Grassroots Healing, Plant Medicine

When Paradise was a Walled Garden

Or the one where we contemplate growing our own drugs.

 

“We might think we are nurturing our garden, but really it is our garden that is nurturing us.” – Jenny Uglow.

 

As much as I love wildcrafting and spying out medicinally useful botanicals growing wild wherever I am, I do very much yearn for a garden of my own to be a custodian of. Amongst the strands of stories that weave themselves through my DNA, there’s the one about the holy man, or maybe it was a woman, who tended the garden in whatever sanctuary they found themselves in service to. This may or may not have actually happened, but I like to think that maybe, in some place, some time, it actually did.

(or maybe I’m just remembering the very beginning)

And of course, they had to be considered holy, set-apart for the work, whether a priest – or maybe a priestess, or a prophet – or maybe a prophetess, a monk or a nun, a druid or a shaman – because something sacred exists in the garden. These idioms of tangibles – of soil, and of trees, and flowers, and of fruits, and the great turning of the wheel of the Heavens, and the first and the latter rains, and of harvests, and from one new moon to the next, and of appointed times and seasons. Because it’s through these tangibles that the great mysteries of life are observed, and understood, and guarded.

And whether it is tropical or temperate, a garden, for many is paradise.

We can trace the word ‘paradise’ back to the original Persian word ‘pairidaeza’, meaning an enclosure, or a park. Over time as it travelled through the Greek and the Latin, and the French, it came to be synonymous with the Garden in Eden’ – an idyllic heaven-like abode of verdant abundance that was set-apart and protected. A holy place. A sacred sanctuary to relax, unwind, to be embraced by an abundance of earthly delights.

I think the term ‘sanctuary’ to describe a garden is fitting.

“A garden should make you feel like you’ve entered privileged space – a place not just set apart but reverberant – and it seems to me that, to achieve this, the gardener must put some kind of twist on the existing landscape, turn its prose into something nearer poetry.”   (Michael Pollan)

As a history buff, and perhaps because the memories are entwined in my soul, I am fascinated with the phenomena of the Physic Garden. Although I suspect that the healing temples of Egypt and Greece & Rome and even the sacred groves of the Druids, the rainforest gardens of shamans, and many other traditional or ‘primitive’ societies all had their own versions, the concept of the Physic Garden grew with the monastic (& later university) subculture of medieval Europe. Most of the monasteries were isolated and remote, and so they needed to be self-sufficient. Vegetable gardens and orchards flourished within the confines of the monastic compound, but there was another garden that grew there meticulously and reverently tended – the physic garden. This Physic Garden met the healing needs of the monastery inhabitants, as well as the folk from the surrounding area. Some of these gardens have been preserved and maintained and people can visit them to this day. Chelsea Physic Garden is renown, and although not monastic in origin, was established in 1673 by the ‘Worshipful Society of Apothecaries’ as a teaching garden. (That is, back when the physicians and apothecaries used plant medicine). These gardens (monastic and university) are more of a European tradition, but worldwide there is a grassroots movement to bring the tradition alive again for all to enjoy.

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Chelsea Physic Garden

 

“Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died” – Erma Bombeck

 

 

 

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve gypsied around with an ever-growing entourage of plants in pots – their own little mobile homes. One day, I keep promising them, we’ll have a real home where they can snuggle into good soil, stretch out their roots and lift up their arms and rejoice. In the meantime, however, they still provide the medicine that I and my family need, even if sometimes it’s just a balm for my soul. I currently have: Aloe, Calendula, Yarrow, Tulsi (Holy Basil), Violets, Black Currant, English daisies, Solomon’s Seal, self-seeded Chickweed, Dandelions, Houseleek, and Acerola Cherry, and I’m attempting to strike a cutting from a Persian Silk Tree. I’ve lost some along the way, including chamomile, nettles, passionflower, apothecary rose, and an elder that bonsai’d itself. Now that we are in a less bipolar climate zone, I will endeavour to bring these and other species back into the traveling roadshow again, although to be perfectly honest, as much as I think that one can have a perfectly decent physic garden in pots, I am aware of a nagging feeling in the recesses of my heart that keeping plants in pots is akin to keeping birds in cages. But I’ll tuck that away for now and keep promising my green companions that one day perhaps a garden home will manifest itself for them. (Maybe if I sell enough of my soon-to-be released eBook. Hint hint 😉 )

 

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Houseleek & The Kraken. Photo by M.Carnochan.

