How to grow horehound for food and medicine

Unless you have a grandparent who is a huge fan of horehound lozenges, chances are you haven’t come across this herb too often. Horehounds are rarely seen growing in vegetable gardens and even less often at the market.

Although horehound has been used medicinally for centuries, it is not as popular as it used to be. But it is an excellent herb for respiratory, digestive and immune support. It is also delicious in many dishes (including sweets, of course). And it repels pests.

Read on to learn everything you need to know about growing horehound in your herb garden.

What is Horehound?

Marrubium vulgaris belongs to the mint family (Lamiaceae). Horehound grows wild throughout Europe, North Africa and many parts of Asia, and has been introduced to North and South America, as well as Australia and New Zealand.

Sometimes spelled, hoarhound, the name comes from having slightly hairy leaves. It is used around the world in medicine and to make beer, candies and as a seasoning.

If you’ve ever tasted horehound candies, you’ve probably noticed that they have quite a bitter aftertaste. Well, that bitterness is significant when the plant is raw. It is considerably sweetened in order to be palatable in candies and lozenges.

In fact, if I add horehound to my tea when I feel bad, I have to add a ton of honey to smother it.

This is good news for us because it means you can use it as a repellent. In fact, horehound is an excellent natural repellent against grasshoppers and aphids.

If your area is prone to it, you may want to sow horehound among your edible crops. Pests will taste their bitterness and move elsewhere for a tastier salad.

How to Plant Horehound

horehound more and more by seed is a little more delicate than other members of the mint family. This is because the seeds need to be cold stratified. You will either need to plant the seeds in the fall or cold stratify them in the fridge for a while before sowing in the spring.

You can try tricking out the seeds by planting them 1/2 inch deep about a month before the last frost date, but germination rates will likely be lower.

Seeds can take a long time to germinate, and may not even germinate the first year. Truth be told, it took my seeded horehound three years to show up. Since it is a perennial, it follows the traditional “sleep, crawl, hop” pattern.

As a result, try to keep your horehound in a dedicated patch. This way you won’t be overplanting it with something else because you assumed the seeds failed. Containers also work well and they can help limit the spread once this plant decides to take off.

I’m a bit lazy in that regard, so I just horehound sowing from the local nursery instead. I also took cuttings plants from friends and transplanted them after they were rooted in water.

If you have a friend with plants (or some of your own), you can also layer them. Simply bend a stem on the ground without breaking it from the plant and remove the leaves from the part that touches the ground.

Pin the stem and bury the section on the ground with a little soil. In a few weeks, this section will have developed roots. Give it a little nudge to see if it resists. If so, cut it from the parent plant, dig up the section, and plant it where you want it to grow.

Horehound Growing Requirements

The good news is horehound will grow just about anywhere. This favorite slightly depleted, dry, sandy soil, but will also grow well in richer loam. Just make sure the soil is well-drained, as it doesn’t like wet feet.

Amend your soil with well-aged compost, sand and/or perlite to ensure it gets everything it needs. It can also push just about any pH level, so you don’t even have to test.

However, this plant needs a lot of sun, so it will need the sunniest spot on your property. Although horehound can thrive in USDA zones 3 through 10, it does best in zones in between. It likes at least six hours of direct sun and plenty of heat.

Watering

Like most other mint plants, horehound likes to dry out a bit between waterings. Therefore, don’t worry too much about keeping it moist, and don’t plant it next to water-loving herbs.

Try to group your drought-tolerant Mediterranean plants together. For example, try growing horehound and oregano among tomatoes and peppers. Likewise, keep your herbs plump and watery like parsley and dill around your greens and lettuces.

Water your horehound at root level so it doesn’t scorch or rot from airborne moisture.

Maintenance

Since it is a member of the mint family, it will spread like wildfire. If you don’t want horehound to become invasive, you’ll need to contain it. You can either create a barrier around it or keep it confined in a large pot.

I prefer a pot as I can then move it to different sunny spots as needed.

If you keep it in the ground, you will need to thin, divide or remove clumps from the edge of the patch to contain the spread.

That said, it’s a great plant if you have a dry slope that needs some help holding back.

Cut the flowers as they form if you want to use the young leaves. You can also cut the whole plant back in the fall to promote bushier growth next spring. Otherwise, no pruning needed.

