It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at times like these. Self care practices may have gone out the window due to lack of time, money, or both; kids need feeding, homeschooling and entertaining all within the four walls of your home; everything needs disinfecting from top to bottom and holiday plans have been cancelled for the foreseeable future.
Anxiety about what lies ahead is something we’re all feeling, and many of us are understandably worried about our health and the health of our elderly relatives.
It’s times like these when we need our natural herbal allies more than ever. Harvesting and making herbal remedies is something creative and constructive we can do by ourselves or with our kids - it’s easy, pretty much free and requires little prior knowledge, skills or equipment.
By taking us outside it connects us to nature, making our worries seem slightly smaller for a moment. And by actively taking part in the maintenance of our own health with the help of medicinal plants, we feel less powerless in the face of a medical crisis.
In this article I want to share with you three local plants you can easily make use of to support your respiratory system and treat dry cough, sore throat and bronchitis. If you’re in the Algarve, all these herbs can be found close to you - either on the coast, inland or by the wayside.
Honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.)
Gorgeous honeysuckle is in bloom at the moment. One of our best-loved wild flowers, its intoxicating scent and intertwining behaviour has made it a symbol of love in many cultures. It was once thought to be a dangerous plant to have indoors as its fragrance would bring ‘forbidden thoughts’ to young ladies.
As well as being delightfully enticing, honeysuckle forms part of a Chinese herbal formula called Shuang Huang Lian for respiratory complaints which is currently being trialled in China for the treatment of COVID-19 infection. The other two herbs in this formula are Forsythia suspensa fruit and Baical skullcap root (Scutellaria baicalensis).
The leaves and flowers of honeysuckle are cooling, antiseptic, antispasmodic, and contain salicylic acid, the pain-relieving compound in aspirin. The plant is also traditionally used in the West for fevers, flu, coughs, headache, bronchial spasm, bronchitis and rheumatism.
You’ll find honeysuckle near the south and west coasts of the Algarve. For sore throats or dry cough, infuse the flowers in runny honey or vegetable glycerine for 2 weeks. Then strain, bottle and label, and take 1 teaspoon 3 times a day. Remember to harvest responsibly - rather than taking all the flowers off one bush, take just a few from several different bushes, leaving some for the bees.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
Many types of wild thyme can be found around the Algarve at this time of year - inland, you may find Thymus vulgaris (common thyme) or Thymus villosa, and on the coast you’ll find the enchanting Portuguese ‘sea thyme’ or Thymus camphoratum. All Portuguese species of thyme are listed in the Habitats Directive and are therefore protected species - harvesting a few springs here and there is permitted, but not encouraged. I include thyme in this article because it is such a valuable herb for coughs and infectious respiratory illness, but I recommend you find a good commercial source (eg. www.cantinhodasaromaticas.pt) if you want to take medicinal quantities regularly.
Thyme is a well known ‘stimulating expectorant’ usually indicated for productive coughs with lots of stuck mucus. However, it does have some relaxant, antispasmodic properties and when used in small quantities along with other more soothing herbs it can help a dry cough too. It is often paired with liquorice - a very soothing, softening expectorant and antiviral herb, which I wrote about in my last article on herbs for COVID-19 prevention.
Thyme tea, Thyme & liquorice syrup
Thyme is also a strong antimicrobial herb - not particularly antiviral, but a powerful antibacterial and antifungal. You can use thyme fresh or dried - infuse a few sprigs per cup of freshly boiled water for 10-15 minutes (along with any other herbs in this article) to make tea, and add a big dollop of nice local honey before drinking. Alternatively, if you’re feeling really creative, you can make thyme & liquorice syrup with some dried liquorice root (buy at Harmony Earth in Luz) using the recipe on this page. This is guaranteed to be a hit with little ones.
Plantain (Plantago lanceolata)
Plantain, or ribwort, is the number one hedgerow remedy for insect bites, stings, cuts & grazes, ulcers and other skin irritations. It is also a fabulous anti-inflammatory and ‘demulcent’ (soothing, softening) remedy for sore throats, dry cough and bronchitis.
Unlike thyme, you can harvest ribwort to your heart’s content. If you’re not familiar with this herb, just look along the roadsides or pathways near your house - you’ll be sure to spot it, and then you’ll see it everywhere you go. The name Plantago comes from the Latin planta or ‘sole of the foot’ - it thrives on being downtrodden. Native Americans called it ‘white man’s footprint’ for the same reason. Though it is now considered a weed, the Anglo-Saxons held it in high esteem as one of their nine sacred herbs - it had a reputation for clearing poisons and infection from bites and wounds.
Plantain tea, tincture & juice
To use plantain for a dry cough or sore throat, either make tea (1 fresh leaf per cup, infuse for 10 minutes, drink 3 cups a day), a quick tincture using vodka or local medronho/bagasso (blend fresh plantain leaves with just enough alcohol to cover, transfer to a jar and let it sit in a cool dark place for 3 days, then strain, bottle and take 1 teaspoon 3 times a day) or plantain juice (juice the fresh leaves and mix with an equal amount of honey - take 1 teaspoon as required).
The tincture, tea and juice can also be used for irritable bowel symptoms, haemorrhoids and stomach ulcers, and a poultice of the fresh leaf can be directly applied to burns & bites, cuts & grazes, acne, tired feet and plantar fasciitis, allergic rashes and shingles with surprisingly quick and effective results.
Mallow (Malva sylvestris)
Mallow is another wayside weed you’ll easily recognise. It’s a cousin of the rarer British marsh mallow (Althea officinalis), a superb demulcent harvested for its root which was once used to make marshmallows. Mallow itself is also extremely demulcent - the flowers have about 10% mucilage content and the leaves 7%. It is this mucilage content which makes the herb so valuable for treating dry coughs, sore throats and any other conditions which require soothing - urinary tract infections, stomach ulcers or inflammatory bowel disease to name a few.
Mallow leaf is also a laxative, which is perhaps why it was regarded as an omnimorbia or ‘cure-all’ in the 16th century, when regular bowel movements were considered to rid the body of all disease. Nowadays it is simply thought of as an excellent wayside remedy for inflammations or irritations of the skin and mucosa, whether taken as a tea or poultice. Tinctures are not recommended as much of the mucilage content is lost in the process of extraction in alcohol.
To make a tea use a couple of fresh leaves per cup (along with some plantain and honeysuckle perhaps) infusing for 5-10 minutes. Add a big spoon of local honey and drink 3 cups a day. The pretty flowers can also be added to green salads as a soothing digestive aid. Just be careful to avoid leaves with ‘mallow rust’ - small red dots which are actually insect eggs - and check flowers carefully before you put them on your food.