Building a physic garden for oneself or one’s family, or a community if you are fortunate enough, is fairly simple. You’ll need to figure out your particular climate zone, but most of the medicinal plants discussed below are fairly hardy and will grow in a range of climates, if their needs are met. Invite species that have multiple uses and meet a broad range of needs. The easiest way to do figure this out, in my pattern-way of thinking, is to match plants with the six tissue states that you will encounter. As a brief review, the ‘six tissue states’ model of illness refers to heat/excitation, cold/depression, damp/relaxation, damp/stagnation, dry/atrophy, wind/tension. These energetic patterns refer to the moisture, the tone, and the temperature of the tissue state in disease and its development and manifestation. For example, we would match the energetics in plants the following way;

Heat/excitation = plants that are cooling & sedating

Cold/depression = plants that are warming & stimulating

Damp/relaxation = plants that are drying and tonifying (astringent)

Damp/stagnation = plants that are drying and relaxing/stimulating

Dry/atrophy = plants that are moistening & nourishing

Wind/Tension = plants that are relaxing & bring balance.

Of course, some of these tissue states can overlap or lead to the development of others, for example a hot/irritated condition can lead to dry/atrophy because all the fluids are being burned up. Or tension in the body can lead to damp/stagnation, which can lead to dry/atrophy because there isn’t any movement of fluids. In much the same way, plants can also overlap in their energetics and therefore be useful for several different conditions. For example, marshmallow is cooling, moistening, & nourishing, so we could use it as a cold infusion for an irritating cough, a burning urinary tract infection, a dry stomach & to enhance hydration, or topically for a dry, itchy rash. Getting to know which plants exhibit which energetic patterns does require some personal knowledge of the plant, and this can be gained from books and herbal teachers but is more deeply internalised by sitting with the plant itself and letting it teach you. This may be achieved through growing it, observing where it likes to grow best, its seasonal patterns, and drinking it as a tea, and tasting it. Experiencing the plant with all of your senses is called Organolepsis and is one of the best ways to determine its energetic patterns.

Back to the garden…

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Calendula. Photo by M. Carnochan

 

Below is a list of herbs that you would find (and might want to consider when planning your own physic garden) to match each energetic pattern;

Heat/excitation – plants that are cooling and sedating are needed here, and the biggest collection is found in the Rose family. Rose (flowers & hips), Hawthorn, Crampbark, Peach, & Cherry. These plants are indicated when there is redness, a rapid pulse, a red pointed tongue, and heat. Other plants that cool and calm heat & irritation include Chamomile, Lemon Balm, and the berries. Elder flower and berries are cooling, the flowers cool fever by way of relaxing the pores of the skin & inducing perspiration. The dark coloured berries are particularly high in anti-oxidants which give a cooling and sedating effect. The bitter herbs such as the artemesias (Wormwood, Sweet Annie), Gentian, or the berberine containing plants such as Oregon grape and Golden Seal are also cooling, sedating, and drain fluids such as we might see in swelling & inflammation. Aloe and Marshmallow & cranberry highbush Hibiscus are also cooling (and moistening).

Cold/Depression – plants that are warming and stimulating are needed to balance this tissue state. Plants such as Cayenne (chilli peppers), Nasturtiums, Ginger, Cinnamon, Rosemary, Basil (culinary and Holy basil).

Damp/relaxation – plants needed here are drying & tonifying, these include the geraniums such as Herb Robert, Agrimony, Yarrow*,

Damp/Stagnation – plants needed for this tissue state need to move fluid & relax the tissues (if there is underlying tension). Herbs such as these we refer to as the ‘alteratives’ or ‘blood cleansers’ such as Burdock, Dandelion root, Cleavers, Nettles, Yellow Dock, Calendula, & Echinacea. Yarrow also has a place here, as it disperses heat & blood stagnation and stimulates circulation.

