Butterfly milkweed is one of my favorite roadside wildflowers. It has another common name pleurisy root, earned from its traditional use for conditions of the lungs. Pleurisy refers to an inflammation of the lining around the lungs, as sometimes results from coughs and other disorders. Pleurisy root was traditionally used to ease this painful condition, partially because it can help reduce pain and inflammation in the lungs. Pleurisy root is also used for wet coughs that are due to upper respiratory tract infections. Pleurisy root is a stimulating expectorant, which means it helps to encourage a productive cough so mucus is more efficiently expelled from the lungs.
Pleurisy root also supports the body during infections in less direct ways. Pleurisy root is used to induce sweating during a fever. This can help break an uncomfortable fever, but for this effect it is best to take it with a hot beverage like tea. It can also be used to support suboptimal fevers, where the temperature isn’t high enough for the full immune benefit of a fever. Pleurisy root also stimulates the circulation of the lymphatic system, particularly around the lungs. This action can also contribute to a more effective immune response. For all of these pulmonary benefits, pleurisy root has earned a place in many herbal blends used for coughs and bronchitis. It is usually used in fairly low to medium doses because higher doses can cause nausea and vomiting.
When I began learning about herbs years ago before I became a naturopathic doctor, mullein was one of the first herbs I made into a medicinal tea. Since I was plagued by frequent coughs at the time, I had decided to try mullein for its well-touted lung benefits. Mullein was a very useful starter herb for me to try. It made a mild tasting tea and was a very gentle herb for me to experiment with. If I made any mistake in its use at that time, it may have been that I wasn’t drinking the tea frequently enough to help with my acute condition. While gentle herbs can be very safe, we may need to use more of them to get the full benefit.
Though different types of coughs call for different herbal interventions, mullein may be helpful for nearly any type of cough. Mullein may help make coughs more productive since it is a stimulating expectorant. At the same type, it is has some antispasmodic benefits that may help calm a cough. Mullein is also a demulcent herb, which means it can moisten and sooth dry, irritated respiratory pathways. Mullein also seems to have mild antimicrobial benefits, and a test tube study revealed some possible antiviral action. Because of these combined actions, mullein is frequently chosen as part of the treatment for upper respiratory infections like bronchitis. These antimicrobial and soothing benefits have also earned mullein a place in many ear oil formulas. In these formulas, it is typically the flower that is used, whereas either the leaf or the flower can be used for the respiratory tract.