Pantry Medicine: Onion Poultices, Syrups & Tinctures
by Kiva Rose
Botanical Name: Allium cepa
Botanical Family: Amaryllidaceae
Taste: Spicy, sweet, acrid, diffusive
Energetics: Warm, dry
Vital Actions: Diaphoretic, diuretic, rubefacient, expectorant, circulatory stimulant, smooth muscle relaxant
Therapeutic Effects: Antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, cough suppressant (not a true suppressant, but does usually reduce frequency and intensity of spasmodic and insistent lingering coughs)
As a little girl growing up in both urban and rural areas, I was fascinated by the wild onions that grew in my family’s yard and all in surrounding fields and riversides. I grew up with gardens, but the very idea that a familiar food in the form of a much more smelly feral relative was right there in there in the grass, growing without assistance or permission, seemed like a profound miracle to me. In fact, I liked them so much I gave myself a bellyache more than once by eating an excess of them during my regular foraging forays where I would wander through the woods and fields eating bits of whatever wild plants I had been told were safe to eat, not limited to wild onions but also including crabapples, apples, dandelion greens, elderberries, gooseberries, wild strawberries, yellow dock leaves and even some bites of the unpleasantly textured burdock leaves.
I was also intrigued by the stories I heard from our oldtimer neighbors about how their mothers or grandmothers had cured pneumonia or the croup with onion poultices. This also seemed miraculous to my mind, that a common kitchen food could somehow serve a similar purpose to codeine or other strong prescription medications.
Usually, I stick to talking about local plants or common weeds, but Onion is such a ubiquitous pantry item and easily grown garden plant, that I figure it qualifies just fine. Keep in mind that, in general, the stronger the taste and smell of the Onion, the stronger the medicine. The milder it is, the weaker it is. However, the milder varieties can actually be desirable in small children or those with some sensitivity to the volatile oils or other components that comprise the Onion.
Strangely enough, some of these well known “home remedies” like onion poultices get more flack and criticism than more fancy herbal treatments like standardized Echinacea extracts. Perhaps it’s that the latter sounds like something officially medical or maybe it’s just that anything old fashioned must be wrong. Either way, onions remain a very effective herb in a variety of circumstances. Some think of it as just a milder form of Garlic (Allium sativum) but in my opinion, it seems like a distinctive medicine with its own characteristics and subtleties. Many hot-natured people (Pitta, as it were), including myself, DO find Garlic entirely too irritating to their skin and mucosa and more prone to cause aggravation of a problem than soothe it. While Onion is not just a wussier form of Garlic, there is enough overlap in uses to make a useful substitute in some cases, especially for respiratory issues.
Onion is specific to damp, cold conditions, but also works well where there’s spasmodic coughing and copious phlegm even when there are also some heat signs. I use Onion poultices (recipe/instructions below) with roasted or sauteed Onions for spasmodic coughing, an insistent hacking cough and/or lower respiratory congestion with difficulty breathing. There have been times when even after large doses of other relaxant or even cough suppressing herbs the cough has continued on unabated, usually with the person unable to sleep or rest well. In many of these cases Onion poultices and syrup (often accompanied by frequent small doses of Lobelia) were the only things to soothe the cough enough to let them breathe and sleep long enough to recover. This is the herb to use when you or your child can’t sleep because they’re having difficulty breathing or can’t stop coughing, especially if they’re listless, pale and exhausted from coughing or struggling to breathe.
Onion poultices are one of those nearly fool-proof, widely applicable remedies that everyone should know. I have many times showed up on a house call and no doubt initially alarmed parents when I explained what I’m going to do as I pull out some Onions and start chopping, but they often catch on and start using this simple medicine of their own volition. Some of my most rural clients, and especially the Hispanic families, already know this particular bit of herbalism and will immediately go get some cloth to wrap the poultice in and then tell me stories about how their grandmother taught them to do this same thing when they were young.
Not all children are very excited about the idea of someone wrapping them up with a sack of warm, oily onions but often the results of the first time are enough to have them coming back for more, especially if the cough has become painful because of inflammation and/or sore muscles. In fact, even adults often take some convincing that this actually constitutes medicine rather than some sort of bad joke. But again, the results are usually obvious and significant enough to overcome their initial hesitation.
