HEAL: Medicinal Herb Honey
For many herbalists making herbal home remedies occurs throughout the year as plant blooms vary and different parts of plants are harvested at different times of the year. One of the challenges of using herbal medicine is having the right remedies available when you need them most. This is why over-the-counter (OTC) medicine is so popular – it’s pre-made and easily available.
Though sore throats and illness can appear any time of the year, upper respiratory complaints prevail during the winter months when we spend more time inside, often having more and closer contact with people who may harbor a virus. Our schedules and diets change and many of us have additional stress with change, resulting in a weakened immune system. One of the first signs of illness is a sore, scratchy throat - we recognize it as an initial symptom of an illness but many of us ignore it until it becomes tender and painful with inflammation. We seek relief of the symptoms with over-the-counter lozenges and sprays but most commercial products only numb or mask the symptoms and generally offer little in the way of assistance to our bodies' natural response to eliminate the virus or bacteria causing the illness.
The Return of the Crud Costs How Much?
What we have done is set the stage for the annual production of The Return of the Crud - a drama that often goes on for weeks as it works its magic on every member in your household. And we spend big bucks trying to fight it: Each year, Americans spend 4.2 BILLION dollars on cold and flu remedies - none of which will reduce the typical amount of time sick (10-14 days), nor cure the virus. What those products do is numb, dry up and mask the symptoms which then tricks us into believing that we are better so we continue with our normal load of work and responsibilities rather than reducing our work and resting. This is why viruses stay active longer and why we will become increasingly exhausted when sickness lingers for weeks.
While Mary Poppins recommended “a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down” we now know that cane sugar should be avoided when sick (ok – it should be avoided in general). Infusing anti-viral or anti-microbial herbs into honey creates a medicinal remedy that relieves the painful symptoms AND supports the body's natural defensive response to viral and bacterial infections. By creating a few simple traditional remedies, you can save a big chunk of change, avoid synthetic chemicals that are often part of Big Pharma's products and reduce the ecological footprint of your medicine since many OTC products are made in China and India and then shipped here.
Oh... that Mary Poppins video? You can thank me later for putting that song in your head for the rest of your day. :)
The Benefits of Honey
Honey is rich in antioxidants, loaded with phytonutrients, promotes the growth of healthy bacteria in our intestines, supports digestion and helps with sleep. It helps reduce coughing and produces a soothing and moistening effect on inflamed throats. Because of its ability to create hydrogen peroxide, honey is also considered anti-bacterial and anti-fungal and in fact, is being used in topical dressings for burn victims. Unlike cane sugar, honey does not cause sugar spikes because it has a healthy glycemic load. And amazingly, honey never goes bad.
But these benefits only apply to raw honey, which is most often sold by local beekeepers. Honey found in grocery stores (in those cute little bear bottles) is usually pasteurized which means that the honey has been exposed to extreme heat, killing any beneficial enzymes. The label usually states if a honey is in raw form (unpasteurized).
Several years ago, an investigation found that grocery store honey is often adulterated with corn syrup and other unhealthy additives. You will find raw honey at farmer’s markets and stores that sell natural health products. Support your local beekeepers and invest in a 1/2 gallon of raw honey (I use about a gallon of honey per year). Learn how to replace your use of white sugar with healthier and more sustainably produced honey.
Is Honey Safe For My Sick Child?
Herbal honey is safe to use with children over the age of one and research shows that a 1.5 teaspoon of honey helps reduce coughing in older children. This is important because both the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy for Pediatrics warn against giving OTC products to children under the age of four.
Other Uses for Herbal Honey
Herbal honeys can be used topically to soothe and heal burns and wounds. And don't forget the kitchen: Infused honeys can be used to sweeten and flavor hot cereals, teas, salad dressings, baked goods, savory sauces, marinades, and fruits and vegetables.
Infusing honey is one of the easiest remedies you can make and then forget about. But it will be ready to use when you need it most.
How to Make Herb-Infused Honeys
Raw (unpasteurized) honey – Minimum of one quart
Glass jars – pints are perfect for small families but if you want to share some of your honeys then use quart jars. Be sure the glass jars are thoroughly cleaned and sterilized in boiling water for 10 minutes.
Chopstick & silicone spatula
Freshly cut herbs are preferred but dry herbs can be used.
1) Some herbs hold a lot of moisture in their leaves and roots. Allow them to wilt a bit for 8-24 hours to remove some of the water. Honey is hydroscopic which means it absorbs moisture.
2) Remove stems and roughly chop herbs. Both leaves and flowers can be used, depending on the herb.
