Foraging plants for the respiratory system

Reclaim your health autonomy by foraging plants for your respiratory system

The respiratory system is our interface and connection with all of life, via the gases that permeate our atmosphere before permeating our blood. Through the mechanisms of the lungs we receive oxygen in the form of O2, and release carbon dioxide (CO2), as a result of ongoing cellular respiration.

However, due to the open nature of the lungs we will also encounter a continual bombardment of foreign matter and harmful, disease-spreading, pathogenic organisms.

The respiratory system represents the following tissues, muscles and organs.

  • The nose and mouth – The beginning of the airways. Oxygen is brought in to the nose and down to the trachea. When carbon dioxide (CO) is expelled, it comes back through the trachea to the nose.

  • The pharynx – Part of the digestive system as well as the respiratory system, because it carries food and air.

  • The larynx – Otherwise known as the voice box. It sits at the beginning of the trachea and essentially is a short tube that contains a pair of vocal chords.

  • The trachea – Essentially a smooth muscle and pipe-shaped airway, it is protected by the sternum and spine. Divides into left and right bronchus tubes.

  • The lungs – They connect to and begin at the trachea. Acupuncturists view the tongue as an extension of our lung.

  • The bronchi – These increasingly small air tubes carry the CO2 / oxygen to and from the lungs from the trachea.

  • The diaphragm – This muscle contracts when breathing in, and expands when exhaling CO2.

The pulmonary system has its own circulatory system. Deoxygenated blood is pumped by the heart to the lungs where it becomes oxygenated. It then flows back to the heart and is pumped around the body and brain, delivering oxygen and nutrients to every cell.

During a normal day, we breathe nearly 25,000 times, and take in large amounts of air. The inhaled air contains mostly oxygen and nitrogen. But air also has things in it that can hurt our lungs. There are two major causes of problems with the respiratory system – pollution and smoking. Obviously there are diseases and other issues also.

Many illnesses of the lungs are as a result of infection. These can be in the throat, or in the airways down towards and inside the lung itself. The inner surfaces of tissues in the respiratory system are coated with a film of mucus to aid peristalsis higher up the airway, as well as facilitating the ejection of foreign particles which can come to lodge themselves in the lungs.

Some disorders of the respiratory system, with suggestions of herbs we can forage to treat it.

Be careful about reading health books – you may die of a misprint!” – Mark Twain (1835-1910)

To facilitate treatment of the respiratory system, herbalists usefully distinguish between the lower and upper halves. The upper consists of the structural conducting organs: nose, sinuses, larynx and pharynx, whilst the lower half consists of the conducting air-ways of the trachea, including the bronchus tubes, respiratory bronchioles and alveoli.

Pulmonary tonic herbs are plant remedies with a wide range of actions on the system, strengthening and restoring tissues and membranes. They include mullein, plantains, elecampagne, and coltsfoot and are typically recommended by herbalists for treating symptoms of respiratory disease and to strengthen tissues and function. Coltsfoot has been called the best remedy for children.

Coughs can be treated in a number of ways with various herbs exerting different effects.

Anti-tussives inhibit the cough reflex. Aside from the well known and controversial opium poppy (containing the effective anti-tussive opiate alkaloid -codeine), these herbs include coltsfoot – the plant named in honour for its all round abilities to alleviate coughing; wild lettuce – which specifically sedates and dampens down the cough reflex in a similar way to the opiate codeine (an ingredient in many cough remedies); and wild cherry bark (Prunus avium) which is believed to work due to the presence of saponins.

Expectorants are a wide range of plants used to facilitate and accelerate the expulsion of mucous or sputum from the bronchial tubes. These may be relaxing or stimulating.

  • Relaxing expectorants are useful for easing spasm and to loosen mucous from the airways. They usually contain some soothing mucilage and are of great benefit when treating dry and irritable coughs. Both Ribwort and rats-tail plantains, as well as coltsfoot, marshmallow, and burdock have all been traditionally used.

  • Image of rats tail plantain
    Rats tail or greater plantain is a traditional herb used to treat the respiratory system
  • Stimulating expectorants such as thyme, mullein, elecampagne and garlic are good for productive coughs. They work by irritating the bronchial tubes, which initiates a reflex to cough. Plants with either of these components help to reduce mucosal viscosity, thereby enabling sputum to be passed more easily up, out, and away, via what doctors sometimes call the muco-ciliatory escalator.

Demulcent herbs typically contain substantial amounts of mucilage. Plants such as comfrey, the plantains, coltsfoot, chickweed, marshmallow, and mullein will all soothe, protect and heal damaged, exposed surfaces of the respiratory system. These plants are often soft to touch, and broad-leaved. They often work through reflex action of the gut nerves, easing irritation in other areas such as the digestive and urinary systems.

Image of chickweed, an emollient medicinal herb that helps the respiratory system.
Chickweed is an emolient herb used to treat the respiratory system.