“Onion is stimulant, expectorant, and diuretic. A syrup of onion, prepared by drawing the juice with sugar, is a very effectual expectorant cough medicine for infants, young children, and old persons. If given in moderate quantities it is very soothing; if too freely administered it may cause nausea and disorder digestion. It, together with the onion poultice, are among the good things inherited from domestic medication, and might well be considered in preference to less safe and less depressing pulmonic medication.” - Harvey Wickes Felter, Eclectic Physician
This same entry by Felter inspired me to make a tincture of fresh Onion (yes, I said a tincture) for use in chronic urinary tract infections. Despite the dubious taste, it can work quite well in UTIs where there are signs of dampness and coldness, usually not in acute, quick onset infections but in long-term or reoccurring infections accompanied by achiness, mucusy discharge and lethargy. I usually combine it with Beebalm (Monarda spp.) and a tiny bit of Juniper berry or Yerba Mansa (Anemopsis californica) for such cases.
Raw onion poultices are also an old and effective treatment for insect stings and bites, as well as bruises, sprains, strains and so on (but not black eyes please, too much chance of getting the stuff in your eye). I usually chop the onions roughly and then smash them good and proper until juicy and either apply directly or wrapped in muslin (depending on sensitivity of skin and how long I expect to leave it on). Onion juice directly in the ear is also an oldtime remedy for all sort of ear infections, but not something I’ve ever used as Alder and Elderberry tincture in the ear and internally work so well. And remember, don’t EVER be putting anything in the ear if you suspect there’s any chance of a ruptured eardrum.
Onions seem to have similar benefits for the cardiovascular system as its close relative, Garlic. There is a traditional basis for this as well as modern medical research backing it up. However, I have not worked with Onion specifically for this (although I certainly have with Garlic) and can’t report anything from personal experience.
Raw vs. Cooked
Research(1) indicates that the phenolic compounds in Onion (and many other aromatic plants) responsible for at least part of the antimicrobial properties of the plant are destroyed by heat. So, while I do use a cooked Onion poultice for spasmodic coughing and earaches (uses obviously having little to do with any anti-bacterial properties), I prefer the raw Onion poultices for stings, bites and for the Onion syrup.
Dosage: Syrup dosage is about 1 tsp ever 3-4 hours for a medium sized child of about 7-11 years of age or 1 tbs every 3-4 hours for a medium sized adult with normal Onion tolerance. Less for smaller people or those with delicate digestion, more for larger people. Tincture dosage depends on specific use but about 10-30 drops for most things in an adult.
Considerations: Onion is less appropriate where there’s signs of overt heat (especially in childhood eruptive diseases) and large doses internally can cause digestive upset. Better to use small frequent doses than large, sporadic doses both for level of effectiveness and for one’s belly health.
Basic Onion Poultice
- 2-3 medium sized onions (this is for an entire chest or back poultice on a medium sized human), finely diced. If you choose to roast or steam your Onions rather than saute them, you may prefer to leave them whole.
- 1/4 C Flour or corn meal (optional, helps to more evenly distribute the poultice)
- Muslin or similar cloth large enough to fold over poultice and cover chest or upper back
- Hot water bottle
- Medium sized towel
- You can either steam, roast or sauté your onions, depending on your preference. I’ve used all three methods but usually end up just sautéing them in some olive or coconut oil in cast iron frying pan on my woodstove. Cook until tender and somewhat transparent (we’re not going for caramelized here).
- Stir in flour or corn meal until a gooey paste is achieved.
- Spread onto muslin and fold over to hold poultice and heat in.
- Place on chest, upper back or wherever needed. Use as hot as can be tolerated, but not hot enough to cause pain.
- Cover with hot water bottle. Again, as hot as is not painful.
- Cover area with towel.
- Let sit for 15-30 minutes before removing.
- When using because of coughs or congestion, it’s great to follow this with a thorough application of some kind of chest rub. I like a salve made with a blend of Pine, Fir and Cottonwood infused oils.
Simple Onion Syrup
- 1 Cup roughly chopped fresh onion
- Small handful of fresh or dried Sage or Thyme or Monarda (or equal amount of fresh chopped White Fir, Abies concolor, needles). (Optional)
- Juice of half a lemon (Optional)
- 1 tsp freshly grated Ginger root (Optional)
- Enough honey to cover herbs
Just place the onion and other herbs in a jar, cover with honey, stir to remove air bubbles and cover. Let sit overnight. The honey will very effectively suck all the juice out of the Onion. Use by the teaspoonful beginning the next morning. Some people like to eat the onion bits with the honey and some people prefer to strain the solids out. It’s up to you.
Footnotes and References:
Felter, H.W. and J.U. Lloyd. 1985. King’s American Dispensatory, Vols. 12. Portland, OR: Eclectic Medical Publications [reprint of 1898 original]. 146.
Eavesdropping on conversations by old rural folks in Missouri
Personal conversation with Hispanic, Indigenous and Anglo folks in New Mexico and Arizona
All Photos ©2011 Kiva Rose