Dec 252008

ORIGIN mid 18th cent.: from Latin demulcent– ‘stroking caressingly,’

Demulcents are herbs that contain noticeable amounts of a carbohydrate (a polysaccharide, actually) called mucilage that moistens, cools heat, lessens inflammation and often stimulates local immune response. It was once thought that demulcents could only effect the surfaces they came in contact with, but it is now known that, through whatever mechanism, they are able to systemically moisten the whole body, some people call this the indirect demulcent effect. This means they can provide much needed moisture to places like the lungs where the physical matter of the herb will not touch during ingestion or digestion.

Demulcents are one of the easiest herbal actions to recognize. In fact, you can perceive their actions with just your fingers even by crushing the herb and moistening it. If it becomes gooey and slippery and forms a slimy rope when you pull the pieces of plant matter apart, you have yourself a demulcent. Some herbs are only slightly moistening and it may be harder to detect the mucilage with your fingers (though you should still feel a distinct slipperiness) and it may be easier to make a small amount of tea and feel it on your tongue. This gooeyness is very healing to abraded, inflamed tissue and tremendously valuable wherever there is excess dryness and heat, even (or especially) in constitutional imbalance.
Used externally, these herbs are usually called emollients. I don’t see any sense in confusing people with more terminology than is necessary so I stick to just demulcents in the my writing. The indications are simple and straightforward in most cases, we’re looking for dryness, inflammation and often (but not always) symptoms of excess heat, sometimes accompanied by irritation that won’t heal (usually from lack of adequate fluids). When there’s dryness with obvious heat, Mallow is a great choice. When there’s dryness with some coldness or systemic weakness, Elm is often better for it is more neutral in temperature. If you need something that’s both astringent and moistening, Plantain and Evening Primrose are both exceptionally healing with a very useful balance of astringent and mucilaginous qualities. Most demulcents tend to have marked action on the kidney and urinary tract, with some such as Mallow, being active diuretics. They are very soothing to inflamed or irritated tissues, and can be very useful in the treatment of UTIs, interstitial cystitis, scalding urine and other similar issues as long as the root issue causing the inflammation or infection is dealt with as well.

The polysaccharides tend to precipitate out in alcohol, creating a strange ropey mess in the tincture that renders the mucilage unusable. However, a very low percentage alcohol, just enough to preserve the tincture (say, 20%, 1:5 with dried plant matter), can work ok, it doesn’t have all of the mucilage to be sure (that starts to precipitate out at about 5% or 10%) but it’s still slippery. However, you may not properly extract other useful constituents from the herb such as volatile oils or alkaloids with such a low percentage of alcohol. For this reason, I rarely tincture highly mucilaginous herbs, although I make an exception for Mallow, because the tincture is a quick and very useful treatment for many cases of sore throat, especially when combined with a soothing astringent like Wild Rose. I also make very soothing salves with oil or lard infused with Mallow, Elm or Comfrey. I tend to use water based preparations to work with demulcents and often find them to be the most effective. Fresh plant poultices are also very doable, and a chewed up strip of fresh Elm bark is a wonderful remedy for a great many afflictions, from sore throat to abraded skin. Another excellent way to work with demulcents is in honey, either as an infused honey or even better, with whole freshly dried plant ground up very finely and combined with honey. This is a great to ingest the whole plant in a well preserved, good tasting vehicle. It does vary from plant to plant and situation to situation which form of preparation is most ideal.

Keep in mind that these are plants for dryness, and they will be less helpful (possibly even counterproductive) in cases where there is excess moisture, boggy tissues and copious chronic mucus. Also, cooling demulcents tend to have a very cooling effect on the constitution so be sure to use a neutral to warming demulcent where there is feelings of coldness, pale purulent wounds that refuse to heal or other symptom of coldness.

Cool to Cold Demulcents

Neutral Demulcents
Evening Primrose
Licorice (The Chinese spp is more warming and the American spp more cooling)

Warm Demulcents

Notably Astringent Demulcents
Evening Primrose

  11 Responses to “Terms of the Trade: Demulcent”

  1. Hey Kiva,

    Great post (as usual) 😉

    I’ve noticed that Linden leaf/flower and Hawthorn leaf/flower are nice and gooey as infusions too. Linden even moreso on the second infusion as opposed to the first or if done cold process v. hot. You have any thoughts on where they fall on the cool/neutral/warm/astringent spectrum? I would tend to think that Hawthorn is a bit astringent, but not sure if you’d put that in with “notable” like the others you mention in that category.

  2. linden to me is nuetral to warm but more nuetral than anythin else, i love its demulcency. overnight infusions are VERY slimy…doesn’t need to be second infusion.

