There are many ways of creating herbal formulas, whether it’s by a certain ratio, according to herbal actions, or simply the kitchen sink method where you throw every herb you can think of into a mixture.
This herbal cough syrup recipe was inspired by formulating with the TASTE of herbs. I wanted to create an effective syrup that encompassed all five of the tastes in Traditional Chinese Medicine (pungent, salty, sour, bitter, and sweet). It’s commonly believed that a meal isn’t complete unless it has all the flavors, so I thought it would be interesting to apply this to an herbal formula as well.
While western herbalists don’t often talk about the taste of a plant (although this is slowly beginning to change), classifying herbs by their taste is a major foundation of Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, two of the largest and oldest living systems of medicine today.
The idea is that, by simply tasting an herb, you can understand the big picture of the ways it could be used. Taste, as well as how you feel after tasting, can also give you insights into the plant’s energetics. Is the plant warming like cayenne? Or cooling like a cucumber? Does the plant restore moisture to the body like aloe? Or is it drying like dandelion’s diuretic qualities?
Evaluating and understanding the taste of an herb is so important that I think it’s one of the most crucial skills an herbalist can have. That’s why I created the Taste of Herbs Flavor Wheel and that my number one online course is all about this subject!
While this is a complex topic with lots of layers, here’s a short summary of the attributes we associate with each taste.
Pungent herbs are warming and spicy and are used to awaken the senses and get things moving. A great example of this is how cayenne (Capsicum annuum) makes you sweat and gets your sinuses running.
Salty herbs are high in minerals and often affect the balance of fluids in our bodies. Plantain (Plantago spp.) is a nutritive herb that can powerfully heal mucous membranes.
Sour herbs stimulate digestion and build strength and they are often high in antioxidants. An example of this is drinking lemon water in the morning. Elderberries are a sour herb that is extremely high in antioxidants.
Bitter herbs stimulate digestion and often have a cooling and draining effect that can help to modulate inflammation. An example of this is Oregon grape root (Mahonia spp.) which stimulates digestion and modulates inflammation.
Sweet herbs nourish and build and are used to restore energy levels and modulate the immune system. Drinking astragalus chai daily is a great way to experience this effect.
Now let’s take a closer look at the herbs in this herbal cough syrup recipe as well as their tastes.
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra, S. cerulea, S. canadensis) – Sour
Elderberries are really high in antioxidants and are commonly used to shorten the duration of a cold or flu. In one study, people with the flu who took elderberry had their symptoms relieved four days earlier than those taking a placebo.1 Like most fruits, elderberries are classified as having a sour taste.
Elecampane (Inula helenium) – Bitter & Pungent
Elecampane is a beautiful plant that can easily grow to six feet tall. It’s covered with bright yellow flowers that bees love. Herbalists use the root of this plant and it has both a decidedly bitter and pungent taste with a hint of sweetness (due to its high inulin content). Elecampane is famous for strengthening the lungs and is especially used for congested coughs.
Plantain (Plantago major, P. lanceolata, P. rugelii, P. rhodosperma, P. virginica) – Salty
If you tasted a fresh leaf of plantain, you wouldn’t think it tasted salty but, apart from the mild bitterness of the leaves, it has a hard mineral taste that is due to the high mineral content (similar to kale). Plantain is a fantastic herb for general coughs and it excels at soothing irritated mucous membranes such as the throat and lungs.
Honey – Sweet
Rounding out the ingredients for our herbal cough syrup recipe is honey. Besides the wonderful sweet taste that makes this blend more palatable, honey is high in enzymes that are believed to stimulate the immune system. It’s also a mild expectorant and has been shown to be a safe and effective way to address children’s coughs.2 For this recipe I recommend using local honey from a beekeeper as this will ensure the best quality. If you plan on using this recipe for a child under two, use an alternative sweetener.
Five Flavors Herbal Cough Syrup Recipe
This recipe is an all-purpose cough syrup remedy. Elecampane, plantain, and honey are expectorants with the latter two helping to soothe irritated tissues in the lungs and throat. Elderberries are famous for their ability to shorten the duration of a cold or flu. Store this in the fridge and use within one month. This recipe can be made with either dried or fresh herbs.
Note that this herbal cough syrup recipe will not be as thick as commercial syrups. To make a thicker syrup, use sugar instead of honey and simmer the strained tea and sugar until it is reduced by half; let cool and it should have thickened up.
What you’ll need…
- 1/2 cup dried elderberries (or one cup fresh) (55 grams dried)
- 1/4 cup dried elecampane root (or 1/2 cup fresh) (25 grams dried)
- 1/4 cup dried plantain leaves (or 1/2 cup fresh) (8 grams dried)
- 2 cups water
- 1/2 cup honey
Place the herbs and water into a medium sized sauce pan. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes, uncovered.
Strain off the herbs. I like to do this through a jelly bag or cheesecloth so I can really squeeze the juice from the herbs. (If you decide to squeeze out the herbs, wait for it to cool a bit.)
You should end up with approximately 1/2 cup of liquid.
Return the liquid to a clean saucepan. Add the honey and stir until well combined. If necessary, apply very low heat to warm the honey to allow it to incorporate.
Pour the mixture into a bottle, label and keep in the fridge for up to one month.
For children above the age of 2, use one teaspoon every hour as needed. (Children under the age of two should not have honey. Use an alternative sweetener for children under two.)
Adults can use a tablespoon every 30-60 minutes as needed.
Yield: About 1 cup
- Zakay-Rones, Z, E Thom, T Wollan, and J Wadstein. “Randomized Study of the Efficacy and Safety of Oral Elderberry Extract in the Treatment of Influenza A and B Virus Infections.” The Journal of international medical research 32, no. 2 (2004): 132-40. ↩
- Goldman, Ran D. “Honey for Treatment of Cough in Children.” Canadian family physician Médecin de famille canadien 60, no. 12 (2014): 1107-8, 1110. ↩