It seems sore throats and coughs have afflicted people forever, whether from proximate causes like pollen, dust and woodsmoke, or from talking too much, yelling, or even “catching” something from another person. Fortunately, there are quite a few natural remedies to help relieve the pain and discomfort of coughs and sore throats, many of which have been used for centuries. Each of the plants described are commonly available in the wild, and typically can be purchased from herb shops in dried form.
The various mallows have been used to soothe sore throats for centuries. In fact, even the ancient Egyptians used one of the mallows for this purpose.
In the United States, the common mallow (Malva parviflora) is a widespread weed of vacant lots and fields. It is sometimes referred to as poverty weed or cheeseweed. In fact, the tender leaves of mallow are tasty in salads and soups, are high in Vitamin C, and can be cooked with other vegetables like spinach. We have even rolled cooked rice within a larger leaf of the mallow, and served them as the popular Middle Eastern dish “grape leaves” or dolmas. In Mexico, mallow leaves (known as malva) have long been chewed so the slightly mucilaginous quality can soothe a sore throat. Herbalists consider mallow leaves an emollient and a demulcent. Whether the leaves are eaten or made into a tea, this plant helps relieve inflammation, especially in the throat.
A related mallow, the marsh mallow (Althea officinalis), is also used for coughs and sore throats. This plant has a long tap root that is boiled, and the resulting liquid is like egg whites. This is then whipped, mixed with honey, and eaten as a very pleasant and effective cough medicine. Of course, marshmallows today are pure junk food, and marshmallow manufacturers no longer use extract of the marsh mallow plant. Today gelatin is used to manufacture those fluffy white non-food objects (you know, marshmallows).
The horehound (Marrubium vulgare) is a bitter mint, native to Europe, that has now naturalized throughout the entire United States. It is called marrubio in Mexico, where it also grows in the wild. When you see it in the wild it’s obviously a mint, yet it lacks the strong aroma typical of most mints. However, you’ll see the square stem, opposite leaves, and wrinkled leaves that make the horehound easy to recognize. Do any of you remember horehound candy? It was a popular “old-fashioned” cough drop made by boiling the horehound leaves, straining them, and then adding sugar or honey to the liquid. The liquid was then cooked until it was thick enough to harden. Recipes for horehound candy can still be found in many candy-making books.
Unfortunately, if you go to the store and buy horehound drops it’s very unlikely they will contain any horehound extract at all. With very few exceptions, all the horehound I have found in stores are nothing more than sugar with artificial flavors added.
Horehound is made into a tea, which is very bitter and unpleasant. No one would ever drink it if it weren’t so effective. Besides soothing a sore throat and a cough, horehound is an expectorant, which means it can help clear your throat when it is congested. To make horehound tea, I collect the young leaves in the spring. They can be used fresh or dried. I place about one teaspoon of the herb into my cup, pour boiling water over it, cover it, and let it sit until it is cool enough to drink. The flavor? Terrible! Its bitterness must be experienced to understand. So add honey and lemon juice to your horehound tea to make it more palatable. The honey and lemon are also good for your sore throat.
Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is another European native that has now naturalized throughout the entire United States. It is particularly common in dry waste areas throughout the Southwest. I can recall looking out my window while driving to the Grand Canyon and noticing the dominant roadside plant was mullein.
Mullein leaves feel like flannel or chamois cloth. The plant produces large basal leaves the first year and then in the second year it sends up a seed spike that can reach four to five feet. To make a tea, use the first-year leaves of mullein and infuse them. There is not much flavor, so I typically add mint to mullein tea. Mullein acts like a mild sedative on the lungs and it helps to relieve the roughness in the throat common with coughs and some fevers. Interestingly, mullein leaves have also been smoked to help relieve coughing and even mild asthma attacks. I have tried this on a few occasions, and I felt quick relief.
The large flannel-like leaves of mullein have other uses as well. I’ve used them as pot-holders, and even toilet paper. A leaf can be rolled tight, bound with a wire, and used as a wick in slush lamps. The tall second-year stalk of the plant has been used as a drill when making fire with the hand-drill, but I don’t find it to be a particularly ideal plant for this purpose.
Throughout the Southwestern United States there is a stick-like plant called Mormon Tea (Ephedra sp.). It is common in the California high deserts, in the Great Basin area, throughout Southern Colorado and down into Texas. It is sometimes found at herb stores.
The plant is a low shrub with branched needle-like segments that have scales at the nodes. There are just a few species of Ephedra, each with a slightly different look and color-tone. However, once you can recognize one Mormon tea, you’ll be able to recognize them all.
In China, a related member of the Ephedra genus is the source of the drug ephedrine, which is used as a decongestant and a bronchial dilator. Though the wild U.S. species contain much less ephedrine, they are nevertheless useful in home remedies to treat breathing problems associated with coughs and colds. Typically, the stems are brewed into a tea at low temperatures in a covered pot. There is a mild but distinctive flavor and aroma that I like.
I have made an evening tea from Mormon Tea while camping in the desert where there were no other beverage plants readily available. It has a pleasant flavor, and it is improved with just a touch of honey. Even if you have no breathing problems, you’ll find Mormon Tea a great beverage, sweetened or not. No doubt there are many, many other remedies for coughs and sore throats. Included here were just a few of the common wild plants which are safe and easy to use.
Though there are many good references to choose from regarding medicinal wild plants, I have found everything by the herbalist Michael Moore to be top quality. Additionally, I have found Daniel Moerman’s “Native American Ethnobotany” to be an excellent and comprehensive reference, though there are no illustrations. Here where I live in the west, my first choice reference tends to be “Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West” by Cecilia Garcia and Dr. James Adams.
Remember, don’t use any wild plant for food or medicine until you have done sufficient study and field work to identify the plant with absolute certainty.
Note: None of the above should be construed to take the place of competent medical advice in a face-to-face setting. Chronic coughing or chronic sore throat may be an indication of a more serious disorder. Use your common sense and consult a medical authority if you are experiencing any sort of chronic disorder.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the February 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.