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DIY Herbal Cold and Flu Remedies

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It’s that time of the season for colds, flu, and other bugs that bring us down in the colder months. Despite flu shots, good care, vitamins, and other attempts to ward them off, these bugs always arrive, unwelcome and uninvited. So, how do you treat them naturally? DIY herbal remedies, of course!

During the summer months, I grow plenty of herbs for teas, salves, soaps, and tinctures that I use in the winter. Some years I also grow medicinal herbs indoors on my sunny kitchen windowsill. They are inexpensive and effective, while also smelling pleasant and tasting good. Even nicer, some of the best grow like weeds, including peppermint, chamomile, garlic, cayenne pepper, lavender, and elderberry. Others, like ginger, are tender plants that can be grown indoors in winter or outdoors in summer

Anyone who has grown the classic herbs peppermint and chamomile knows that they’re wild and must be kept in bounds. Nonetheless, their usefulness far outweighs their weediness.

Pot Marigold

Pot marigold petals should be harvested fresh and quickly dried.

Pretty pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis) produce single or double daisies of orange or gold, and they thrive in cool weather. Their dried petals are used to make teas that are calming and ease the stomach. Combine them with other tea-making herbs that help with cold symptoms and congestion. Calendula is also used to make very effective creams to heal the skin. Let some of your calendula seedheads dry and the seeds drop to the ground to sow themselves year after year.

Chamomile

Chamomile is one of the easiest medicinal herbs to grow.

Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) is a sun-loving herb that generally germinates in summer or fall, remains a low-growing foliage rosette through winter, and blooms in spring, producing a cloud of little white daisies. These choice flowers should be harvested at their prime and quickly dried to make herbal teas or inhalations. (Be cautious about letting them set seed; they can become weedy!)

A combination of dried orange peel and dried chamomile flowers makes a lovely tea and inhalant that will ease the stomach and gently clear the sinuses. Just add one teaspoon of dried orange peel and three tablespoons of dried chamomile flowers to two cups of boiling water. Steep it for a few minutes, for tea, or breathe it in.

Peppermint

Peppermint flowers and leaves can be used to make tea.

Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) has rhizomatous roots that spread like wildfire, so I grow mine in large pots in sunny spots. The summer foliage and flowers are easily harvested and dried for year-round use. Peppermint can be used to make inhalations and compresses as well as head-clearing tea. A good, simple mint tea recipe for colds contains two teaspoons of dried elderberries, two tablespoons of dried peppermint leaves, and a few peppercorns to fire up the spice. Add this mix to three cups of boiling water, steep for a few minutes and serve with honey.

Garlic

Garden fresh garlic tastes better and is great for colds.

Garlic has proven cold-fighting benefits, and is truly a plant-it-and-leave-it crop requiring next to no care. Simply plant it in rich, well-drained soil in fall, and let it grow and bulb up in spring and summer. As any garlic grower can tell you, garden-fresh garlic is worlds better than the store stuff. Still, grocery garlic works just as well as a cold fighter.

Fresh lemon-garlic tea is a standby infusion for cold sufferers. Simply add three large (or four small) sliced garlic cloves and the zest and juice of two lemons to three cups of boiling water in a saucepan. Allow the mix to boil for 5 minutes before removing from the heat and straining. Add a teaspoon of honey to each cup, and you’ll have a truly useful cold treatment.

Cayenne Pepper

Cayenne pepper clears the sinuses and is rich in vitamin C.

Nothing clears the head and chest like something spicy. That’s why cayenne (Capsicum annuum) is sought after as an herbal remedy for cold sufferers. The sun- and heat-loving vegetable is easy as pie to grow during the summer months and just as easily dried when red and ripe. Crushed cayenne can be added to any simple herbal tea as a stimulant to get the blood flowing. It is believed to help with headache pain and clear stuffy sinuses.

Lavender

Lavender is soothing and reduces inflammation.

Lavender (Lavandula spp.) is one of the most beautiful, sun-loving plants, and its dried fragrant flowers are a versatile herbal. Not only can they be added to soaps and creams, but they make a wonderful cold inhalation when infused with one tablespoon eucalyptus leaves and two tablespoons of lavender flowers. The two fragrant botanicals are harmonious partners. In fact, their oils may help to relieve depression, inflammation, and congestion, according to the U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH).

Elderberry

Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis 'Nova' JaKMPM
Elderberries can be dried and added to various herbal tea remedies.

Gardeners with a good bit of space can and should grow elderberries (Sambucus spp.). Not only do they make delicious jam, jelly, and wine, they are also healthful and medicinal. The shrubs can grow in full sun or partial shade, though plants grown in higher light yield more fruits. Umbels of fragrant, yellowish spring flowers give way to edible blackberries in late summer.  Both the flowers and berries can be dried to make teas. The berries also make a delicious syrup that can be used to sweeten and flavor any herbal tea. All are believed to alleviate cough and allergy symptoms. Just be sure to avoid cracking elderberry seeds when processing them. Cooking also helps. The seeds contain undesirable chemicals that are rendered safe in the cooking process.

Ginger

Ginger soothes the stomach and helps clear the head.

Ginger root (Zingiber officinal) is delicious and desirable in more ways than one. Like cayenne, it’s spicy, so it acts as a stimulant that gets the blood flowing and clears the head and sinuses when added to tea or an infusion. It also helps soothe the stomach when added to tea. Ginger is most easily grown in a pot outdoors in summer or in a sunny window or sunroom in winter. It’s plump, spicy roots can be harvested as needed.  For delicious fresh ginger tea, boil five large slices of ginger root in three cups of water with a cinnamon stick for a few minutes, strain, and serve with honey. (Click here to learn how to grow ginger.)

All of the plants mentioned grow best in soils with average to good fertility and good drainage. Before planting them in spring, amend the soil with Fafard Garden Manure Blend. Likewise, ginger plants grown indoors thrive when planted in Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Mix.

Two great reference books for medicinal herbal plants are Grow It Heal It by Christopher Hobbs and Leslie Gardener (Rodale Books, 2013), and the classic Complete Medical Herbal by Penelope Ody (DK, 1993)

Though all of these herbal remedies are deemed safe by health experts, but it’s always smart to talk to your doctor before partaking in any herbal remedies. Also, be sure that you have no allergies to these plants before using them. Some planning ahead is required if you want to grow your own herbal remedies, but when the winter sniffles arrive, you will be glad you broke ground and took the time.

About Jessie Keith


Plants are the lens Jessie views the world through because they’re all-sustaining. (“They feed, clothe, house and heal us. They produce the air we breathe and even make us smell pretty.”) She’s a garden writer and photographer with degrees in both horticulture and plant biology from Purdue and Michigan State Universities. Her degrees were bolstered by internships at Longwood Gardens and the American Horticultural Society. She has since worked for many horticultural institutions and companies and now manages communications for Sun Gro Horticulture, the parent company of Black Gold. Her joy is sharing all things green and lovely with her two daughters.

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