Sometimes simple is good
A few months ago, I experienced a lingering cough after an case of influenza. When it was a stronger, more irritating cough, I treated it aggressively with Planetary Formulas’ Old Indian Wild Cherry Syrup (plus other things). It’s strong stuff, but when I have had bronchial infections it has historically helped so much that I go straight to it.
After the worst of the cough was gone, I reached for a tea of three simple herbs which are easy to harvest and created a tea general tea for the lungs that’s quite delicious.
Three Herb Tea for Promoting General Lung Function
It’s been a few weeks since my last blog entry, and it will most likely be a few more until the next because I am in transit. All my herbs books and field guides are packed away, as are my computer and cords to import photos; tinctures, dried herbs are put away, too. That leaves me to experience herbalism in the simple, joyous way of meeting plants along the road, field or woods and wondering about them.
I have met a bunch of plants for the first time recently this way, some of which I recognize from books or from seeing their cultivated varieties, others are plants that don’t grow around Duluth that I don’t get to see often. Here are a few that have piqued my interest…
- Lobelia inflata – I am pretty sure this is the variety that grows in my area. It must be, because one tiny bit of leaf left on the tongue for barely a minuet was quite stimulating and moving for the entirety of my body, and it’s seed pods have the characteristic inflated appearance.
- White vervain – Verbena urticifolia looks just like blue vervain in the stem, leaf and flowers, except smaller and more delicate. This white variety grows in similar locals as blue vervain, along roads, in ditches, on shores of rives and lakes. What a beauty!
- Anise hyssop – I have seen this herbs cultivated in many an herb garden, and have cultivated it myself. It is one of my favorite herbs for children, as Agastache foeniculum is deliciously calming and carminative. When I grew it in Northern Minnesota, it never came back as a perennial, but a couple hours south it is a common weed in the country, growing in the much the same places as the white vervain. One thing that strikes me about the wild anise hyssop is that it seems even more aromatic than the ones in the garden, as if it’s qualities are augmented by wildness.
- Wild ginger – I love this plant. Asarum caudatum creates a shiny dark-green blanket under hardwoods and ceders along the steep bluffs of the St. Croix River valley. It’s rounded heart-shaped leaves mingle with another heart-shaped plant, violet. Maude Grieve says that wild ginger’s medicinal actions include “stimulant, carminative, diuretic, diaphoretic”, and that is is “used in chronic chest complaints, dropsy with albuminaria, painful spasms of bowels and stomach”.
- Bee balm – I am not sure exactly what Monarda species grows around here, but it doesn’t really matter because it is sooo freshly fragrant and spicy! I have one cup of honey from Cloquet, MN left that I have been wondering how to use; after tasting the local bee balm I was inspired by Kiva Rose’s blog to make a little Beebalm flower infused honey, with a few anise hyssop flowers added for good carminative and nervine measure. When I get to Oregon this fall, I’ll open up a jar of sweet Midwest summertime.
- One more mint – Catnip. Nothing too special here, as catnip grows just about anywhere, even in Duluth. None the less, it’s around and I love it. What can I say? The gentle and effective herbs used for children are some of my favorites, chamomile, elder flower, anise hyssop and of course catnip. Fresh Nepeta cataria tea tastes a little ‘green’ but is easily enhanced by lavender, lemon balm and a bit of honey. I can’t say for certain if it was the catnip or the OTC anti-prostaglandins, but after having a strong tea of it with the two other mints and two Aleves, a bad case of cramps were relived and I was able to get the best night’s sleep I’ve had in months.
- Figwort – The mouth-watering delicious smelling (in my apparently singular opinion) figwort, Scrophularia nodosa, is already to seed but it doesn’t stop me from munching on it’s leaves. It grows in all over the country side as well as in abandoned lots and alleys in towns. Mullein and foxgloves are in the same Scrophulariaceae family, as can been seen in the snapdragon-like flowers.
