“Without continuous hands-on experience, it is impossible for children to acquire a deep intuitive understanding of the natural world that is the foundation of sustainable development. ….A critical aspect of the present-day crisis in education is that children are becoming separated from daily experience of the natural world, especially in larger cities.”
-Natural Learning, Creating Environments for Rediscovering Nature’s Way of Teaching, Robin C. Moore and Herb H. Wong
Awhile back, I wrote about teaching kids the 6 tissue states of the body which can be helpful with matching up the proper herbs to the individual person. Today I am going to introduce another facet of herbal energetics, the tastes of herbs and how they apply to herbal healing. We call the combination of the tissue states actions of herbs (drying, moistening, cooling, warming, tightening and relaxing) with their tastes herbal energetics. By understanding herbal energetics, we can fully understand how plants work in the body to bring about balance and optimal healing.
There are 5 basic flavors that herbs fall under: bitter, sweet, pungent/spicy, sour, and salty, according to traditional Chinese Medicine. In Ayurvedic medicine, astringent is also added to this list (in TCM, astringent is considered to be a part of sour). In Traditional Western Herbalism, these tastes were lost over the years and modern day herbalists have begun recreating their own herbal energetics systems. Many herbalists focus on the basic 5 – 6 tastes, with a few exceptions. Matthew Wood speaks of 13 tastes in his teaching: sour, fruity, aromatic, pungent, tingling, moist, salty, bitter, sweet, nutty, meaty, puckering, and acrid. David Winston teaches on 10 tastes: sweet, mineral salt, true salt, pungent, spicy, acrid, sour, astringent, bitter and bland. Both of their systems dig deep into the subtle nuances of herbs. Today we will stick to 5: bitter, sweet, spicy/pungent, sour and salty.
Dandelion is a great example of what a bitter herb tastes like.
Bitter taste is the most loathed taste in the standard American diet. We do all we can to remove the bitter from our taste buds by adding sweet to kill the taste. Unfortunately, this is not doing our bodies any good as bitter is a very important part of our digestion. Bitters increase salivary secretions and send a message to our stomachs to prepare for food, creating digestive secretions that are necessary for proper digestion.
Bitters are generally cooling and drying and generally contain glycosides and alkaloids.
Common bitter herbs: Dandelion, Chicory, Coffee, Motherwort, Cacao, Burdock, Oregon Grape Root, Black Walnut Hull, Yellow Dock root, Gentian, Boneset, Milk Thistle
How to demonstrate bitter herbs: Eat a Dandelion leaf and notice how your saliva increases.
Marshmallow roots are mildly sweet.
Sweet is one of the most desired tastes in the standard American diet. The over sweet tastes in our diet are often calorie laden, though not usually nutritive or nourishing. In herbalism, sweet is often nutritive, nourishing and caloric. They are important as nutritive tonics. Though sweet herbs have a sweet taste, this sweetness is often not as noticeable to our palates because of the overly sugary foods we often consume on a daily basis.
Sweet tasting herbs are generally moistening and neutral to warming and generally contain carbohydrates and may contain protein, fats, sugars and polysaccharides.
Common sweet herbs include: Astragalus root, Marshmallow, Licorice, Slippery Elm, Stevia
How to demonstrate sweet herbs: Chew a piece of Licorice or Astragalus root or a bit of Slippery Elm bark and notice the mild sweetness.
Bergamot is a great example of a spicy herb.
Spicy/pungent herbs are often broken into 2 – 4 categories: spicy, pungent, aromatic, and acrid based on their more subtle tastes. Most herbs falling into these categories have a kick to them. The heat may be felt instantly in the mouth or may hit the back of the throat. Some herbs may have a perfume like taste to them. These herbs often stimulating and can affect the circulatory system, digestive system and respiratory system depending on the herb. They are great for moving congestion and stagnation in the body. Lobelia is a great example of an acrid herb, if you chew a piece of leaf, you will feel a bile like feeling at the back of your throat. Too much will make you vomit.
Spicy/pungent herbs are generally warming and drying and generally contain essential oils or terpenes.
Common spicy/pungent herbs: Ginger, Cayenne, Cinnamon, Bergamot, Rosemary, Thyme, Lobelia
How to demonstrate spicy/pungent herbs: Taste a variety of kitchen spices such as Rosemary, Thyme, Cinnamon and Ginger to get a sense of the spicy/pungent taste.
Sumach berries are sour in taste.
Sour foods are often high in vitamin C, assisting the immune system with healthy function, helps the body to produce collagen for wound healing, helps with the absorption of iron, and good for tightening tissues. Sour herbs are often cardiotonics and are often helpful for cooling the body.
Sour herbs are generally cooling and drying and generally contain acids, flavonoids and vitamin C.
Common sour herbs: Rose hips, Hawthorn berries, Lemon, Sumach
How to demonstrate sour herbs: Eating a slice of Lemon will give you a quick idea of how sour works.
Chickweed is a great example of the minerally ‘green’ taste of salty herbs.
David Winston divides salty into 2 categories: mineral salt and true salt. This distinction can help to identify the mineral salt taste of herbs. True salt is the flavor of sea salt and table salt. Mineral salt is the flavor herbs give. Salts give our body important minerals which are needed for proper hydration and aiding in digestion. Salty herbs are often diuretics and are generally calming, especially for those who are malnourished.
Salty herbs are generally drying and cooling and generally contain minerals.
Common bitter herbs: Nettles, Kelp, Cleavers, Chickweed, Horsetail
How to demonstrate salty herbs: Try nibbling on a bit of kelp for an extreme salty taste. For the more subtle, minerally taste, eat some Chickweed, drink a Nettles infusion or a piece of Spinach, which will give that ‘green’ taste salty herbs generally have.
Deepening the knowledge
Tastes and energetics can be easy to learn and are helpful with mastering the art of herbal medicine. Start with plants that are stronger in taste and more obvious then as you and your children grow more confident, try out more subtle tasting herbs. Taste herbs often to become familiar with their tastes and to notice the change of tastes throughout the growing season as well as changes between species and wildcrafted vs. garden grown plants. As you learn about each herb’s use and properties, test yourself on their energetics.
A note of caution, be sure to only taste plants that are ‘safe’, eating low dose botanicals can cause problems until you’ve learned how to safely taste them. Stick with common plants that you can positively identify.
For further study on this subject, try these links and books:
Matt’s book: The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism
Energetics and Pharmacology online article
The Ten Tastes – The Energetics of Herbs video (based on his same titled course)
Rosalee de la Foret
Tastes of Herbs eBook
Herbal Energetics pdf file from his website (a wealth of information for more advanced learners)
Do your kids notice the different tastes of herbs? Which ones are they more drawn to?