In this episode of the Teacup Alchemy Podcast, I talk about four herbs that support lung health. We also look at how easy they are to grow at home! Two of them also pull double duty supporting emotional wellness, so I think they are especially timely considering the challenges we face during the current pandemic.
It’s easy to get caught up in the hunt for the “perfect” herb for any condition – including lung health in the face of coronavirus – but the truth is that herbalist have always known how to fall back on whatever is at hand.
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4 Easy and Abundant Herbs to Grow for Lung Health
There have been two very difficult things for me to see as an herbalist during the coronavirus pandemic. The first is just how much fear and anxiety people are holding onto regarding this virus, and how little this emotional aspect of the pandemic is being addressed by my fellow herbalists.
It is absolutely normal to feel anxious in the face of all of the rapid changes and uncertainty, and thankfully we have many wonderful herbal allies that support emotional wellbeing.
Instead, people are choosing to focus their herbal energies on creating (or following) these bizarrely complex herbal protocols. Herbalists throughout time and in many places of the world today have functioned with a very simple approach: use what you have. Their customs as home herbalists focused largely on what they could grow themselves, because the commercial availability of herbs was much more limited than what we have been blessed with today.
For home or community herbalists, there are four herbs that I think are especially timely to discuss in regards to the current pandemic. This is because they are widely adapted and can even be grown in a container garden. Two of these herbs support emotional wellness and respiratory health, and two of these herbs are more specific for the lungs.
Use What You Have
Welcome to the Teacup Alchemy Podcast. I’m Agatha Noveille, author of the Complete Guide to Adaptogens, an herbal recipe book for daily wellbeing. In today’s episode, let’s talk about four abundant herbs to grow at home for respiratory and emotional support.
I’ve been seeing lots of great chatter on social media about people wanting to start their own herb gardens this year. That’s fantastic! In fact, it’s so fantastic that I’m kicking off the Teacup Alchemy Podcast with a series about herbs for respiratory and nervous system support- two categories that I think will be especially useful in the coming months.
I think there’s still a bit of disconnect in the herbal world between this desire to find the “perfect” remedy and understanding where our herbs come from. Especially with the pandemic, I’ve seen shortages across the board from most major herb suppliers. So what’s a home herbalist to do?
First, we need to drop this idea that there’s going to be a magic bullet herb for the pandemic. Likewise, there’s no magic protocol of herbs that’s guaranteed to boost your immune system or eradicate the virus. That’s not the way herbalism works, and I think we can focus our energy in more productive ways that help us to be healthier and more resilient to begin with.
And anyway, if you know how to work with herbs from an energetic perspective by matching herbs to the individual, you don’t have to worry so much about finding the perfect herb that’s going to be the magic bullet during a pandemic. You can turn to your herbal allies and know that you can match your experiences to the plants you have on hand with good results. Herbalists have been functioning as matchmakers between people and plants for generations.
For respiratory woes in general, a good place to start is by thinking about whether an herb is moistening or drying, or warming or cooling, when it interacts with us. Today, we will look at tulsi, bee balm, plantain, and horehound. These herbs also have a nice mix of energies and applicable uses.
Tulsi for Lung Health
First on my list is tulsi. Tulsi is a perennial in tropical climates, but we grow it as an annual here. There are several Ocimum species that are called tulsi or sacred basil in traditional herbalism. I prefer growing Ocimum africanum, rather than the more common Ocimum tenuiflorum because the yields are higher and it has this wonderfully fruity fragrance on top of tulsi’s usual clove scent. I think it’s slightly more cooling in action than tenuiflorum, but still warming. Just leaning more toward neutral, if you will. It’s easy to grow in a large pot, as well – so it’s a great choice for container gardening if you have a sunny spot.
It’s an adaptogen that also has traditional uses as a respiratory support herb. And the fragrance is amazing. So many people who have visited my gardens have commented on the way even the smell of tulsi makes them smile, and it’s a very uplifting plant when used as a tea. This variety of tulsi has a very bushy growing habit, so you get high yields. To harvest, just pinch off the flowering tops. I usually harvest three or four inches of growth, starting when the plant is around a foot high. The plant responds by branching out and putting out even more growth. It’s an annual, it’s easy to start from seed, and I can usually harvest starting in May all the way through November.
Bee Balm for Lung Health
Bee balm is another favorite of mine that functions as both a nervine, for emotional wellbeing, and as a respiratory support herb. This North American native wildflower has several related species that are used in herbalism. Monarda didyma, and Monarda fistulosa are perhaps the two most common. Like tulsi, they are members of the mint family and wonderfully aromatic.
Bee balm often has a very sweet smell that’s reminiscent of bergamot oranges but a bit spicy like oregano. It grows well in the ground or in containers and does best in sunny locations. Like tulsi, the flowering tops are used in herbalism. I start harvesting my bee balm earlier in the season, though. I live in zone 7, and it gets very hot and humid in the summer. Because of the humidity, sometimes we have problems with powdery mildew, so harvesting early is necessary.
I do wait for a nice, hot day before I harvest. You’ll notice when working with bee balm that the sun really seems to intensify the aromatic oils of the plants. The best quality bee balm will even have a slightly buttery taste and mouthfeel. Aromatic oils are considered by herbalists to have an affinity for the nervous system, and bee balm has a particularly nourishing oiliness to it. In traditional Western herbalism, lemon balm has a similar quality that earned it a reputation as a tonic herb in the middle ages, and I tend to think of bee balm as being in a very similar category.