Anti-catarrhal herbs reduce the amount of mucous and phlegm produced. The following herbs have been used for centuries with success: Garlic, coltsfoot, yarrow, lungwort, plantains, elder, elecampagne, and mullein.

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the lungs characterised by wheezing, coughing and chest tightness. One proven and powerful herb useful for asthmatics is Ephedra sinica (Ephedraceae family). This plant is a well-known bronchial dilator, which helps dry up sinuses and decongests the bronchioles, allowing more air into the lungs.

Comfrey, coltsfoot, elecampagne, white horehound, and mullein will be of value, as will regular massaging of the chest and back with essential oils such as lavender or thyme.

image of Inula helenium - elecampagne, a popular remedy for the respiratory system
One of the finest respiratory herbs, elecampagne (Inula helenium) is also stunningly beautiful!

Anti-septic and anti-bacterial herbs for the respiratory system

Anti-septic herbs are useful for treating throat infections. Mullein, garlic, thyme, calendula, and coltsfoot are all traditional herbs for infections of the bronchial tubes. It can be beneficial to help the lymphatic system cleanse the blood following infection and so plants such as cleavers or burdock are helpful. Sage is a great anti-septic gargle when inflammation of the tonsils or other throat glands occurs.

Anti-microbial remedies are often combined with any of the above where infection has or is likely to occur. Thyme and garlic are renowned anti-microbials. Peppermint, oregano, sage, rosemary and many other essential oil containing plants, when taken as steam inhalations, are also effective anti-microbial plants and antiseptics.

Find out more about foraging on one of my foraging walks or courses.

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Foraging hawthorn

Foraging hawthorn for heart boosting medicinal food

Crataegus monogyna / C. leavigata 

Hawthorns Rosaceae family

When you are out in the hedgerows foraging hawthorn, you are face to face with a truly remarkable tree. Hawthorns are the plant mainly responsible for the success of numerous acts of enclosure here in the UK, from the 14th century onwards.  This plant is one of the reasons that I, and most other people living in the British Isles, are landless

As common a tree as you can get, these spring flowering, summer-beckoning mainstays of the hedge, offer us unique nutritional and medicinal benefits.

image of haw berries, one of the prizes of foraging hawthorn
Haws are one of our native superfoods, and foraging 2 kg hawthorn berries doesn’t take much time.

The hawthorns will easily be found mostly anywhere up to altitudes of 600 metres, classically as a principle component of a hedge (from which it derives its name – the word haw being a corruption of haeg, from the old English for hedge).

They love the edges of woodlands and can often be found on waysides and roadsides, as well as in little groves in some districts. Hawthorns are also happy on their own in a great number of places, as can be seen by the large numbers of amenity plantings.

A number of the 250 Crataegus species able to be grown here carry larger and far tastier fruits, and some have documented scientific evidence supporting their medicinal use in China and India.

However, it makes sense to concentrate here wholly on our two native plants. Crataegus monogyna and Crataegus leavigata are almost identical and offer us very similar medicinal benefits so we can use either one interchangeably.

The generic name Crataegus stems from the Greek-Kratos meaning strength. This could be in allusion to the dense hard-wood found in hawthorns or, as recent science has discovered and you are about to, the potency of the medicine found in hawthorns to strengthen the heart muscle and blood supply. The species name monogyna reveals the fact that this species contains one (mono) seed (gyna). C.laevigata in contrast, has more than one seed in the fruit.

As with many of the rose family, these plants have oval-shaped leaves, albeit in hawthorn’s case deeply-lobed and with serrated margins. The midland hawthorn typically has leaves without such deep lobes, and grows mainly in the northern reaches of Europe. C.monogyna on the other hand, is found throughout Europe, and far into the Middle-East.

Hawthorn flowers are unmistakably of the rose family, having five petals and numerous stamens. They often reveal a pink-red tinge on the stamens, and some varieties have pink petals.

Our native hawthorn’s branches are decorated with sharp thorns, approximately 2.5 cm long. Both the infamous blackthorn and the less dangerous hawthorn will give you a very nasty sore from a puncture wound. Be extra vigilant when foraging hawthorn, especially in thickets and dense woods.

hawthorn spine and bud

The hawthorns are one of the first woodland species in leaf to herald the returning spring, following the blackthorn and elder tree. Within a couple of months or so of breaking into leaf, the swollen flower buds burst open beginning their spectacular display. The magnificent multitude of white flower clusters, are a signature of the hawthorn and of hedges in May.

When foraging hawthorn in the evenings during this time, the subtle yet pervading scent is easily caught on the wind. I think hints of almond can be deciphered amongst the sweeter tones, though it has been written that the midland hawthorn has blossoms emitting an odour of semen or rotting flesh! Beauty is in the nose of the beholder I suppose!

Some of the aroma is due to the methylamines present in the flowers of hawthorn and also found in some Sorbus species, such as the rowan tree. Other aromatics detected will be due to the bitter almond quality of the cyanogenic glycosides found in small amounts within many stone fruits of the rose family. 

