“How sweet to my taste has
Your word been,
More than honey to my mouth!”
Have you ever noticed how babies, particularly as they become more mobile and can grab things, have an innate urge to put everything they come across into their mouths? As a parent, it can become a little disconcerting. And sometimes, we might misinterpret it for ravenous hunger. But it’s actually how we first really start to learn about the world. Our sense of taste is one of the interfaces between ourselves and the world around us. You see, taste provides information. Valuable information about the usefulness of the thing, the character or quality of the thing, and what our relationship should be to it. Does it feel nourishing to us, or does it feel repulsive?
By and large, this is how we began to determine plants for food and medicine, and as for the medicinal use of a plant, what it might help heal. Our other senses came in to play here as well – smell is closely related to taste and it may make us breathe deeper or turn our noses up, we can see where the plant likes to grow or any distinguishing features about it that might remind us of an organ or tissue state in the body, and we can feel the plant for softness, prickliness, whether it is sticky or slimy. We may even hear the way the leaves move in the breeze, or how it disperses it’s seed. And some of us, may even sense a greater depth of feeling emanating from the plant. All of these provide valuable clues to the plants use medicinally, and it’s overall ‘personality’.This way of engaging with the plant is called Organolepsis.
But taste is a primal sense that begins in the womb, and then after birth conveys so much more than the nutritional information of our mother’s breast milk. It conveys messages of love and nourishment, nurturance, and comfort. It tells us that we are safe, or it can tell us when something’s off – literally and in the psycho-emotional field. For example, most of us can tell the difference between a store bought TV dinner and a lovingly prepared home-cooked meal. The former is impersonal, clinical, purely a means to an end, the latter is rich with nuance, depth of meaning, and nourishes our soul as well as our body.
Being able to taste the plant, to literally take in it’s body, it’s personality, it’s Vital Force into your own, provides valuable information about who that plant is and what it offers. It tells us of possible constituents – which then help us understand the best method to prepare and administer it, as well as it’s secondary effects of cooling or heating, moistening or drying, relaxing or toning, diffusing or moving to specific areas in the body, and which energetic patterns (the constitutions and tissue states that I discussed in a previous post) the herb will be most suited to in supporting our body and vital force. Just as a well-seasoned cook learns which tastes, which herbs, which spices, and which condiments will complement her cooking, for the herbalist, this knowledge then becomes imperative in determining the most successful approach to treatment. If the herbalist has never sat with, or tasted, or developed a relationship with the plants that she is prescribing then the treatment will only be as successful as the material plane of existence will allow, and many of us know that we are all, plants and people alike, so much more than just the material aspect. So in this post I’m going to outline these various tastes and what they mean to us in our pursuit of healing. I am indebted to the teachings of my fellow herbalists Sajah Popham and Steven Horne for showing me this truth and the information that follows, to the plants themselves, and to the Creator, who in His infinite wisdom and compassion endowed the plants with these properties for our service and joy.
There are Six Key Tastes, and four ‘mouthfeels’ that give us a great deal of information about the plant and ultimately how it will communicate or interact with our body. These are:
- Bitter – of which there are three nuances of flavour: Simple bitters, Alkaloidal bitters, Fragrant or aromatic bitters. In our western culture where sugar and salt dominate, assault & render the taste buds dumb, most of us turn our noses up at even the slightest hint of bitterness, yet it is one of the most important tastes of all. The energy of the bitter quality brings blood to the core, and moves downwards. In practical terms, we use bitters to drain stagnant fluids and get things moving. If we look at the three differing types of bitters, we can be more accurate in our understanding of their application to the body.