Bee balm is a favorite herbal steam ingredient for many herbalists that helps break up dampness in the respiratory tract. It’s a diaphoretic herb that helps support the body’s immune response during a fever. Personally, I especially like using bee balm tea or extract for emotional support in the winter when I’m missing my garden and feeling cooped up in the house. Similar to tulsi, I find it overall very uplifting.
Plantain for Lung Health
So tulsi and bee balm are both highly aromatic, beautiful flowers to add to your herb garden. Let’s talk about something a little wilder and a little weedier for a minute: plantain. There are species of plantain found world wide, but the most common species in North America are actually not native here. They came from Europe. Many herbalists think of marshmallow when they want a cooling, moistening herb. Although it’s not an exact match, plantain is often a good choice that can be used instead.
Plantain is not a flashy looking plant, but it is so cooling and moistening, and such a wonderful herb to keep nearby for respiratory woes (and many other reasons, besides). Again, even if you only have a container garden, that’s perfectly ok. I’ve even had plantain volunteer in a pot I left out by the doorstep, so this is definitely an herb that loves to be close by. It yields much higher than marshmallow, and you can cut the leaves and it will grow back again (which is what earns this plant its reputation as a pesky lawn weed!).
Despite not being as aromatic as bee balm or tulsi, plantain makes a good tea. It can be used fresh or dried, but I think it’s especially nice fresh. Sometimes I will juice the leaves and freeze them in ice cube trays for later. I can’t resist nibbling on fresh plantain in the summer. It’s not aromatic like tulsi or bee balm, but it has this distinctive sweet, fresh smell that I go crazy for. You can really get a feel for the cooling, moistening actions when you smell it – I know that’s really hard to describe and may not make much sense if you haven’t encountered plantain before, but when you experience it I think you will see what I mean.
There are many species of plantain that can be used. Personally, I use lanceleaf plantain (Plantago lanceolata) because that grows readily in drier soil. Broadleaf plantain loves nice damp areas. Plants will tolerate some shade, but they thrive in the sun.
Horehound for Lung Health
Ok, our next herb today is a sturdy little garden plant that’s originally from northern Africa, southwestern and central asia, and parts of Europe. Marrubium vulgare, commonly known as horehound, unlike the herbs above, does not smell pretty and it does not taste nice. It is intensely bitter.
However, it is one of the best respiratory support herbs in the traditional Western lexicon. There is some debate about whether horehound is cooling or warming in action, which I think is actually a testament to the unique actions of this herb. If you consider a Traditional Chinese Herbalism perspective, it is definitely bitter and therefore cooling. However, very, very unusually for a cooling, bitter herb, it also stimulates the production of healthy mucus when there is dryness and diffuses throughout the lungs and GI tract to help the body expel too much boggy mucus. That stimulating, diffusive action is why many Western herbalists prefer to classify it as warming.
This one is on my list today because of its importance as a respiratory support herb, but also because of its hardiness. Horehound gets its name from old english words hoar and hun- meaning a hairy plant. The leaves are covered in downy white fur, sort of like mullein. Think of horehound like a gruff old greybeard. He’s tough as nails and proud of it. He’d prefer you just get off his lawn and leave him alone. Too much affection and pampering don’t sit well with this plant. It adores poor, sandy soil and being left to its own devices.
If you are my age and have grandparents who lived during WW2 and the Depression, they may have introduced you to horehound candy. Mine certainly did. Up until very recently, horehound candy was an old folk remedy for coughs and colds. That’s about the only way horehound is palatable – by sweetening liberally! I actually really enjoy the taste of horehound candy, so I don’t mind the unsweetened tea as much, but yes, it’s bitter. Bitter but very beneficial.
So my top four lung health herbs for home gardens are tulsi, bee balm, plantain, and horehound. But how much should you grow? Because these plants typically respond well to a cut-and-come again approach, starting out with one plant per two people will often yield more than enough material to make teas and extracts as needed, and you will be able to divide and replant over time (with the exception of annual tulsi). Plantain and tulsi I know are very easy to start from seed, but if you’ve never gardened before it may make more sense to start by purchasing plants.
Generally, it’s best to give these plants a larger container. The same size as half a whisky barrel is good. So a pot that has around a 25 inch diameter, and around a 15 gallon capacity. This size gives them plenty of room to develop sturdy roots and the space they need to be healthy and thrive. With plantain, you could easily have three to five plants in a pot that size. However, tulsi and bee balm get larger and should be planted one per pot. Horehound should be happy enough with up to two plants per pot.
It may take two years for bee balm and plantain to develop strong root systems and really thrive, so do expect that your plants take a little while to adjust after transplanting. That’s one of the reasons that it’s vital for us to explore growing our own herbs for our families and communities when we can. Many of our herbal allies take a few years between seed, to seedling, to harvest, and then finally to the products at your local health food store. Realizing that many of our allies can be grown at our doorstep is empowering and a beautiful way to celebrate the connection between plants and health.
If you are planting in the ground, give your herbs around two feet between other plants so they can be comfortable. It may look sparse the first year, but the plants will bush out in following years. Tulsi will usually reach full size in a few short months, and I have planted them as closely as a foot apart. However, more space is appreciated. Plantain can be planted within a foot of each other.
Thanks for Listening
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You can learn more about this topic on our sister site, Indie Herbalist. Five Important Herbs for Lung Health explores elecampane, ground ivy, butterfly weed, mullein, and violet.
You can also watch a short video on elecampane from our YouTube channel!