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White horehound is traditionally used for respiratory issues

White horehound

Marrubium vulgare L. Lamiaceae

White horehound is a herb traditionally used for coughs and respiratory issues. A bitter herb, it is also used for the treatment of dyspepsia and loss of appetite.

Sustainability Status

Sustainability status

Not currently on risk lists but complete data may be missing on the status of the species. Commonly cultivated though may be sourced from the wild. Only source cultivated supplies or from certified sustainable wild collection. Read more about our sustainability guide.

Key benefits
  • Cough remedy (dry, unproductive coughs)
  • Catarrh of the respiratory tract
  • Bronchitis
  • Pertussis (whooping cough)
  • Asthma
  • Common cold
  • Bitter tonic
  • Dyspepsia (bloating, flatulence)
  • Loss of appetite
  • How does it feel?

    White horehound has a distinctly bitter taste, primarily due to the presence of compounds marrubiin and premarrubiin (1). To make it more palatable, honey or sugar is often added to preparations. While sweetening can help mask some of the bitterness, it does not entirely eliminate it.

  • What can I use it for?

    White horehound (Marrubium vulgare L.) on the ground - RHS
    White horehound (Marrubium vulgare L.) on the ground – RHS

    White horehound has a long history in Western herbal medicine as a remedy for ailments of the respiratory system.  Owing to its bitter nature and choleretic properties white horehound is also a valuable herb for digestive health. 

    Respiratory system 

    With an extensive history as a cough remedy, white horehound is still recognised as an effective cough medicine today. It is particularly beneficial for dry unproductive coughs, bronchitis and catarrh. Whilst the bitter components stimulate the production of mucus white horehound’s expectorant properties facilitate the expulsion of mucus (2). When used during the severe coughing phase of whooping cough, white horehound loosens persistent and stubborn phlegm. White horehound can be used in cases of bronchitis (3).

    Digestive system 

    The active ingredients in white horehound function as a choleretic (4), stimulating the production and flow of bile to facilitate digestion (2), consequently proving beneficial in cases of temporary appetite loss. Furthermore, its bitter properties assist in alleviating symptoms of dyspepsia, including bloating, fullness, and flatulence (1).

  • Into the heart of white horehound

    White horehound (Marrubium vulgare L.)
    White horehound (Marrubium vulgare L.)

    Hot and dry in the second degree

    Adhering to the traditional Galenic approach whereby herbs are divided into qualities — hot, cold, damp, dry, then further divided into degrees — 1st 2nd 3rd and 4th, Herbalist Matthew Wood classifies white horehound as being hot and dry in the second degree. According to Wood, plants categorised as hot, exhibit warming properties and function as diaphoretics, however those hot in the second degree also possess the ability to cut through phlegm and mucus (5).

    A herb of Mercury 

    In his writings, Nicholas Culpeper, a herbalist and astrologer of the 17th century, stated that herbs and diseases are governed by planets.  

    In his posthumously published work ‘Semeotica Uranica’ (1655), Culpeper associated diseases governed by mercury as being  (6, p79) ‘all diseases of the lungs, as asthma, all imperfections of the tongue, hoarseness, coughs, snuffling in the head’.

    In ‘The English Physician’ Culpeper detailed the ‘Government and Virtues’ of each herb, to assist readers in identifying the herbs necessary for addressing specific conditions and ailments (7). 

    Culpeper attributed ‘hoarhound’ to Mercury, the planet closest to the sun, claiming (8, p139) ‘A decoction of the dried herb with the seed or the juice of the green herb taken with honey is a certain remedy for those that are short winded or have a cough or rheum upon the lungs. It helps to expectorate tough phlegm from the chest’. 

  • Traditional uses

    White horehound (Marrubium vulgare L.)
    White horehound (Marrubium vulgare L.)

    White horehound boasts a rich historical background as a remedy for coughs and respiratory complaints, often administered as an infusion or decoction sweetened with honey or sugar.

    In the Old English Herbarium — one of the four remaining works in vernacular writing from the Anglo-Saxon period — the juice is recommended for stomach ache, additionally ‘harehune’ is noted for coughs and lung complaints. 

    ‘For a cold in the head and for heavy coughing, take the plant the Greeks call prassion, the Romans marubium and the English horehound, and simmer it in water. Give it to drink whenever the coughing is heavy, and it will help wonderfully’. 

