Herbs for Respiratory Health

An herbal walk on the edge of winter

You can notice the change from the humid, vegetal smells of summer mornings to the crisp richness of autumn, at least here in Vermont. The dawn is much later too: now we step outside as the last stars fade, and the air has a trace of wood smoke from the first fires of the season. With a warmer layer on, it is good to feel the cool air on your face and hands while warming up with a brisk walk.

Now is the time to find and gather some important herbs to help once the weather truly turns. The equinox, when night and day are equally long, serves as a signal up here in the Northeast: there is a month, give or take, before snow might make the fields inaccessible to digging, and hide the last green plants. But wherever you might live, the coming winter is a reminder to build up the home apothecary with some botanicals that support the respiratory system. I enjoy discovering these on morning walks--but your local herb shop (or grocery store) are great resources too. And if you find yourself drawn to these herbs, it is easy to grow some of them in a pot on the porch, or even a sunny windowsill.

Mullein--Herbs for Respiratory Support

I let mullein (Verbascum thapsus) find a place in our garden, though it is usually on the edges and next to a trail where its seeds can find disturbed soil. During summer its tall tapers add dramatic vertical lines, like lamp posts on a city street, to the garden paths. Now what you find are the first-year plants, a mess of leaves silvery with dew, waiting to overwinter and send up stalks next year. Traditional herbal medicine points to a tea of these leaves as a good place to start if you want to provide gentle support to the lungs: use about two tablespoons of crushed leaf per cup of tea, and drink it warm at least three times a day.* I will need about a gallon jar of mullein, dried, to make into tea over the course of the colder months. But we'll come back to these plants later, when the sun has been up for a while and the dew is gone, to avoid harvesting wet leaves.

Red Clover--Herbs for Respiratory Health

Crossing wide meadows, the last mowings are complete: the rising sun finds hay bales, and short-cropped grass, and adventurous field herbs who want one last chance at flowering. Red clover (Trifolium pratense) pokes up, purple-red blossoms on long reaching arms, and dots the green here and there. Though the June flowering is the big one, I still like collecting some blossoms from the windy hillsides in fall. These too are dried for tea: a warm cup of red clover brings a slightly-sweet memory of summer, and helps the body maintain a normal level of mucus production in the nose and lungs.* Add a spoonful of honey to soothe the throat, and you have an ally that appeals to all ages with its gentle support for the respiratory system. 


The cold air gathers in the hollows this time of year, sliding down and pooling next to where the water pools. It is here, in the damp and cold between thin streams and muddy soil, that you find elecampane (Inula helenium), also known as elf-dock. Its yellow flowers with thin ribbon-like petals are long gone, but the wide leaves remain, close to the ground, to show us where to dig. I bring a small folding shovel, or a hardwood digging stick, to loosen the large roots and pull them up out of the wet soil. Like other "docks" (burdock, or yellow dock), elecampane has broad leaves and a root with a bit of the bitter flavor. But unlike the others, this dock has a warming spice that offers an immediate counterbalance to the cold, wet, sticky soil where it grows: you can smell the fragrant aromatic punch just cleaning the roots after quickly rinsing them in the stream. Back home, we will remove all the soil and chop them up for extraction in alcohol: 100-proof vodka is the minimum strength, though grain alcohol (if you can find it) does a better job. Fill a mason jar about three-quarters of the way with chopped root, then cover with spirits and let it sit for two to four weeks, shaking from time to time. After straining, the tincture of elecampane is ready: I use it less frequently than mullein tea, when needing more targeted support for the lungs. Taken in doses of 60-90 drops, it helps the body maintain healthy bronchial passages.* You can almost feel it at work, its spice leaving a pervasive, warming feeling in your core. 

