A list of herbs that you can grow to use in cold and flu medicines. Includes general information on their use and tips on growing them in your herbal medicine garden.
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The common cold and flu are two different illnesses that set many of us back each year. With flu season comes coughing, sneezing, congestion, fever, body aches, and other uncomfortable and miserable symptoms. We all know what it’s like! Though over-the-counter cold and flu remedies are helpful, there are also plant-based remedies available. You can find many in health food shops or online, but you can also grow your own herbal remedies for colds and flu. This piece guides you through some of the safer ones that you can add to the garden. It also includes the general way that these herbs can help you to feel better.
Simple herbal remedies for colds and flu can be more gentle than conventional medication. They work through natural plant chemicals found in leaves, bark, roots, flowers, and seeds. Some of these plant chemicals have even been isolated and used in conventional medicines. Though natural remedies can be gentler than prescription or over-the-counter medications, they can still be powerful. Use the herbs below to boost your immune system, to soothe flu and cold symptoms, and as natural sleep aids.
Grow Herbal Cold Remedies
If you have basic gardening skills, you’re more than prepared to grow herbs. Most are very easy to grow, and many are perennial, meaning they live for many years. Some that are annuals will self-seed and keep coming back from year to year. One of the best things about growing medicinal herbs is that they’ll be happy in a number of different plantings. That means that they can thrive whether you have an in-ground situation or a container garden. I mix mine in large pots, flower borders, and also within vegetable beds. Many herbs, including medicinal herbs, work as companion plants, cut flowers, or beautiful ornamental plants.
Herbs Grow Well in Every Garden
Though some herbs are used specifically for medication, others used for herbal cold remedies or for the flu are multi-purpose. That means that if you have a culinary herb bed, herbs such as thyme, lemon balm, and chamomile can double as medicine. Other herbs for colds and flu grow wild and weedy and are easily foraged. Plants like echinacea and valerian produce beautiful or fragrant flowers, and others are tall and architectural, like mullein.
A few of the plants mentioned are actually shrubs and trees, so will require a larger space to grow. Large containers could be an option, but trees that grow up to eighty feet tall, such as linden, won’t be happy in them for long. If you don’t have an in-ground garden to plant them, perhaps there’s a foraging option in your area. Most of the smaller plants will grow perfectly fine in containers, though. Some, like melissa balm, are even best grown in containers to help keep them from running riot in your beds. No matter your style of garden, there’s a place to grow plants that you can harvest for healing herbal medicines.
Herbal Medicine Inspiration
Cold and Flu Viruses
The cold and flu are illnesses caused by viruses. Much smaller than bacteria, viruses enter your body through contact with saliva or another bodily fluid. You can get infected by breathing in particles suspended in the air or by introducing them to your mouth, eyes, cuts, or other exposed tissues. The cold virus can survive up to a week on hard surfaces and the flu for about a day. However, just breathing the same air as someone who is ill can be enough to get you sick.
Once inside you, the virus attacks your body’s cells and hijacks their normal function to replicate and spread. Some strains of the flu are so virulent that they can take over the body and can cause extreme illness. Unfortunately, antibiotics have no effect on the cold or flu viruses.
Herbal Remedies for Colds and Flu
The nature of a viral infection limits what your healthcare provider can prescribe to help once you have a cold or the flu. There are classes of antiviral medications that may be offered, but their effectiveness has been questioned. Conventional medicines tend to focus on treating the symptoms – coughing, congestion, fever, sneezing, and pains – and you’ll be instructed to drink fluids and get plenty of rest too. Basically, it’s about soothing the symptoms and waiting for your body’s immune system to take control of the situation. Chicken soup, probiotics, and taking zinc lozenges are also helpful during your recovery time.
The same can go for herbal medicines, but they can have a gentler action compared to conventional medication. They involve taking herbal teas, tinctures, inhalations, or other homemade preparations. Some herbal medicines, such as echinacea and elderberry, can even strengthen your immune system. The difference is that you take these before you get sick, making them, and many other herbal remedies, preventative healthcare.
Self-Administering Herbal Remedies
If you’re currently on prescribed medication or other herbal supplements, consult your doctor or herbal practitioner before using herbal remedies. Herbs can react with one another and also with medications, and in some cases, this can cause complications. When beginning to grow and use your own herbs, stick to well-known and safer herbs such as those below. It’s also important to make sure that you’re not allergic before using a new plant.
