When I was still in high school and beginning my earnest study of botany, I got a phone call from my friend, Joe Hall. Joe and I were both interested in wild foods and herbs, and he told me that he’d located a patch of horehound. The plant actually grew all around us, yet I had never knowingly seen it. I hopped on my bicycle and met Joe just north of Pasadena’s famous Rose Bowl. He was squatting next to a small, inconspicuous plant as I pulled up on my bike.
“Here it is,” said Joe, looking at the plant.
“That’s it?” I said in near disbelief. It was, after all, a plant I’d casually noticed but paid no attention to. I looked at the opposite leaves, typical of mints. I examined the square stems covered in fine white hairs. Apparently, these “hoary” stems are what gave rise to the name “horehound.” I got up close to look again at this very familiar looking plant.
The mints that grew in my mother’s garden were more like vines, which grew out of control and gradually spread everywhere. This horehound was more like a single bush that grew taller as it produced flowering stalks and then seeds.
“What do you think?” asked Joe.
“It doesn’t smell like a mint,” I told him as I crushed a single leaf and detected none of the strong fragrance so common to nearly every other mint.
“That’s right,” said Joe. “Try tasting it.”
I picked off a clean leaf and slowly chewed. The texture was furry, like an old mustard leaf. The initial flavor was fresh and pungent, but as I chewed it became more and more bitter. I spit it out and Joe laughed at my reaction.
“It doesn’t taste great if you just eat it like that,” said Joe. “But you know that this herb is good for sore throats, right?”
“Yes,” I told him. I was aware of horehound candy. My mother once gave my brother and me a horehound drop, and I spit it out as soon as I put it in my mouth. But I gradually got used to it. Despite the odd flavor, it was very effective at clearing up minor coughs and sore throats.
That night, I tried my first cup of horehound tea. You do not boil the leaves in water, a decoction. Rather, you make an infusion by putting fresh or dried leaves into your cup or pot, adding boiling water and letting it sit until it cools.
I had my first taste with no sweetening. It had an interesting flavor, even tolerable as a simple beverage. But there was no getting around it: it is a bitter herb. For best results, horehound leaves should be gathered in the spring when the plant is young and the leaves are large.
Over the years, I’ve had horehound many times, but I usually add honey or lemon juice to the infusion to make it easier to consume.
Herbalist Michael Moore, author of “Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West,” says that horehound (Marrubium vulgare) is the herb for coughs and lung congestion. He also points out that the hot tea helps to reduce feverish coughs, promotes sweating and has a long history as an expectorant. As a hot tea, horehound has been commonly used as a tonic and for chronic sore throat, coughs, colds and breathing problems associated with asthma.
The plant provides the raw ingredients for horehound candy, which has long been sold as a mild cough drop.
Here is a recipe for those of you who’d like to try to make the candy yourself. Cook (don’t boil) one cup of the fresh herb (or three cups of the dried herb) with two cups of water for about 15 minutes. Strain the mixture. To each cup of liquid add one cup of honey. Cook until the mixture thickens. Keep at a low heat or it will run over. Pour onto a cookie sheet and let it cool. It’s best to refrigerate it, since it tends to spread. This candy is pleasant as a snack or energy food on the trail, as well as being useful for sore throats.
There is no shortcut to learning about wild plants and their uses. You need to treat each plant as an individual, and take the time to get to know each one intimately.
Christopher Nyerges is the author of “Foraging California,” “Til Death Do Us Part?” and other books available on Kindle and at ChristopherNyerges.com. Nyerges also teaches outdoor classes and shares a weekly podcast at Preparedness Radio Network. Information about books and classes by Christopher Nyerges can be found at schoolofself-reliance.com