- Speaking of mullein, there is plenty out right now in flower. I am not using the leaves or employing it as medicine in any way, just sticking my nose in it’s sparkly yellow flowers on a daily basis. Yum! Verbascum thapsus is one of my favorite smelling flowers, it is so unapologetically floral.
- Solomon’s seal – One of my first blog entries was about Polygonatum multiflorum, Solomon’s Seal, and it has captured my attention since although I haven’t had a lot of experience using it in practice. Whenever I find it in the woods it takes my breath away for a moment. Its’ line and drape is gracefully beautiful, and it’ particular shade of grayish-, blueish-green is soothing to look upon. What strikes me the most is it’s surprisingly large size; although I probubly think that because I am used to seeing the false Solomon’s seal everywhere, which is quite minscule in comparison.
- Collinsonia - C. canadensis is quite prolific around these parts. At first it resembels a stunted, rounded nettle more than a mint family member, as can be seen in these pictures. If you look closely, you can see their flowers are indeed little mint flowers. I have not used Collinsonia medicinally, but I have come across it in researching formulas for hernias and vericose veins. Here’s what Henriette’s Herbal has to say about it (actually, it is Harvey Wickes Felter from the Eclectic Materia Medica). What an awesome online resource!
- One more, actually two more: an uni-dentified pea family member with tiny pink flowers and transluscent green seed pods, as well as a smaller than dime-sized wild orchid growing on a long (1-3 feet) thin stalk, having pinkish white flowers. I have looked online in an attempt to identify these pretty plants to no avail. Sigh. Sometimes the internet just doesn’t cut it…
Mullein, Verbascum thapsus, is one of the first herbs many think of for the lungs. It has many uses besides being a superb respiratory tonic and expectorant though. The flower can used for ear aches, topically with the leaf for the musculoskelatal system and as nervine.
Have you ever smelled mullein flowers? They are incredibly sweet, delicate and flowery to the nose. Mullein is a member of the the Scrophularia (snapdragon) family and originally from Europe, and is one of the easiest herbs to distinguish with its downy lobed leaves, yellow flowers and tall flower stalk. I welcome mullein into my gardens (even though they can proliferate quickly) because they remind me of garden sentinels, keeping watch and adding interesting texture and line to the garden horizon.
Just looking at the velvety soft lobe-like leaves one can see that they must have demulcent actions. At the same time, mullein is also a little irritating if it is rubbed in the skin too much. These soothing yet irritating qualities may seem contradictory, but this is precisely how respiratory tonics work. The demulcents soothe the tissues which encourages mucus stuck here to loosen. The stimulating action irritates the lungs and makes for more productive coughs. There herbs work to help the body along and fulfill the purpose of the cough: to clear the airways of mucus (Hoffmann, 322).
Wood says that “Mullein is definitely the remedy for harsh coughs which have worn down the villa of the lungs” (27). That is, coughs that shake the whole body, almost hurting the chest and ribs. He also says “it is useful for harsh, hacking coughs with a dry irritated membrane and irritated cough reflex, where there is a lack of secretion” (494). I have heard of a case where a smoker who refused to give up the habit asked an herbalist for something for a horrible hacking cough. Mullein was smoked along with the tobacco and the cough went away. It has been incorporated into smoking rituals, as it is calming to the mind and has a sweet and vanilla-like flavor.
Mullein can be taken many ways for soothing the lungs, but infusions are my favorite. Mullein leaves are extremely easy to harvest, they are much less delicate than most other leaves. Pick leaves from the first year rosettes, slice down the middle stem to ensure proper drying, and lay out to dry. I like to dry them in the fall, when the weather becomes dryer, otherwise they seem to reabsorb the moisture from the air. When you are ready for making an infusion, take out a leaf or two, break them up a bit, and steep in hot water.
You can also find mullein in tincture form. I like it for blending with other expectorants (David Winston recommends elecampane, yerba santa, horehound and grindelia)(87), but I prefer the infusions for taken specifically mullein. Perhaps this is because I remember learning that starches are not extracted in alcohol,
Hoffmann, David. Medical Herbalism.
Winston, David. Herbal Therapeutics.
Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom.