As we make our way through fall, we’re busy on the homestead harvesting, foraging, preserving, and making all the necessary winter preparations. Last year, I was ill-prepared and found myself trying to stock my winter apothecary after we had already started getting sick.
What I learned at that time was that it’s essential to have your winter apothecary stocked with herbs and preparations in advance so that when illness arrives, you'll be prepared with herbal support, especially if you’re the one who is sick and needs taking care of!
This year, as winter marches ever closer, bringing the dreaded cold and flu season with it, we are well underway with stocking our apothecary, and we’ve put this list together to help you get on track as well. In this article, I’ll share some of the essential herbs you should have on hand and some of my favorite preparations to keep at the ready.
A Quick Disclaimer
Before we start, the information here is intended to be fun and educational and not intended to be used as medical advice. Remember that just because something is “natural” does not always mean it is safe for every person. When it comes to herbal medicine, many plants should be avoided when pregnant or nursing and some can cause extreme interactions with prescription and over-the-counter medicine. Before using herbal preparations, always do your research and speak to a professional regarding any concerns.
Essential Herbs for Winter Support
Cinnamon contains high levels of vitamin C and antioxidant, antiviral, and antibacterial properties to help boost your immunity naturally. Who doesn’t want that when they're under the weather?
Cloves are packed full of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, which can come in handy during cold and flu season. I using clove in tea when I have a sore throat because it has a numbing and soothing effect.
This red-hot spice needs no introduction and is a great addition to the winter apothecary. Capsaicin, the compound that gives cayenne its characteristic heat, has been shown to have pain-relieving properties, immune-boosting power, and anti-inflammatory properties. It is also an excellent expectorant for removing mucus from the lungs and effectively clearing the sinuses.
Echinacea is a great immune stimulant. It’s also high in antioxidants, which is an added bonus.
Elderberry has been shown to boost the immune system as well as decrease both the duration and the severity of the flu when taken regularly throughout sickness. It’s great for respiratory infections and is well known for its antiviral and immune-stimulating properties, but it also works as a mild expectorant.
Garlic is an excellent immune stimulant, has direct antibiotic, antifungal, and antiviral properties, and works well as an expectorant to help eliminate mucus from the lungs. You’ll need fresh, raw garlic, not powder for the best medicinal benefits.
Ginger has a long history of medicinal usage during fall and winter to ward off respiratory tract infections and colds/flu. It has anti-inflammatory properties for soothing sore throats and calming coughs.
This is yet another plant that packs a potent vitamin C punch and contains anti-viral properties, which in and of itself makes it worth adding to the medicine cabinet. But Mullein really shines as a cough suppressant as well as an expectorant. It also has a long history of being used to treat respiratory ailments such as bronchitis and even asthma.
What Echinacea is to the midwest, Osha is to the southwest. Osha is referred to by indigenous tribes as “Bear Medicine” because it is one of the first things bears eat when they come out of hibernation. It is a powerful immune booster that contains anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties.
Peppermint has been used to reduce nausea, soothe upset stomachs, reduce fever and headaches, fight colds and flu, freshen breath, and alleviate headaches.
If you’re not familiar with Native American medicinal practices, you may find the thought of eating or drinking pine needles a bit odd. But pine needles are high in vitamin C. They are also antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory. Pine has a compound that interferes with viral replication, and it is a good expectorant. Pine is not safe during pregnancy or lactation.
Once referred to as the bandaid plant, plantain is high in vitamin C, but this one is more for topical use. Those of us on homesteads tend to rely on firewood for heat throughout the winter, and plantain is excellent for treating minor burns and making a drawing salve to help remove splinters from all that wood cutting!
Wild Cherry Bark
Wild Cherry Bark is the chokecherry tree's inner bark (green cambium). It’s an excellent cough suppressant and also has some mild expectorant properties. Cherry Bark is not safe during pregnancy or lactation.
Willow Bark is basically aspirin in tree form. It can be used for aches, pains, and fevers in the same manner as aspirin. Willow is safe during pregnancy but not during lactation.
Yarrow has some antiviral properties and is good for reducing fevers. It also helps with coughs and is a decent expectorant. This is another herb that works well for minor burns, making a great winter apothecary addition. Yarrow is not safe during pregnancy or lactation.
