Coughs, running noses and sneezes are often the soundtrack to the winter months. When bacteria and viruses are doing their annual rounds, we generally think of fast pain relief in the form of over-the-counter lozenges and tablets. Effective as these may be, they can contain chemical nasties and a list of unpleasant side effects, which may be why natural alternatives are becoming more and more popular.
So what natural medicines can help with colds or flu? Sensory Solutions‘ Karen Lawton and Fiona Heckels run workshops on making natural remedies with native and European herbs. Their mission is to demonstrate how the contents of your fridge, herb rack or local green space can provide powerful medicine to bring your body back to health. It’s best to harvest, prepare and store herbs throughout the year so you’re well equipped when you feel that first sniffle coming on. These five cold and flu busting plants can be found either in the supermarket, growing along pathways and in parks, or in your local herb dispensary. Get to know them and stay healthy this season.
Elderberries (Sambucus negra)
Hippocrates called the Elder tree his ‘Medicine Chest’ because its leaves, flowers and bark are useful for treating so many ailments, with tiny black berries hanging like mini bunches of grapes between August and October. They are high in vitamin C and anti-oxidants that help to keep the immune system healthy, and have been used for centuries to treat colds and flu because of their anti-viral properties.
You can make delicious cordials and syrups that help to break fevers and soothe coughs. Add to hot or cold water to make a moreish medicinal drink, or enjoy in smoothies, yoghurt and porridge. Here’s a simple recipe by Karen and Fi to get you started.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
This spicy root has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years to treat disease and maintain good health. Found in most supermarkets, you can easily add ginger to your diet through curries and soups. Alternatively chop up an inch of the root, steep in hot water for 20 minutes and drink as a tea. Ginger is most commonly known for settling sickness and it helps fight bacterial infections in the stomach. It also acts as an anti-inflammatory and expectorant, so will help sore throats and break up mucus in phlegmy coughs.
For a super flu-fighting drink you need look no further than your kitchen cupboard. Add fresh or dried sage and thyme to ginger tea with lemon and honey, for an intense dose of anti-oxidants, vitamin C and immune-boosting loveliness.
Lemon balm (Melissa)
Uplifting, zesty and refreshing, lemon balm grows rampantly in gardens and its scent is unmistakable. A relaxant for the nervous system, it eases tense muscles and congestion headaches, and helps to loosen and expel phlegm, making it useful for stubborn coughs. Like elderberries, it has anti-viral properties and is specifically used to treat the herpes simplex virus – commonly known as cold sores – which appears around the mouth and nose. It also gently increases sweat production and is used to break mild fevers.
If nothing else, it tastes delicious and is a wonderful herb to include in your tea collection. Add a teaspoon of the dried leaf to a cup of boiled water and leave to steep for 5- 10 minutes before drinking.
Marsh Mallow root (Althaea officinalis)
Marshmallow usually conjures up images of pink fluffy candies great for toasting on fires, however the root of the Marsh Mallow plant is much more useful, and one for your medicine cupboard if you’re prone to chesty coughs. It contains mucilage; a gelatinous substance that coats the lining of the respiratory and digestive tract when ingested (usually as a tea). It soothes and softens inflamed tissue, which makes it a top herb for coughs and bronchitis.
Unlike using leaves and flowers that must be steeped in hot water, to extract the medicinal constituents of this root you must decoct it. This involves adding the root to boiling water and letting it simmer for ten minutes or so before straining.
Rose hips (Rosa Canina)
Remedies made with the wondrous red berries of the common dog rose are my favourite vitamin C hit. In fact rose hips are thought to contain twenty times more vitamin C than oranges, and during World War II, when imported citrus fruits were limited, the British government urged people to collect them. From September to November you’ll find them growing in woodlands and hedgerows, perfectly in time to harvest before the season of colds and flu. I obliviously passed by this thorny shrub for most of my life but now use its medicine daily to support my immune system.
You can extract the beneficial constituents of rose hips by making a tincture. Cover freshly picked hips in a jar with either high quality vodka or brandy, or vinegar. Leave in a cool, dark place for 4 to 6 weeks, shaking every couple of days before straining. Take the tincture under your tongue using a dropper. Rose hip syrup is also easy to make and a delicious drink when added to water or used as a dessert topping.
Remember if you are picking wild herbs, do not ingest anything unless you are certain you can identify it.