The Elder Mother’s Pantry: A Bioregional Herbal Materia Medica for Influenza and Other Cold-Weather Ailments
As the colder weather begins to move into the northerly reaches and higher eleveations of the Western hemisphere, there’s been much talk of this year’s especially virulent strains of cold and flu. The most important action you can take this is preventative in nature, including ingesting plenty of fermented foods and bone broth, getting your Vitamin D, being sure to make time for rest and keeping a good stock of immune tonic herbs on hand.
For this post though, I’ll be speaking specifically of bioregional herbs that can be allied with in the actual treatment of already present cold or flu. I have striven to create a simple, accessible, energetics-based materia medica based in your backyard rather than an expensive herb catalog. I’ll be dividing up my selections by action, to help give you an idea of not only what specific herbs to keep on hand, but what ~type~ of herbs to be on the lookout for in your bioregion. There’s some overlap, and that’s to be expected considering how multi-faceted most herbs are, and it means you’ll have less herbs to find and gather that way.
Keep in mind I’m not talking about all herbs available in commerce, I’m specifically speaking of SW bioregional herbs. However, I have primarily chosen weedy species common to most of N. America and even much of Europe. In fact, many of these herbs are so ubiquitous as to be nearly forgettable upon sight, but there are several here you can’t buy from any large herb manufacturer, so if you want them you’ll need to gather your own or buy from a small independent wildcrafter or grower who can cater to you weird taste in plants.
Demulcents are incredibly useful in cases where there is copious mucus, but instead of flowing freely, it cakes up into a hard crust inside the resp. tract causing congestion and feelings of constriction and can’t be expectorated regardless of how much effort is put into the task, often resulting in feelings of heat, oppression and exhaustion. They are also invaluable in situations in which there is little to no mucus but systemic dryness, resulting in withered and/or inflamed tissues. Feelings of heat, and a particular kind of “dustyness” in the lungs along with tongue with no tongue coating, are common symptoms of this.
- Mallow (Malva and allied spp.). – Mallow is cooling and very moistening. It soothes a raw, abraded throat with amazing speed, even as a tincture (yes, I know that’s not supposed to work, but it does) and especially as a mucilaginous tea or gooey pastille. Taken as a tea or as a powder added to food, it excels at moistening dry, inflamed resp. tract tissue. Not only does it greatly reduce the discomfort and pain of such a situation, it all contributes enough moisture to allow dry, hardened mucus to loosen and then helps to efficiently expectorate it out of the body. I have seen many seemingly intractable, spasmodic coughs accompanied by feelings of heat and dryness almost immediately cured by a simple spoonful of mallow honey, a cup of slippery tea or a small bowl of mallow root gruel. It also works great preventatively if you’re prone to this sort of affliction and can help keep any infection from settling into the lungs. If you don’t like that much goo on a regular basis, using the leaves and flowers of the plant provides a good dose of mucilage but isn’t quite as intense as the roots.
- Elm (Ulmus pumila and allied spp.) – Elm is also very moistening but more neutral in temperature, making it more appropriate for dry, oppressive coughs accompanied by a sense of cold. In addition, it shares Mallow’s gentle expectorating abilities, although if the person is very cold or has overall tissue depression, a warming, stimulating diaphoretic like Ginger or a Hot Pepper (Chile Piquen or Cayenne will work) may be needed to get the mucus moving enough to be fully expectorated. It can be prepared exactly as Mallow, the dried bark can be cut in strips and made into infusion/tea, powdered and turned into pastilles or infused into a good honey.
Immune Tonic or Modulating Herbs
- Elderberry (Sambucus spp.) – Yes, yes, you’ve all heard me go on and on about Elderberry. You’re probably nearly sick of it by now, but I can’t possibly leave it out of this post, now can I? First, Elderberry is a fabulous immunomodulator, that means it doesn’t just stimulate the immune system into overdrive, it actually assists the body in adjusting to whatever level of immunity is needed. It has also been shown to be anti-viral in some cases, effectively disarming the virus and then flushing it out of the system before it can continue replicating itself in your body. I prefer to use it to prevent the actual onset of a virus, but it is also quite wonderful for lessening the severity and decreasing the length of the illness, once you actually contract it. I like to make my Elder Mother Elixir with both berries and flowers, but good berry tincture, honey, tea or homemade wine all work well. Elder’s applicability is very broad, useful in nearly every case of viral illness, and its copious bioflavonoids only add to that. Some people warn against its use in the treatment of H1N1, but in the dozen or so cases I have advised in, Elder seems to be of great benefit, even in people with autoimmune disease, where you might think the chance of cytokine storm would be larger. Also, I have yet to see any cytokine storm with H1N1 and have not heard from other practitioners that it is a common occurrence with this strain of flu. I won’t dictate how to treat H1N1 one way or the other, but I do know I would certainly be very likely to use it if my own family was dealing with this flu.