Dry/Atrophy – atrophy refers to a wasting away of tissue. Plants needed here are those that impart a nourishing and moistening quality such as Marshmallow (or mallows in general), Aloe, Liquorice, Burdock, Shatavari, Withania, Solomon’s Seal, Plantain (major and ribwort), Comfrey, and Calendula.

Wind/Tension – wind in this sense refers to a changeability of symptoms. Eg: constipation alternating with diarrhoea. Plants needed here are relaxing, or spasmolytic, and often they will also be tonifying. These include plants such as Agrimony, Wood Betony, Crampbark, Raspberry leaf, Wild Yam, Lobelia, Lavender, Peppermint, Chamomile, Lemon balm, and the warming ‘carminatives’ that we find in the kitchen spice rack – Cardamom, Cinnamon, Ginger, Cloves, & Fennel.  California Poppy & Catnip along with the aforementioned chamomile are lovely calming & relaxing herbs for children.  Passionflower, Hops, Valerian, Kava Kava, Mimosa (Persian Silk Tree), Skullcap, & St John’s Wort are all useful for this state as well.

If we apply these to the more common conditions that most of us encounter, we might begin to build our physic garden like this:

Seasonal Allergies & Hayfever:  Usually typified by a hot/irritated, damp/relaxation tissue state. Useful plants to have growing here include: Nettles, Elder flowers, Eyebright, Liquorice.

Bruising: This is typically a damp/stagnation state, so Yarrow is particularly indicated. Or English daisies.

Burns: Aloe is your go-to companion here. Burdock is a close second (use the leaves). Lavender (to make a cooled lavender infusion to bathe the burn in) is also useful.

Colds, flu, & fever:  For runny noses & watery eyes (damp/relaxation): chamomile, golden seal, elderflowers, eyebright, yarrow. Yarrow, elder & peppermint are a classic combination to make as a hot infusion and drink to help bring the cold or flu or fever to a peak, and thus providing relief. The elder berries, rosehips, and black currants are also good additions to helping boost vitamin C and anti-oxidants. Sage is also particularly helpful here.

Coughs: For dry, irritated coughs marshmallow, ribwort plantain, violets, or licorice are your friends. For damp, congested coughs, thyme, ginger, sage or rosemary. For spasmodic coughs, grow licorice, or once again thyme is useful (and also possesses anti-microbial properties). Peach leaf, or cherry bark are helpful for sedating a hot, dry, irritated cough -the type that keeps children awake at night.

Cuts, scrapes, grazes: For fresh cuts that are bleeding (damp/relaxation), yarrow is your friend. If the cut looks a bit red and puffy around the edges (damp/stagnation), use calendula and yarrow. Ribwort plantain is also useful here.

Fractures & broken bones: You’ll want comfrey in your garden for these situations. Obviously, the bones will need to be set first, but you can safely apply comfrey (or take as a tea for a very short time internally) to help the bones knit back together and speed recovery. If bruising and bleeding occurred along with the break, use yarrow and calendula, or ribwort plantain first.

Insect bites & stings: Like burns this usually results in a heat/irritation tissue state. Here we apply cooling, soothing plants like ribwort plantain, or lavender.

Insomnia: If the nervous system is too stimulated (either wind/tension or heat/excitation), we need calming, sedating plants. Here we might think of Lavender, Chamomile, Passionflower, California Poppy, Skullcap.

Upset stomach: This can be due to a myriad of reasons to do with the digestion. It could occur from something recently eaten. For example, allergies, intolerances or food poisoning. These would result in the damp/stagnation, hot/irritation tissue states, or in food poisoning – damp/relaxation, wind/tension. It may be due to nervous tension (wind/tension). It may be due to deficient secretions of digestive fluids (dry/atrophy), or too much (damp/relaxation). It may be due to liver function issues (damp/stagnation or heat/irritation).

Generally speaking, most of our kitchen spices are carminatives and digestives (that is, they dispel wind, enhance digestive fluids, and are antispasmodic, eg: cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, fennel. Etc.

Aloe soothes inflamed, irritated tissue internally as well externally and is useful when the upset stomach is due to chronic inflammatory conditions such as diverticulitis, Crohn’s disease, food allergies and intolerances, leaky gut.

Calendula also soothes inflamed tissue but also works to decongest the lymphatics in the gut, making it useful for food allergies and intolerances, and for repairing a leaky gut.