If you’re looking to be better educated in home herbalism, I highly recommend that you enroll in the Herbal Academy’s Introductory Herbal Course. It’s an accredited program that you can study at your own pace from home. It will also introduce you to ways to use the herbs below, including dosage, method, and the best herbal preparations for each plant. You can even study to become an accredited herbalist through their programs.
Herbs for the Common Cold and Flu
To get you started, here are some of the herbs you can grow as herbal remedies for colds and flu. Each will have its preferred growing requirements, including soil type and amount of sun, nutrients, and water needed. Some of the perennials will only survive down to a minimum temperature. If your winters are harsh, then it would be wise to grow plants like ginger and lemon in containers. That way, you can bring them indoors or undercover somewhere over winter. Lastly, when you grow plants for medicinal purposes, harvest the leaves when young and fresh, flowers when fully open, and roots in autumn.
Boneset Eupatorium perfoliatum
A wild North American perennial that can grow in a sunny garden setting too. Traditionally used by Native Americans to reduce fever, loosen phlegm, and relieve the symptoms of the common cold. Grows erect and up to five feet tall with lance-shaped leaves and white flowers. This is a perennial hardy in zones 3-8.
Catnip Nepeta cataria
The leaves of this leafy perennial make a nice-tasting tea that can reduce fever by inducing sweating. It also has downy gray-green leaves and dainty purple and white flowers that pollinators love. Like mints, catnip, also called catmint, will spread if you plant it in the ground. Cats will also find it and can destroy your in-ground plants by rolling on them and biting at the leaves. That makes catnip a good candidate for growing in containers or hanging baskets. Hardy in zones 3-9.
Echinacea Echinacea purpurea
Roots from all three species of echinacea have immune-stimulating actions and can be used medicinally. They can be taken in capsule form, made into a tincture, or boiled into a decoction. The species Echinacea purpurea grows especially well in most flower borders since it can thrive in dry or moist soil. This is a perennial that is hardy in zones 4-9.
Elder Sambucus nigra
Native to Europe, the flowers and berries of the shrubby elder tree are both important immune-boosting herbs. The berries are especially rich in vitamin c and immune-boosting properties and make an excellent elderberry syrup. Herbal teas made with the flowers are used for coughs and treating colds and flu. Elder trees tend to grow wild, but you can plant this shrubby tree in the garden too. They thrive in settings that mimic the edges of woodland and are a perennial hardy in zones 4-9.
Eucalyptus Eucalyptus globulus
There are many species of eucalyptus, but it’s mainly Eucalyptus globulus leaves that are used in treating colds and flu. Eucalyptus extract works as an antiseptic and expectorant and can be used as a warming chest rub to stimulate blood flow. Steam inhalation of the leaves or essential oil can help open airways and soothe chesty coughs. Other types of eucalyptus, such as Eucalyptus cinerea, can help too. One great way to use fresh eucalyptus leaves is to hang them in your shower since the steam will release their volatile plant oils and help to clear congestion in your sinuses and lungs. Please note that this is a large tree growing up to 180 feet, so will need quite a lot of space in zones 8-11.
Garlic Allium sativum
Garlic is a powerful yet safe treatment for the common cold and flu. It works as a natural antibiotic that helps you to stay well, combat infection, and soothe chest, nose, and throat infections. It can also be used to bring fevers down. Some people eat a clove of garlic a day to stay healthy, but you can also take a dried garlic supplement if you’re not a fan of the flavor. Here are some garlic growing tips if you’d like to add it to your vegetable and herbal medicine garden.
Lemon Citrus limon
The juice of this familiar citrus fruit is high in vitamin c and can boost immunity. It can also relieve sore throats, as evidenced by the common cold remedy of lemon, ginger, and honey tea. In temperate climates, lemons grow well in pots and containers. That’s great news since they’re only winter hardy in zones 9-11. If you live in a cooler climate, you can grow lemons outdoors in the summer and bring them into the house or greenhouse over the winter months.
Peppermint Mentha x piperita
With its natural menthol, peppermint can be a gentle but powerful herbal remedy for congestion. Its aromatic leaves are also calming for the mind and digestive tract. That makes it a wonderful herb to use for headaches and stomach upset. Peppermint is easy to grow and can thrive in neglect, even growing to take over entire garden beds. It spreads through underground rhizomes that race under the ground to pop up a good distance from the main plant. Keep this aromatic herbaceous perennial contained in pots and containers and away from other mints to stop cross-pollination. Hardy in zones 3-8.