- – Simple bitters – includes herbs such as Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), Globe Artichoke leaf (Cynara scolymus), Gentian (Gentana lutea), Wild Lettuce (Lactuca virosa), and Hops (Humulus lupulus), and the culinary plants Kale and other dark leafy greens. Their energetics are typically cooling and drying, and even just a drop of tincture on the tip of the tongue can send a cold shiver down the spine. The simple bitters stimulate the digestive juices including production of HCL in the stomach, and the secretion of bile and pancreatic enzymes. They also move the detoxification processes of the liver and relieve the heat/excitation tissue state (or general tissue irritation and inflammation) by their cooling and draining effect. The simple bitter principle found in both Hops and Wild Lettuce give them a sedative quality, and in Wild Lettuce we also find some pain-relieving aspects. The constituents found in these simple bitters include diterpenes, and glycosides (including anthraquinone glycosides such as those present in Turkey Rhubarb – which has a stimulating laxative effect on the body.)
- – Alkaloidal bitters – these share much of the same qualities as the simple bitters and act on stimulating digestion and detoxification, except that their primary constituents are alkaloids such as caffeine, nicotine, berberine, lobelia, and hydrastine. These alkaloids give the plant very specific therapeutic actions due to their likeness to chemical messengers which act on the nervous and endocrine systems. Plants in this group include Golden Seal (Hydrastis canadensis), Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium), Lobelia (Lobelia inflata), Chocolate (Theobroma cacao), Coffee (Coffea arabica), Barberry (Berberis vulgaris), and California Poppy (Californica eschscholzia).
- Aromatic bitters – Many of the medical plants in the Artemisia family inhabit this group. Plants like Wormwood, Sweet Annie, and Mugwort. Plants rich in volatile oils with their sesquiterpene lactones, and triterpenes. These plants also share that draining/drying property of the bitters in general, yet here they are warming in nature. We still use them to stimulate digestion, but we also use them to dispel parasites. Other plants such as Black Walnut (Juglans nigra), Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), and Elecampane (Inula helenium) share this taste.
When studying herbs, not only do we need to understand how they affect the body, we also need to understand how they might interact with pharmaceutical medication, or whether they might be appropriate to take during pregnancy and breastfeeding. However, if we cast our minds back to the previous discussion on the energetics of the body – our individual constitutions and tissue states, we also need to understand the appropriateness of using herbs within the context of their energetics. Do the herbs we choose to use suit our individual constitution? If we typically lean toward dryness and easily feeling the cold, would a simple or alkaloidal bitter be appropriate to use? Unless we combine the herb with those dominant principles with a herb that will complement and balance it energetically (say, using a warming, and neutral or slightly moistening herb), then it is best to be cautious. Generally speaking, cooling biters should be avoided by thin, weak, emaciated, pale, and dry people. Over time these bitters will deplete their digestive capacity and dry out the tissues. Plants with alkaloidal bitters should be used only when specifically indicated and the particular contra-indications for that herb should be known. Warming bitters may be used in combination with more moistening herbs in dry people, however they are typically only used in the short-term and in small doses (such as if needing to eliminate parasites), and are most contra-indicated in pregnancy.
- Pungent – Many of the herbs and spices used in traditional Indian, Thai, and Asian cooking have this taste. This is spicy, hot, biting, or piquant. Herbs such as Capsicum (Chilli), ginger, mustard, garlic, horse radish, thyme, eucalyptus, black pepper, galangal, turmeric, and asafoetida express this taste. The energetics of these herbs are warming and drying, and often this is felt as soon as it touches your tongue. These qualities are due to resins, allyl-sulphides (such as in garlic and onion), alkamides, and monoterpene essential oils. The keynote actions of the pungent plants are dispersing stagnation, and moving blood and energy upward and outward. Plants with this taste are also often used as Diaphoretics (they induce sweating, e.g.: in order to break a fever), Circulatory stimulants (they get the blood moving around and to the periphery), as Carminatives (to help get rid of gas and bloating, and to aid digestion via stimulation of the production and secretion of digestive enzymes, thus also increasing appetite), and many are used to help loosen and expel mucus in the respiratory tract, and enhance immunity). Some possess an anti-microbial action, but this may be in part due to their action on the tissue state.
