Herbal Cough Syrups

Grindelia_integrifolia_wikiI’m sitting at my computer listening to the rain gurgle through the downspout outside the window.  Summer is a memory and judging by the brilliant tree colors and WET, our northwest fall is in full swing.  Along with that comes the seasonal run of drippy noses and persistent coughs of cold and flu season.  You are in luck.  Many of our lovely herbs work beautifully to ease the irritation of coughs and one of the ways you can prepare them is a tasty cough syrup.

Coughs can be either acute or chronic.  An acute cough is one that lasts for less than three weeks.  This encompasses most of our winter viruses.  A chronic cough is one that drags on for more than eight weeks (four for children).  Causes of an acute cough include the common cold, influenza, irritants, pneumonia and whooping cough (as well as some non-viral causes such as medication, COPD, emphysema and tuberculosis, so make sure you know what is going on and contact your doctor if the cough persists or if there is any colored phlegm, fever or shortness of breath).  Chronic coughs can be caused by allergies, asthma, bronchitis and GERD.

Herbs to consider for soothing syrup to offer relief from the irritation of coughing include the following.

Angelica (Angelica archangelica):  Roots and leaves used medicinally.  Expectorant, antispasmodic, diuretic, diaphoretic.  Useful as an expectorant for coughs when part of a cold or flu with fever.

Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum):  Diaphoretic, aperient, tonic, antispasmodic, relaxes mucous membranes.  History of use for influenza.

Echinacea (Echinacea ssp.):  Anti-microbial and alterative.  Reputedly useful for upper respiratory tract infections such as laryngitis and tonsillitis and for catarrhal conditions of the nose/sinus.

Elecampane (Inula helenium):  Expectorant, anti-tussive, diaphoretic, stomachic, anti-bacterial.  Specific for irritating bronchitis coughs.  Use where there is excessive mucous.  Mucilage in plant is relaxing to bronchial tissue, while the volatile oils (smells heavenly) are stimulating.

Garlic (Allium sativum):  Antiseptic, antiviral, diaphoretic, cholagogue, hypotensive, antispasmodic.  The volatile oils in garlic are especially important for respiratory conditions as they are excreted through the lungs carrying their therapeutic properties to lung tissue.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.):  Anti-catarrhal, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, diaphoretic, carminative, diuretic.  Specific for upper respiratory catarrh, acute or chronic.

Grindelia (Grindelia spp.):  Antispasmodic, expectorant, hypotensive.  Relaxes smooth muscle.  Useful for upper respiratory catarrh, whooping cough, bronchial conditions and asthma and conditions where there is a constricted feeling and dry cough.  Volatile oils in the plant resins are also antimicrobial, assisting with the underlying infection.

Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis):  Anti-spasmodic, expectorant, diaphoretic, sedative, carminative.  One of the classic bitters.  Useful with respiratory conditions due to the anti-spasmodic action of the volatile oils.  Contains marrubiin, also found in horehound, and the compound believe responsible for the expectorant action.

Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra):  Expectorant, demulcent, anti-inflammatory, adrenal agent, anti-spasmodic and laxative.  Caution in case of water retention and hypertension.  Estrogenic and steroidal properties.  Some studies have shown it to be as effective as codeine in suppressing cough.

Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis):  Demulcent, expectorant, diuretic, emollient.  High mucilage content.  Leaf primarily used for respiratory conditions.  Specific plant for tight, hard coughs.

Mullein (Verbascum Thapsus):  Expectorant, demulcent, mild diuretic, mild sedative, vulnerary.  Tones mucous membranes of the respiratory system.  Encourages expectoration.  Specific for bronchitis. Mucilage content encourages mucosal healing.

Pleurisy Root (Asclepias tuberosa):  Diaphoretic, expectorant, antispasmodic, carminative.  Effective against respiratory infections by reducing inflammation and encouraging expectoration.  Long history of use, particularly in the US for respiratory ailments to promote expectoration.  Use dried.  Caution: Contains large amounts of a cardiac glycoside that can be toxic.