- Vit D – Well yeah, Vit D isn’t an herb but I can’t stress it’s importance in the prevention and treatment of flu and cold enough. Most suggested doses on the bottle are very low, 5,000-7,000 IU/day of D3 seems to work very well. Keep in mind that MOST people in North America are at least moderately Vit D deficient, including babies and children.
Lymphatics are essential components of any herbal medicine chest, especially those aimed at treating the viral onslaught that is Winter in many places. These herbs are usually alteratives, with a specific emphasis on the lymphatic system. They increase and initiate movement of the lymph and specifically called with there is immune depression, swollen or painful glands or a history of lymphatic stagnation.
- Alder (Alnus spp.) – Alder is my all-purpose lymphatic of choice in nearly any situation. Cooling and drying, it has a profound affinity with liver, skin and lymph. It is most specific in cases where there are swollen, sensitive glands, especially at the onset of a virus but equally applicable if the glands and immune depression persists even after the virus itself is gone, resulting in a chronic sore throat, feelings of fatigue, lethargy and sometimes unexpected or intermittent flushes of heat or fever. If there is any sign of secondary infection during illness, it is doubly indicated, and is incredibly useful in almost any bacterial involvement in any part of the body (more about this in the heat clearing herbs section). Although, I’ve worked with a large number of well known lymphatics in my practice, it is Alder that has proved most consistent and dependable up to this point. I prefer a tincture of the freshly dried bark, cones and catkins.
- Redroot (Ceanothus spp.) – The wintergreen scented, scarlet red root of this aptly named herb is an excellent and classic remedy (revived with much thanks due to Michael Moore) for nearly any sort of glandular ailment. More warming in nature than Alder, it tends to be more suited for many chronic disorders or where Alder’s heat-clearing skills are not needed. I tend to think of Alder for acute conditions (even if longstanding) that involve heat, whereas Redroot is better for chronic, boggy or cool situations. It is xcellent for longstanding sore throats (especially with Sage), lymphatic stagnation as well as any spleen enlargement or non-fibrous cysts, inflamed tonsils and similar maladies. Decoction or tincture are both quite useful.
- Mullein (Verbascum spp.) – This fuzzy leafed weed is one of the most multi-purpose herbs I know, and to top most known generalists, it excels at everything it does. Specific to our purposes as a cold/flu herb, Mullein is a wonderful yet gentle lymphatic, especially useful in cases where the glands seem especially nodular and hard. The plant can be taken internally as well as a leaf (smushed up to get rid of those irritating hairs, thank you) poultice placed externally over area. Root, leaf and flower will all work but I prefer flower for acute, painful situations and the root for the most chronic with leaf usually working best for glandular stasis specifically related to respiratory distress or infection. It is especially effective for hot, dry conditions but is very broadly active. If there is notable coldness in the individual, then stick to the leaves or roots.
These are herbs that can increase diaphoresis by increasing peripheral circulation. The real key here though, is not in the sweating (although that can be very useful) but in the improved circulation that allows the body to properly modulate temperature and humidity. This may sound less than exciting in words, but really, it’s extremely vital to the treatment of almost any virus, especially if there is fever or signs of restricted circulation. Fever itself is a healthy response by the anima (the vital force) and the body can often eliminate unwanted viral activity simply by raising it’s own temperature. The problem comes when the circulation is impeded by overly constricted or overly lax tissues that prevent the body from properly responding and adapting to the raised temperature, potentially resulting in prolonged and unnecessary fever or in a low-grade but ineffective fever. Diaphoretics need to be taken as hot teas or infusion, and the person needs to be kept warm and bundled up so that the circulation can focus on its healing work rather than just working as a thermostat. Note that diaphoretics, while often initially seeming to increase fluids in the body by moistening the skin, are actually drying in nature.
