by Molly Marquand, for Rodale’s Organic Life
Winter: season of sneezing, sniffles, and most of all, sore throats. This year, get a jump on cold season, and bulk up your home remedy kit with some wild foraged medicinals to help soothe (and snuff out) even the most determined laryngitis. When harvesting the below plants, grab at least two big handfuls of leaves or flowers, and set out to dry on newspaper in a well-ventilated, but not too bright, location. Always check with your doctor before experimenting with wild plant teas—particularly if you have a pre-existing medical condition.
All it takes to brew up a cup of sage tea is a quick trip to the herb garden (or windowsill). In fact, many species of the large genus salvia, to which common culinary sage belongs, will do, but the oval-leaved, soft-gray culinary sage is best. If you’re out and about looking for sage at a friend’s house or in a community garden, seek out hotspots, with full sun exposure, and freely draining—even gravelly—soil. Sage has both antiseptic and soothing qualities. The volatile oils (that make it so good for cooking with meat) help coat inflamed tonsils, while the plant’s acidic compounds are responsible for its remarkable ability to squash bacterial invasions. For a cup of tea, use either 2 tablespoons of fresh leaves or 1 tablespoon of dry. If you don’t like the strong, savory flavor, you can use the infusion as a gargle too.
Shortcut: Try Alvita Sage Tea
Finding coltsfoot takes a little more savoir-faire than uncovering the popular and well-loved culinary sage. But if you live almost anywhere throughout Canada or the eastern U.S., I promise you, coltsfoot is present. This early-flowering relative of the daisy likes sandy, disturbed soils commonly found along roads. For that reason, always thoroughly wash any part of the plant you collect with soap and water. The easiest time to spot the plant is in early spring when its dandelion-like flower blooms. After March, the plant sports hoof-shaped leaves (hence the name) that range in size from 3 to 10 inches across. Coltsfoot has been used to cure sore throats in its native Europe for centuries. Smoked or sipped, the plant is an extremely effective demulcent, meaning it relieves the irritation of the mucus membranes that make us hack and cough. To make a cup of coltsfoot tea, steep 1 teaspoon of dried leaves or flowers in boiling water. One note of caution: Like many of nature’s medicinal heavy-hitters, coltsfoot contains alkaloids which can be toxic if imbibed in large quantities. Always take the lowest effective dose of any herbal tea, and read up on any interactions your tea may have with prescription medicines you take.
Wild cherry makes a good base for a sore throat tea—sort of like using a stock to make soup. A lot of the compounds that give wild plants such potent antimicrobial properties make them bitter too, so it’s nice to mix and match with milder, sweeter flavored herbs. With wild cherry, you’ll use the bark for tea brewing. It imparts an aromatic almond flavor to the tea, and the side notes of bitterness can easily be covered up with mint or honey. Many different species of cherry can be used to make this tea, but black cherry is best. Look for the tree in almost any woodland—particularly younger forests. Cherry bark is dark, almost black, and deeply flaky, coming off in big plates. To make a wild cherry tea, strip the bark off several young branches. As you strip, you should smell a faint almond aroma (if you don’t, strip younger, more pliable twigs). Steep 1 teaspoon of dried bark in one cup of boiling water and try adding rose-hip syrup, mint, or another wild sweetener to compliment the cherry’s almond flavors. Cherry will help suppress coughs and strike out bacterial infections resident in inflamed tissue.