Name: Horehound (Marrubium vulgare)
Otherwise known as: White Horehound
Habitat: An aromatic, perennial member of the Labiateae family growing to about 50cm in grassy meadows in Europe and Asia. It is square stemmed – like all members of the mint family – with wooly leaves and whorls of white flowers, and gives off a faint smell of wormwood.
What does it do: The name is thought to derive from the Hebrew word for bitter ‘marrob’ and the common name from the Anglo-Saxon ‘har’ for hairy. It is one of the earliest known treatments for chest infections, there being a reference to it in the Ebers Papyrus of ancient Egypt. Dioscorides refers to the plant as a cure for bronchitis, tuberculosis and asthma, and as a poultice to be applied to the wound following an attack by a mad dog. In the 16th century Culpeper used horehound to repel the placenta and as an antidote to ‘..ye vile and venomous serpents’. Medieval herbalists recommended the herb to those suffering ‘the hard liver’ and ‘running tetters’, a peculiar skin ailment of the period, perhaps scabies.
Horehound contains the diterpenes marrubiin and marrubenol; flavanoids, alkaloids, including betonicine, and a volatile oil. The marrubiin is responsible for the herb’s expectorant activity and corrects irregular heart beat.
The claims for the plant are wide: it is a stimulating expectorant, antispasmodic, sedative, amphoteric, vulnerary, diuretic and a stomach and liver tonic. It is used to treat chronic bronchitis and bronchiectasis (a damaged air passage within the lung), whooping cough, croup, the common cold, loss of voice, snake and dog-bite, gall-bladder complaints, fevers, malaria when quinine is ineffective, hepatitis, and is applied topically to eczema and shingles. In addition it destroys intestinal worms, and helps heal skin lesions. Quite a remarkable range.
The leaves from horehound are used to make cough lozenges and flavour liqueurs and were once used to clean milk pails, the dried flowers were used as floating wicks on oil lamps.
There is a black horehound (Ballota nigra), also a member of the Labiateae and very similar in appearance to the white, but with a most unpleasant smell. At one time used to treat vomiting and travel sickness and recommended by Dioscorides to overcome ‘low spirits’, but now hardly used.
Both horehounds are common in Cyprus and may be seen growing on wasteland in the late spring.