Relaxant Diaphoretic Herbs - These are called for in situations where there is great tension causing circulatory constriction. The person will often be tense, with little to no sweating, and a hard, hot fever that won’t let go. There is often obvious inflammation as can be seen through a crimson red tongue, a flushed face and a feeling of being very oppressed, irritated and restless.
- Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)- A very consistent and powerful relaxant diaphoretic, indicated by flushed, red skin with racing heartbeat, feelings of oppression in the chest and a high, dry fever. It’s action is longstanding and very thorough but being of a fairly permanent nature (vs diffusive, read my terms of the trade posts if you don’t know what I”m talking about) and can take a while to kick in to an effective degree. For this reason, if I need quick action, I will combine Butterfly Weed with a more diffusive herbs, depending on the person, Beebalm or Ginger or Rosemary could all work well to speed action and deliver it more fully to all parts of the body.
- Elderflower (Sambucus spp.) – One of the most accessible and easy to use relaxant diaphoretics in North America. Especially valuable in in the treatment childhood fevers, including those with febrile seizures. Susun Weed has discussed Elderflower’s ability to “reset” the fever mechanism when it is no longer functioning properly, and the body is habitually holding onto fevers rather than the fever following the healthy pattern of rising and then breaking. Even the tincture will work well for this, especially if there is fear that even the hot tea will raise the temperature of the child’s body temperature. However, in most cases, the tea is most appropriate and will also aid in bodyaches and sinus congestion as well as assist in modulating the immune system and help to prevent infection in the mucus membranes. Similar to Butterfly Weed, it is most called for where there is tension, lack of circulation due to tissue constriction, a red tongue and red, hot to the touch skin.
- Vervain (Verbena and Glandularia spp.) – This bitter herb is one of the most broadly useful cold/flu remedies I know of. It sure doesn’t taste good, but it does excel at treating constriction throughout the tissues, especially in the typically acute conditions of cold and flu. It predictably relaxes tension to allow for increased peripheral circulation while simultaneously acting as a wonderful calming nervine to promote much needed rest and relaxation. It does double duty where there’s an upset belly or any liver tension happening. It is indicated where there is plenty of surface heat, possibly accompanied by deep chills, and bone-deep aches. This discomfort tends to trigger a kind of restless irritability that manifests as very grouchy people who refuse to rest and can’t settle in to being sick long enough to recover. Vervain will help with all this and probably put them to sleep too. Very appropriate for many sick children, mothers, take note! However, very large doses will cause nausea and potential vomiting, so stick to standard tea doses.
Stimulant Diaphoretic Herbs - These are called for when the tissues are too lax to allow for proper circulation. There is often significant coldness, a feeling of weakness or lethargy, a pale tongue, and a cold, even clammy quality to the skin. There may be a lowgrade fever happening but it is usually non-productive and intermittent. Dampness and overall congestions may also be present. Be careful with these when it’s cold out, because while they can initially make you feel very warm indeed, they actually lower body temperature through opening their ventilations of the body (which is part of why they work well for fevers, eh?) and are traditionally used in hot weather in hot climates to cool the body down, not warm it up. So, even if you feel all full of warm, tingly goodness, guard your body heat well. In addition to my two examples (both of which are common in gardens in the SW), many kitchen spices and tea herbs are stimulating diaphoretics. Most are generally warming, but some like Sassafras, are much more cooling in nature and those should be used where there are signs of both tissue laxity and heat.
- Hot Peppers (Capsicum spp.) – Specifically helpful in cases where weakness or longterm debility is preventing the body from completing the fever cycle. The fever usually stays low and dry, and there are feelings of exhaustion and being slowly drained by the process. There is also typically impaired digestion, achy joints and an overall sense of structural weakness, especially in the muscles. There may be inflammation but it will be of the low-grade, consumptive sort. I don’t recommend its use in excess or active inflammation, especially that related to excitement or constriction, as it can sometimes exacerbate these conditions.
- Mustard (Brassica spp.) – Traditionally, the ground seeds are used but the fresh or tinctured greens made into a hot, strong tea can also serve as a very useful stimulant diaphoretic. This herb is felt strongly in the respiratory and digestive tracts, creating a feeling of central heat and moving outwards in a feeling very much like a mild hot flash. It has similar indications to Capsicum but is more broadly applicable and can be used in cases where there may be some active inflammation, but still, the most common indications are cold, lax tissues without productive fever.
