Here are some thoughts on useful kitchen herbalism in this unpredictable time, including what we’re doing in our family for prevention and what we have on hand if we get sick.
Remember that herbs and wild foods have nurtured your ancestors through many a plague throughout the history of human animals, and that legacy of fortitude and survivorship lives on in you: what weeds connect you with your roots?
Lean in to reconnecting with the lessons of your family legacy.
Remember that you don’t need all of these exact herbs; in fact, it makes a lot more sense for you to find herbs that are local to you and address the needs of your body. Plant medicine is not one-size-fits-all, and it tends to work better when we tweak the formulas based on what is happening with you specifically (more about that, and also here). We really don’t know all the ways this infection manifests itself, and we do not have experience working with it since it is a new virus; we’re guessing which herbs might be helpful based on what we’ve heard about the symptoms and energetics involved, but take that with a huge grain of salt as there is so much we still don’t know. It’s also really important to use herbs that are local to you and abundant, instead of endangered mythic super-herbs from the other side of the globe (more here and here if that’s a new idea).
Practice figuring out whether something is warming or cooling, drying or moistening, stimulating or not, soothing or not as this is useful to figure out when to use each herb for balance (more thoughts on that). Remember to combine herbs for best effectiveness: herbs to improve absorption, astringents to help retain moistening demulcents, expectorants with anti-inflammatories, etc. (more thoughts on that).
Sorry for any gaps or short explanations. In real life I’m covered in cooped-up children and feeling a little overwhelmed myself, so this is jotted in stolen moments of play dough and snacks. Post your specific questions on my Instagram or Facebook pages as public comments and I’ll do my best to answer them.
What We’re Doing
As a family, we’re focusing on herbs that are antiviral, anti-inflammatory, nervine, adaptogenic, hepatic or otherwise liver-loving, and lymphatic.
The adults in my house are taking the following herbs:
- Lemon balm
- Mineral-rich herbs: nettles, raspberry
- Calming immune-modulating adaptogens: tulsi, astragalus
- Lymphatics & hepatics: burdock, red clover, calendula, dandelion
- Hugs for the nervous system: oatstraw, lemon balm, multiflora rose. Lemon balm and Baicalensis are also antiviral and seem uniquely suited to this moment.
- Warming lung and digestive herbs: calamus, angelica, cinnamon
There is a small pot on the stove with the thicker roots double-doubling away as needed, then added to a big teapot full of everything else to infuse when needed and sweetened with turmeric-, ginger-, or schisandra-infused honey, depending on my mood.
The kids in my house are taking the following herbs:
- Elderberry-ginger-thyme syrup (locally known as “spicy medicine”)
- Ginger-cinnamon-rose oxymel (locally known as “sweet pickle medicine”)
- White pine oxymel (locally known as “people hay,” and one that my 3 year old loves to nibble on our walks)
Instructions to make oxymels here. Instructions to make syrups here. Feel free to improvise the proportions based on what you have: twice as much ginger as cinnamon is going to be great, and so is equal parts cinnamon and ginger, and so is substituting lavender for rose because it’s what you have…let your creative side roll, these tend to turn out great.
Totally fine to make these recipes with fresh or dried herbs. See the end of the resource list for good places to buy herbs.
We’re paying a lot of attention to eating a whole-food diet rich in vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, soluble fiber, and probiotic bacteria–things like brightly colored fruits and vegetables, clean meats and eggs, beans, lentils, a variety of grains like quinoa, brown rice, and barley, oatmeal, plain yogurt, kimchi, dosas…there are lots of ways to make eating healthy fun and delicious. We’re getting excited for early greens and herbs, nibbing the first creasy greens, nettles, and chives.
We routinely work medicinal herbs into our meals, like garlic, ginger, thyme, rosemary, sage, turmeric, and cinnamon.
The kids are eating oatmeal with cinnamon, ginger honey, fruit, and plain yogurt for breakfast. They’re happy because they’re eating honey and fruit–little do they know my nefarious plan to sneak medicine into the every meal bwa ha ha ha ha.
The other night, I roasted one of our own chickens with my oldest daughter, who is 3 (and a half!) and loves to help cook, standing on a chair wearing her little apron. The leftovers went into chicken noodle soup, heavy on the schmaltz in the proud healing tradition of my grandmothers (and all the plagues that soup recipe has survived, we should be so lucky), and the carcass went into the slow cooker to become bone broth, together with medicinal mushrooms–reishi, turkey tail, shiitake–sage, rosemary, garlic, ginger, and thyme. All the soup and half the broth will be frozen for the future in case of need.