Of the numerous hawthorn species which have beautifully-tasting berries, the University parks in Oxford contains an avenue of around 18 different species, which have an array of orange, scarlet, red, brown and black haws.blackhaws

Until you try some, you must take my word for their diverse array of aromas and flavours, ranging from subtle peach and apple to mild rose tones. It is possible that your local park will have hawthorns with similarly delicious fruits.

Ok, the common or garden haws are generally not superbly tasting from the hedgerow plants, due to their small size and tough living conditions, but they are more than palatable raw.

When ripe, they take on a creamy, somewhat avocado-like texture, which becomes drier, mealier and claggier when over-ripe. It has been written that ripe haws taste a little like sweet potato. Unripe flesh is a green colour, changing to a light creamy-yellow colour in ripe fruits. Over-ripe flesh turns brown. Certain trees from my experience, mainly with the darker duller red haws, give decidedly sweeter, and apple-tasting fruits than others.

Parts used Young leaves, flowering tops and berries.

Harvest Leaves and flowers in April and May. Berries from late September-November (dependent on species and location).

Key constituents Flavonoid glycosides (1-2% including rutin & quercetin) ; saponins; coumarin; cyanogenic glycosides; trimethylamine; condensed tannins (oligomeric procyanidins 1-3%).

Actions Cardio-tonic, hypotensive, vaso-dilatory. relaxant.

Pharmacology and uses One of the reasons that foraging hawthorn is a super idea is because hawthorn is a superfood.

They are literally everywhere, so it is no problem introducing them into your diet. Traditionally, this plant has been used to treat arteriosclerosis, hypertension, and cardiac failure. All are prevalent killers in western societies, especially Britain. Hawthorns will thus help prevent these conditions.

The flavonoid molecules will expand the blood vessels and strengthen capillaries. Hawthorn helps blood vessels dilate and therefore assists the peripheral circulation significantly, but also has a specific action on the coronary circulation itself. It is now well known to improve the nutrition, activity, energy reserves and energy release of the heart muscle. This and the power of the cyanogenic glycosides make hawthorn ideal for those people with either high blood pressure or cardiac arrhythmias.

An alcoholic extract of leaves and flowers has been proven to improve cardiac functions as well as reducing blood pressure, whilst not affecting heart rate! Through eating hawthorn berries it’s known that we stimulate increased performance of the anti-oxidant called superoxide dismutase. This enzyme promotes the scavenging of harmful ‘free radical’ molecules.

Other anti-oxidants packed into these trees are in the form of oligomeric proanthocyanidins. These molecules were saluted by the mainstream press only a few years ago. Adverts sprung up in popular daily papers enticing us to pay lots of money for a few grams of exotic berries shipped from halfway around the world purely because they contained these medicinal compounds! Unsurprisingly, there was no mention anywhere of foraging hawthorn for free!

In diverse places such as Devon, the Isle of Man, and the Highlands of Scotland, hawthorn has traditionally been used in folk medicine as a primary heart tonic, as well as being used for centuries to correctly balance high and low blood pressure.

Hawthorn has no contra-indications for use, although it can reportedly interact with beta-blockers and other hypotensive drugs. It may increase the effectiveness of them, as well as potentially beneficially interacting with foxglove cardiac glycosides. Patients already on heart medication should seek advice before using.

One of the many delights of this and some other medicinal trees is that come the autumn and early winter, we can go back to the same trees we visited for leaves and flowers early in the season and then harvest the berries. Plus, you will have had another cardiac-strengthening walk under your belt!

The leaves are a more than useful addition to salads during the early spring. Always take the fresh palatable new leaves, rather than the tougher, far more fibrous and darker-green, older leaves. A number of tree species can give off a new spurt of growth around the end of July, sometimes referred to as the lammas flush. This is another opportunity to harvest new leaves, although in far smaller quantities.

Many books make reference to hawthorn leaves being called ‘bread and cheese’ by rural folk. Now, either our taste buds are completely different to a few hundred years ago, or country people were not eating much bread and cheese back then and were probably wishing they had some as they nibbled on hawthorn! Saying this, the young succulent leaves are lovely accompanied by a dressing and mixed with grated roots such as beetroot (Beta vulgaris), carrot  (Daucus carota), and ginger (Zingiber officinalis).

IMG_1479

Every autumn I make a hawthorn ketchup from the haws, simply simmered in cider vinegar and a muslin bag of spices, for 45 mins or so, before straining through a sieve, adding molasses and muscovado sugar and some seasoning. It’s a stunningly delicious and simple sauce that livens up many a dish. Foraged food at it’s best!

As I write, the leaves of hawthorn are just starting to appear, so I hope you will see the benefits of going out and harvesting this super medicinal food! Next week, another monograph from another commonly found plant…Happy foraging!