  3. Hey MDV, I agree with Darcey that Linden seems largely neutral to me, but I haven’t worked with it much. As for Hawthorn, I haven’t noticed that mine is very demulcent, though it does tend towards astringency as the rest of the Rose family does. I would generally classify the flowers and leaves as cooling. What kind of Hawthorn are you using anyhow?

  4. I have used slippery elm in natural form from herbal shops. It is very soothing. It takes away the rasp and pain of sore throats.

  5. Yeah – I was feeling that Linden was at least neutral. What I usually do with it is do a hot/quick infusion first (cuz I like the taste of it hot too). The hot infusion has also been nice for ds to relax before bed as he’s going through losing his front teeth and having all the teething stuff that results. Linden’s been beautiful for that – plus all those respiratory buggy things that are coming and going with the late Fall/early winter etc.). I then save the bits after straining and pour water on it for a second infusion to leave overnight and wake up to some nice, wonderfully tasty slimey stuff 🙂
    Hawthorn-wise, the last batches of leaf/flower I’ve gotten have been from Mountain Rose Herbs, so it’s been c. laevigata from Hungary. I was really surprised how demulcent it was the first time I brewed it. I would also generally say that it’s been more cooling – so that’s one that my dh likes during the summer.

  6. I love Linden, I wish it grew near here, there might be some in Albuquerque, I’m not sure. I’ve thought about trying to grow a tree here, but this is hard terrain for most trees to grow on. I liked it when Darcey was living in Boulder because she’d send some from the trees there 😀

    I’ll have to order some Hawthorn from Mt Rose, as the stuff I have doesn’t seem noticeably slimy to me, but I’d be very excited to have a more demulcent Rose family herb. Peach is somewhat moistening but still not really slimy.

    I’m thrilled to be surrounded by Elm and Mallow though, and so have lots local demulcents. We also have Flax plants growing wild but not enough to harvest most years. We also have wild licorice but ours isn’t as demulcent as the chinese or european spp.

  7. Kiva, my favourite lindens here grow in the hot, dry Central part of country. They are near a lake though so presumably have good access to the water table.

    I’m still trying to figure out how Darcey gets lots of mucilage from a hot o/n infusion. I have to do a second cold on to get the mucilage.

  8. Yeah, I don’t usually get much mucilage from the the first hot infusion either with linden (though I do with mallow and elm, no problem). Hmm, maybe I will try growing a linden tree. They sure are pretty too.

  9. ooh, I love these plants. I usually call the mucilaginous plants, rather than using terms that refer to whether they’re applied externally or internally, but a better 9and much funner) descriptor comes from my friend Joyce Wardwell:


    get’s the point across, well, eh?

    It’s important to note that these slimaceous plants don’t just work on tissues, but manifest a decidely nervine action on constitutionally dry, agitated people. For infusion drinkers, violet leaf is amazing in this regard, being a nutritive kinda-alterative. But most mucilages can act in this manner, according to energetic indications.

    Another mucilaginous astringent worth mentioning is purple loosestrife. Super for GI stuff, and real nice for eyewashes. the more flowers, the more mucilage.

    Mucilages, added to an eyewash (like a plantain/ox eye daisy eyewash with a wee bit of slippery elm or marshmallow root) will do wonders when the eye is hot and dry from the inflammation and every blink hurts and aggravates it and inhibits healing. e sure not to use powdered root or bark; you don’t want these particles in your eyewash (been there, done that)

    Also worth mentioning that when considering mucilage for dryness, that they generally won’t compensate for ~oil~ dryness (except fresh ground flax, which is a real good source of oil as well as slime).

    I could go on for days, says constitutionally dry jim…

  10. yes, but demulcent is a pretty word with a pretty meaning, and the term mucilaginous make non-herbal people look at me like I said a dirty word.

    I’ve read your lovely bits on loosestrife but it doesn’t grow around here so alas, have never got try it.

    I definitely agree about the oil dryness and originally had that in this post but then made it it’s own upcoming post.

    and I certainly agree about the nervine effect on dry people too, have to edit my post a bit since I didn’t get that across properly.

  11. hi Kiva, and all,

    I’ve found that linden’s demulcent qualities are in direct relationship to the quality of the linden that was gathered…and how well it was dried…2007 year was a Bad linden year, at least around here, whereas this past summer was INCREDIBLY wonderful

    during good linden years, the dried flowers are not at all crumbly, they practically look like they’re still hanging on the tree and the tea yielded and even the tincture is definitely demulcent…when you squeeze it out, the slime just oozes…

    Green blessings and love,
    Robin Rose ~*~

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