Thyme Thymus vulgaris
Thyme is a culinary herb that also works as a strong antiseptic and expectorant. It can also help boost immunity. The best ways to use the green leaves of this aromatic herb is as tea, gargle, or in herbal cough syrup. Thyme is a valuable herb for the herbal medicine garden, and the quickest way to get it started is by purchasing a potted plant. If you have a little more patience, it’s also relatively easy to grow from seed. It overwinters well in temperate climates and is hardy in zones 4-9.
Yarrow Achillea millefolium
Yarrow is known for being astringent, so is a good option for treating sinuses and wet coughs. The flowers and leaves of this wildflower are also commonly used in combination with other herbs to help with colds and flu. A common wild plant in Europe, yarrow can also be grown in the garden. It’s fuss-free and will grow in most soils, and is hardy in zones 3-9. The best way to start yarrow is to purchase a potted plant and then further propagate it into new plants through division.
Herbs for Coughs and Congestion
Balm of Gilead Cedronella canariensis
Not to be confused with a tree of the same name, Balm of Gilead is a densely branched perennial plant growing about two to three feet tall. It has tubular white to pink flowers and fragrant, almost mint-like, leaves that have a lemon-camphor scent. Originating in the Canary Islands, this aromatic plant is useful in herbal teas and inhalations, especially for upper respiratory infections.
Herbalists use Balm of Gilead in herbal remedies for colds and flu due to its numerous properties. It’s anti-catarrhal, tonic, diuretic, hypoglycemiant, hypotensive, anti-inflammatory, and decongestant of the respiratory tract. Growing is is relatively easy, but it spreads in a way similar to mint. Growing it in containers will help keep it from taking over a spot in the garden. Balm of Gilead is a perennial that can be grown from seed or cuttings and is hardy in zones 8-11.
Cowslip Primula veris
Cowslip root is used to clear phlegm and congestion and to treat chronic coughing. The flowers are also said to be mildly sedative. Most people know cowslip as a pretty flower that sometimes pops up in pastures across temperate Europe and western Asia. It’s a pretty perennial flower that’s actually endangered in the wild since it thrives best in traditionally maintained pastures and wildflower meadows. Since they are endangered, it’s best not to forage for this plant. If you’re growing them, the easiest way is to start with small plants, but you can also grow them from seed. Cowslips are a herbaceous perennial that prefers slightly chalky soil and an open, sunny, location. Hardy to zones 4-9.
Elecampane Inula helenium
The roots of this perennial plant contain a mucilaginous substance that relieves coughing and sore throats. It also promotes the coughing up of mucus from the lungs. Elecampane is easy to grow and will remind you of sunflowers with its yellow flowers and large leaves. It grows singly or in clumps over six feet high, and it usually is grown from seed. Due to its height and root spread, it’s best grown at the back of a large border and probably would not thrive in containers. Hardy in zones 3-7.
Ginger Zingiber officinale
A staple in Asian cuisines, the root of this pungent, spicy, and citrusy plant warms and soothes sore throats and coughing. Use a few slices on their own in ginger tea or with other herbs to make a more complex blend. You can get ginger from the supermarket to sprout and grow, but this plant grows best in a warm, tropical environment. Fortunately, it does grow well in containers, so you can start the rhizomes off early undercover and either grow them in the greenhouse, indoors as an edible houseplant, or outdoors if you have hot summers. Harvest in early autumn and replant the main part of this perennial plant the ground. Hardy in zones 9-12.
White Horehound Marrubium vulgare
The leaves of this evergreen perennial plant are used to make soothing cough medicine, often with honey. It grows up to about eighteen inches tall and has crinkly, hairy leaves and white flowers. You may be able to find it growing wild, and it can be foraged in its native habitat across Europe, northern Africa, and parts of southwest Asia. It’s also found growing wild in North America and Australia, where it’s naturalized. White horehound is a wild woody plant, but you can easily grow this member of the mint family in the garden. It prefers dry, open areas but make sure that it’s contained because, like mint, it has a tendency to spread. Hardy in zones 3-9.