Mixed Relaxant/Stimulant Diaphoretic Herbs – As the name indicates, these are herbs with noticeably mixed stimulating and relaxing properties. This is true of most diaphoretics to some degree, but is more notable and usable in some. The most adaptable of these herbs tend also be variable in temperature, working as warm or cool as needed. These are called for when there is a clear mix of tissue states involved, which can happen because of a blockage in the body, that causes the tissues to behave in a fragmented way, because the virus has a certain constitutional effect that contrasts with the individual’s native temperament or various reasons. Many mint family plants fall under this heading.
- Beebalm (Monarda spp.) – This herb is generally experienced as relaxing, especially to the nervous system and muscles, but it’s diffusive nature contributes in revealing that it also has stimulating properties. It is useful in almost any diaphoretic blend, and I much prefer it Mint in most situations. It relaxes any constriction that prohibits free movement of the circulation while also strengthening the heartbeat and speeding the effects other other herbs through the body. It’s significant volatile oil content contributes to its strength as an infection allaying remedy, especially those that settle in the respiratory tract, multiplying its usefulness in the treatment of influenza. In addition, it soothes muscular spasms, allows for deepened breath and will comfort an upset belly of nearly any sort and is useful in relieving nausea. It is widely applicable and can be used where there are signs of either heat or cold, laxity or excitement. I consider the most specific indication for its use to be the presence of “stuckness”, whether resulting in active inflammation or in cold dampness. The flowers are the most strongly diaphoretic part of the plant, but the leaves are also very useful.
- Yarrow (Achillea spp.) – Bitter and aromatic, Yarrow is a well known herb and deserves its reputation as a heal-all in most cases. Like Beebalm, it excels at removing barriers to free circulation in the body, although its skills tends to be more focused, and work best where there is heat running rampant through the blood but a cool, blue-toned feel and look to the skin (M. Wood), which will usually be dry. The tongue tends towards red to carmine, and may be dry without coating or have slick trails of moisture across it. These are specific indications but Yarrow does very well at addressing general fever symptoms of almost any kind and I wouldn’t hesitate to add it to almost any diaphoretic blend. It’s also wonderful preventing infections and can be used as a gargle or spray (B. Hall) at the first signs of viral onset.
Heat-Clearing and Anti-Infective Herbs
This class of herbs are useful where there are signs of acute heat and possible secondary infection, especially in the respiratory tract. These are usually cooling and drying, and work quickly to lessen inflammation, ease discomfort and restore equilibrium to the body’s bacterial population.
- Honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) – A classic part of many Traditional Chinese Medicine cold/flu formulas along with Forsythia. Cool and dry, this sweet-smelling herb is wonderful for bringing down hot, high fevers in children or adults, especially if the fever is unnaturally aggravated due to secondary infection. Perfect for any kind of hot, damn infection in the lungs. Honeysuckle is also relaxing and very calming, and will help restless children settle down long enough for them to recover. I often make an elixir or honey with the flower specifically for children with sore, hot, raw throats, and heat and pain that extends down into the chest, especially if they have a tendency to hot, tense bronchitis.
- Usnea (Usnea spp.) – This gorgeous green lichen is cooling and drying, and has a special affinity for dealing with all sorts of respiratory infections, even boggy, seemingly intractable pneumonia (although, I’d recommend combining with something more aromatic and diffusive in cold, swampy cases) or chronic bronchitis. If it is chronic though, be sure to combine it with a lymphatic herb for quicker results.
- Alder (Alnus spp,) – Spoken of in the lymphatics section in more detail, Alder excels at clearing heat and infection from anywhere in the body. From acute ear infections to bronchitis, I have seen it clear severe, antibiotic-resistant respiratory infections in less than 48 hours. I have recently begun adding dried Alder bark to my Elder Mother Elixir because of its strong lymphatic and heat-clearing actions (not to mention it actually adds really nice flavor to the Elixir and deepens the color, contributing a very aesthetically pleasing deep red to the mix).
