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Almost 30 herbal remedies for the cold and flu. Includes info on how they are used and tips on adding them to your herbal medicine garden.
The common cold and flu are two different illnesses that set most of us back each year. It could be when we’re stressed out and our immune systems weakened, or during the winter when we’re in much closer quarters with people who are ill. When I lived in London I could pretty much guarantee that I’d catch one or the other a couple of times over the colder months. All thanks to the sardine-like environment of the Tube and other public transport. One person sneezes and well, you get the idea.
Over-the counter cold and flu remedies are commonplace but there are natural alternatives available too. You can find most in a supermarket or health food store but you can grow your own too. Simple herbal remedies for the cold and flu can taste better and can be more gentle than conventional medication. Many are used in normal food recipes so are safe enough to use in self-treating.
Growing Herbal Cold Remedies
Though some plants are specifically for medication, other herbal cold remedies and treatments for the flu are more common. That means that if you have a culinary herb bed, some like thyme, lemon balm, hops, and chamomile can double as medicine.
Though some herbal treatments should be grown and handled with care, the ones introduced a bit further on are all fairly safe. That means that you can dedicate a garden bed to growing them or just scatter them throughout the garden. 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 lot larger space to grow. In a pinch a few could be grown in containers or window boxes. A larger garden setting is best for the majority of the plants introduced though. When growing herbs, harvest the leaves when young and fresh, flowers when fully open, and roots in early autumn.
The Common Cold and Flu are viral infections
The cold and flu are viral infections caused by viruses. Much smaller than bacteria, viruses are tiny bio-mechanical shells filled with DNA or RNA whose whole purpose in life seems to be to replicate and destroy. Viruses are amazingly simple protein-based machines that can not quite be classified as actually being alive. Scientists have debated this over the years and I vividly remember being fascinated listening to a lecture on the topic in school.
The way a cold or flu virus infects you is by entering your body through contact with saliva or another bodily fluid. You can get infected through breathing in particles suspended in the air or through introducing it to your mouth, eyes, cuts, or other exposed tissues. The cold virus can survive up to a week on hard surfaces and the flu about a day. However, just breathing the same air of 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 and even death. Because they’re viruses, and not bacteria, antibiotics have no effect on them.
Herbal Remedies for the Cold and Flu
The very nature of a viral infection limits what doctors can prescribe to help you once you have a cold or the flu. There are classes of anti-viral medications that may be offered but their effectiveness has been questioned. Traditional medicines tend to focus on treating the symptoms – coughing, congestion, fever, sneezing, 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.
Herbal remedies for the cold and flu work in similar ways to conventional medicines. There are immune system boosters, symptom soothers, temperature raisers, and natural sleep aides. You typically take them as either a capsule, tincture, or tea, and self-dosage can be less exact than manufactured substances.
On self-administering Herbal Remedies
If you’re currently on prescribed medication or other herbal supplements, consult your doctor before using herbal remedies. In fact it’s probably best to chat to your doctor before taking any herbal remedies. Keep in mind that herbs can react with one another and with medications and can cause quite serious complications. Also be careful to use the right part of the herb, and to prepare it properly. Stick to well-known and safer herbs if there’s an option to choose from and make sure that you’re not allergic before using a new herb.
If you’re looking for a great guide on herbal medicine order yourself a copy of this book: Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine, The Definitive Reference to 550 Herbs and Remedies for Common Ailments by Andrew Chevallier, FNIMH. It’s a trusted guide that will give you exact information on how to use herbal remedies for the cold and flu. To get you started, here are some of the herbs you can try growing and using at home.
Herbs for the Common Cold and Flu
• Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) – A wild north american perennial that can grow in a 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 purple or white flowers.
• Catnip (Nepeta cataria) – The leaves of this leafy perennial make a nice tasting tea that can reduce fever by inducing sweating. If you have cats, you may want to grow this one in a hanging basket or in a place that they can’t access. It has downy gray-green leaves and dainty purple and white flowers that pollinators love.
• Echinacea – 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.
• Elder (Sambucus nigra) – Native to Europe, the the flowers and berries of the Elder tree are both important immune boosting herbs. The berries are especially rich in vitamin c and immune boosting properties. 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 woodland edge type settings.
• Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) -There are many species of but it’s Eucalyptus globulus that’s used in treating colds and flu. It’s an antiseptic, 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. Please note that this is a large tree and will need quite a lot of space.
• 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. Can also be used to bring fevers down. 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 a lemon, ginger, and honey tea. In temperate climates lemons grow well in pots. They can be left outdoors in the summer and brought indoors or into greenhouses over the winter months.
• Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) – The leaves of this lemony flavored mint family plant contain antiviral polyphenols that can help heal cold sores. Pick the leaves before they flower and use them fresh in tea or infuse dried leaves into oil to make healing lip balm. This plant is easy to grow but prefers rich and moist soil. It also has a tendency to spread so keep it contained as you would other mint family plants.
• Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) – The green leaves of this aromatic herb are used as a tea or to make a herbal cough syrup. Thyme is a strong antiseptic, expectorant, and boosts immunity. This perennial herb is easy to grow from seed and a valuable herb for the herbal medicine garden. The quickest way to get it started is by purchasing a potted plant and establishing it in the herb garden. It overwinters well in temperate climates and can be used in both food and herbal treatments.
• Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) – the flowers and leaves of this garden ‘weed’ can be used in combination with other herbs to help colds and flu. It’s a common wild plant in its native Europe but can also be grown in the garden. It’s fuss-free and will grow in most soils. Purchase a potted plant and then further propagate this flowering perennial by division.
Herbs for Coughs and congestion
• Balm of Gilead (Populus x candicans)- Buds and stem bark from this deciduous tree are used to treat sore throats, coughs, and respiratory issues. This is quite a large tree that grows up to 80 feet tall. Collect the buds and bark from young branches in spring.
• Cowslip (Primula veris) – A pretty perennial flower that’s endangered in the wild. Grow it in the flower border for its root that’s used to clear phlegm, congestion, and treat chronic coughing. The flowers are also said to be mildly sedative. If you’re growing them, the easiest way is to start with plug plants. You can grow them from autumn-sown seed but expect them to germinate the next spring. Cowslips prefer slightly chalky soil and do well in woodland and hedgerow environments.
• Elecampane (Inula helenium) – The roots of this plant contain a mucilaginous substance that relieves coughing and sore throats. It also promotes coughing up of mucus from the lungs. Elecampane is an easy to grow herb that can get to be over six feet high. It has cheerful yellow flowers and would do best at the back of a bed or border.
• 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 its own or blended with other herbs to make a simple tea. You can get ginger from the supermarket to sprout and grow but this plant does best in a warm environment.
• Horehound (Marrubium vulgare)- The leaves of this native European herb are used to make a soothing cough medicine, often with honey. A wild woody plant, 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.
• Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)- Native to the scrub lands of southern Europe, licorice is now widely cultivated for it’s 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 3-4 years before harvesting in autumn.
• 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 a herbal preparation.
Herbs to help you sleep
• Hops (Humulus lupulus)- Better known for its use in brewing, hops have a natural sedative action that can be used in a tea or in a herbal sachet pillow. These are 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.
• Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) A calming herbal flower that is also antiseptic and anti-bacterial. Infuse the flowers into a massage oil or drink as a herbal tea. Lavender is a fairly common garden shrub but do make sure that you choose a good english lavender variety if you’re planning on making herbal or skin care products.
• Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)- a calming and lemony flavored herb that blends well with other herbs. Also a member of the mint family, lemon balm will spread like crazy if you grow it in the open. It does well in containers though and makes a delicious tea.
• Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)- The flowers and aerial parts of this stunning evergreen climber make 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.
• Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)- Tall, bushy, herbaceous plants that are native to Europe and parts of Asia. Flowers are white and beautifully scented but it the roots that are used in herbalism. They have a strong, yet non-addictive, sedative action that’s useful for giving a good night’s rest. Head over here for growing information.
• German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)- A relaxing and apple flavored herb that also helps with congestion. Chamomile grows as a bushy annual herb with tiny daisy like flowers. Pick the flowers when they’re fully open and dry for herbal teas.
• Linden (Tilia)- Linden trees, also called Lime trees, are up to 100 feet tall with heart-shaped leaves and yellow flower and winglike bracts. Collect the flowers in summer and air dry or dry over low heat. Use them in in herbal teas as a mild sedative.