By Maryann Readal
The fuzzy, light gray, deeply-wrinkled leaves of horehound (Marrubium vulgare) offer a nice contrast to other colors and textures in the garden. I love that contrast around the base of the red roses in my garden. Horehound is a perennial herb that grows from one to two feet tall, and can spread in the garden. It prefers dry sandy soil and a sunny location, tolerates poor soil, and is hardy in USDA Zones 4‒8. It may be started from seed in the spring, although germination is slow and sometimes not reliable. Cuttings can be taken from a mature plant or the established plant can be divided. Its leaves have a very bitter taste. Horehound produces whorls of small white flowers at the top of the stalk in the second year. The flowers are very attractive to bees, which makes for a tasty honey. The barbed seeds attach to grazing animals and clothing, enabling their spread to other locations.
Horehound is in the mint family. It has the same square stem and prolific growth habit as other mints. It is native to southern Europe, central and western Asia, and North Africa. It has naturalized in North America, Australia, and New Zealand. Horehound will reseed itself naturally to the point that it has become invasive in some areas. It is considered invasive in parts of Australia and New Zealand.
As is the case with so many other herbs, horehound has been used as a medicine since ancient times. Horehound was important in Israeli and Arabic medicinal folk traditions. The Hebrew word for bitter juice is marrub, which could be a possible origin of horehound’s botanical name. Some writers claim that it was one of the bitter herbs used during Passover, though other writers dispute this claim.
The Egyptians and the Greeks used it to treat respiratory problems, while the Romans used horehound as an antidote to poisons. Columella, a 1st century Roman agricultural writer, stated that horehound was useful in treating worms in farm animals (Columella, 1941).
In the Middle Ages, horehound was thought to ward off evil spirits, and charms containing horehound were worn for protection (Small, 2006). Hildegard von Bingen, an 11th century mystic and healer, said in her book, Physica: “The horehound is warm and has enough juice, and it helps against various illnesses….And who is ill in the throat, boil horehound in water and strain boiled water through a cloth and add twice as much wine, and let it boil again in a bowl with some fat, and drinks it often, and he will be cured in the throat (von Bingen, 1998).” Later herbalists, such as Gerard (14th-15th century), Culpepper (17th century), and Grieve (20th century), all recommended the use of horehound for respiratory ailments.
Indigenous tribes of North America use horehound as a medicine, treating mainly respiratory issues but also breast complaints, gynecological problems, and skin problems (Moerman, 1998).
In early England, horehound was not only used for its medicinal properties, but it was also used to brew a horehound ale (Botanical.com, 2021).
At the end of the 19th century, rock and rye liqueur–a combination of rock candy dissolved in rye whiskey and a touch of horehound and citrus—managed to survive Prohibition because it was marketed as a medicinal tonic; it was labeled as a cure for colds, congestion, and other illnesses. The liqueur could be purchased in pharmacies in the United States and was initially taxed at a lower rate owing to its “medicinal properties (Mayhew, 2021).”
Today, horehound ales and drinks are still being made, as well as candies and syrups, to alleviate cold symptoms. Horehound throat lozenges are easily found anywhere that cold remedies are sold.
Marrubiin, a component of horehound, gives the herb its bitter taste. It is also thought to be responsible for its expectorant action and for increasing saliva and gastric juices, which stimulate the appetite. This explains its traditional use as a cough suppressant, expectorant, and bitter digestive tonic (Kaiser, 2015).
“The German Commission E approved horehound herb for loss of appetite and dyspepsia, such as bloating and flatulence” (American Botanical Council, 2021), and the USDA has given horehound GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status (USFDA, n.d.). However, there have not been any clinical trials to definitively prove the effectiveness of the traditional uses of horehound for respiratory and other ailments.
Horehound, Marrubium vulgare, is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for September. Visit the webpage for more information, recipes, and an attractive screen saver.
Photo Credits: 1) Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) leaves; 2) Horehound candy; 3) Rock and rye cocktail; 4) Ricola throat drops. All photos courtesy of the author.
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
American Botanical Council. 2021. Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs. Accessed 8/3/21.
Barnes, Joanne, Linda A. Anderson, J. David Phillipson. 2007. Herbal medicines. Great Britain: Royal Pharmaceutical Society.
Botanical.com. 2021. Horehound. Accessed 8/3/21. http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/h/horwhi33.html
Columella, Lucius Junius Moderatus. 1941. On agriculture, with a recension of the text and an English translation by Harrison Boyd Ash. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Internet Archive. Accessed 8/9/21. https://archive.org/details/onagriculturewit02coluuoft/page/n17/mode/2up.
Kaiser Permanente. 2015. Horehound. Accessed 8/12/21. https://wa.kaiserpermanente.org/kbase/topic.jhtml?docId=hn-2109003
Mayhew, Lance. 2021. Rock and rye whiskey. The Spruce Eats. Accessed 8/3/21. https://www.thespruceeats.com/how-to-make-rock-and-rye-whiskey-760286
Moerman, Daniel E. 1998. Native American ethnobotany. Portland, OR: Timber Press.
Siegelbaum, Rebbetzin Chana Bracha. 2018. Was horehound one of the bitter herbs of the Pesach Sedar? Women on the Land Blog. Accessed 8/3/21. https://rebbetzinchanabracha.blogspot.com/2018/03/was-horehound-one-of-bitter-herbs-for.html
Small, Ernest. 2006. Culinary herbs. Ottawa: National Research Council of Canada.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (n.d.) Accessed 8/14/21. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/food-additive-status-list#ftnH
Von Bingen, Hildegard. 1998. Translated by Pricilla Throop. Physica: The complete translation of her classic work on health and healing. Google Books. Accessed 8/3/21. Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her … – Google Books
Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’sTexas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.