Recipe Box: Herbal Cough Syrup (Infusion)

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It has been a doozy of a winter – not just colder than usual, but wet, and with fluctuating temperatures. This sort of combination has kept even some of my healthiest friends prone to repeated illnesses.  My dearest beloved has been sick with lung and sinus issues twice now despite our daily vitamins, herbal tea, and fire cider shots.

One of the remedies that seems to work best to curb his symptoms and shorten the duration of the cough is regular doses of a warmed herbal cough syrup.  Here’s one way that I make it, with the list of suggested herbs below.  As usual, there aren’t many quantities listed, as I’m a handful and pinch sort of person. I’ll offer suggestions in the herb list.

lime-elderberries
Dried lime slice and elderberries waiting to be added to the infusion.

Homemade Herbal Cough Syrup – the Infusion Method

My list of suggested herbs to add is in a list below this recipe!

  • Set a pot on the stove. Turn it on medium-high, add roots or dried berries, and bring it up to a boil. Woody or solid dried herbal plant matter will need more time in the heat to release their oils.
  • Once it boils, reduce the heat and allow it to simmer for a while – I let the liquid reduce by nearly half.
  • Next, add the dried herbs and flowers to the simmering liquid and remove the whole pot from heat. These aromatic plants do not need to be boiled! Cover and let it sit for at least 15 minutes.
  • Strain the liquid into a new pot, and squeeze all the herbs to get all the goodness that you can out of it!
  • Measure the amount of liquid you have. Add half that measurement of honey.  Stir to dissolve the honey.

Once you’ve done that, you can pour a small cup of it for immediate use, and then store it in the fridge and use it up within a day or two. I will often extend the shelf life by adding a solid slug of brandy, vodka or whisky. The booze boosts the relaxation and sleep-inducing properties of the cough syrup, as well as being a killer o’germs.  (I’ve even been known to gargle bourbon. Desperate times call for desperate measures.)

Label, date, and store your cough syrup in the fridge. To serve, pour out a small cupful at a time, and reheat it for maximum benefit.  If I’m at home, with no plans to drive or do anything other than rehabilitate, I will drink up to six of those small cups each day.

Suggested Herbs

These are plants that I have used in the past, based on what I had on hand. The recipe changes every time, depending on the needs of the people who need the syrup.  I know there are options I’ve missed, and I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments.  What do you use for coughs? Why?

Roots & Berries

Osha Root: I used one inch length of a thin, dried root, pounded in the mortar and pestle. Osha is also known as Bear root, a wonderful and potent healer. It encourages the expulsion of mucus from the lungs, making coughs more productive. It also encourages increased blood-flow to the lungs, and has antiviral and antibacterial properties. Unfortunately over-harvested, Osha is in limited supply. Please use judiciously! Mountain Rose Herbs is a great source due to their sustainable harvesting requirements.

Fenugreek: I used a small handful, close to 1 tablespoon of whole seeds. This seed helps to create new mucus and flush out old. It works as an expectorant and antispasmodic to loosen phlegm and soothe chronic coughs. It is also known for its effects on increasing lactation, and it smells of maple syrup.

Elderberries: I used a medium handful, about 2 tablespoons of dried berries. Dried elderberries are a staple in my herbal cabinet. They are a native plant to this area and are a fantastic ally for lung problems. They have anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties, as well as being quite tasty. I make an elderberry tincture and cordial each year.

Cinnamon: A stick of cinnamon helps with flavor, of course. But cinnamon is also an appetite stimulant and helps with bloating and gas pain. The reason I include it in this tea is for its antibacterial and warming properties.

Ginger: varies, sometimes I use a little, other a lot. Here’s my profile of ginger – I love it! Ginger warms the blood, sets the stomach to ease, opens the sinuses, and tastes amazing when paired with honey. It also helps with the appetite and masks the intensity of some of the more bitter herbs.

Herbs & Flowers

Elderflowers: one large handful of dried flowers. Like the berries, the elderflowers are good medicine. Both relieve swelling in the mucous membranes.  Elderflower is a diuretic, and it increases sweating – useful when trying to break a fever.

Mullein: one medium handful of dried leaves and flowers. Lovely, fuzzy mullein. It is wonderful for lung complaints, and also has very slight sedative properties. It is mucilaginous, and yet also an astringent, which helps with the moist lung tissues.

Catnip: one large handful of dried catnip flowers and leaves. Catnip leaves and flowers are quite good at helping with coughs and colds, as it increases sweating without raising the body temperature any higher.  I love catnip enough that I’ve written up a profile: Let’s Talk About: Catnip

Citrus fruit: varies, but usually dried lemon, lime, or orange. Tastes great, full of vitamin C, dried citrus peels also have a nice bitters effect on a sick tummy. Add fresh squeezed lemon, lime, or orange juice for an extra boost and sweetness.

Horehound: about a tablespoon of the dried herb. Horehound is best known as a rather bitter candy, but it is actually more effective the more bitter it tastes.  It is an expectorant, great helper for coughs that are rattly and unproductive, pulling old phlegm together and moving it up and out.

Mint: one medium handful of dried herb. Whether it is peppermint, spearmint, or the unknown wild mint that grows in my yard, the fresh and clean scent and flavor of mint is heartening to the spirit as well as soothing to the sinus. Stick your nose over a cup of mint tea and breathe deeply – feel the sinuses respond. (More about mint!)


There are so many more herbs for cough and colds that I’ve not listed here…so learn. Research. Experiment safely, and spend time with the plants that call to you.  Enjoy the process!


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