If you suffer from chronic respiratory issues, such as asthma, chest congestion, chronic bronchitis, or allergies, take comfort in some of the wonderful lung tonic herbs you can grow in your backyard: mullein (Verbascum thapsus), horehound (Marrubium vulgare), wild cherry (Prunus serotina), marshmallow (Althaea officinalis), and plantain (Plantago major). Each has a different role to play in respiratory health, from clearing coughs to soothing and opening the lungs. So, consider each plant’s actions to choose the best ones for you. Other lung herbs include elecampane (Inula helenium), thyme (Thymus vulgaris), peppermint (Mentha x piperita), Korean mint (Agastache rugosa), bee balm (Monarda spp.), and New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).
Remember that some respiratory conditions warrant immediate medical attention, including serious infections, difficulty breathing, and pressure that feels like an elephant is sitting on your chest. You can certainly use herbs concomitantly, but medications remain best for acute asthma attacks and pneumonia.
Mullein. Mullein’s soft, flannel-like leaves help signify its soothing nature. Mullein opens constricted airways, moistens the lungs, and eases and cools inflammation and irritation. It can be used solo, but it makes a lovely supportive herb in almost any lung blend. Let this attractive biennial weed seed itself throughout the garden. Harvest the leaves anytime they look healthy, preferably before the plant blooms. Strain out the leaf hairs with a cloth or coffee filter when you prepare it. Best in: syrup, tea, tincture.
Horehound. This wrinkly, silvery herb tastes intensely bitter, with an oily texture. Even though it doesn’t taste or smell aromatic, it’s rich in essential oils. Horehound thins and moves mucus, and it’s a classic for wet coughs, making them more productive. Consider it for any respiratory issue with thick mucus congestion, including allergies and postnasal drip. It’s too bitter for tea, but excels as a fresh plant tincture. Horehound thrives in dry, sunny spots near Mediterranean herbs, such as lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and thyme. Best in: capsule, cough drop, honey, syrup, tincture.
Wild cherry. The bark of this common wild tree (and its scrappy cousin chokecherry, or Prunus virginiana) has an excellent, long-standing reputation for easing dry, irritated, spastic coughs. That’s why many commercial cough drops and syrups are cherry-flavored (albeit now artificially). Turn to cherry bark whenever your lungs are dry, irritated, and tight — for example, from wood smoke or chronic asthma. Cherry bark is safe and most effectively used dried, with little exposure to heat during its preparation. Best in: honey, syrup, tea, tincture.
Marshmallow. Best known for its slimy, soothing properties for the gut, marshmallow similarly soothes the respiratory system. It supports stronger herbs in formulas to treat dryness, inflammation, and irritation. Consider marshmallow syrup as a base for a cough elixir, mixing it with horehound, mullein, and wild cherry bark tinctures. As a bonus, this tall flowering herb will bring subtle beauty to your garden. Best in: broth, lozenge, syrup, tea.
Plantain. This soothing gut herb also crosses over nicely to the respiratory tract. Although not as overtly slimy as marshmallow, it soothes and heals inflamed tissue and gently tones mucous membranes. Like marshmallow, plantain isn’t a key lung herb, but it plays a supportive role in blends. Best in: broth, syrup, tea.
Soothing Lung Tea
This blend helps open and soothe irritated lungs and respiratory tissue, whether the culprit is a chronic respiratory condition, an angry sore throat, or temporary irritation in the lungs. (Some conditions may warrant medical attention and diagnosis. This blend isn’t particularly antimicrobial.)
Fennel seed (Foeniculum vulgare) and peppermint both help break up mucus and ease spasms; choose whichever flavor you like best, but keep in mind that fennel seed has a gentler approach. Optional additions to the following recipe include nettle leaf (Urtica dioica), wild cherry bark, yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum), thyme, goldenrod (Solidago spp.), licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), and passionflower (Passiflora incarnata). Yield: 1 serving.
- 1 teaspoon mullein leaf
- 1 teaspoon marshmallow leaf or root
- 1 teaspoon fennel seed or peppermint
- 1 teaspoon plantain leaf (optional)
- Steep your herbs in 16 to 32 ounces of hot water for 15 minutes.
- If you use loose herbs, strain the tea through a piece of finely woven cloth or a coffee filter before drinking to remove all of mullein’s hairs.
- Drink 1 to 3 cups daily as needed.
