A dear reader and friend wrote to me recently with the season’s first really nasty bug asking for some herbal counsel on how to feel a bit better, how to build up her immune system and how to be better prepared next time. She also suggested I write a post on what the most valuable herbs might be to stock for Winter. So here we go, a general overview of what you might like to have in your medicine chest during the coming cold season. I’m suggesting general, widely available plants and preparations rather than my own peculiar, but less common favorites in this case. As nice as Osha is, I simply can’t recommend it to you if you live in Boston or Kansas City. Try to stay local if you can, or at least common and weedy. Some substitutions can be made, such as Thyme instead of Monarda, you’ll get a similar effect but there will definitely be differences.
- First of all, Elderberry. It’s so lovely for EVERYTHING, but especially building and maintaining immunity under stress. I would especially suggest Elderberry Elixir made with some Ginger root, Angelica, Osha or Calamus. Any nice pungent warming root will do, really. To ward off viruses, tonify the mucus membranes, help clear stuffy sinuses, give a little extra energy and even work as a relaxant diaphoretic for tense, hot fevers that refuse to break. Also, the elixir can work great for ear infections too, just make sure the eardrum is intact.
- Bee Balm (Monarda spp) – Tinctured and dried. The dried leaf and flower makes a great diaphoretic tea when taken hot and will also help clear out stuffy, congested sinuses. Used as a steam, it will relieve sinus pressure and stuffiness, clear the lungs and provide some anti-infective help for your who resp. system. It also makes a good foot soak when you’re chilled and tired. Make a nice salve or wash for a burn you get from the wood stove too. The tincture is great for most kinds of infections when taken internally, especially UTIs and yeast infections. You can also use it to take your nervous system down a notch during the holidays and to boost your belly functions. Having tried several different species of Monarda now, I have to say that I find our super spicy/oil variety in the SW to be the strongest anti-infective and nervine. M. didyma tastes like flowers and still works well for most infections but doesn’t have the bigger kick of our M. fistulosa var. menthaefolia.
- Cleavers/Violet/RedRoot – Any good lymphatic is good to keep on hand for swolle, painful glands and bugs that just won’t go away when you feel tired, sluggish and dragging.
- Ginger – A good warming circulatory stimulant for warm you up when you get chilled. It can also help raise immunity and lessen inflammation in arthritis etc. The tea wil help clear sinuses and bring on a good sweat when taken hot. An oil made from the fresh plant will also help heal perpetually cracked, dried and cold skin. It’s also strongly anti-fungal for feet who’ve been in shoes too much, and can be a nice warming chest rub for congestion and cold, stuck lung grunge. I always try to keep a few big chunks of the fresh root on hand to add to food, tea and other preparations in the Winter. The honey made with the fresh plant is amazing (try it with Bee Balm flower honey for a real treat) and can be given as gifts too, to be used in cooking, medicine, tea and by the spoonful.
- Nettles & Oatstraw – Yumm, nourishing infusions of nutrient dense plants are a constant for us during the Winter. These are nice, general purpose, mineral packed plants to take as a daily immune booster and body nourisher.
- Burdock – This lovely, bittersweet root is good for nearly everything, so throw some in your soup, use the vinegar in your salad dressings, makes some tea and carry a bottle of tincture around with you. Good for keeping the lymph moving smoothly, while nourishing the whole body and stabilizing the metabolism. An overall tonic and normalizer. I keep fresh plant tincture, fresh plant vinegar and dried root on hand at all times if possible. And if you live near an Asian market you can probably buy it fresh (under the name of Gobo in the produce section) to be eaten as a food.
- Chokecherry – An old standard for any hot, irritated cough, especially with fever. Also good for calming a pissed off, overworked belly. And basically for cooling any hot, irritated condition, including rashes, heartburn, some headaches and tension. Most people use the syrup, but I prefer the Elixir made with brandy and honey or glycerin. Also good for holiday induced exhaustion and heart palpitations.
- Mullein – What isn’t Mullein good for? Its Winter specialty is usually those dry, barking coughs that just won’t go away. But it’s also great for asthma, any sort of lung problem as well as stuck lymph. Most people use the leaves, but the root and flowers can also be used. All parts of the plant are somewhat sedative, pain relieving and anti-inflammatory. Nice in any healing salve too. The flower oil (and probably the oil of the other parts too) is a standby for ear infections in adults or children. The plant can also be used to help heal spinal issues and broken bones as well. Nearly any form of the herb works well, depending on the need. I like the infusion of the leaves with some milk added. Careful though, it can make some people a bit sleepy.
- Mallow – A great moistener for any of the dried out, hard conditions so common in Winer. A wonderful throat soother and lung healer taken in tea or food. It can also be used for ulcers and many other chronic belly issues. The root powder is nice mixed in with oatmeal for a nourishing and moistening yin tonic for the nerves, lungs and belly. It’ll also lessen the pain of many UTIs quite quickly and promote healing wherever it’s used.
- Goldenrod – Use the tincture to tonify the mucus membranes, dry up too copious sinus secretions and relieve some sinus headaches. It’s also calming for the belly, nourishing for the kidneys and good for clearing up yeast infections. Depending on the spp. it’s often bitter and so useful as a good digestive tonic. Use the fresh flower oil for pulled muscles, arthritis and other achy conditions as well as wounds and rashes.
- Skullcap/Motherwort/California Poppy/Vervain – Pick your favorite relaxant nervine and hold onto it tight, because nearly everyone needs to be calmed down a bit during the holiday madness. Motherwort’s especially nice if you tend to have a giant anxiety attack just thinking about christmas shopping or seeing your mother in law for thanksgiving. Don’t forget that we’re supposed to get extra rest and sleep this time of year, not spend all our time sitting in traffic trying to get to the mall to buy more STUFF. So use those nervines and sleep in a little.
- Mugwort/Sagebrush/Silver Sage/Estafiate (Artemisia spp)- Because you can’t have too many digestive helpers this time of year. For travel belly, weird water in foreign countries (or counties) and general stress related digestive disturbances. Also great as a steam for all manner of lung congestions and inflammation. Helps with stress (but may give you weird dreams 😉 ) and many indigenous tribes also used it for viral prevention and treatment. I haven’t used it for viruses myself so can’t testify for it yet. Great used externally for rashes, wounds, burns, mysterious lumps, sore muscles, bruises, contusions, arthritis and nearly anything else that hurts. Another plant that’s good nearly anything. The dried plant infused in a pot of hot water is another great foot soak — relaxing, aromatic and pain relieving. Just don’t put it in your turkey — no matter how many indian tribes and hippies call it sage, it’s REALLY not what you’re thinking of.
I also keep a quart or so of Fire Cider or Harvest Cider on hand, for general warming and tasty immune building. The spiciness of the brew depends on what your belly and constitution can handle. Some of you will be thinking, “where the hell’s the garlic?” but I just can’t use Garlic myself, I can barely be around it without getting sick so I just don’t know to terrible much about it. Although I did once cure the world’s worst year long sinus infection by snorting crushed Garlic, it cured the infection but now I wonder if that’s why my body’s afraid of it LOL. If I ever get my tolerance back, I’ll be sure to include it more in my writings.
I will, of course, be doing various posts on myriad seasonal illnesses in the next few months. Maybe some cough differentials, a few aches and pains remedies and how to sleep outside all Winter long in the mountains(that would be in the Wild Woman Primer, coming soon). And oh yeah, a post on aphrodisiacs, for those of you who don’t hibernate the entire winter.