Are you building a winter medicine chest?

winter medicine chest

If you haven’t already, now is the time to start stockpiling herbal medicines for winter. If you leave it too late, not only will you find you’re unprepared if/when you get sick, but you’ll also find that many purveyors of herbs are sold out of the ones you want (says the voice of bitter experience). I am actually getting around to this a bit too late, but where I live there really isn’t a proper winter so I can be a bit lazier here than when I used to live in Minnesota.

The selection of medicines for your winter medicine cabinet (and pantry!) is near infinite, and I may have a slight obsession with collecting them. In SAT terms, squirrel:nuts::me:herbal cold remedies. There are some essentials I wouldn’t be without during the winter:

  • Ginger (fresh and dried)
  • Elderberries (fresh or dried, whatever you can get)
  • Garlic
  • Licorice root
  • Echinacea

In case you are stumped for ideas, here are some of the recipes and remedies I’ve been making. There are more on my Pinterest board. Many of these are foods–herbs are arguably most effective when they are part of a varied and nutrient-dense diet, so they can help prevent you from getting sick in the first place. Plus, many of them are so yummy, and I love that as foods you can get really creative with them.

Sadly I forgot to take pictures of many of these things. Just imagine they look awesome. Because they totally did.

Blossoming elder in Wiltshire, 2010. (Photo credit: me.)

Blossoming elder with the Alton Barnes white horse in the distance, Wiltshire, Summer 2010. (Photo credit: me.)

Elderberry tea

Steep equal parts dried elderberry, orange peel, and lavender for a few minutes in just-boiled water. Add a slice of lemon and a teaspoon of honey. I haven’t tried it yet, because I just thought of it, but this would probably also be good with some mild green tea in the blend.

Elderberry tincture

This is pretty self-explanatory: soak elderberries (crushed up if they’re fresh) in booze (minimum 80 proof) for a month. The “folk” method ratio is 1 part berries to 2 parts alcohol, but especially if you’re using dried berries, I think you could go as high as 4 parts alcohol. Give the mix a shake once a day and store in a dark place. At the end of the month, strain out the elderberries and bottle your tincture as desired.

Alternatively, you could steep the berries in glycerin, but it doesn’t extract the medicinal properties of dried plant material as well as alcohol does, so you’ll want to warm it gently in a double boiler for at least a couple of hours to help. If you’re using fresh berries this isn’t necessary (though you can still do it).

Elderberry syrup

There are a million and one recipes for elderberry syrup online. I was inspired by Rosalee de la Forêt, from whom I learned that black pepper–a spice I love anyway for it’s flavor–makes the nutrients in food more bioavailable. I change my recipe every year, just for the fun of experimenting. This year I modified this recipe from HerbMentor which contains licorice, and also took inspiration from this recipe at the Mountain Rose Blog. Licorice root, like elderberries, has antiviral properties.

I will give you the recipe in my next post.

Spiced elderberry vinegar

When I make elderberry syrup, I take the dried berries (which I’ve strained out of the liquid) and put them in  jar with some vinegar. I don’t know how much medicine is left in the berries after they’ve been used for syrup, but I figure there’s probably still a bit of goodness in there, and I mean to get it all. I add some other spices to the vinegar–my last batch included a few slices of raw onion, garlic, cloves, nutmeg, black pepper, ginger, and cinnamon. I don’t measure them out, just go with my gut according to how much vinegar and berries I have. I let this sit for about a month and then strain it. I use it as a marinade for beef, substitute it for balsamic vinegar in any recipes that call for that, or blend it with olive oil to make a delicious vinaigrette for salads or veggies. And, mixed with a spoonful of honey and a little water, it helps clear stubborn phlegm from the throat.

You can infuse a vinegar with any fruits you used to make a syrup or jam.


chai spices

I wrote about this previously. I like to think it bears repeating, because chai.

Pickled garlic

Garlic is an immune booster that is safe to consume in large quantities (very large quantities of raw garlic will nauseate), so I pound the stuff back when I start feeling sick. And also the rest of the time. I just really love garlic. I also love traveling to places full of garlic-loving people, like Korea, Spain, Sicily…because no one is bothered by my garlic breath since they all have it too. I use this Korean recipe for pickled garlic called maneul jangajji. It is very simple and only takes about 3 weeks to finish pickling. The garlic comes out mellowed and soy-sauce-infused and makes a delicious savory side dish. I love it with Japanese curry…and pretty much everything else.