    ‘For lung disease, take the same plant and simmer it in honey. Give it to eat, the person will be cured in a wonderful manner’ (9, pp 170–171).

    During the 13th century, the Myddfai physicians began to record their usage of medicinal plants (10). They wrote of an infusion of white horehound to be consumed warm and sweetened with honey for treating pneumonia (11).

    In the 17th century, Culpeper notes the widespread availability of horehound syrup in most apothecaries. He recommends it ‘to evacuate tough phlegm and cold rheum from the lungs of an aged person especially if they are asthmatic and short winded’ (6, p140).

    Maude Grieve, in the 1900s, also mentions an infusion of horehound in her writings. She recommends ‘For ordinary cold, a simple infusion of Horehound is generally sufficient in itself. A wineglassful may be taken three or four times a day’ (12).

  • Traditional actions

  • Traditional energetic actions

    Herbal energetics are the descriptions Herbalists have given to plants, mushrooms, lichens, foods, and some minerals based on the direct experience of how they taste, feel, and work in the body. All traditional health systems use these principles to explain how the environment we live in and absorb, impacts our health. Find out more about traditional energetic actions in our article “An introduction to herbal energetics“.

  • What practitioners say

    White horehound (Marrubium vulgare L.) - Celtic Wild Flowers
    White horehound (Marrubium vulgare L.) – Celtic Wild Flowers

    Renowned medical herbalist David Hoffmann emphasises the valuable properties of horehound in the treatment of bronchitis, particularly when dealing with a non-productive cough. He states horehound induces a relaxing effect on the smooth muscles of the bronchus, facilitating mucus production and thus promoting expectoration. Additionally, Hoffmann attributes the stimulation of bile flow and secretion from the gall bladder to the plant’s bitter action, thereby aiding the process of digestion (2).

    Kerry Bone and Simon Mills note that white horehound is traditionally used as a respiratory spasmolytic. Herbs with such an action relax the bronchioles of the lungs and are therefore indicated for tight, breathless non-productive coughing and asthmatic symptoms such as wheezing (3).

    Herbalists frequently combine herbs to enhance their effects, with many exhibiting synergistic properties when used together. Matthew Wood describes synergists as herbs who combined have more power than either one independently. He refers to white horehound having a synergistic effect with Elecampane (Inula helenium) (5).

  • Research

    Several research studies have demonstrated anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antihypertensive, antispasmodic, analgesic, anti-hyperglycaemic and anti-hyperlipidemic properties (13,14,15) of Marrubium vulgare

    White horehound used in Western herbal medicine for the treatment of dyspepsia is recognised for its secretory action (1,2). A 2011, in vivo study was conducted in order to assess the gastroprotective properties of white horehound extracts (Marrubium vulgare).  The study’s authors state that peptic ulcers and dyspepsia affect thousands of people around the world and therefore considered a global health problem. Due to the side effects of current medication for dyspepsia and ulcers, such as proton pump inhibitors and anticholinergics, there is a need for new effective treatments without damaging side effects (13).

    Methanol extracts and diterpene lactone marrubiin were obtained from the leaves of Marrubium vulgare in order to assess the antiulcer potential (13). The study concluded that Marrubium vulgare extract and marrubiin demonstrated antiulcer activity. The research also demonstrated that the Marrubium vulgare extract and marrubiin’s gastroprotective actions were due to the ability to stimulate mucus — a protective factor, and decrease acid secretion — an aggravator (13).

  • Did you know?

    Some historians believe the Latin name Marrubium originated from the Hebrew marrob ‘a bitter juice’ (16,12).

    Another theory is that the plant’s common name, horehound is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘hare’ meaning white or hoary, referring to the plants thick woolly hairs covering the leaves and stem (16).

    Comuella, a notable author on agricultural practices during the Roman empire wrote that the juice of white horehound eliminates canker worms in trees (16,12).

Additional information

  • Botanical description

    White horehound, is a perennial herb (21) reaching 30–60cm in height (22).
    It features upright square stems with a white felted texture.

    Its opposite leaves have a wrinkled surface, a white woolly underside and blunt-toothed edges (22). They are grey-green in colour. The small, white flowers are arranged in whorls encircling the stem (23).

    It typically flowers from June to November (23).

