By NORA BODRIAN
Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) is a flowering plant in the mint family (Lamiaceae), native to Europe, Northern Africa, and Central Asia. Also known as white horehound, it has long been cultivated for its medicinal use for cough, colds, and congestion. In the 1800s it was brought to the western states by early settlers. It escaped cultivation and is now abundant alongside our trails, especially after recent rains. Although the FDA does not endorse its medical capacities, it is considered generally safe, and can be found as an ingredient in modern candy, cough lozenges and beverages.
Horehound is a drought-tolerant perennial and grows well in poor soil with full sun, blooming April through October. The plant grows about 12 to 24 inches high, and can be distinguished by its crinkly, wooly, whitish-grey leaves. It has opposite leaves, with dense clusters of tiny white flowers growing above the nodes, where the leaves join at the stem. The axillary whorls and square stems are typical of a sage, although it does not exude the strong scent of other sages. Bees are the primary pollinators, but the flowers are also visited by ladybugs, flies, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Seeds are dispersed by falling to the ground, or by clinging to fur, feathers, and feet, and will survive in soil for 5-10 years. Wildlife avoids consuming the bitter tasting foliage, so the plant thrives where it has no competition.
The plant’s name often generates a few giggles or gasps. How did this useful plant get its name? One source claims that it was named after Horus, the Egyptian god of sky and light — being named after a god would signify that it was an honored plant. However, the Oxford English Dictionary says that ‘hoar’ means white, light-colored, and ‘hune’ (or hound) designates a type of herb.
Next time you are in the park, look for horehound along the trails. And when you are at the pharmacy, look at the list of ingredients on a package of cough drops made by Ricola — you’ll probably find horehound there also!
— Nora Bodrian is a trail guide at Mission Trails Regional Park.