Winter Immune Boosters from the Kitchen, Garden and Hedgerow

Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal
Thursday, 10th January 2013

Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal explore the useful remedies to be found both in the kitchen and in the hedgerow

In the cold dark days of winter we are much more prone to sniffles, colds, ’flu and other infections. We tend to spend more time indoors than out in the fresh air, and we are not getting the benefit of vitamin D from strong sunshine. Luckily, there are plenty of remedies available from the garden and pantry that can keep us healthy and fight infections.

Kitchen immune boosters include onion, garlic, chillies, ginger, pepper, thyme, marjoram, cinnamon, cloves and horseradish. The hot spices among them are especially helpful to keep the lungs and mucous membranes clear. There is nothing like a bowl of hot soup to comfort in cold weather, and there are all sorts of recipes that will help your immune system. Here are a few of our favourite recipes:


Ginger & Onion Soup

Chop up three onions. Sauté in a little oil until transparent, then add three cups of water or vegetable stock. Add three teaspoonfuls of grated fresh ginger. Then, add two cloves of garlic, pressed or chopped finely, one fresh chilli, chopped finely (or one teaspoonful of dried chilli powder) and one small stick of cinnamon (or one teaspoonful of cinnamon powder).

Bring to the boil and simmer gently for a few minutes, then serve.

Immune–Boosting Soup

Research in Japan and China has established over the last half century that shiitake and reishi mushrooms are strongly immune-supporting and display anti-cancer activity. 

What is fascinating is that new research suggests ordinary edible mushrooms share, to a greater extent than hitherto realised, the immune-supporting and cancer treating qualities of the explicitly medicinal mushrooms. For example, a 2009 study of 2,000 Chinese women found that those who ate fresh mushrooms daily were 64% less likely to develop breast cancer; those who combined daily mushrooms with green tea reduced their risk by 90%. A 2008 paper reported in vitro trials of white button mushrooms enhanced matur-ation of bone marrow antigen cells. Other research is ongoing into the antibacterial, liver protective, hypoglycaemic and immuno-modulating potential of mushrooms.

Take a dozen or so shiitake mushrooms or button mushrooms: use fresh if available (you may have grown your own), or soak dried ones in water until soft. Slice and set aside. Chop one small onion, slice one carrot and slice one potato. Heat olive oil in a pan, sauté the mushrooms, then add the onion. As onions brown, add in carrot and potato, plus one clove of chopped garlic and a teaspoon or so of grated ginger. Add more oil as needed to brown all the vegetables, then add stock or water (quantity depending on whether a more solid or liquid result is desired). Bring to the boil, add soy sauce or miso to taste, and/or salt and pepper. Simmer for 10 minutes and serve hot.

If you are congested and catarrhal, add some hot chillies or black pepper to the soup to help clear the mucous membranes.


Cider vinegar has its own antiviral properties, and is a good preservative for herbs to fight infections. Here are some easy recipes for thyme vinegar and for the famous ‘four thieves’ vinegar.

Thyme Vinegar

Thymol, the main essential oil in thyme, is twenty times stronger than phenol (carbolic), the standard medical antiseptic. Thymol was first isolated in Germany in 1725 and has been in pharmaceutical use ever since. It was used to medicate bandages and made a local anaes-thetic for dentists. Chewing fresh or dried thyme leaves at home brings emergency pain relief for toothache or inflamed gums. 

Thyme’s rich chemistry includes tannins and phenols that make it bitter medicinally, but it also contains an uplifting sweetness that can be tasted and smelled. In ancient Rome thyme was a mainstream remedy for melancholy. Numerous varieties of thyme are grown in gardens, and any of them can be used but few are as medicinal as common and wild thyme. 

Pick enough fresh thyme sprigs to fill a jar (use at least 464g or 1lb size); crush the herb in a mortar. Put into the jar and cover with a wine, cider or fruit vinegar. Keep the closed jar in a sunny spot for at least a month, then strain off the vinegar. 

The vinegar is good for head-aches (rubbed onto temples and swallowed in small amounts), as a general antiseptic and for cleaning kitchen surfaces.

Four Thieves Vinegar

There are as many recipes for Four Thieves vinegar as there are versions of the myth. Basically, in early eighteenth century France four thieves were arrested for stealing from the homes of dead plague victims. They were given their lives and freedom in exchange for the recipe they used to keep free of the disease. The recipe entered the official pharmacopoeia, and it is still sold in France today as Le vinaigre des quatre voleurs.