  • Common names

    • Horehound
    • White horehound
    • Common Horehound
    • Hoarhound
    • Hound’s Bane
    • Marrubium
    • Marrube
  • Safety

    It is advised not to use white horehound during pregnancy without professional advice (17,18,19).

    White horehound is laxative in large doses (17).

  • Interactions

    Based on current evidence, no precautions required (18).

  • Contraindications

    White horehound should be avoided in pregnancy unless following professional advice (18) due to the emmenagogue and abortifacient effects and uterine stimulant actions (19).

  • Preparation

    • Infusion
    • Tincture
    • Expressed/pressed juice from fresh leaves (1) (17)
    • Syrup
  • Dosage

    • Dried herb: 1–2 g in infusion. Three times daily (1) (20)
    • Liquid/fluid extract (1:1 20% ethanol): 1–2 ml (1) (20)
    • Tincture (1:5 25% ethanol): 3–6ml (1) (20)
    • Pressed juice from leaves: 1 –20ml. Three times daily (17)
    • Syrup: 2–4ml (1)
  • Plant parts used

    Aerial parts

  • Constituents

    • Dipterpene lactone marrubiin (3) and its precurser pre-marrubiin (1) (17)
    • Diterpenes alcohols including marrubenol and marrubiol (1)
    • Flavonoids,) flavonoids apigenin and luteolin (1)
    • Alkaloids including betonicine. (1) (3)
    • Essential oil (trace) (3), with monoterpenes such as camphor (17)
White horehound illustration (Marrubium vulgare L.)
  • Habitat

    Native to UK, Eurasia and North Africa (24,20) 

    It is believed to be native to exposed grasslands on cliff tops and slopes that overlay limestone and chalk and sandy banks near the sea (25) in east, south, south west England and coastal areas of south Wales (23). It is naturalised in rough ground and waste places elsewhere (25). 

    It thrives in poor, well-drained soil, preferring full sun (21).

  • Sustainability

    Its native distribution appears to be stable; however, localised declines have occurred due to lack of grazing. Its decline in areas of naturalisation evident since the 1960s, continues, particularly inland on arable land (25).

    The Vascular Plant, Red Data List, For Great Britain white horehound is categorised as least Concern (LC) (26).

    A taxon is Least Concern when it has been evaluated against the criteria and does not qualify for Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable or Near Threatened. Widespread and abundant taxa are included in this category (26).

  • Quality control

    According to Mills and Bone, white horehound has been adulterated with other Marrubium spp. such as M. incanum, M. peregrinum. Black horehound (Ballota nigra) and Ballota hirsuta have also been adulterants (18).

  • How to grow

    White horehound can be grown from seed and softwood cuttings in spring (21).

  • Recipe

    White Horehound Syrup 

    Ingredients 

    • 18g dried horehound (Marrubium vulgare)
    • 10g dried elecampane (root)(Inula helenium)
    • 2g dried thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
    • 1 litre cold water
    • Raw cane sugar or honey (approximately 100g sugar or 150ml honey)

    Method

    1. Add the dried herbs and water into a pan. Cover and bring to the boil.
    2. Simmer for 30 minutes.
    3. Strain the contents through a muslin cloth/bag or similar material.
    4. When cool enough squeeze the muslin to express as much liquid as possible.
    5. Discard the herbs — compost if possible.
    6. Measure the amount of liquid (decoction) retained.

    For each 100ml decoction, you will need 50g of sugar or 75ml of honey to make the syrup.

    If using sugar:

    • Add the decoction and the required amount of sugar into to a clean pan and slowly bring to the boil, stirring continuously.
    • Continuing to stir, gently simmer for approximately 1 minute, or until the liquid starts to thicken slightly.
    • Remove from heat.

    If using honey:

    • Add the decoction into a clean pan and bring to the boil, remove the pan from the heat before adding the honey, stir until the honey dissolves.
    • Allow to cool and pour into sterilised bottles, label.

    Sugar is a preservative, the higher the ratio of sugar to liquid the longer the mixture will store. Using the ratio of 50g of sugar to each 100ml of liquid, or 75ml of honey to 100ml liquid, the syrup should store for 3–4 months kept in a fridge.

