Herbs for Wildfire Season

As I write this a cloud of smoke is drifting east, moving across the Midwest and toward the ocean. Unless the winds change, it will arrive on the east coast soon, cloaking us in eerie orange haze. It won't be the first time this season that we are forced to stay indoors, shutting our windows against the smoke and hoping it passes quickly. Checking air quality reports and forecasts to make sure it's safe to go out may be a regular part of our lives now.

Aside from the emotional effects of seeing the sky shrouded by these plumes of smoke, it can have detrimental effects on our health. When we inhale the tiny particles of pollution carried in the smog, they can make their way deep into our lungs and enter our bloodstreams, which may lead to asthma, cardiovascular disease, and other problems down the line.

Our bodies are working in overdrive to protect us by clearing pollutants from our airways and filtering out toxins. Breathing in smoke for even a short amount of time can leave us with sore throats, lingering coughs, and a heavy, tired feeling. Thankfully there are plants that have the specific ability to support our bodies as they deal with poor air quality.

Many of the plants I'll mention grow abundantly around us and can be harvested from meadows, forests and parks (if you've never foraged before, check out this post about foraging basics and ethics first!). However, if foraging isn't your thing, or isn't accessible to you, these herbs can also be found in health food stores and online - just make sure you're getting good quality and preferably organic herbs from a reputable and ethical supplier (I like mountain rose herbs, frontier co-op, and starwest botanicals, but it's even better if you can find a local herb farm and support them!).


 mullein leaves

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

Once you recognize mullein, you'll notice it everywhere. It loves to grow in sunny ditches and fields, a towering plant with a spire of yellow flowers. The leaves of mullein are fuzzy, covered in tiny fibers. A good way to remember that this plant supports the respiratory system is to think of the way these little fibers mimic the cilia, the small hairs that coat the surface of the lungs and help to move mucous up and out of the airways. Mullein leaves help to dilate the blood vessels in the lungs, making it easier for them to allow oxygen in. They are considered a tonic for the lungs, strengthening them over time. 

The best way to prepare mullein is to make a tea of the leaves, fresh or dried; steep 2 tsp of the dried herb or 1 tbsp of the fresh leaf in hot water 10-15 minutes. The small hairs on the leaf can be irritating to some, so it's a good idea to filter your tea through fine cheesecloth or a coffee filter.


marshmallow root

Marshmallow (Althea officinalis) or Common Mallow (Malva neglecta)

Both the leaves and roots of marshmallow have a mucilaginous or demulcent quality - that is, they're kind of...gooey. Which is a good thing if you want to soothe irritated, swollen, inflamed tissues (think a sore throat and irritated lungs).

While marshmallow is more commonly used in herbal medicine, common mallow is more likely to be growing wild near you and has been shown to have just as much (if not more) mucilage as marshmallow. The roots are the part traditionally used, but if you don't have access to them or don't want to dig up the plants, I find the leaves to be a good substitute. 

The mucilage in mallows is best extracted by letting them sit in cold water for a few hours. To make it, fill a pint mason jar about 1/4 of the way with mallow roots, and then fill the jar with room-temperature water. Let it sit about 4 hours before straining and sipping.


violet leaves

Violet (Viola spp.)

Like mallow, the leaves of violet are demulcent, meaning they help to soothe and cool irritated tissues. They also help to move stagnant lymph, something that supports the body as it sweeps up and gets rid of pathogens.

Another advantage violet has is how common it is - just walk outside in any park or woodland edge, and odds are you'll find the deep green, heart shaped leaves. Though the flowers (which are also edible and medicinal) last only a short while in the spring, the leaves will be available until the first frosts of autumn.

The leaves can be eaten fresh, but as the season progresses they can get a little tough and stringy. You can also dry the leaves and brew them into a soothing tea; just steep about a tablespoon in hot water for 10-15 minutes before straining. 


Pine (Pinus strobus)

The needles and twigs of white pine are strongly aromatic and make a delicious tea or syrup. The resinous oils it contains are soothing to the respiratory system and have an antimicrobial effect. This beautiful tree also contains polyphenols, highly anti-oxidant compounds that scour the body and help to eliminate free radicals - like those that may enter your bloodstream from pollution and wildfire smoke. 

To make a tea, harvest a small handful of the needles and the twigs they are sprouting from and chop them up as small as possible. Add about a tablespoon of the chopped needles and twigs to a cup of just-boiled water and let steep - I like to let mine site at least half an hour, but if you can give it a few hours to sit, the flavor will be richer. Make sure to try and breathe in the beautiful scent of the tea as it brews, as that can be healing to the respiratory system too.

I also love to make a white pine syrup: add about 3/4 of a cup of finely chopped needles and small twigs to two cups of water and bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and let the mixture simmer for about 20 minutes, or until reduced by half. If you like, you can add cinnamon, cloves, rosehips or anise for a little extra flavor. After the liquid is reduced, add honey to the mixture to taste. Take a tablespoon of the syrup a few times a day. Or, even better, add a little to your herbal tea. The syrup should keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks.


Peppermint (Mentha x pipperita)

 I think it's safe to say that everyone is familiar with peppermint - it's so common that you can find it in most grocery stores. And peppermint essential oil? Ubiquitous! 

When you breathe in peppermint, either from a crushed leaf or from a diffuser, how do you feel? Most likely refreshed, and maybe like you can breathe a little easier. This is due to menthol, the constituent in peppermint that gives it that "minty" fresh scent and taste. Herbalists love to use this herb for easing headaches and nausea, but that precious menthol is also great at reducing swollen tissues and breaking up stuck mucus (think inflamed airways and an irritating cough). 

Because it's so popular, many people already have peppermint tea on hand. if it's good quality, I say go for it - just make sure it has a vibrant green color and a nice strong scent. Oftentimes, the teabags found in grocery stores are filled with old, brown herbs that have lost all medicinal value. They may still taste nice, but they won't have much of an effect. If possible, get some fresh peppermint from the garden or the grocery store and dry it yourself to ensure you have a potent, effective herb.

To make a tea steep a teaspoon of the dried herb, or tablespoon of the fresh herb, in a mug of hot water for 10-15 minutes before straining and enjoying.


dandelion leaves

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis)

 Although the most obvious thing to focus on when talking about smoke inhalation is the respiratory system, it's important to keep in mind that the liver  also experiences increased stress when we are exposed to pollution. This organ is the filter of our bodies; it cleans our blood, which is why it is often referred to as a blood purifier.

When our livers have a lot to deal with, they can get overwhelmed and become stagnant - the roots of dandelion have a direct action on the liver, helping it to function better so that stagnancy is relieved and it can better manage any toxins that come its way.

Because roots can be tough and difficult to break down, they are usually taken as a decoction. To make it, add 1 ounce of the dried root (or 2 ounces of the fresh roots) to a saucepan with 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes before straining out the roots. Let cool slightly and sip.

Many people like to roast dandelion roots in the oven and grind them up as a coffee substitute - the result is nutty and delicious without the caffeine.

Another way I like to enjoy dandelion is by making a shrub (a very refreshing drink made with vinegar, honey and fruit). This recipe is something I've been making for years and if by far my favorite!

The leaves of dandelion are tasty, slightly bitter, and have a supportive effect on the liver and kidneys, too. If you have a nice clean patch to harvest from, you can toss the leaves in a salad or saute them in a little oil for a delicious side dish.




Be well,












As always, the information shared here is strictly educational and is not meant to diagnose, treat or cure any disease. Always do your own research and consult your doctor before trying a new herb. When harvesting plants from the wild, make sure you have a correct ID before consuming.

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