In terms of food, you can offer him a food supplement in different ways:

  1. Add additional well-aged compost to the surrounding soil in the spring
  2. Feed it with a balanced NPK fertilizer mid-season
  3. Offer Plant Compost Tea every few weeks

However, don’t overemphasize food. It is a plant that can survive for a long time without feeding.

Potential Horehound Growing Problems

The good news is that the bitterness of raw horehound makes it absolutely unpalatable to almost all herbivores and predatory insects.

In fact, you can use horehound as a protective hedge around your herb garden. It’s so bitter that deer, rabbits, and other herb-loving nibblers will give it (and the herbs it contains) plenty of room for.

Caterpillars and other pesky insects hate it too, but many beneficial pollinators love it. If you’re growing horehounds, chances are you’ll also have very happy bees, butterflies, and braconid wasps.

The only pests you might catch are spider mites, which can be handled with neem oil and/or diatomaceous earth.

Horehound is also resistant to most plant diseases. The only one that can affect it during prolonged periods of humidity and heat is powdery mildew. If it makes an appearance, cut off the affected areas immediately to stop the spread.

Harvest, storage and use

If you just want to use the leaves for medicinal purposes, harvest the plant when the first flower buds begin to form. This will keep most of the useful constituents in the leaves rather than using them for flower formation.

Let the plants flower if you want to attract beneficial pollinators. Then let them sow if and when you want to continue propagating these plants on your land.

My favorite way to harvest horehound is to cut the stems back to about 3 inches. I use clean garden shears to cut them, then tie them up and hang them upside down in my studio. Use your favorite method of drying herbs and let these plants dry out completely.

Once the leaves crumble nicely if rubbed between your fingers, you can store them. Transfer them to a clean, dry jar and keep them out of direct light.

Horehound can be used as a spice as long as you use a light hand. Of course, you can also use it to make beer and sweets.

How to Make Horehound Candy

These lozenges are wonderfully soothing when you start to feel a sore throat. They are also helpful in relieving mild coughs, as well as stomach discomfort caused by gas.

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup dried horehound leaves
  • 1 cup of water
  • 1 and 1/2 cup of honey

What you will need:

  • A glass or enamel saucepan
  • Strainer
  • Stamen
  • Bowl
  • Wooden or metal spoon
  • Hob
  • ice water
  • Granulated sugar
  • Cornstarch or rice flour

Add the leaves and water to the pot and heat the water over medium-high heat. When it begins to boil, reduce the heat to low for about five minutes. Cover, remove from the heat and leave to infuse for 15 to 20 minutes.

Instructions:

Line your colander with cheesecloth and strain this liquid into a clean bowl. Be sure to squeeze the cloth to squeeze out all the liquid, then discard or compost the leaves.

Then prepare the baking sheet for the pastilles. Mix equal parts cornstarch or sweet rice flour with powdered sugar and spread it on the baking sheet about 1/3 inch thick. Then use a thimble or the back of a dessert spoon to create indentations all over.

This is the easiest way to make a mold for your pellets. Of course, you can also use a real candy mold and skip this step.

Then add the liquid to the pan. Then add the honey, mix and heat this mixture until it boils. Slightly reduce the heat and let it boil until it thickens considerably.

You can test to see if it’s the right consistency by adding a few drops to a bowl of ice water. If it hardens well, it’s done. On the other hand, if it is still sticky (like pickpocketing), you need to reduce it further.

Use a spoon or small ladle to pour the mixture into each depression. Let them cool well so that they harden well. Then sprinkle them with some more of the cornstarch mixture so they don’t stick.

Wrap them individually in waxed paper, if desired, to keep them from mixing during storage. Then transfer them to a mason jar with a lid. Store at room temperature away from direct light or in the refrigerator.

Pay attention:

Like all herbal medicines, horehound has a multitude of contraindications and warnings. For example, this herb can be abortifacient or emmenagogue. Therefore, it should not be taken during pregnancy or by those who suffer from endometriosis with heavy bleeding. Likewise, its blood sugar-lowering effects may interfere with medications that moderate diabetes.

Do thorough research and consult your healthcare professional before taking any type of herbal medicine. If in doubt, talk to a naturopathic doctor or clinical herbalist to find out whether or not this herb is right for you.

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