Violet (Viola odorata):  Expectorant, alterative, anti-inflammatory, diuretic and anti-neoplastic.  Long history of use for bronchitis.

White horehound (Marrubium vulgare):  Expectorant, anti-spasmodic, bitter digestive, vulnerary.  Valuable where there is a non-productive cough.  Relaxes smooth muscles and encourages expectoration.

Wild Cherry (Prunus serotina):  Anti-tussive, expectorant, astringent, sedative, digestive bitter.  Sedates cough reflex making it valuable for irritating coughs.

Wild Indigo (Baptisia tinctoria):  Anti-microbial, anti-catarrhal, febrifuge.  Beneficial for infection of the ear, nose and throat.

Of course, the herbs can be made into a warm tea, or encapsulated, or a number of other ways of delivery, but a syrup has the benefit of being able to mask bitterness or other unpleasant tastes, and many of these herbs come fully charged with bitter.  Because of the sugar content in syrup it may not be ideal for some situations.  To make syrup, below is Rosemary Gladstar’s basic recipe.  There is a great deal of room for individuality to create a syrup specific to need and preferences.  Try adding some elderberry juice, which is rich in nutrients, tasty and ideal for colds.  Or you can add a combination of infused herbs (tea) and prepared tinctures of specific herbs.  Infused honeys can add a flavorful element as well.

Rosemary Gladstar basic recipe

  •  2 oz herbs to 1 quart water. Simmer the herbs in the water over low heat until the liquid is reduced to one pint.  The produces a concentrated tea.
  • Strain the herbs from the tea and return the liquid to the pan.
  • To each pint of liquid tea add one cup of honey (or maple syrup, brown or white sugar, or other sweetener). (This is less than other recommendations for making syrup due to Rosemary’s preference for a less sweet syrup.  It does mean that this method requires refrigeration because the lower sugar content makes it more susceptible to rancidity).
  • Warm the sweetener and tea together until combined. If using sugar you can do this on a higher heat for 20-30 minutes to thicken the syrup.  If you are using honey, use a low heat and only until combined to preserve the enzymes in the honey.
  • Optionally, at this point you can add 3-4 teaspoons of brandy (or flavored brandy) per cup. The brandy will help preserve the syrup and also has antispasmodic and calming properties.  You can also add a few drops of essential oils and/or a fruit concentrate for flavor.

Remove the syrup from the heat and bottle for use.  Refrigerated, the syrup will last several weeks to a few months.


Fischer-Rizzi, Susanne. 1996. Medicine of the Earth: Legends, Recipes, Remedies, and Cultivation of Healing Plants. Rudra Press: Portland, OR.

Gladstar, Rosemary. 1993. Herbal Healing for Women: Simple Home Remedies for Women of All Ages. Fireside: New York, NY.

Green, James. 2000. The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook. The Crossing Press: Berkeley, CA.

Hoffmann, David. 1990. The New Holistic Herbal: A Herbal Celebrating the Wholeness of Life. Element: Boston, MA.

Kane, Charles W. 2009. Herbal Medicine: Trends and Traditions. Lincoln Town Press.

Keville, Kathi. 1994. Herbs: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Friedman/Fairfax Publishers: New York, NY.

Mayo Clinic. Coughs. http://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/cough/basics/causes/sym-20050846

Medline Plus. Coughing. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/anatomyvideos/000039.htm

Mowrey, Daniel B. 1986. Proven Herbal Blends: A Rational Approach to Prevention and Remedy. Keats Publishing, Inc.: New Canaan, CT.

Schofield, Janice J. 1989. Discovering Wild Plants: Alaska, Western Canada, The Northwest. Alaska Northwest Books: Anchorage, AK.

Wren, R.W., Ed.  1972. Potter’s New Cyclopaedia of Medicinal herbs and Preparations. Harper & Row: New York, NY.





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