DIY herbal cough mixtures

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By Jane Wrigglesworth

‘Tis the season all right. Coughs, colds, flu, sneezes and sniffles – winter is typically the season we’re most hardest hit. Several herbs may help reduce the symptoms, including elderberry and Echinacea, but if you have a persistent cough, what can you do?

Echinacea and elderberry preparations may help. They appear to reduce the severity and duration of flu symptoms, according to clinical trials, and elderberry may also be useful in the treatment of bronchitis. However, herbs like liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), elecampane (Inula helenium), white horehound (Marrubium vulgare), wild cherry bark (Prunus serotina), mullein (Verbascum thapsus) and thyme are specifically indicated for coughs. These are all expectorant herbs – they help loosen mucus in the respiratory tract, making coughing more productive and clearing the airways. Expectorant herbs are very useful in treating coughs with phlegm. That goes for bronchitis, too, which is an acute or chronic inflammation of the airways of the lungs, which prompts them to secrete thick mucus, or phlegm.

Expectorant herbs are divided into three categories: stimulating, warming and relaxing.

Stimulating expectorants are often used where there is excessive mucus. They work by ‘exciting’ the walls of the digestive tract to stimulate the expulsion of all that gunk. They are useful in congestive catarrhal conditions (where there is a buildup of mucus in an airway or cavity), such as chronic bronchitis. Herbal examples of stimulating expectorants include elecampane and heartsease (Viola tricolor).

Warming expectorants, like stimulating expectorants, excite the walls of the digestive tract. They are typically pungent spices, like aniseed, cinnamon, garlic, and ginger, and are thought to increase the blood flow to the respiratory tract, which is then stimulated to expel mucus. They also help to decrease the thickness of mucus. Because they are warming herbs, they are useful for coughs associated with coldness, as well as where there is excess mucus, and for chronic bronchitis.

Relaxing expectorants include hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), liquorice, marshmallow (Althaea officinalis), mullein, ribwort (that weed in your garden – Plantago lanceolata), thyme and white horehound. They are helpful for dry coughs, or where sticky mucus produces an unproductive or irritable-type cough – that irritating niggle you get. They are also helpful for children’s coughs, asthma and acute bronchitis.

Demulcent herbs are helpful too. Elecampane, mullein, liquorice and marshmallow are all demulcents. They provide a protective coating for the mucous membranes, administering a cooling, soothing effect. They are especially useful for dry coughs, as demulcents contain mucilage, a slimy, slippery substance that soothes and reduces irritation.

DIY Remedies

The simplest home cough remedy is to make a thyme tea to sip on, or, for a sore throat, gargle with a thyme and sage infusion. Simply infuse fresh or dried thyme leaves in freshly boiled water for 8-10 minutes. Thyme is an excellent ingredient in homemade cough syrups too.

Cough syrup

All these ‘ingredients’, except for wild cherry, can be grown in New Zealand. Wild cherry plants are prohibited entry into New Zealand, though you can get the dried herbal product here. As well as having expectorant properties, wild cherry bark has mild sedative properties so it’s a great addition to cough mixtures where someone is having trouble sleeping due to coughing. It’s great for children’s cough syrups. You can get wild cherry bark, as well as all the other ingredients, from online herb suppliers. If you wish to make a simpler cough syrup, choose 2-3 herbs according to your cough (wet, dry, bronchitis, etc) and make your syrup with the same instructions below, using honey and elderberry juice, or elderberry syrup alone.

  • 1 part white horehound
  • 1 part elecampane root
  • 1 part wild cherry bark
  • ½ part thyme
  • ½ part ginger root
  • ¼ part liquorice root
  • 1 part honey
  • ½ part elderberry juice

Place white horehound, elecampane, wild cherry, thyme, ginger and liquorice in a saucepan and cover generously with water. Slowly bring to the boil, then immediately reduce the heat to a simmer. Simmer for 20-30 minutes. Allow to cool slightly, then strain mixture into a clean bowl.

Add an equal part honey and ½ part elderberry juice. Mix well, allow to cool, then store in the fridge.

Make an oxymel

An oxymel is an age-old remedy that combines honey and vinegar. Oxymels date back to Ancient Greece, Hippocrates prescribing them to relieve acute symptoms of disease, to support the body during stress and to soothe the respiratory tract. Because oxymels are sweet, they were traditionally used to administer herbs that were unpleasant tasting, just like a spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.

Oxymels are excellent for all types of respiratory conditions and sore throats, honey itself being demulcent, as well as containing antimicrobial properties. You can take a teaspoon daily to boost your immune system, depending on the herb/s used (or add it to salad dressings), or take it several times a day for a sore throat, cough or cold.

In its simplest form, an oxymel recipe is typically four or five parts honey to one part vinegar, usually raw apple cider vinegar, but you can use less or more of each depending on your preference. More and more I’m seeing recipes with one part honey to one part apple cider vinegar. Make yours to taste, depending on whether you like it sweeter or not.

Horehound oxymel

White horehound is excellent for both dry and wet coughs. Note: Infants younger than 12 months should not consume honey.

  • Fresh or dried horehound leaves (or choose a herb of your liking, like thyme, or thyme, ginger and garlic)
  • Honey
  • Apple cider vinegar

Fill a jar with chopped fresh horehound leaves, or half fill with dried leaves. Fill jar halfway full with honey, then top with apple cider vinegar. Stir well, then fit a plastic lid and steep for 3-4 weeks in a warm room out of direct sunlight. Turn the jar upside down once a day. Strain into a clean, airtight jar or bottle. Take a teaspoon or two when needed.

Want more? Check out Jane’s online herb workshop.


  1. If you are using a good manuka honey – then is important to NOT add it into water or other liquid mix (eg above recipe) that is still too hot – as it will destroy some of manuka honey’s special properties. Let it cool to ‘warm’ before adding.

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