The essential ingredients are vinegar and garlic, and then you can add other aromatic herbs and spices as available: rosemary, sage, oregano, mint, lavender, cinnamon, cloves etc. Some people like to add an onion, and horseradish or hot chillies.

It is worth making quite a big batch. Use roughly equal parts of crushed garlic and each of a selection of four or five other aromatic herbs. Put in a jar large enough to hold them and cover with red wine vinegar (or cider vinegar). Seal and put in a warm place for two or three weeks, then strain and bottle for use.

Your thieves’ vinegar can be used several ways:

? Take a teaspoonful several times a day.

? Add to salad dressings.

? Use a tablespoon in the bath.

? Use topically as an antiseptic on the skin.

? Use as a topical spray for dis-infecting kitchen surfaces.


Garlic Honey

Peel a whole head of garlic. Mince finely by chopping or squeezing through a garlic press. Put in a mortar and pound until the garlic begins to go transparent. Spoon into a jar with 225g (½lb) of honey. Stir well, seal and label. It can be used straightaway or will keep for months.

Dose: Half a teaspoonful daily as a tonic or preventative. For acute infections, take half a teaspoonful up to six times daily. This can be taken directly, or taken with ginger and lemon tea or cider vinegar. For infants and young children, rub onto the soles of the feet. 

Garlic honey can also be used directly on the skin for bites, and as a wound dressing for cuts and grazes.



Echinacea is one of the best-known immune-stimulating herbs, and it is easily grown in the garden. Three main species are used medicinally, with Echinacea purpurea being the most common and easiest to grow. With this species, the flowering tops are used in addition to the root, so you don’t necessarily have to dig up your entire patch to make your Echinacea tincture. A good quality Echinacea should make your mouth tingle when you taste it.

St John’s Wort

St John’s wort has powerful anti-viral properties, and has the added benefit of lighting you up from inside with some summer sunshine – just what’s needed on a dark chilly day in winter. To make sure you have the right species of St John’s wort, Hypericum perforatum, hold a leaf up to the light. The medicinal species has tiny oil glands, which look like tiny perforations in the leaf. Both Echinacea and St John’s wort can be prepared as tinctures, which will keep for a year or more.

How to make a tincture

For making your own tinctures, vodka is one of the best alcohols to use. It has no flavour of its own, and allows the taste of the herbs to come through. Whisky, brandy or rum can also be used. Most commercial tinctures contain at least 25% alcohol.

The process is straightforward: you simply fill a jar with the chosen herb or herbs and top up with alcohol, or you can put the whole lot in the blender first. The mix-ture is then kept out of the light to infuse before being strained, bottled and labelled. Echinacea tops and root will need to infuse for about two weeks, as will St John’s wort flowering tops. You can use the colour as a guide – when most of the colour has gone out of the herb and into the liquid, it is ready to strain. St John’s wort tincture should be a lovely bright red colour. 


Some herbs are better preserved as
glycerites, as the glycerine preserves the fresh taste of the herbs better than alcohol. Elderflowers and berries, roses and lemon balm are tastiest when made as glycerites.

How to make a glycerite

Vegetable glycerine is extracted from coconut or other oil, and is a sweet syrupy substance available from herbalists (hedgerow medicine) and some chemists. It is particularly good for making medicines for children, and for soothing preparations intended for the throat and digestive tract, or coughs.

A glycerite will keep well as long as the concentration of glycerine is at least 50% to 60% in the finished product. These are made the same way as tinctures, except the jar is kept in the sun or in a warm place to infuse.

An Antiviral Formula

This is a tasty mixture to ward off viral infections. Make each part over next summer and autumn when the plants are in season, and then combine them in roughly equal parts or to taste. Combining tinctures and glycerites improves the flavour of the final mixture. 

Combine elder-berry glycerite, St John’s wort tincture, lemon balm gly-cerite or tincture and rose glycerite. Selfheal tincture can also be added

Julie Bruton-Seal is a medical herbalist and photographer. She is a council member of the Association of Master Herbalists, a co-organiser of the annual HerbFest gathering, and editor of the quarterly journal, The Herbalist. Matthew Seal is a writer and freelance editor, and a former director of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. Together Julie and Matthew have written Hedgerow Medicine (2008) and Kitchen Medicine (September 2010). Contact them at:


Hedgerow Medicine and Kitchen Medicine by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal, both £16.99 are available from 

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Shanna Jones |
Sun, 13/01/2013 - 13:37
It should be noted that women who are taking the contraceptive pill should not rely on it whilst taking St John's Wort.
Maddy Harland |
Tue, 15/01/2013 - 11:22
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