Licorice Glycyrrhiza glabra
Native to the scrub lands of southern Europe, licorice is now widely cultivated for its sweet root. Although it’s said to be fifty times sweeter than sugar, it’s mainly used today as a herbal remedy. Among other properties, the roots are anti-inflammatory and help to relieve coughs and chest infections. This perennial plant grows over three feet tall and has extensive root systems, so choose your site and soil well. You can propagate licorice by dividing the root in spring, and you grow them for a further three to four years before harvesting in autumn. Hardy in zones 7-10.
Mullein Verbascum thapsus
The leaves and flowers of this tall biennial plant are used to treat both coughs and congestion. It’s an expectorant, like several of the other herbs mentioned, meaning that it brings mucus up from the lungs. I find mullein self-seeds easily, and though I have it in my garden, I never plant it deliberately. It has soft, velvety leaves and a tall yellow flower stalk that shoots up in its second year. Since the flowers on the stalk bloom gradually, you might need to harvest them and dry them throughout the season before using them in herbal preparations. Hardy in zones 3-9.
Hops Humulus lupulus
Better known for their use in brewing, hops have a natural sedative action that you can use in tea or in herbal sachet pillows. They’re a perennial climber that will happily grow on a trellis or through the branches of a shrub or tree. In early autumn, you pick the flowers of the female plant, called strobiles, and air dry them. They look a little like a combination of a pine cone and a catkin and can be used to make herbal teas, capsules, and tinctures. Hardy in zones 5-9.
Lavender Lavandula angustifolia
A calming herbal flower that is antiseptic and antibacterial. Use the just-opened flowers to make lavender-infused oil or dry them to use in herbal tea. Lavender is a fairly common garden shrub but do make sure that you grow English lavender if you’re planning on making herbal or skin care products. Other species of lavender can have less medicinal benefit. Lavender grows well in temperate climates and is a shrubby perennial plant hardy in zones 5-10.
Lemon balm Melissa officinalis
Melissa balm, also called lemon balm, has lemony-mint-flavored leaves that make a delicious herbal tea. It’s also a calming herb with mild antiviral properties, which makes it useful in cold sore balms (recipe in my book). Harvest the leaves when they’re young and fresh, and dry them whole to use in herbal tea and infused oils. This plant is easy to grow but prefers rich and moist soil. It also has a tendency to spread, so it’s recommended to keep it contained as you would other mint family plants. Lemon balm is a perennial plant hardy in zones 4-9.
Passionflower Passiflora incarnata
The flowers and aerial parts of this stunning evergreen climber make a natural yet gentle sedative. Native to warmer regions of the Americas, it can be grown in temperate climates as it is fully hardy. Siting should be in a sunny yet sheltered place with plenty of supports for it to climb on and rich, well-drained soil. It’s said to flower more productively if grown in pots, and I can attest to that with my own. I have my plant growing in a large container with a five-foot-tall trellis behind. The vines could grow much taller than that if I didn’t keep them pruned. Hardy in zones 6-10.
Valerian Valeriana officinalis
Tall, bushy, herbaceous perennial plants that are native to Europe and parts of Asia. Flowers are white and beautifully scented, but it’s the roots that are used in herbal medicine. They have a strong yet non-addictive sedative action that’s useful for giving a good night’s rest. I have another piece sharing how to grow valerian. Valerian does have a tendency to spread, but I do love including it in my flower borders. Hardy in zones 4-9.
German Chamomile Matricaria recutita
There are two types of chamomile, but the one most relevant to herbal remedies is German chamomile. This is a relaxing and apple-flavored herb that helps with congestion and calming. Pick the flowers when they’re fully open and dry for herbal teas. You can also use the flowers in making healing chamomile skin cream. Grow German chamomile as a bushy annual herb with tiny daisy-like flowers. It can get about two feet tall in rich soils and can flop over and become unruly. I support mine with string and bamboo canes and allow the flowers to self-seed at the end of the season. The seeds germinate in the autumn (in my region, zone 8), and I transplant the young seedlings in winter to early spring. German chamomile is an annual, so dies at the end of summer.
Linden trees, also called lime trees, grow up to eighty feet tall. They have heart-shaped leaves, yellow flowers, and winglike bracts. Collect the flowers and bracts in late spring to early summer and air-dry them or dry them using low heat. They have a sweet flavor, and you can use them in herbal teas as a mild sedative. Linden is a component of this delicious herbal tea blend and is hardy in zones 3-8.