Ethnobotanical cures for colds, flus, and wintertime blues

As much of the United States experiences a dramatic cold snap (or, bomb cyclone as the US media has delicately labelled it), the Ethnobiology Forage! Blog is kicking off the new year with some of our favorite homemade ethnobotanical cures for colds, flus, and other wintertime blues.

For the last decade or so, I have greeted winter colds with a ginger, garlic, and lemon tea.  I learned this simple, effective remedy from my college friend, Erika, who learned it from her parents, who in turn drank this tea as children.  This is one of the most common homemade cold cures, alongside nutrition-rich chicken soup, and a casual internet search will reveal dozens of variations on this theme.  Even buzzfeed gets in on the herbal action.

I add cayenne and honey to mine, but many add apple cider vinegar, cinnamon, turmeric, or even whiskey to their teas.  That last version, the hot toddy (tea with whiskey), has a long and ethnobotanical history: originating as a medicinal Indian drink of palm wine (called toddy or tari across much of India), lemon, sugar, spices, and exceedingly medicinal Neem leaves, British officers adapted the mixture to fit their colonial food fusions of tea, lemons, sugar, Indian spices, and Scottish whiskey.  American colonists loved the drink too, and by 1837 the Burlington Free Press championed the hot toddy as the best stimulating drink for a cold.



Ethnobotanical and ethnopharmacological studies have shown that these ingredients are anti-inflammatory (ginger, cayenne), impart fortifying vitamins like vitamin C (ginger, garlic, lemon), and have a range antimicrobial properties (garlic, honey).  One study by Shamim and Khan suggests that my particular mixture might also be good for my heart, which is also encouraging.  At the end of a long cold day, simply drinking something warm and hydrating probably helps too!

Below are some of our members’ best recipes to stay warm and healthy this winter.  Throughout this post we’ve provided links to peer reviewed pharmacological studies of the medicinal effects of these mixtures.  We celebrate the great scientific research in medicinal plants, but as ethnobiologists we recognize both that (1) these foods have synergistic effects in combination (i.e., when we brew them in teas) that cannot be reduced to their individual chemical profiles; and (2) that this knowledge is vested in communities of practice, NOT just in scientific laboratories.  All of the knowledge described and linked to in this blog has a long history of traditional practice, creativity, discovery, and experimentation.  To consider knowledge legitimate only when it can be backed up by peer-reviewed chemical studies opens the door for disrespect, biopiracy, and the appropriation of others’ knowledge.  It also misses a great opportunity to see ourselves as members of a larger community of practice, in which we have responsibilities and obligations to the plants and teachers around us.  We offer links to these studies as simply one possible way to understand our favorite winter medicines from multiple perspectives.  As Dana Lepofsky mentions below, we need to keep in mind that we use these medicines not only for their healing properties but to bask in that wonderful caregiver energy.

Andrew Flachs:  Boil ginger, garlic, and lemon until all three are soft, about 20 minutes.  Muddle mixture with a wooden spoon.  Serve hot, with cayenne and honey.  In the course of writing this blog, I found little evidence that cayenne is an active antimicrobial agent (I would be happy to be proven wrong).  Still, it heats me up in the cold and it is a pain reliever, so I’m not taking it out of my wintertime blues mixture.

Liz Olson:  Add apple cider vinegar to warm water or mint tea.  Apple cider vinegar and mint both have antimicrobial properties

Mac Marston:  Boil a mixture of ginger, licorice, and Indian sarsaparilla (Hemidesmus indicus).  And get enough sleep!  Licorice and sarsaparilla both have antimicrobial properties.

Nancy Turner:  I eat lots of dark colored berries. I know they contain antioxidant flavonoids, but also would be good sources of Vitamin C, so maybe they help me with preventing colds. Some of my Indigenous friends drink lots of Labrador tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum) for colds and flu. Another well-known treatment for coughs, colds and sore throats is chewing on the seeds of “wild celery” (Lomatium nudicaule), or chewing on the rhizomes of licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza).  In honor of the wonderful Dr. James Duke, who passed away recently, I'd like to cite some of his wisdom from the Green Farmacy.  He was such an icon of the wonderful healing properties of plants!  His detailed database provides a thorough account of the ethnobotanical and pharmacological importance thousands of plants.

Chelsey Geralda Denise Armstrong:  My winter cure is a combination of wild cherry bark (Prunus emarginata) for dry coughs and red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) flowers.  Red elderberry has constituents that actually delete virus genes so they cannot duplicate, a true anti-viral marvel!

Dana Lepofsky:  I use the same lemon and honey mix my Mom made for me — as much for the soothing properties as for bringing in my Mom’s wonderful Mother-energy.  And, I did the same for my kids when they were younger. 

Cynthia Fowler:  I use apple cider and orange juice instead of water as the base. The recipe involves heating the apple cider, orange juice (squeezed from fresh oranges), and lemon juice (from fresh lemons). Add fresh ginger, a cinnamon stick or a shake of ground cinnamon, a tiny dash of cayenne, and a splash of vanilla extract. Bring to a low simmer.  Among cinnamon’s many medicinal properties, it is an antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory, while vanilla may cheer us up in gloomy winter weather.

Myrdene Anderson:  Every few years my body seems to tell me I need hot water (not necessarily tea) with lemon, and as much ginger in any form that I can find.  Hot red wine also comes to mind.  Red wine is a celebrated cardiovascular protector, while cinnamon, nutmeg, citrus, and other mulling spices have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. 

Ashley Glenn:  I’ve been using a fire cider recipe adapted from Linda Black Elk. It’s apple cider vinegar with a month long infusion of horseradish, jalapeño, lemon, onion, garlic, ginger, and turmeric, and finished with raw honey after straining. All of these have complex antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.  It knocks the socks off both me and any virus! I’m also huge on a tea of grated turmeric and ginger with black pepper (for bioavailability) and milk. I also thawed out all my thanksgiving turkey bone broth for a pregnant friend who couldn’t take Tamiflu.

And on that note - Linda Black Elk has a terrific Youtube video about Fire Cider.

Have your own recipes and cures to share?  Let us know in the comments below and stay healthy!


Andrew Flachs is an assistant professor of anthropology at Purdue University and a co-editor of Ethnobiology Letters and the Ethnobiology Forage! Blog.  He has conducted research in agriculture and ecological knowledge in the American Midwest, South India, and Bosnia.  Like many SoE members, he balances his academic career with a passion for music and cooking.

Comments (2)

  • anon

    In northern Alberta people chew or make tea from rat (muskrat) root (Acorus americanus) as soon as you feel a sore throat or other cold symptoms coming on. I, like many of my friends I learned this from, carry a piece of dried root on me at all times. I also LOVE fire cider - I always enjoy an excuse to have a shot!

    Jan 10, 2018
  • anon

    We regard each one of the individuals to the 4th Global Summit on Herbals and Traditional Medicine held in the midst of October 03-04, 2018 in Osaka, Japan.

    Aug 12, 2018

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