The following herbs are some of the most highly researched, as individuals and modern medicine alike search for answers on how to best assist the immune system in warding off illness and disease.
The good news is that each of these herbs readily grows around the country. If you’re not into growing your own herbs, plenty of reputable suppliers exist to help fill your herbal medicine cabinet.
1. Astragalus (A. membranaceus)
If only one herb could be selected, astragalus would be the winner. Used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine, astragalus is considered by western herbalists to be one of the leading immunity-boosting herbs available.
Current clinical studies not only confirm the herb’s ability to fend off minor illnesses, such as the common cold and influenza, they also suggest astragalus is beneficial in rebuilding a weakened immune system following chemotherapy and radiation.
Studies even indicate this potent herb may be useful in treating diabetes, a disease that further reduces the body’s immune function.
A perennial that grows 2 to 4 feet high, this herb is highly adaptable. After the last frost date in a sunny spot with well-draining, loose, sandy soil, plant seeds outdoors and thinned to about 1 foot apart.
It does take about four years before the roots—the medicinal part of the plant—can be harvested, so patience will be a virtue. Alternatively, you can purchase high-quality dried roots from reputable herb suppliers, capsules, tinctures, and extracts at many health-food stores.
The sweet-tasting root is best ingested in tea form or powdered and added to smoothies, yogurt, and even ice cream
2. Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea or E. angustifolia)
Employed by Native Americans to fend off colds and other illnesses common in winter, echinacea is better known by many as the purple coneflower.
Research conducted at the UK’s Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University found this native herb reduces both the number of colds contracted and the duration of existing colds by an average of 26% when compared to a placebo.
Unlike astragalus, all parts of echinacea contain medicinal properties. However, some herbalists prefer the roots over the leaves, stems, and flowers, believing the root’s medicinal constituents are more potent. Others opt to utilize only the aboveground parts to avoid damaging the plant’s overall health.
All parts may be purchased as tinctures, capsules, or in dried form, or you can harvest your own.
Regardless of which parts you prefer, echinacea is a hardy perennial that grows easily in most of the U.S., enjoying both dry, poor soils and fertile garden soils. The main requirement is a well-draining, sunny location.
Seeds readily sprout outdoors when sown in either spring or fall or as indoor starts. Be aware that flowers will not appear until the second growing season, so you may wish to avoid harvesting the first year. If harvesting roots, it’s best to plan for a large planting and disturb the plants as little as possible.
If ever you needed an excuse to plant a rose bush, now you have one. Used by the British government during World War II to prevent scurvy in its military, rose hips contain approximately 20-60% more vitamin C, pound for pound, than oranges.
However, not just any old rose bush will do. While hybrid teas are delightful and often quite fragrant, medicinal rose hips are found on R. canina (dog rose) and R. rugosa (hedgehog rose), both of which grow wild throughout the country.
Growing these wild roses is easier than growing hybrid teas, with the rugosa rose being the least finicky. The farther north you live, the more you might want to look into the dog rose, and those living farther south should consider the rugosa rose, yet many regions successfully harbor both species.
However, each species requires somewhat different cultivation, so determine their preferences for your specific location. The fact that they’re a bit more particular than the other herbs mentioned here is proof that, while hardier and a little wilder than a prim and proper tea rose, they’re still roses.
There are many ways to consume rose hips. Cut them open and scoop out the irritating, hairy seeds, then pop the shell into your mouth for a sweet treat. Or, find a tasty jam, jelly or syrup recipe to try. You can even make a sweet, floral-tasting tea to enjoy.
You can readily purchase the hips dried, sometimes powdered, and rarely in capsule or extract form.
4. Garlic (Allium sativum)
Garlic wards off not only vampires but colds, flu, and the plague (really). Fed to ancient Egyptian slaves to increase stamina and reduce illnesses, this commonly used herb is likely sitting in your pantry. Best consumed raw when used as a preventative, garlic’s antimicrobial properties work by increasing white blood cells and blocking enzymes that lead to viral infections.
Incorporate one to two whole cloves into your diet daily by adding to salsa, buttered toast, salad dressing or spaghetti sauce. Or, press the cloves and mix with a tablespoon of honey in the morning and evening. Since raw garlic can cause stomach upset, be sure to consume a bit of food, too.
Note: If taking blood thinners, do not consume non-dietary amounts of garlic without first consulting your physician.
While you may wish to purchase raw garlic at the local farmer’s market, growing it is easy, with fall plantings generally producing larger bulbs than spring ones. When selecting bulbs for the garden, order certified diseasefree stock.
Begin with loose, friable soil and amend with compost. Place the largest cloves 2-3 inches deep and cover. Keep soil moist, but not wet, as soggy ground causes cloves to rot. In the spring, wait until the green tops begin to break cover, then harvest carefully to avoid damaging the bulbs.
Save the largest and healthiest-looking bulbs for the next planting, and use the rest to build your immune system.
5. Black Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
Another Native American medicinal, elderberry grows wild along forest edges, and is one of the most effective—and tasty— antiviral herbals available. Most commonly taken as a syrup, elderberry is clinically proven to prevent colds, flu, and other upper-respiratory-tract infections.
As a bonus, elderberry syrup is so delicious that even children will happily enjoy it smeared on pancakes, drizzled over ice cream, or even straight from the spoon.
To grow, elderberry only requires moist, moderate soil in partial to full sun. Once established, little care is needed. While waiting a few years to obtain the medicinal berries, purchase dried berries from a reputable source to make your own syrup or purchase quality manufactured syrups or tinctures.
- 4 cups cold water
- 2 cups dried elderberries
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 teaspoon fresh or dried ginger root
- Raw, local honey
Combine berries and spices in cold water in a pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 30-40 minutes. Remove from heat and mash berries. Strain through cheesecloth, squeezing the bag to remove all liquid. Measure the liquid and add an equal amount of honey. Very gently heat honey/ juice mixture until honey is dissolved. Do not boil.
Store in a sterilized jar in the refrigerator. Take 1-2 tablespoons daily for prevention, or as needed to satisfy a sweet tooth.
How to use the herbs
To make a tea, choose one of two methods with selection depending on the plant part utilized. For a weak tea, steep for a minimum amount of time; for stronger tea, steep as long as possible. The amount of material needed varies, but it’s not an exact science.
About 1-2 tablespoons of fresh herbs or a ½ tablespoon dried is usually sufficient for adults.
Use: Leaves, stems, and flowers
Bring water to a boil and pour over crumbled, dried material or finely chopped fresh material. Cover and steep 15 minutes or longer. Strain, if desired.
Use: Roots, bark, and some seeds.
Finely chop the material and add it to a saucepan. Cover with cold water. Heat to a boil, then simmer for up to 15 minutes. Strain, if desired.
Fill a Mason jar three-quarters full of chopped, fresh plant material or half full of crushed or powdered dried material.
Cover the material with the cheapest 100-proof vodka (the menstruum) you can find.
Seal tightly and shake vigorously. Shake the jar several times a day for 14 days, topping off the jar if the material floats above the menstruum.
Remove the lid and strain. Store tincture in blue or amber glass bottles in a cool, dark location.
The dosage depends on the herb used, age and weight, so a little research will be necessary.
Bolster that immune system
Creating an immunity-boosting herbal arsenal as winter approaches is a good way to help your family fend off the “nasties” that come along with cooler weather. And, the good news is that you don’t have to wait until spring to start building your immune system with quality, dried herbs, tinctures, capsules, and more, all available at your local health food store and online.
Start planning your future herb garden now while sipping a rose-hip tea or enjoying elderberry pancakes.