Winter Prep: Homemade Cough Drops



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:

Marrubiam vulgare, found in South Valley near Chatfield, Colorado. Those green balls are the flower heads, which become sticky like burs when they’ve gone to seed.
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

  1. Sage-antibacterial, treats inflammation of the mucous membranes of the nose and throat
  2. Eucalpytus-expectorant and antispasmodic, excellent for chest colds
  3. Mullein flower-expectorant and anti-irritant, ideal for dry or unproductive coughs
  4. Peppermint-cooling, antispasmodic, decongestant
  5. Plantain-astringent, antibacterial
  6. Thyme-bronchoantispasmodic, expectorant, antibacterial, ideal relief of bronchitis
  7. 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 fullsizerender-1


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.



Colorado’s Own Oregano: A Recipe for Bee Balm Mouthwash


A couple weeks ago, I had an allergic reaction to a toothpaste. I won’t say which toothpaste, because that’s not classy, but I will tell you that it was SUPPOSEDLY for people with sensitive gums. Not these sensitive gums, apparently. I broke out in tiny, painful canker sores all over my mouth. If you get canker sores, then you know even ONE can be an all-encompassing, painful nightmare. Having them in every corner of your mouth leaves one positively LOONY with discomfort.

The usual cavalry for canker sores was, unfortunately, not much help. First of all, most of the over-the-counter remedies are designed for one or two canker sores, not a blanket of them. The number of sores I had would have meant drinking a bottle of Anbesol or Orajel, which you’re not supposed to do. It says so on the label.

For my situation, a mouthwash was in order; but the mere thought of rinsing my poor, poor mouth with something that had alcohol or fluoride in it (and many commercial mouthwashes do) made me so very sad. Plus, I no longer felt like leaving the house in case I had to talk or use my mouth in any way. I needed something I could make at home without any painful, burning stuff in it. In my festering fugue, I thought I remembered reading something about oregano being a good oral antiseptic, so I web-searched it.

It turns out, oregano is an effective remedy for mouth sores, gingivitis, and sore throats. In fact, it’s a useful remedy for a LOT of things due to a high content of an organic compound known as thymol.

The antimicrobial actions of thymol and its isomer, carvacrol, are well-established in the academic realm. Quick chemistry lesson (you can totally skip this part if you want): isomers are compounds with the same molecular formula, but a different chemical structure. The fact that they have the same molecular formula means they have a lot of properties in common, but that different chemical structure gives each its own unique features. Isomers are a bit like fraternal twins: they are biologically similar, but physically distinct. Here is a study that found that thymol and carvacrol isolated from a verbena species “exhibited potent antimicrobial activity against the organisms tested” (Bothelo et al, 2007).

But wait, this post is about Bee Balm. Sorry, allow me to get back on topic. Thymol is not just found in oregano. It is also found in species of thyme (hence the name), eyebright (more on that herb later), verbena, and Bee Balm, the star of this show.

Bee balm is native to North America. It has been used for centuries as a cure-all by Native American Tribes. It is also known as Horsemint and and Wild Bergamot. I was lucky enough to come across some at the beginning of this month. It was growing happily by the creek my son and I like to walk to. Here it is:


This particular species of Bee Balm is called Monarda fistulosa, and it is a great herb to pluck if you are a novice because it is not only unmistakable appearance-wise, it is unmistakable smell-wise. It absolutely reeks of oregano. There was a lot of it, so I took the liberty of taking a little handful home and hang-drying it. At the time, I was unaware of its potent oral antiseptic properties. I was told it makes a nice tea for chest colds and tasted great in salads (both of which are true, by the way).

Bee balm hang-drying in my kitchen

After researching oregano and remembering how strongly the Bee Balm smelled of it, I was curious if it contained any amount of thymol. In fact it does. A lot of it. And the isomer carvetrol. HOORAY. I grabbed my little jar of the dried Bee Balm and set about making a mouthwash for my poor, poor mouth.
This stuff was great. It had a clean, warm taste with a slightly numbing sensation (probably from the carvetrol). I used it every day twice a day for one week. By the second day, the sores were already noticeably better and less angry. I have since learned that a mouthwash such as this can be used to prevent mouth ulcers, not just treat them. The antiseptic properties also help keep your breath fresh. Think I’ll just keep some on-hand.


I also have plans to make an Oxymel of Bee Balm for the coming winter months. Stay tuned for that posting!

Without further ado, here is the mouthwash recipe:



1/8 oz dried bee balm (about 2-3 tbsp flowers and leaves)

8 oz boiling water

2 tsp salt


Place dried bee balm and 2 tsp salt into a heat-proof bowl/container. Pour boiling water over the top and allow to steep for twenty minutes. Strain the liquid into a sterilized container with a lid or seal. Let it chill in the fridge for an extra soothing treatment. Use as often as needed or at least twice per day for acute sores.

Feel better!