These remedies help move move mucus when it is stuck, overly copious or dried out. Mucus is actually a very beneficial substance, and a vital part of our immune response to bacterial or viral proliferation. As such, it’s not necessarily a good idea to pop those allergy pills and dry it all up before it has a chance to properly do its job. Suppressing fever or mucus has the inevitable result of reducing the efficiency and effect of our immune systems. Use expectorants to move mucus rather than prematurely drying it up. Expectorants come in two primary flavors, relaxant and stimulant, just like the diaphoretics, depending on whether you need to relax constriction to move the mucus or to compensate for laxity or depression in the tissues. They can, like any other type of herb, be either moistening or drying, warming or cooling.
Relaxant Expectorant Herbs – These herbs help relax constriction and tension in the chest and nervous system enough for the mucus to move. If there is also significant dryness, moistening herbs should be used, if there’s too much moisture, drying herbs should be selected. It is quite common for this kind of constriction or tension to cause spasms, even to the point of making expectoration impossible because the constriction is so extensive that coughing only results in gagging rather than anything productive. In such cases, it is often useful to combine a relaxant expectorant such as Chokecherry with a strong relaxant such as Lobelia to allow the lungs enough freedom to properly remove the buildup of mucus. Lonstanding or chronic buildup will usually either result in dried, up crusty walls of mucus or a gurgly swamp, both are breeding grounds for infections. The former should be addressed with moistening expectorants such as Mallow or Elm, the latter with drying, usually aromatic expectorants such as Cottonwood or Pine. Many, if not most, aromatic, diffusive herbs are by their very nature expectorant, so the choices are very broad.
- Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana spp.) – The famous cough syrup herb is actually a much broader tonic herb of wide applicability by the herbalist, but does indeed succeed admirably at fulfilling its reputation as a cough remedy. Chokecherry is variable in temperature and may be either cool or warm, it is drying and has a pronounced relaxant action. It’s one of my favorite and first herbs for treating HOT, tight coughs where the mucus is dried up and crusty, often with a green or yellow tinge to it. There is usually significant tension and constriction, resulting in an inability to breathe deeply. Oftentimes, we will see red, flushed skin that is almost cherry red (M. Wood) in color and hot to the touch. There may well be dryness, and in this case, Chokecherry should be combined with Mallow or something similar. The individual will have a general hyperimmune response, probably some history of allergic reactions and a tendency to acute infections with active inflammation.
- Mallow (Malva and allied spp.) – This gentle, gooey herbs can provide seeming miracles for those who tend towards the dry and hot. While the plant never actually comes in contact with the lungs, its moistening reflex action provides soothing, slippery relief to bronchial and lung tissue when eaten or taken as a tea, and to some degree, even from a tincture of the roots. It is clearly indicated where there is systemic dryness and heat, with hardened, condensed mucus that refuses to budge. If the person has less heat, it can be helpful to use a warming diffusive such as Ginger to get things moving more quickly.
Stimulating Expectorant Herbs - These are called for where there are boggy, lax or depressed tissues. This is especially common where a condition has become chronic or the individual has suffered for asthma or related lung weakness for much of their life. In these cases, there will often be coldness, even there is also a tendency to infection and low-grade inflammation. These situations can become dangerous, as a boggy lung ecosystem can easily turn into pneumonia or become a very welcoming habitat for virulent bacteria. In these cases, I will often recommend the use of an appropriate mucus membrane tonic for a period of time to help restore tone and flexibility to the tissue, which will lessen the chances for future infections or issues.
- Cottonwood (resinous Populus spp.) – Sticky, aromatic and spicy, this common tree bears amber resin coated buds in later winter to early spring. These buds make an excellent medicine for boggy, copious mucus that just won’t go away. Instead, it sits in the lungs and seems to procreate, and you can often actually hear the bog growing when the person breathes. These people are usually cold, with signs of excessive dampness clear in overly lax skin and water-logged membranes. The tongue will often be pale unless there’s underlying infection, often with a thick white coating (yellow if there’s infection). The tincture, chewed resin (it will stick to your teeth and burn your tongue by the way) or even tea, will efficiently dry out and MOVE the wetlands trying to take over the respiratory system.
- Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) – An incredibly bitter, stinky little invasive alien and persistent weed that has completely invaded the Southwest. Despite all this, I really like Horehound. A powerful and dependable expectorant, it is especially useful where is a great sense of heaviness upon attempting to breath, as if your lungs were straining under a great puddle of stagnant water. There is sometimes slowed heartbeat and weakened pulse accompanied by general deficiency, a pale tongue and a look of listless weariness about the person. It is also of great use in the treatment child-onset asthma.