Again, we need to consider appropriate use in the context of the energetics. It may not be wise to use these plants in people who typically ‘run hot’ already. Although the secondary effect of these plants is somewhat cooling due to the increased sweating and dispersal of energy, over time this can deplete energy reserves and dry a person out. In some people, the mucous membrane lining the digestive tract can also become irritated. Here we see the traditional wisdom in cultures who use these plants in their cooking. Typically we find that they are used in combination with coconut milk or some other cooling fatty medium to moisten and balance the energetics. Balancing the energetics in this way doesn’t diminish from the desired effect of the plant, but it does temper it for people who may otherwise be aggravated by it.
- Salty – This is not the taste of heavily salted hot chips fresh from the deep fryer, or pretzel snacks and beer nuts. This is more of a ‘green’ taste. A cleaner, more grassy, more mineral-type taste of saltiness. A saltiness that is probably foreign to many people – and perhaps, for them, somewhat lacking. Plants possessing this taste are more nutritive being rich in electrolytes and other trace minerals. Magnesium, calcium, potassium, and sodium abound. In healthy, readily bio-available and absorbable amounts. The salty plants include spinach, celery, alfalfa, nettles, chickweed, dandelion leaf, seaweed (such as nori, dulse, and kelp), mullein (Verbascum thapsus), red clover, and the purslane that grows in your gravel driveway. The energetic quality of the (true) salty taste is balancing (it may moisten or dry tissue), and nourishing. Because of their nourishing and nutritive quality, these plants are used to help tone and heal tissue, they are non-irritating diuretics and are used to support kidney function by supplying potassium (instead of depleting it), they promote lymph flow and remove lymphatic stagnation, they help loosen mucous and decongest the lungs, and they increase alkalinity in a body that is too acidic.
Caution may be need to exercised with a Kapha constitution, but otherwise this taste suits everyone.
- Sour – Tart tasting. This taste gives most people, and small children, that definitive puckered lip look. This is the taste of fresh berries; blueberries / bilberries, cranberries, goji berries, rose hips, hawthorn berries, schizandra berries, mangosteen, noni fruit, and of course, lemons. This is another taste, like salty, that crosses into the food category. It is nourishing, refreshing, cooling, and balancing (it may moisten or dry where needed). This taste often belies a plant rich in anti-oxidants, flavonoids, and fruit acids (such as malic, citric, and ascorbic acid ‘vitamin C’). It is in these constituents we see their energetic qualities played out; anti-oxidants reduce free radical damage and thus cools heat and irritation, the flavonoids tone and strengthen capillary integrity and tightens the tissue. This is especially pertinent in the small blood vessels supplying the eyes. Bilberries in particular are specific for strengthening the eyes through this pathway. The liver also requires lots of anti-oxidant action. So sour herbs tend to aid liver function and gently stimulate bile production. There are no particular contra-indications for the sour taste – except that some sour plants such as the Oxalis spp. can be high in oxalates, so they will need to be consumed in small amounts, or avoided by people with a history of kidney stones.
- Sweet – Like the salty taste, this sweetness is not the sweetness that we are bombarded with in our western diet. It is a bitter-sweet taste, not sugary or starchy, but more like very fine 70% dark chocolate. Polysaccharides and saponins are the most common constituents giving rise to this taste. The energetic qualities are moistening with neutral temperature (however, some can be slightly cooling or warming). The sweet taste is for building , strengthening, and nourishing. Herbs such as Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana), American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng), Eleuthro ( Eleuthrococcus senticosus), Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous), Codonopsis (Codonopsis pillosula) , Milky Oats (Avena sativa), and Marshmallow (Althea officinalis) impart this taste. Broadly speaking, the sweet taste is nutritive and tonic, and we think of employing it to build up a weak or emaciated condition. It counteracts wasting, strengthens the endocrine glands, and builds energy reserves. Many of these herbs modulate the stress response. It moistens, relieving dryness and premature aging of the tissues. Herbs with this taste are often used to strengthen immunity, and are often used for elderly people to regain and maintain health.
