Like the seasons, the popularity of herbs runs in cycles.
Winter, of course, is the prime season for herbal remedies that support the immune system, following summertime energy tonics and detoxifying regimens in the spring, says Ken Newfield, owner of All's Well in Ashland.
"It's been like that for hundreds of years."
The past few decades, however, have seen herbs move into the mainstream with companies creating specific formulas to treat particular ailments, as well as streamlining the consumption of these remedies.
"In the old days, it was just teas and tea bags," Newfield says. "It sounds nostalgic to drink an herbal tea, but when you get right down to it, some of them are pretty nasty-tasting."
Capsules or tablets are now the most popular, followed by liquid preparations, or tinctures, Newfield says. Taking herbs in tablet and capsule form is convenient and familiar to most people, which has fueled growth in the industry, experts say.
Simple machines that fill and tamp capsules allow herb enthusiasts to concoct their own remedies using herbs sold in bulk at stores like Health Food Mart in Medford. The period between November and February always sees increased demand for medicinal herbs, whether sold in bulk or prepackaged, says Health Food Mart co-owner Heather Askins.
"Most of our customers are very intelligent; they know what they're looking for," Askins says. "The cold and flu season definitely kicks it up a notch."
From a bulk stock of more than 200 medicinal herbs, Health Food Mart can recommend numerous cold and flu remedies and preventative plants: peppermint, wild cherry bark, mullein, goldenseal, Oregon grape root, osha root, fenugreek seed, slippery elm bark, elder flowers and berries, and reishi and maiitake mushrooms.
Yet echinacea, long reputed as an immmune-sytem superstar, remains the most widely grown and sold herbal plant in the country, says Ed Smith, president and chief executive officer of Herb Pharm in Williams, adding that he always packs echinacea, also known as coneflower, when he travels.
Echinacea can be found in bulk, as capsules, tablets or teas. Herb Pharm manufactures more than a dozen products containing echinacea. Its propolis-echinacea throat spray is an antiseptic, analgesic and anti-inflammatory that can soothe sore throats, enlarged tonsils, pharyngitis and laryngitis. The company's liquid Immune Defense Tonic combines wild indigo, thuja, boneset and prickly ash in a formula intended for those with weak or compromised immune systems.
Some remedies that target the sinuses, bronchials or even purport to block viruses may contain 20 or more ingredients, Newfield says. The herb industry has even moved toward "immunizations" with homeopathic preparations that profess to work like vaccines.
"We have influenza formulas," Newfield says.
Rather than containing weakened or dead viruses or bacteria, homeopathic preparations are designed to prompt an immune system response to a particular illness with inert ingredients, Newfield says. They are taken orally.
Certain common ailments seem to be most pervasive or at their worst every three to five years, says Newfield, who's owned All's Well for the past 25 years. Based on that experience, he says he suspects this cold and flu season won't be one of the more severe. There's still a place, however, for tried-and-true supplements.
"Natural vitamin C — it goes a long way," he says.
It's also a prime season for practicing habits that can keep us healthier without a single pill or tonic. Taking the time to prioritize obligations and avoid becoming overwhelmed is the first step to maintaining our vitality.
"A lot of what we're going through is self-induced because of our attitudes," Newfield says.
"Of course, we know the holidays are stressful," he adds. "Stress lowers the immune response. Chill out, and your immune system will respond."