OK, let’s start with a warning and a disclaimer: herbal medicines are not something you just jump into without educating yourself. There are plenty of herbals that have side effects, just like conventional medicines. There are some herbal preparations that can kill you quite quickly – aconite springs to mind. The other issue is knowing what you’re treating; as a registered nurse I’m a pretty fair diagnostician after forty-plus years in the business.
If you want to get into herbals, find some good books or online sources and spend some time with them. If you can find a knowledgeable practicing herbalist who will teach you the basics, even better. With that said, I do use herbs in a number of ways. Although this post is about horehound, some of the pictures are clover stalks; they do look different, but I just thought I’d make that clear.
Horehound, or marrubium vulgare if you want to be scientific about it, is thought to be one of the original “bitter herbs” of the Jewish Passover. It’s an extremely drought-resistant perennial plant that grows well in our area and it’s easy to gather. Horehound cough drops and cough syrup were once considered the standard treatment for a cold-related cough, and in my experience, horehound tea is quite effective for that purpose. Among other constituents, it contains vitamin C, and the essential oil has pinene, limonene and campene, which are probably what makes it effective for coughs. It is still in use in lung medications in many places in the world. Marrubiin, the main constituent, can dilate the arteries, ease lung congestion and help slow a rapid heartbeat.
It should go without saying that you want unsprayed and preferably naturally-grown plants. The best time to gather the plant is when it flowers (when you’re going to use the above-ground parts, just before flowering is the best time for most herbs, as the essential oils are strongest then). I gather the stalks of the plants in the morning by cutting them about 3 inches above the ground.
When I get back to the house, I give it a quick spray with the hose to wash off dirt, and then soak for about ten minutes in a basin of cool water with a few tablespoons of salt dissolved in the water. This treatment will flush out or kill any small insects. Then I drain, rinse with clean water, and bunch the stalks with a rubber band, about six to eight stalks to a bundle.
I hang them over a hanger in the wash house, protected from sun, dust wind and insects, and let them dry until the leaves are brittle. Next, I strip the leaves and flowers from the stalks. If I want the herb for tea, that’s all there is to it. The stripped leaves and flowers are stored in carefully labeled glass jars – preferably dark brown or blue glass to keep out light – in a relatively cool, dark place. Stored this way, most herbs are good for a couple of years. For longer storage or to save space, I make tinctures, which will be the subject of another post.
To use, bring water to a boil and pour over the herbs. Cover, let steep for ten minutes, and sip the tea. It’s very bitter, so I use honey to take the edge off. In my experience, a cup of horehound tea just before bedtime will subdue a cough for three or four hours, which is usually enough time to get settled into sleep. The honey also makes it good for a sore throat. You can also make horehound candy cough drops, but that’s another post!