Herbs with a sweet taste should be used with caution or avoided completely (Unless balanced well in a formula) for people with a kapha constitution as they can encourage weight gain, and for people who are young, strong, and full of vigour. Think of this taste rather for building and supporting people who are weak from age or from illness.
- Aromatic – although this is largely an olfactory or smelling sense, taste and smell are closely interlinked and so these plants will engage that higher sense of taste. This taste is similar to the pungent taste but without the ‘bite’. The main constituent here are the volatile (essential) oils. So here we think of most of the kitchen herbs such as those in the mint, and carrot families. Herbs such as Peppermint, Catnip, Sage, Lemon balm, Basil, Oregano, Rosemary, Coriander, Fennel, Caraway, and Chamomile all exhibit this taste to some degree. The energetic qualities pf the aromatics are warming and drying, although some (such as peppermint and sage) can have a secondary cooling action. The essential oils have a strong affinity for the nervous system, and so we see them being calming and sedative, relaxing or uplifting in nature. When drunk as a hot tea, some have a diaphoretic action – it induces sweating by either relaxing the pores of the skin, or stimulating blood circulation. This stimulation of circulation also increases energy production. The aromatics are also often used as digestive aids, either by enhancing appetite, stimulating the production of the digestive secretions, or to expel gas. They can also be used for their disinfectant properties in the digestive tract.
Because of the concentrated nature of the essential oils, caution should be exercised in pregnancy with taking therapeutic amounts of these herbs. The amounts used in cooking are generally regarded as safe. Ingestion of the isolated essential oils should also be avoided.
Although the following descriptives aren’t ‘true’ tastes, they still give us a very good idea of how a plant affects the body and where it may have an affinity for.
- Astringent – eat something astringent and you’ll soon have a very dry mouth. A distinct lack of salvia will soon become apparent as your tongue will suddenly want to stick to your palette. Astringents are typically high in tannins (think black tea, no milk, no lemon, no sugar), they have a slightly bitter taste but they will feel drying and somewhat puckering. The energetic quality of the astringent mouth feel is constricting and drying. Plants with this mouthfeel contract, or tightens the tissue, which drives out moisture. By tightening tissue, we can use them tone the tissue, to reduce swelling, as a styptic –to stop bleeding, to help tone and heal a leaky gut. Some plants that are astringent and high in tannin are used as an anti-venom by neutralising the venom when applied topically (on the site of the bite or sting). Venom is protein and alkaloid based and the tannins precipitate these out of solution, and out of the blood stream (or extra-cellular matrix). Plants that are astringent in mouthfeel and in action include Oak bark (Quercus spp.), Uva ursi (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), Bayberry (Myrica cerifera), Sage (Salvia officinalis), Green tea (Camellia sinensis), Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), Willow bark (Salix spp.), and Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).
In plants that are astringent and particularly high in tannins, caution should be exercised around dosage amount, when the dose should be given, and for how long. They are best taken in between meals because the astringency can interfere with mineral absorption. Larger doses can cause constipation due to lack of moisture in the bowel, and long term use can prove irritating to the skin or mucosa (topical or internal).
- Acrid – this is a mouth feel mixed with a taste. It has been described as ‘bitter, nasty, burning, and tingling’, or like the taste of bile on the back of the tongue. Ironically, the energetic quality of this sensation is largely relaxing. It can also be cooling and drying, or dispersive. Resins and alkaloids are the predominant constituents that give rise to this experience. However, it is worth noting that many of the predominantly resinous plants have a warming quality. Plants that taste like this include; Lobelia (Lobelia inflata), Kava Kava (Piper methysticum), Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata), Black Cohosh aka Cimicifuga (Actaea rascemosa/ Cimicifuga racemosa), and Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia, E. purpurea). Plants that are acrid to taste are most often anti-spasmodic – they relax cramping and muscle spasm, or they relieve conditions that involve alternating symptoms such fever alternating with chills, constipation alternating with diarrhoea, generally constriction alternating with relaxation.