Favorite Winter Apothecary Preparations
These are the preparations we keep on hand all winter long. All of them are simple enough for even a beginner to prepare, but some of them take 4-6 weeks to ferment or macerate, so it’s best to get started early to ensure they are ready when needed!
Honey Garlic + Osha Honey
Both of these preparations are straightforward. All they take is honey and your herbal ingredient, but they must set for 4-6 weeks, so it’s best to prepare them early. You can find detailed instructions for the Osha Honey here, and we have a quick video for the Garlic Honey here.
Osha + Mullein + Willowbark Tinctures
Between Osha’s immune-boosting properties and Mullein’s lung support value, I like to keep both of these in the cabinet year-round, but I also find them essential during the winter months. As for Willowbark Tincture, with its remarkable ability to help reduce fevers, it’s a must for the winter apothecary. You can find the instructions for Mullein Tincture below, and the process is the exact same for the Osha or Willowbark.
Elderberry syrup is a new addition for us this year. Since we don’t grow elderberries we haven’t used them much in the past. This recipe is not ours but comes from the wonderful Doc Jones at the Homegrown Herbalist (not an affiliate link; we just love him.)
• 2⁄3 cups Elderberries
• 2 TBSP Ginger
• 1⁄2 tsp Ground cloves
• 1 tsp Cinnamon
• 1 cup Raw Honey
• 3 1⁄2 cups water
Add water, elderberries, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves to a medium saucepan and bring to a full boil.
Reduce heat and simmer until the volume has decreased by half, approx 45 minutes to an hour. Remove the mixture from the heat and mash berries in the pot using a spoon or flat utensil.
Allow the mixture to sit until cool before straining through a cloth-lined sieve.
Add honey and mix well before pouring into a clean jar.
Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
This Kitchen Cough syrup is our most shared, pinned, and liked post of all time. It’s simple to make with basic pantry ingredients and tastes amazing. You can also stir it into a cup of hot tea when you’re feeling under the weather.
First Aid Salve
There’s no other way to say it: I’m an accident-prone individual. Since we cook almost all of our meals at home, and as I said, we use a wood-burning stove to heat our home all winter, I tend to get burned pretty often, so I’m never without a jar of our First Aid salve in the house. But if you prefer to DIY, we have a recipe for a basic Plantain Salve here.
Every fall, as we start to chop firewood, my husband and I end up with a plethora of splinters, no matter how diligent we are about wearing gloves. That’s why I created our Black Drawing Salve. It’s a miracle worker for splinters, stings, and even cactus needles.
Herbal Hand Sanitizer
I love this simple to make Herbal Infused Hand Sanitizer. With just a few basic ingredients and essential oils, you can whip up a batch and help protect your family all season long. This project takes a little time to prepare, so it’s best to get started early so you have it on hand when cold and flu season hits.
Vitamin C Powder
There’s nothing like a nice vitamin C boost when you’re feeling under the weather, but the store-bought versions always have more than you’re looking for added to them. Nix the chemicals, additives, and preservatives by making your own DIY Vitamin C powder.
There’s nothing like a soothing vapor rub when chest congestion has your chest feeling tight. But the store-bought version is filled with chemicals that we prefer not to have on our skin. That’s why we created this all-natural, Botanically Infused Vapor Rub and keep it stocked all winter long.
Staying Well All Winter Long
So, now you know what my favorite winter apothecary herbs are, as well as what our must-have herbal preparations are for the winter apothecary. Depending on what part of the world you’re in, it may still feel a bit early to focus on stocking your winter home apothecary. But it’s always best to prepare as much as you can in advance so you feel supported through all of the challenges the cold months ahead can bring. After all, there are few things worse than having to make medicine before you can take medicine.
Your winter home apothecary may look different from mine, but I hope this helps you get a head start on stocking your apothecary with all the herbal goodness you and your family may need this coming season. If you need help getting your apothecary stocked up for the season, hop over to our Apothecary Shop and see what’s in stock. If you have a favorite herb or preparation in your apothecary, tell us all about it in the comments below! Until next time, be well, my friends, and as always,