Raw Wild Cherry Honey
Use dried wild cherry or chokecherry bark, twigs, or strips to make this yummy, super-soothing, fast-acting cough remedy. Store-bought cherry bark tends to be poor quality, but bark that you process yourself (even if it’s been hanging out in the pantry for a few years) works fantastically and has a lovely amaretto-like flavor.
I particularly like this infused honey once it’s crystallized. Slowly licking it off a teaspoon gives it more contact with the throat and a better opportunity to act.
- 1/8 cup dried cherry bark, twigs, or strips
- 1 cup honey
- Loosely fill a jar with cherry bark and twigs, and cover the plant material with the honey.
- Turn the jar every day or so (it’s too thick to shake).
- Strain after 2 to 4 weeks.
Horehound Cough Syrup
Although many people make syrups by simmering herbs in water, straining the herbs out, and then adding an equal amount of sugar to the water to preserve the syrup, the following “syrup” is more like a cross between a raw honey and a fresh plant tincture. You get honey’s additional cough-relieving properties, and the alcohol better extracts the horehound while also preserving your syrup. This makes a potent, long-lasting, shelf-stable remedy.
- 2-2/3 ounces chopped fresh horehound
- 3 ounces 100-proof vodka
- 2 ounces local raw honey
- Cram the chopped horehound into an 8-ounce jar. (It’s OK to leave the stems on.) Add the vodka. Top off with honey, and cap the jar.
- Shake vigorously to combine, and then shake every day or two.
- Strain after 1 month, squeezing as much liquid out of the herbs as you can. Take 1/2 teaspoon as needed for coughs (especially wet coughs) and thick mucus congestion.
Allergy Tincture Blend
This blend can be helpful with chronic allergies, hay fever, and chronic asthma. While some people may only need to take it as needed when allergies kick in (preferably starting 2 to 6 months before allergy season begins), those with chronic allergic or asthmatic conditions can take it daily.
You can draw from a number of excellent herbal options to create this tincture blend. Simple nettle is basic but often effective. Nettle and goldenrod are good in combination for seasonal and animal allergies, and those experiencing histamine overload. A nettle-goldenrod-horehound mixture will help drain thick mucus conditions. Goldenrod and bee balm can aid in drying up a sinus infection, and you can add berberine too. Horehound, New England aster, and goldenrod tinctured together will help clear up congestion, mucus, and asthma. Consider adding peach twig to your tincture blends for people with hypersensitivities that cause hives.
- 3 parts nettle tincture
- 3 parts goldenrod tincture
- 2 parts horehound tincture
- 1 part mullein tincture
- 1 part fennel seed or thyme tincture
- If you already have individual tinctures prepared for each herb, simply measure them by volume and pour them into the same bottle. (For example, 5 milliliters per “part,” which won’t quite fill a 2-ounce bottle.)
- If you need to make a combo tincture from scratch, measure the fresh herbs by weight; each “part” can weigh 1/2 ounce, so you’ll have 5 ounces total. It’s OK if the fennel is dried. Chop them and shove them into a 16-ounce jar.
- Cover with 190-proof alcohol* to the top of the jar, even if this measures out to slightly more or less than the 1-2 ratio — it’s more important to keep it covered. You may need to hold the plant material down as you fill the jar, and use a knife or chopsticks to remove air bubbles. Put on the lid. No need to shake.
- Open the jar a few days later to top off the contents with a little more alcohol.
- After at least 1 month, strain the mixture through a cloth. Squeeze as much extract out of the herbs as you can with your hands. A potato ricer, wheatgrass juicer, or hydraulic tincture press will also work well here.
- Pour into a dark glass bottle and store in a cool, dark, dry spot. Take 1 to 2 milliliters (1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon) of the blend, diluted in water, as needed or 2 to 3 times per day. The tincture will keep for years.
Note: 190-proof vodka is sold in some states as ethanol or grain alcohol, though you can purchase food-grade organic grape and sugarcane ethanol online. Some states have banned 190-proof, but offer 151-proof grain alcohol or vodka in stores, which will suffice. If this isn’t available, substitute 100-proof vodka, 80-proof vodka, or 80-proof brandy. The higher the proof, the stronger the extract.
Maria Noël Groves is a clinical herbalist, herbal medicine teacher, and registered professional member of the American Herbalists Guild. See more of her work at Wintergreen Botanicals. This excerpt is from her book Grow Your Own Herbal Remedies (Storey Publishing).