Caution should be taken with the dosage. Large doses can induce nausea and vomiting (they are emetic), or can adversely affect the nerves, particularly over long-term use.
- Mucilant (mucilagenous) – this is a slippery, moist bordering on slimy feel. Like okra, or the chia seed puddings found at juice bars and healthy cafes. The taste is generally nondescript or slightly sweet. The constituents that contribute to this delightful mouthfeel are the mucopolysaccharides and the glucoaminoglycans. The energetics are moistening, cooling, and nourishing. Plants with this property include Aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis) – inner gel, Slippery Elm (Ulmus fulva), Psyllium (Plantago ovata), Marshmallow (Althea officinalis), Comfrey (Symphytum officinale), and Kelp (Fucus vesiculosis). The amazing thing about this sensation is that it has a reflex action on all the mucous membranes throughout the body. This means that if you drink marshmallow infusion, it will soothe the mucous membrane lining of the lungs as well as the stomach and the urinary tract, yet the mucilage never actually comes into contact with the lungs. Other properties include cooling and moistening hot, dry and irritated tissue. It helps to heal injured tissue, and it acts to enhance immune activity, especially in the mucous membranes. In the gut, it acts as a bulk laxative by holding in moisture to lubricate the bowel and promote normal elimination. Typically plants with this mouthfeel also feed friendly gut flora and absorb irritants from the gut, and the skin.
Other supplements or medications should be taken separately from these plants, as the mucilaginous qualities can reduce the absorption in the gut. With excessive use, it may also cool and slow the digestive function, but again we can balance this possibility with adding warming herbs to our formulation.
- Oily – the taste and the texture will be oily. Sometimes overtly, such as in a seed or nut, sometimes more subtle – like in Cos lettuce (try it!). Fixed oils and fatty acids cause this feel, and the energetics are moistening, cooling, and nourishing. Some oily plants (like sesame seeds) can be slightly warming. Food and food like herbs mainly exhibit this oiliness, such as flax seeds, black currant seed, evening primrose seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, borage seeds, hemp seeds (I see a theme), coconut, olives, and burdock root. Matthew Wood refers to plants with oily roots, or an oily taste as Bear Medicines. They are nourishing and provide the body with the fatty acids needed for energy production, immune function, and nerve and endocrine function. With some exceptions, there cooling nature is soothing to and can help reduce irritation. They lubricate dry tissues and aid in their flexibility. The oily nature can also act as a mild laxative by lubricating the stool for better elimination.
The oils can be safely used by everyone. For those with Kapha (cold and damp), and Vata (Cold and dry) constitutions, used the warming oils like sesame seed.
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Whether you’re learning about using plants for medicine, or plants for food, developing your sense of taste will allow you to go a long way in being able to tune into the plants and what their virtues, their affect on the body may be. More often than not, tastes and mouth feels will overlap, there might be a combination. You’ll taste one thing first, and then that will subside and the underlying tastes will emerge, and then the aftertaste will come. Play around. Tune in.
So I encourage you with this rough guide to taste, really taste everything. Taste the world. Taste the weeds. Taste the wild things. Take a good actual field guide with you or a herbal that doesn’t have tastes listed, or someone who knows, a connoisseur, a sommelier of the senses, an intrepid explorer of the sensual realms. Take someone who has walked the poison path and can tell you what not to taste. Or if you’re not quite ready to walk not he wild side yet, simply start with your food. Eliminate salt and sugar, just for a week, to begin to awaken your taste buds so they can indulge and really savour the flavours once more. Have you ever tasted the subtle nuances between fruit picked from the same tree? Or the oily voluptuousness of a naked leaf of Cos? There’s a whole world of experience waiting for you.