    Dosage 

    2–5 ml

  • References

      1. Bradley P. (Ed). British Herbal Compendium Volume 1: A Handbook of Scientific Information on Widely Used Plant Drugs. British Herbal Medicine Association; 1992.
      2. Hoffmann D. Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. Healing Arts Press; 2003.
      3. Bone K, Mills S. Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine. 2nd Edition. Elsevier Ltd; 2013.
      4. Busse, Goldberg, Greunwald et al. The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. Published February 1,, 1990. Accessed February 2, 2024. https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/commission-e-monographs/monograph-approved-herbs/horehound-herb/ 
      5. Wood M. The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicines. North Atlantic Books; 1997
      6. Culpeper N. Astrological Judgement of Diseases from the Decumbiture of the Sick (1655). Astrology Classics; 2003.
      7. Tobyn G. Dr Reason and Dr Experience: Culpeper’s Assignation of Planetary Rulers in The English Physitian. Accessed February 1, 2024. https://clok.uclan.ac.uk/40746/1/40746%20Dr%20Reason%20%26%20Dr%20Experience%20CLOK%20%281%29.pdf
      8. Culpeper N. Culpeper’s Complete Herbal: Over 400 Herbs and Their Uses. Arcturus Publishing Ltd; 2019. 
      9. Van Arsdall A. Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine. Routledge; 2002.
      10. Henderson H. The Physicians of Myddfai: The Welsh Herbal Tradition, Botanical Journal of Scotland, 46:4. Published 1994. Accessed January 23, 2024. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13594869409441773
      11. Griggs B. Green Pharmacy: The History and Evolution of Western Herbal Medicine. Healing Arts Press; 1997. 
      12. Grieve M. A Modern Herbal. Botanical.com Accessed January 23, 2024. https://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/h/horwhi33.html
      13. Paula de Oliveira A, Santin R.J, Lemos M, et al. Gastroprotective Activity of Methanol Extract and Marrubiin Obtained from the Leaves of Marrubium vulgare. Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology 2011; 63: 1230-1237. DOI 10.1111/j.2042-7158.2011.01321.x 
      14. Amri B, Martino E, Vitulo F, et al. Marrubium vulgare L., Leaf Extract: Phytochemical Composition, Antioxidant and Wound Healing Properties. Molecules 2017; 22 (11): 1851 doi: 10.3390/molecules22111851
      15. Elberry A, Harraz F. M, Ghareib S. A, et al. Methanolic Extract of Marrubium vulgare Ameliorates Hyperglycemia and Dyslipodemia in Streptozotocin-induced Diabetic Rats. International Journal of Diabetes Mellitus. 2004: 26 (6): 465-474, DOI: 10.1081/CEH-200031818 
      16. Reader’s Digest. (ed). Field Guide to The Wild Flowers of Britain. The Reader’s Digest Association Ltd: 1981.
      17. Thomsen M. The Phytotherapy Desk Reference. 6Th Edition. Aeon Books; 2002.
      18. Mills S., Bone K. The Essential Guide to Herbal Safety. Elsevier Ltd; 2005.
      19. Brinker F. Herbal Contraindications and Drug Interactions plus Herbal Adjuncts with Medicines. 4th Edition. Eclectic Medical Publications; 2010.
      20. Fisher C. Materia Medica of Western Herbs. Aeon Books; 2018.
      21. Marrubium vulgare: White Horehound. RHS. Accessed January 15, 2024. https://www.rhs.org.uk/plants/10871/marrubium-vulgare/details
      22. Rose F. The Wild Flower Key: How to Identify Wild Flowers Trees and Shrubs in Britain and Ireland. Frederick Warne; 2006.
      23. Streeter D, Hart-Davies C, Hardcastle A, et al. Collins Wild Flower Guide. 2nd Edition. William Collins; 2006.
      24. Marrubium vulgare. Plants of the World Online. Kew Royal Botanical Gardens. Accessed January 15, 2024. https://powo.science.kew.org/taxon/urn:lsid:ipni.org:names:449990-1/general-information
      25. Walker K. Marrubium vulgare L. BSBI Online Plant Atlas. Published 2020. Accessed January 15, 2024.  https://plantatlas2020.org/atlas/2cd4p9h.vmq 
      26. Cheffings C, Farrell L, Dines T et al. The Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain. Species Status No. 7. JNCC. Published 2005. Accessed January 23, 2024. https://hub.jncc.gov.uk/assets/cc1e96f8-b105-4dd0-bd87-4a4f60449907
Aromatic
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitter
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Cooling
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Hot
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilaginous
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resinous
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
Salty
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
Sharpness
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
Sweet
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

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