Chamomile is wonderful for stomach upsets caused by nervous tension, as in Irritable Bowel Syndrome. It’s also great for kids.

Dandelion comes in to assist the liver, and as a bitter it also helps increase digestive fluids.

Ginger is for people with ‘cold’ digestion. It helps to stoke the digestive ‘fire’, to increase digestive fluids and optimise absorption. It is also anti-inflammatory and carminative.

Nausea & Vomiting: Ginger – warming, antispasmodic; Peppermint – warming; Peach leaf or twig – cooling, useful for morning sickness in pregnancy.

Rashes: If hot and inflamed, we might use a cooled Chamomile tea as a wash, the inner gel from an Aloe leaf, or if related to an allergy, Calendula and Nettle will help.

Sore throat: This is usually due to a damp/stagnation tissue state as the lymph nodes (including the tonsils) in the throat begin to proliferate immune cells to sort and filter out any potential threat (& it’s metabolic debris) from the internal and external environment. Useful plants here include Sage and Liquorice, Ribwort Plantain, and Calendula.

Urinary Tract Infections: Typically, a heat/excitation/irritation tissue state. May also present with damp/stagnation, or damp/relaxation. We want cooling, soothing, and diuretic plants here as well as plants that are soothing to the nerves, and anti-microbial. Here we think of marshmallow, ribwort plantain, yarrow, dandelion leaves, burdock, and corn silk (the silky tufts at the top of a cob of corn). Nettles and cucumbers are also useful here. Again, we can use the berries to enhance our immunity. Nasturtiums are a particularly useful plant here with strong anti-microbial properties.

Pain: Like all of the previously listed conditions, this is a symptom that communicates an underlying problem and an underlying tissue state, so pain is best treated accordingly. Having said that, we do have some effective pain-relieving herbs that we can grow in our own physic gardens, and can be used in conjunction with other appropriate herbs.

Crampbark (Viburnum opulus or Guelder Rose) – for spasmodic pain, muscular pain.

Chamomile – soothing to the nerves, digestive tonic, also for spasmodic pain. Good for kids, particularly for teething pain.

California Poppy – calming to the nerves. Good for kids.

Cayenne pepper – believe it or not, cayenne is often quite useful in pain because it increases circulation and dilates the blood vessels, bringing a fresh supply of oxygen which helps to relax the tissues. For this reason, a heart attack can be warded off in the initial stages. Use 1tsp of cayenne pepper powder to 1 cup of water and get the patient to drink it whilst waiting for the ambulance.

Raspberry leaf – useful for period pain.

For special times such as pregnancy & breastfeeding: raspberry leaf, nettles, chamomile, fennel (increases milk supply and calms colic), cabbage (cools and soothes engorged breasts and mastitis).

This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of conditions, or plants that you could grow, but I hope that it is enough to whet your appetite. A beginning Physic Garden may then look something like this;

Aloe, Calendula, Chamomile, Yarrow, Peppermint, Sage, Rosemary, Thyme, Ginger, Liquorice, Nettles, Elder, Nasturtiums, Comfrey, Chilli.

As you begin to grow your own medicine and start to use it, you may find your interest growing as well, and soon you’ll find yourself on the lookout for more healing plants – either to grow yourself, or to harvest in your particular area (such as dandelions, violets, chickweed, and other medicinal weeds or natives). Your kitchen also holds a lot of useful (and powerful) remedies and before you know it, you’ll have your own full working apothecary. But that’s another article for another time 😉

 

Happy gardening!

 

 

*Yarrow pretty much does everything.

 

 

 

 

Plant Medicine

Exploring the Energetic Architecture of the Herbs through Taste.

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Egyptian spices. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

“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:

  Tastes

  • 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.
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Wormwood. Image credit: Researchgate.

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.   

    Chillies. Image credit: Freepik

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.  

    Purslane. Image Credit: Naturallifeenergy.com

 

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. 

    Rosehips. Image credit: Wikipedia.
  • 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.  

    Milky Oats (Avena sativa). Image credit: theherbalacademy.com

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. 

    Chamomile. Image credit: Wikipedia.

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.

