A Soothing Winter Herb
My parents ran a small-town grocery store when I was growing up. They stocked just about everything needed for daily life in a rural farming community. Everything from tires and chicken feed to garden seed and canned goods were in their store. Ice cream, bread, kerosene, bandages, boots and handkerchiefs, all filled the shelves and cabinets of our store.
Using home remedies was more common than going to a doctor for many of our neighbors. That meant that lots of folks grew their own herbs, or picked them from the wild, and mixed up poultices, decoctions, tinctures, and the like.
Horehound was common in our area, usually growing in cow pastures and back lots. It’s native to Europe, and just about everyone in our little town was either a first or second generation immigrant from Germany or England and all knew the plant. No one knew just who had brought the plant generations ago, but it had escaped into the wild and naturalized itself, much like it has across much of the United States. To find it, we only needed walk down the alley or along a fencerow. I remember people making a strong tea to gargle for a sore throat but I don’t recall anyone actually making horehound candy cough drops. Most likely it was because horehound cough drops were so inexpensive and available, no one thought to make their own. We stocked them for sale in the grocery store the year around; a bag sold for just pennies.
Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) is a perennial herb of the mint family (Laminaceae) that has centuries of history for being used in treating sore throat, coughing and upset stomach. The wooly, crinkled leaves and white flowering tops of the herb have been used historically for treating loss of appetite, indigestion, bloating, gas, diarrhea, whooping cough and painful menstrual periods in women, but it’s best known for soothing a cough. (Always check with a reliable health care professional before self-medicating yourself for any illness and always be sure of a plant’s identity before using it).
You can still find horehound candy and horehound cough drops in historic site gift shops and sometimes in old-time gift stores, but if you check the ingredients, they are artificially flavored and seldom contain any horehound. While you would get an approximation of the bitter-sweet flavor of the old candy, you wouldn’t get any of the throat-soothing benefits.
You can easily grow your own horehound, and make your own horehound cough drops. One option would be to buy dried horehound from an herb store if you didn’t care to grow your own plant, but it’s such an easy plant to grow, tough and hardy with virtually no insect pests to bother it so you might like to grow your own.
How to Grow Horehound
You can start plants from seed or take a cutting or root division from a friend’s plant.
To grow from seed, plant in potting soil in a pot, or sow the seed directly in the garden. Barely cover the seed with loose soil and keep the soil dampened until the little plants come up, usually in 2 to 3 weeks. Germination isn’t always good on horehound seed so you may want to plant more than you think you will need, if you have too much, give some away to friends and share your horehound cough drop recipe.
Choose any well-drained, average garden soil. Horehound will grow in full sun or part shade and isn’t particular about soil type. Since it grows easily (and seemingly happily) in old pastures, along fencerows and waste places, it obviously thrives on neglect. You could grow it in a patio pot, as well. If you do plan to grow it in a pot, choose one that’s considerably larger than you think you will need so that the roots will have room to spread out. (I recommend a pot no smaller than 16 inches across at the top).
Plant your horehound plant and give it a weekly watering until it’s established. Don’t overwater; it can stand to get a little dry at times. It’s usually best to let it grow a full year before harvesting leaves but if the plant is robust and large (they get to about 15 inches tall and wide), then go ahead and harvest growing tips, leaves and flowers. You can cut the plant back by half and not damage it in the second year, and you may get two or three “harvests” in a season’s time. Since the plant is semi-evergreen in Zone 6 or warmer, you can harvest the leaves almost the year around.
Make Your Own Horehound Cough Drops
• 8 cups water
• 1/2 cup dried horehound leaves or leaves and flowering tops
• 4 cups sugar
• 1-1/4 cups dark cane syrup
• 1 tablespoon butter
• 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
Also have ready:
• Candy thermometer
• Cookie sheet that has sides, or any shallow pan the size of a cookie sheet, with sides
• 1 tablespoon extra butter
• 1/8 cup extra sugar
1. Butter the cookie sheet and set it aside.
2. Bring the 8 cups of water to a boil and immediately remove pan from heat. Add the horehound herb, cover pan with a lid and let the liquid cool for 20 minutes. Strain through a tea strainer or cheesecloth and discard the herb.
3. To the liquid, add the remaining ingredients. Cook over medium-high heat until the liquid reaches the hard-crack candy stage (300 degrees F on a candy thermometer). Remove from heat and immediately pour it into the buttered cookie pan.
4. As the candy begins to cool — this only takes about a minute — quickly score the candy with a knife dipped in water, kind of like drawing deep lines in the cooling candy. Score quickly into bite-sized “drops” or “lozenges,” about 1/2 inch by 1 inch (cough drop size). Depending upon the temperature of your kitchen, the candy may set up in seconds or a minute, but it will happen fast.
5. After 5 minutes, the candy will be completely hard and ready to be broken along the scored lines. As soon as you’ve broken all the cough drops apart, roll them in the extra sugar and spread them out on waxed paper. The sugar prevents them from sticking together.
6. Leave the candy out to dry for about an hour before storing in an air-tight container.
At the first sign of a sore throat or cough, you are ready with real horehound cough drops!
Jim Long writes and gardens in the Ozarks Mountains of Missouri. You can see and follow his gardening adventures on his blog: jimlongsgarden.blogspot.com.