At the moment I am researching 'saltpeter' or 'saltpetre'....not a plant you say....well it once was; and right significant in history. " It was a great pity, so it was, This villainous saltpetre should be digg'd Out of the bowels of the harmless earth, Which many a good tall fellow had destroyed So cowardly; and but for these vile guns, He would himself have been a soldier. "- Shakespeare. Henry 1V part 1.
Yes, saltpeter, formed by the earth naturally by rotting plants in caves, seeping through rocks was made into gunpowder. Sodium nitrate or saltpeter has many uses, among them fertelizer and a preservative. Saltpeter forms naturally in caves found in heavily forested lands where the rotting leaves, roots and plants decompose, seep through the ground and form saltpeter...a white crystaline structure. There are also directions for making saltpeter or saltpetre from decaying composte. Consider these instructions given on the internet:
SaltpeterPotassium nitrate (KNO3) also known as saltpeter and in the 1800’s as, nitrate of potassa, or saltpetr. It has many uses including the manufacture of gunpowder, gun cotton, dynamite fusses and it is a good oxidizer. It can be extracted from green plants, ashes, and almost any dirt except sand and on the large scale from cow manure.
Before the 1900’s people in Sweden had to pay their land taxis in saltpeter; we will be using the same method of extraction that they used.
Step 1: Make a heapGather a large amount of cow manure or you can use some planting soil. Now mix the cow manure with some green plant life, dirt and a little bit of ash from burned thistles, worm wood, ash from tree bark or normal wood ashes, The ashes contain potassium carbonate which helps extract the minerals in the pile. The pile is also known as a saltpeter bed. If you can you should mix in some potato leaves so that the dirt and cow manure just cover the leaves; potato leaves are good because they contain a lot of potassium. The pile should be about ½ cow manure and it should be 6 to 7 feat tall so that most of it is exposed to the atmosphere and if you have some straw mix that in too it will help circulate the pile. Your pile should be setting on something that is waterproof so that the (KNO3) doesn’t seep into the ground, a peace of plie wood or a layer of clay will work. Now you need a roof over it; you can use a tarp and some cinderblocks. It should look like this. If you don’t have enough cinderblocks you could attach one side of the tarp to a fixed structure like a shed.
Step 2: Pore stale cow urine over the moundLant (stale urine) is pored over the pile at least once a week for three or fore months or until thin light yellowish crystals collect on the surface. Stop poring lant over the pile and wait until you see a layer of potassium nitrate efflorescing over the surface 6 to 10 centimeters in thickness. The trick hear is knowing what to look for, potassium nitrate collects in light yellowish crystals. This takes longer in dry climates like Arizona. Next scrape off the top layer and start purifying it, later when you see more crystals you will scrape off the next layer and so on until the pile needs replaced.
Step 3: Treatment of the ripe saltpeter earthPoke several small holes in the bottom of a five gallon bucket and place a peace of cotton cloth over the holes in the bottom then pore a ¼ to ½ inch layer of fine wood ash over the cloth, place another peace of cloth over the ash so as to make a filter. Now fill the bucket ¾ of the way to the top with dirt from the heap. While you are doing this you should be boiling two gallons of water. Set a pan under the bucket, you can use some wood blocks to keep the bucket from touching the bottom of the pan.
Next very slowly pour the boiling water over the top and wait for the water to collect in the bottom of the pan; “this may take a while”. Then bring the water back to a boil in order to get the most out of the solution you can add some potassium carbonate. Next pour it through a paper filter “a coffee filter will work” it is important that the water is close to boiling when filtered. “Do not use a charcoal filter it will remove the potassium nitrate”. If you want you can boil most of the water off. To get the fine silt out of the bottom you could use some tape; stick the tape to the bottom while you pour the water out; you could also try using non soluble glue.
Next pore the water into black containers, “you could use film containers”. You don’t have to use black containers but it makes it is easier to get all of the potassium nitrate out of them. If you want real fine saltpeter you should find a way to role or spin the container while the water evaporates.
Important note: if you are going to use this saltpeter for nitric acid; after the water is evaporated you should mix the saltpeter in with some purified distilled water, re filter it and evaporate the water off once again to insure that there is no other alkalis in it like potassium chlorate.
(The Arabs are said to make saltpetre from camel dung and urine. I wonder what will win in the end...their camel dung or our cow piss.) The saltpeter for the gunpowder for the Revolutionary War was mined from a huge cave in Kentucky.
I think I would buy mine. Now what is the medicinal use of saltpeter...well, let me see in the years before refrigeration it prevented....starvation. Yes, that's it. They used it to preserve food or at least to help the salt cured meat like sausage, ham and corned beef keep its pink color. And, they used it in some food, notably butter, milk, cream, cured meats and in preserving eggs. They used in fertilizer it to grow bigger crops. And, they used it in guns to hunt game; one of the 3 ingredients of gunpowder. OK. All this from a bunch if rotten plants, manure even. How did they use saltpeter as a food preservative? There are many 'colonial' recipes on the internet, for cured/smoked bacon, ham, sausage, brisket, corned beef, potted meats and potted fish...etc. It might be nice to collect a few just incase our old standby electricity fails us sometime. I like to think they used the saltpeter mined from the caves on and in their food. There are something like 2200 caves in the USA. Used in too large of a percent in food, saltpetre can have some adverse effects on the digestive system, kidneys and liver. Saltpetre is usually used in conjunction with common salt or sea salt. It stops the growth of bacteria that causes meat to spoil but does not kill the bacteria, salt does likewise. When the brine solution is removed the meat is smoked or cured.
Potassium nitrate is also commonly called saltpetre. Wikipedia has this to say about its medicinal uses. "Pharmacology
Potassium nitrate can be found in some toothpastes for sensitive teeth. Recently, the use of potassium nitrate in toothpastes for treating sensitive teeth has increased and may be an effective treatment.
Potassium nitrate in some toothpastes has shown to relieve asthmatic symptoms in some people. It was used in centuries past to treat asthma as well as arthritis.
Potassium nitrate successfully combats high blood pressure and was once used as a hypotensive. Other nitrates and nitrites such as glyceryl trinitrate (nitroglycerin), amyl nitrite and isosorbide derivatives are still used to relieve angina.
Potassium nitrate was once thought to induce impotence, and is still falsely rumored to be in institutional food (such as military fare) as an anaphrodisiac; however, there is no scientific evidence for such properties. "
If you harvest saltpetre from a cave you will need a chemical anaylsis to determine if it is sodium nitrate or postassium nitrate. I think I would just purchase mine.
Perhaps if you look at any plant, and think 'what good is that plant?', you will know at least one good use it could serve if just in its rotting death....saltpeter.