Oh and by the way, fret not if your garlic turns blue-green. It’s caused by a chemical reaction of the sulphur compounds in the garlic forming something like chlorophyll, and it’s totally safe (here’s my source).

Garlic soup (sopa de ajo)

Garlic soup, or sopa de ajo, was one of my favorite dishes when I lived in Spain as a teenager. The recipe I linked to calls for chorizo, but when I make it at home I leave that out (mainly because it’s really hard to get proper chorizo here) but I put in a lot more paprika. I don’t measure it, I just do it to taste. The broth should be red (paprika-colored) and pungent. The paprika and garlic also have a warming effect which is lovely on a cold winter day.

Ginger salve

This is a remedy strictly for external use (although technically I guess you could eat it…but I don’t think it would be very rewarding). You can use either fresh or dried ginger for this–dried is hotter. I made mine with both fresh and dried, and even added some ginger essential oil. You can let oil infuse for a month or so, but since I wanted mine right away, I did it by warming the oil and ginger in a double boiler for a couple of hours. Then I strained out the solids and added beeswax, a little Vitamin E (an antioxidant that helps keep oils from going rancid), and essential oils. The golden rule is 1 part beeswax to 8 parts infused oil, though you can of course customize this.

Ginger salve is amazingly relaxing to tired, sore muscles and works wonders on sciatica (in my experience). When I’m sick and am feeling any congestion–such as congested lungs or swollen lymph nodes–I rub some of this salve over the area, externally, and it helps to loosen things up and stimulate circulation. That said, do not get it in contact with any mucus membranes, because ginger is hot.

Ginger tincture

Ginger is so awesome, I like to have as many different forms of it on hand as possible.  Ginger tincture is made the same way as elderberry and again can be made with either fresh or dried ginger, but dried will be hotter. Tinctures are lovely to keep because they last so long and are relatively compact to store.

Ginger syrup

Chop 2 cups of fresh ginger and add that plus 2 cups sugar, honey, maple syrup (or a combination thereof) to a pan. Pour in enough water to cover (approximately 4 cups). Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer and let it simmer for an hour. Be careful to keep the fire low enough so as not to burn the sugar, and stir frequently. Strain out the ginger (or not, if you like to eat it) and refrigerate the syrup.

I like to put this in some seltzer water with a squeeze of lime juice to make homemade soda.

As with elderberry syrup, you can add complementary herbs.

Echinacea tincture

E. purpurea

E. purpurea

Echinacea is severely overharvested in the wild, so please don’t wildcraft it, and if you buy it, be sure to buy it cultivated. Incidentally, it’s pretty easy to grow your own in suitable climate zones (Zones 4-9), is beautiful, and loved by bees. You can use Echinacea angustifolia, E. purpurea, or E. pallida, I’m not sure about the other species. With E. angustifolia, the root is usually used, but with E. purpurea it’s the aerial parts. Personally I prefer using aerial parts as this means I can cut-and-come-again and don’t have to destroy the plant to make my medicine. Make the tincture as with the elderberry tincture.

This is a remedy to take during the first 24 hours of an illness, not for prevention and not for the duration, unless you have swollen lymph nodes. Echinacea gets the lymph flowing again. (A complementary medicine for the lymphatic system is calendula.) It is also energetically cooling, so if you have chills it’s good to mix the echinacea with something hot like ginger. You can also take echinacea as a tea.

A tea for cold colds and flus

You know you have a cold cold or flu when you feel chilled and clammy. I once got a flu so cold that it made my teeth chatter and it seemed impossible to get warm. But like an old-timey ague, it would alternate with bouts of fever. Between the shivering and how much my joints ached, I couldn’t sleep at all. So I ran myself a hot bath, put in some dried ginger powder to heat it even more, and made myself a tea of:

  • Echinacea leaf
  • cloves
  • cardamom
  • orange peel
  • dried ginger
  • cinnamon
  • rose hips

I used equal parts of each, except cardamom, of which I used about 1/2 part. After my bath I drank about 6 oz of this tea and before I even finished the cup the fever broke. I started sweating, the pain went away, I fell asleep and slept well all night. It was literally just a matter of minutes. The next day I was about 95% better. I’m not promising this kind of cure, I’m just sharing this anecdote to illustrate the way these warming spices work. Although echinacea and rose hips are somewhat cooling, the other ingredients are energetically hot. It also illustrates how you can take a combination internal-external approach to give your cold the one-two punch.

So, what are your favorite recipes for cold and flu season?



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