3) Fill jar almost full with fresh herbs. (If using dried herbs, fill half full)
4) Fill the jar with honey, completely covering the herbs. Warming the honey slightly in a double boiler speeds up this step but be sure to only warm and not cook or boil the honey.
5) Stir with chopstick to remove air bubbles and to thoroughly coat the herbs.
6) Cover with tight-fitting lid and always label with herb name and date.
7) Place in sunny windowsill or simply leave on your counter for a week. The herbs will move to the top so I like to turn the jars upside down each day to move the herbs through the honey. After a week, move the honey to a counter or shelf and allow it to steep for a few more weeks. Some herbs will color the honey, and some will thin the honey.
You can leave the herbs in the honey or strain them out using a mesh strainer. I strain my honeys and store the honey coated plant materials in the refrigerator. I add a bit of the honeyed herbs whenever I make a cup of hot tea.
Store the honey in your refrigerator or cabinet. Herbal honeys will last a long time but I doubt they will be around long enough to test that statement!
Herbs From Your Garden
Never use herbs that have been sprayed with pesticide. If not sure, especially when wildcrafting from public property, then avoid using.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) – Delicious in both savory and sweet dishes and my personal favorite for sweetening tea. Lemon balm is soothing to the digestive and nervous system and aids in healing cold sores.
Sage (Salvia officinalis) - A must-have for the winter months! Sage’s anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal properties have a long history of use for inflamed throats and helps with drying mucous.
Garlic (Allium sativum) - Stop making that face! Chopped garlic steeped in honey is not as bad tasting as you are now imagining. Some of us actually like it. Garlic is a potent medicine (be sure to let it sit for 10-15 minutes after mincing to increase its medicinal value) for cold and flu viruses: it stimulates your immune system, kills pathogens and helps clear lung congestion. Another added benefit? Keeps the vampires at bay.
Ginger (Zingibar officinale) - Ginger has a long history of medicinal use and is especially effective with upper respiratory infections. It’s the go-to remedy for upset stomachs and nausea. When you have the chills, a tablespoon of this delicious syrup produces a warming sensation in the body. And like the other herbs mentioned here, ginger honey is ideal for a sore throat. Avoid using ground ginger; peel & chop fresh organic ginger. Because of the high amount of moisture in the ginger rhizome, it creates more of a ginger syrup. I make small batches and store in the fridge. I add a teaspoon of ginger honey to my chai teas which makes them the perfect winter drink.
Bee Balm (Monarda spp.) – Another potent medicine for the cold and flu season, bee balm offers a spicy, sweet taste. The flowers and leaves are anti-microbial and are well-suited to help with sore and inflamed throats. Like ginger, it also produces a warming sensation in the body.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) - Another culinary herb that was long used medicinally before it found its way into our soup pots. Thyme infused honey helps with bacterial infections of the throat and helps control coughing spasms (the ones that keep you awake all night).
Rose Petals (Rosa spp.) - First, the key to benefitting from rose medicine is to only use roses that have a scent. Many of the cultivated roses were modified through plant breeding and lost their scents in exchange for other attributes. Wild roses grow throughout North America, often on rural lands where they are viewed as a weed. Rose petal honey is incredibly aromatic and just smelling it makes you feel better! Rose has astringent properties and can help with inflamed tissues like sore throats. It's also absolutely delicious on scones!
Lavender (Lavendula spp.) – A fragrant floral honey that is meant to be drizzled on ice cream, pound cake, scones, biscotti, etc. Lavender can have a calming effect and is antimicrobial.
Gifts from Your Garden and Kitchen
If you enjoy giving unique gifts that you made with the abundance from your garden, herbal honeys are perfect. One of a kind, healing, delicious and affordable, plan to make several quarts of herb honeys, transfer to smaller glass containers, and include a label or mini-card that provides directions on how to use.
Are you inspired? Look around your herb garden and in your spice cabinet for more ideas: mint, cinnamon (sticks or chips), anise star, vanilla, rosemary, thyme, chamomile, basil…
Author: Sue Kusch
Sue Kusch, a former community college instructor and academic advisor, incorporates her experiential wisdom, expertise and science-based research garnered from her three decades of growing vegetables, fruit and herbs into her educational writing about plants and how people use them. In addition to her BA in Social Sciences and Masters in Education, she completed the Master Gardener training in 2011 and two permaculture courses in 2001 and 2014. She has studied medicinal and nutritional uses of herbs including studies at Herbmentor.com and East West School of Planetary Herbology since 1997. Sue currently serves as President and newsletter editor of her local chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society. An avid reader, lover of historical and folkloric information, and a promising storyteller, Sue writes about the intersection of plants and people at www.plantsnpeople.com.