Wild Cherry--Herbs for Respiratory Health

From the hollows we walk back up to new fields, on the way to the forest's edge. Geese draw long lines in the sky, riding on a freshening north wind. Maple trees, now red and orange from an early frost, contrast sharply with the green of pines. We will come back to the pine trees, but for now, I am looking for saplings of the wild cherry tree (Prunus serotina). It is easier to find these in the liminal zone between forest and meadow, as there is a bit more light and there are more low branches. I clip a few of these young branches to bring home, where we strip the outer bark for fresh extraction. Using lower-proof spirits (brandy, or 80 proof vodka are fine), we use the same process we used for elecampane to make a wild cherry bark tincture. Once ready (after just two or three days of steeping), mix a teaspoon of this tincture with about the same amount of honey and water to make a useful remedy to help the body maintain easy, relaxed breathing.* My favorite time to take it is before bed. It has a delightful flavor, vaguely reminiscent of amaretto and stone fruit. And if you can identify young wild cherry saplings before they lose their leaves, you can tie a ribbon around the trunk and keep coming back for little harvests all winter long. The bark stays effective and aromatic even in the frostiest months.

Usnea--Herbs for Respiratory Health

I venture into the woods for two main reasons: first, to gather pine boughs. But along the way, I also hope to find some usnea lichen (Usnea barbata). Its silver-green tendrils hang off the branches of dead evergreens, and you can find chunks on the forest floor after a strong storm, broken off of their high perches. But a reliable place to find usnea is next to forest ponds: fallen trees, or spruces whose feet got too wet, are loaded with the lichen. We keep it on hand because traditional herbalism values it for the health of the lungs. I appreciate usnea for its ability to maintain the health of the throat, too: if you keep some in your home, you can soak a teaspoon-sized ball in a few ounces of boiling-hot water until cool, then just chew the lichen whole and swallow the slightly bitter, slightly acrid juice.*

Cedar--Herbs for Respiratory Health

Pine trees (in our area, Pinus strobus, the Eastern white pine) have a reputation both sacred and medicinal that highlights their powers during the darkest days of the year. All aromatic evergreens share, somewhat, in this tradition. I pick pine in part because it is so abundant, but spruce or other balsamic conifers like cedars or junipers can be used as well. I don't have anything too complex in mind: back at home, we have a special pot reserved for simmering evergreens, heating up beeswax, and other sticky, resinous pursuits. Put on the stove with water and pine, the house soon fills with the fragrance of the forest: I feel this has an uplifting quality for the spirit, but in the past, herbalists also believed that this aromatic air could cleanse the home of disruptive influences, "bad air". Inhaling the vapors (mindful not to get too close to rising steam) is refreshing and reminds me to take deep, nourishing breaths.

Hyssop--Herbs for Respiratory health

Back home, I close the garden gate and walk back to clean and process the harvest. But there, always close at hand, are two more important plants that share similar qualities: hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) and thyme (Thymus vulgaris). Hyssop is taller, and can grow into an almost bushy hedge, while thyme is a border plant, or one that will settle in between the stones of the rock wall or path. Hyssop almost has a minty, cooling quality, and a trace of bitterness; thyme is more warming, spicy and savory. But both are traditionally used for two key purposes: providing support for bronchial health, and helping the body maintain a normal, comfortable feeling of warmth.* A cup of thyme or hyssop tea can help you shake off the chill, and becomes quite pleasant and soothing with a little honey: think of these herbs, alone or combined with mullein or red clover, as aromatic "energizers" for respiratory health. They have a long track record of traditional use for this very purpose.

thyme--Herbs for Respiratory Health

If you didn't grow any this season, I recommend getting your thyme, packaged fresh, from the produce department of your local grocery store. It beats anything from the spice rack and keeps well if you cut the bottom of the stems and store the herb in a small jar of water, like cut flowers. You can trim off a little for tea, one or two teaspoons per cup, as you need it (use the stems as well as the leaves). But the produce department also offers another important ally for respiratory health during the winter months: garlic (Allium sativum) consumption always increases in my household during the cold weather. Folks used to hang garlands of garlic in children's rooms to ward off seasonal malaise--and while I can't speak to its effectiveness when used that way, garlic can certainly help support good respiratory health when cooked in soup or blended into broth. Its warming pungency is welcome against the chill, and you don't need very much to help the body maintain healthy airways: half a clove, or up to three cloves, daily is a good place to start. Try to take that amount in three or more divided doses. And if you like using garlic, consider planting a clove in your garden, maybe along some of the flower bulbs, or in a small pot on the windowsill. Come spring, the greens will be a welcome sign of life returning. And the bulb growing below the soil's surface will be there waiting when the weather turns cold again.

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