White Horehound is an odd-looking plant with an odd-sounding name. It is a member of the mint family, along with many other familiar herbs such as thyme, lavender, basil, and marjoram. Its signature look and unique smell make it another ideal herb for a beginner to forage.
Horehound, a.k.a. Marrubiam vulgare, has an ancient tradition as a remedy for respiratory ailments. A record of its use exists as early as 1 B.C. in the encyclopedia De Medecina by the Roman Aulus Cornelius Celsus. This, by the way, makes for fascinating reading and is available for to read in translation by Bill Thayer here.
Horehound grows wild here in Colorado. I found some hiking this summer with my son in an open space near Chatfield reservoir. It really is unmistakable–it has a Dr. Seuss-y quality, with its clusters of flowers hanging onto the stem like little green puff balls. Here is a picture I took for your reference:
Horehound has traditionally been made into a candy or lozenge for medicinal use. It has also been used in teas and even in beer. It is an acquired taste-bitter and, yes, medicinal. It is what gives a certain famous herbal cough drop its peculiar and recognizable taste.
If you were to reference any herbal, you would find a long list of herbs dedicated to something called respiratory catarrh. That is fancy, herbalist jargon for mucus build-up associated with a chest cold, cough, phlegm, inflammation, or basically whatever ails your respiratory tract. That being said, there are very few herbs actually proven to help catarrh. Horehound, incidentally, has been proven to show “potent antimicrobial activity against some Gram (+) pathogenic behavior” (Zarai et al, 2011). In the realm of respiratory infections, this would be particularly useful in a case of bacterial pneumonia, which is typically caused by the gram positive bacterium streptococcus pneumonia.
We are going to make our very own herbal cough drops. You can certainly make these with just the horehound-it is the star, after all. However, there are plenty of other herbs you can add that have proven actions against cold and flu symptoms. Here is a short list:
Herbs for Chest Colds
- Sage-antibacterial, treats inflammation of the mucous membranes of the nose and throat
- Eucalpytus-expectorant and antispasmodic, excellent for chest colds
- Mullein flower-expectorant and anti-irritant, ideal for dry or unproductive coughs
- Peppermint-cooling, antispasmodic, decongestant
- Plantain-astringent, antibacterial
- Thyme-bronchoantispasmodic, expectorant, antibacterial, ideal relief of bronchitis
- Elder flower-increases bronchial secretion, good for dry cough
Now on to our recipe, without further ado! I have used bee balm in place of thyme, since it actually contains more of the active ingredient thymol. You can read about this wonderful herb in my previous post Colorado’s Own Oregano: A Recipe for Bee Balm Mouthwash. I have also added some lemon balm for taste and for its calming properties. Once again, you can add any herbs you like. We are just going for about 1.5 cups of dry herbs total. You can find a great selection of organic herbs here.
Homemade Herbal Cough Drops
Makes about 4 dozen lozenges
1/2 cup dried horehound
1/2 cup dried mullein leaf and flower
1/8 cup dried peppermint
1/8 cup dried bee balm
1/8 cup dried lemon balm
1/8 cup dried sage
First, prepare a small baking pan (I used a square, 8×8 stainless steel pan) with butter or anti-stick spray. You will want to have this ready because your sugar mixture is HOT and time-sensitive.
Next, add all ingredients to a saucepan and cover with 1.5 cups water. Bring to a boil then remove from heat and steep for twenty minutes. Strain out herbs. Reserve one cup of your herb tea (the extra half cup is to accommodate for any boil-off or absorption by the herbs, FYI). Return the one cup of liquid to a LARGE pot* (such as a stock pot) and stir in the 2.5 cups of brown sugar. Bring to a boil and boil until sugar mixture has reached 300 degrees Fahrenheit (hard-crack stage on a candy thermometer). Immediately pour the mixture into your prepared baking pan. Let cool for about 15 minutes, or until edges hold their shape.
Now, you have some options for shaping. You can simply cut the candy into squares with a knife, which is the fastest and most convenient way. If you want them to be a more traditional shape, however, you will need a friend. This candy hardens fast. Have him or her help portion out small pieces while you mold the portions into the shapes you want. Place them on a clean, cool surface to dry completely.
When the candy has completely cooled, dust the pieces with powdered sugar. This will help keep the lozenges from sticking to one another in their storage container**. Alternately, you could wrap each on in a piece of wax paper. But…who has time for that?!
*You want a larger pan than you think you might need because the sugar mixture will EXPAND when boiling and can easily spill over and THEORETICALLY burn on your stovetop and THEORETICALLY catch fire and HYPOTHETICALLY turn your house into a smoke-filled inferno while you hustle your one-year-old out the door and fan odd, burnt-herby-smelling smoke out the open windows and sob because you have to start all over. Again, hypothetically.
**Store your candy in the fridge for longevity and for an added cooling effect when it comes time to use them.