboys used the large velvety leaves of the mullein (Verbascum thapsus) plant while out on the range, then you can too! Mullein is a biennial plant available for use in almost every bioregion. When this plant blooms in the spring, not only will it satisfy your lower cheeks, but you’ll be awed by a striking display of yellow flower blossoms growing up towards the sky. Since this plant grows over six feet tall, it will certainly grab your attention as you’re scrambling around on roadsides and trails. Added bonus: If you have a cough while at camp, whip up a tea made from mullein leaves, and you’ll be resting at ease in no time.
Corn Lily flowering, photo by Tom Hilton
If you find yourself hiking in the higher elevations of the American west, Corn Lily (Veratrum californicum) is a striking plant found in open meadows, and offers a sturdy leaf the size of a football for any trailside emergencies. In addition to its mesmerizing leaves, Corn Lily sends up towering stalks of intricate flowers in the early summer—making it one of the most photographed wildflowers in the California wilderness. Talk about a poop with a view!
Note: Corn Lily is extremely toxic when eaten. Never ingest any part of the plant, and for good measure, wash your hands after handling the plant (we hope you will do that anyway!).
Thimbleberry photo by Pfly
If you have ever come across thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), chances are you are already in love with this plant. Besides its mouthwatering berries, thimbleberry is a time honored plant for when you find yourself in a squeeze! Its leaves are pillowy and soft, and its flowers are creamy and bright. Thimbleberry’s geographic range is primarily in the Pacific Northwest, but you can find it as far south as New Mexico, and as far east as the Great Lakes. Just remember to wash your hands before you eat the berries!
Large Leaf Aster photo by RockerBOO
When lumberjacks of the Northeast and Great Lakes region are in the wooded wilds, they steer clear of tree bark, and instead use large leaf aster (Eurybia macrophylla) as their go to TP. Large leaf aster forms a carpet of greenery beneath the trees, and offers up violet flowers in the summer. The heart shaped leaves have been celebrated by indigenous cultures as both food and medicine. So, when working your body out on those long distance trails, be sure treat your derriere to these cleansing leaves.
Wooly Lambs Ear photo by Ivy Dawned
Similar to the Mullein plant, wooly lambs ear (Stachys byzantina) feels like wiping your fanny with a cloud plucked from the sky. Medicinal, edible, and super absorbent, this plant is uber useful to our human needs. While exploring the great outdoors, you can use this plant as TP or as a band aid. Lucky for us, it is found in every region of the United States!
Title image: Corn Lily leaves, photo from Jonathan Lidbeck
About the Author: Jillienne Bishop is a writer and editor for Hipcamp, an environmental communications consultant, and works on ecological restoration in the Klamath Mountains of Northern California. Follow her ramblings on Instagram.
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