Learn about growing white horehound in the herb garden, including white horehound history and a gardening guide.
During the seder feast of the Jewish Passover celebration, a bitter herb is eaten to remind those present of the bitterness of captivity in Egypt. White horehound (Marrubium uulgare) is thought to be one of the five plants originally prescribed for this purpose. Indeed, many etymologists believe that the Latin name for horehound, marrubium, may be derived from the Hebrew word maror, which means "bitter juice."
The physicians of ancient Greece, and those of Europe during the Middle Ages, used the herb to treat a variety of ailments. It was touted as an antidote to vegetable poisons, snakebite, and the bite of a mad dog. Many of these old prescriptions have since been discredited, but ancient and modern herbalists are in perfect agreement on one point: Horehound is very effective for clearing congested lungs.
These pulmonary cleansing qualities seem to be brought into play regardless of the form in which the herb is administered. The Greek physician Dioscorides recommended a tea made from the dried seed or the green leaves sweetened, of course, with honey. The herb is most familiar to us today in the guise of the bittersweet candy still sold in some stores, its distinctive flavor barely masked by syrup and brown sugar.
A denizen of dry, rocky ground, horehound is now probably as common in the U.S. as it is over its native range of Europe and Asia. This gray-green perennial occasionally achieves a stature of two feet, though not without developing a rumpled appearance. Its squarish, stooping stems are seldom branched, and its drooping leaves, ovate and arranged opposite each other, are hoary and wrinkled. Like many other members of the mint family, horehound blooms along the upper stalk at the leaf junctures, its small, white, snapdragon-like flowers forming dense coronal clusters.
Horehound may be cultivated wherever there is sun and sufficient soil to cover the seed. Sow the seed directly in the garden in spring. Once the seedlings have developed and are thinned to 12 inches apart, they will thrive with little attention.
Though the plants won't blossom until the year after they're started, they can be harvested during the first year so long as no more than one-third of the top growth is removed. Each year thereafter, you can cut the plants back to four inches above the ground before they flower.
To make old-fashioned horehound cough drops, boil a quarter of a cup of the leaves in 2 cups of water for 10 minutes; discard the leaves. Add twice as much honey as the remaining liquid and stir the mixture smooth. Then blend 2 cups of sugar with 1/8 teaspoon of cream of tartar in a saucepan, and add the honey-horehound mixture. Stir over medium heat until the sugar melts. Then lower the flame and continue stirring until a dollop of the candy forms a hard ball when dropped into cold water. At that point, you can pour the syrup into a buttered baking dish and cut it into small squares as the candy begins to harden. Finally, roll the confections in powdered and then granulated sugar and store them in airtight containers.
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