Herb to Know: Horehound


| February/March 1993





Horehound. The name likely calls to mind a big glass jar of vaguely molasses-flavored penny candy at the general store, or perhaps a package of old-fashioned dark brown cough drops. It may not, however, summon up a picture of the source of these products, a rugged perennial herb native to ­Europe, North Africa, and Asia, naturalized in the bleakest spots in North America and at home in ­almost any herb garden from Zone 3 to Zone 10.

The name may suggest a breed of gray dog, but that’s misleading. “Hore-” does mean hoary (gray or white) in Old English, but “-hound” is not canine; it’s simply an old name for the herb. The generic name Marrubium is the name by which the Romans knew the herb, and vulgare means common. Other opinions are that Marrubium refers to “an ancient town of Italy” or to a Hebrew word for bitter. Some references list horehound among the bitter herbs Jews eat at Passover, but according to Jo Ann Gardner (“Bitter Herbs: A New Look at the Plants of the Bible”, April/May 1990), it is not among the original bitter herbs of the Bible.

Several other herbs of the mint family also are called horehound, resembling Marrubium in that their flowers are clustered in the leaf axils. Water horehounds belong to the genus Lycopus, and black (stinking) horehound and Greek horehound to the genus Ballota.

Horehound Drops

Using It

In the language of flowers, horehound offers wishes for good health, and medical practitioners of many cultures have proclaimed its efficacy in treating a wide variety of ailments, of plants as well as people. Herbalists of old prescribed it for fevers and malaria and as an antidote for bites of snakes or rabid dogs, ingested poison, even magic! It was recommended for killing flies and for treating cankerworm in trees. Horehound has traditionally been used to treat disorders of the stomach, gall bladder, and respiratory system as well as hepatitis. Teas and cough syrups were popular preparations, but the herb was also taken as snuff (to treat “yellownesse” of the eyes), and fresh leaves were poulticed with honey “to cleanse foule and filthy ulcers.” Marrubiin, a chemical compound extracted from horehound, is an expectorant. Large doses of horehound are purgative and may cause irregular heartbeat, and the juice may cause dermatitis.

In England, horehound was made into “an appetizing and healthful” ale, and beverage teas are palatable if heavily sweetened to disguise the bitterness. Horehound candy is easy to make.





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