Steam & Burning Bundles
There’s another little pot on the back burner of the stove bubbling away with aromatic leftovers, releasing all those lovely volatile oils into the air to moisten and cleanse our mucous membranes. The contents change daily based on what scraps we have, but things like orange peels, the trimmings from garlic and ginger, calamus leaves, eucalyptus, rosemary and thyme: any of your aromatics are worth a try. My husband is calling it “compost soup” because it’s where the fragrant scraps are going–but also, he ATE HIS WORDS about the annoyingly huge bundles of eucalyptus, sage, rosemary, calamus, and mint hanging from the kitchen rafters–this battle, I have officially won. Ha. Anyway, it smells quite festive in here, and the humidity is lovely.
Aromatic herbs make wonderful burning bundles or smudge sticks. These are super easy to make yourself. Late summer I’ll usually spend an afternoon wrapping herb bundles together with jute twine or yarn, then dry them in a basket and give them as gifts. There is no reason to covet the sacred White Sage of the West, which is endangered and super inappropriate for any non-Native person to use. Better alternatives are basically everything else, except toxic stuff like poison ivy. I bundle lavender, mugwort, goldenrod, New England aster, garden sage, thyme…basically anything fragrant or resinous. Once they’re dry they burn beautifully and smell great, and it doesn’t contribute to the loss of a beautiful plant that has the right to exist for its own sake, or someone else’s religious materials, or environmental degradation. Burning bundles are great lovely way to cleanse the air by releasing bioactive resins, and they’re calming and centering in a way that is helpful in high stress times. If you’re not familiar with why non-Native people don’t get to use White Sage anymore, please check out United Plant Savers.
The “Uh-Oh Basket”
My older daughter helped me pack herbs into what she named the “Uh-Oh Basket” (as in “Uh-oh somebody doesn’t feel good so Mommy will give them medicine”). We prioritized antivirals, anti-inflammatories with an affinity for the lungs, moistening lung herbs and astringents to help them soak in, stimulating expectorants, cough suppressants, fever herbs, and nervines for stress and anxiety.
These herbs all overlap categories since they all have a bunch of different actions–refer to my article on herbal actions for more about that. Please don’t clog up my inbox with angry emails about how Elder flower is both a fever herb and an antiviral, or whatever–I know, I just don’t want to make these lists so long as to be overwhelming; it’s not a full materia medica, it’s just some herbs to group together on one shelf in case you need them in a hurry on a day that you’re feeling really rough.
Moistening, Soothing Anti-Inflammatory Herbs with Affinity for the Lungs:
- Marshmallow root (for grown-ups) and leaf (for kids)–take this one by itself, it can block absorption in the gut. Take as tea or honey.
- Mullein Leaf (tea or honey)
- Solomon’s Seal
- Violet leaf
Astringents (to make those moistening herbs work better):
Stimulating Anti-inflammatory Herbs with Affinity for the Lungs, Expectorants, Cough Suppressants:
- New England Aster
- Prickly Ash also aids absorption, gut
- Angelica also aids absorption, gut
- Calamus also good for gut
- Ginger also aids absorption, gut
- Turmeric also good for liver
- Cherry Bark
- Anise-Hyssop, aids absorption
Herbs to Support Fever Response: check out what Jim McDonald writes about this! Most of these are also antiviral and anti-inflammatory.
- Bee Balm
- Black Birch Bark
Antivirals: all of these do a bunch of things as well as being antiviral, like supporting fever activity, decongesting, or calming stress.
- Lemon balm
- Sage honey
- White Pine
- Elder flower
Daytime Nervines: for anxiety, fear, stress. For the caregiver as well as the sick person.
- Lemon balm & baicalensis (also antivirals)
- Milky oats
- Rose–multiflora for armor and tenacity, garden for a peaceful heart
Nighttime Nervines: for sleep help, mind-whirling anxiety, etc. For the caregiver as well as the sick person.
I’ll be updating this as I figure things out more. Please let me know if you find things that are helpful too. Check out my ongoing Herbal Resource list for excellent perspectives from throughout the herbal world.
Comment publicly on social media with questions. I’m inundated with emails at any given time and generally don’t answer specific medicine-related questions that way. Be sure to read up on any herbs you’re trying, and double check them with your health conditions, medications, and your family’s needs–some of these are safe for everybody, some of them have a couple warnings, so it’s definitely worth taking the time to check. Remember that we really don’t know much about this brand-new virus and listen to the cues of your body.
Stay well. Love your kids, wash your hands, lower your expectations for yourself, and stay the heck home.