 

Mouthfeels

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). 

    Camellia sinesis. Image credit: Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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. 

    Echinacea. Image credit: learningherbs.com

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. 

    Marshmallow. Image credit: wikipedia

 

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. 

    Evening Primrose. Image credit: wikipedia.

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.

* * *

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.

Grassroots Healing, Plant Medicine

On reviving the Vital response.

I have to confess that sometimes, I struggle to articulate myself well. I read a lot, I study a lot, I learn a lot from my clients as well as my elders, and I experience all of my roles in life deeply. As such I have a lot going on upstairs, and in my heart. I also had a really bad case of writer’s block for several months. At some point, I will seek out the wild calamus root and take a bite or two. In the meantime, I need to quote the wisest man that ever was with the disclaimer that;

there is nothing new under the sun.”

and warn you that this post will probably be quote-heavy.  I would also like to give thanks to my teachers Sajah Popham, Matt Wood, David Winston, Kiva Rose, the eclectics, physio-medicalists, my guru – the Rambam (Maimonides), the Myddfai physicians, Hippocrates, and indigenous peoples everywhere for the following insights and (re)discoveries. And obviously to the great Creator for making it available and giving us the faculties to sense it.

So with that being said……

Once upon a time, I was an eight year old girl who, watching as my 22 y.o aunt suffering with neurofibromatosis died in a medical system that has little changed since, came up for air from my dreamworld long enough to wonder if the humans had lost sight of the forest for the trees. Why did she have to die? I heard rumours whispering through those trees that she was fine until the doctors opened her up, and then the thing spread like wildfire. But she did die, and I retreated back into my dreamworld, all the while keeping these thoughts of ‘but why?’ tucked in my subconscious until the absorbed experience of other relatives and friends, and far off acquaintances and their plight at the hands of this system became too much to ignore. Surely, I asked myself, there is a better way?

You are greater than the sum of your parts.”

It is human proclivity to assume that the ancients – or even our previous generation – were primitive in thought; stupid, unintelligent, and lacking a general understanding of how life works. I have a teenager who reminds me of this often. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In a world now long gone, and devoid of digital distractions and #fakenews, some of our ancestors knew very intimately how life worked. Either agrarian or nomadic, they knew the ley of the land, the wheel of the year and it’s cycle of seasons, the migratory or growth patterns of various species, the value of relationship with the land, the creation and each other. And they became skilled observers of the patterns that emerged from the flow of the very essence of life, that of the Vital Force. Fortunately, these observations were preserved in the various healing traditions of East and West – before the advent of chemical medicine, and these are still available today. In these traditions the Vital Force is termed Prana (Sanskrit), Qi (Chinese), Life force, or the Ruach (Hebrew). There are probably many other terms specific to the culture in question. This Vital Force is that which enlivens and directs our integrated being – spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical.

IMG_7002
The Vital Force unfurling. Image credit: ©M.Carnochan 2017 

This observation and acknowledgement of the Vital Force provided a foundation for a truly Wholistic view on the human condition, in sickness as well as health. It allowed a system of healing to develop that considered the unique and tangible constitution of the individual, as well as sound diet and lifestyle practices to support optimal health and healing, and plant medicines to address the specific patterns that the vital force worked in sickness. It also allowed for a system that acknowledged that plants, as well as people, are greater than the sum of their parts.

Our modern practice of Western Herbal Medicine, if it’s wholistic, draws much from the observations of the ancients, as well as those more contemporary practitioners with a keenly developed insight into the natural world. I say, “if it is wholistic”, because I see an unnerving trend to practice from the biomedical, or largely reductionist perspective, especially if it’s in the name of integration. We see this in the many soundbites and memes breeding in the interwebs that include such gems as, ‘if you have inflammation, take turmeric!’, or this classic, “Juniper essential oil is good for kidney infections!” My alarm bells reach fever pitch every time I log onto Facebook. And if you bear with, I’ll get to the point and tell you why.

Unfortunately, reductionism – that lovechild from the ‘age of enlightenment’ – is the lens through which the modern world views Life. In his book, The Lost Language of Plants, the inimitable Stephen Buhner quotes James Lovelock, author of Healing Gaia;

The problem of reductionism lies with the belief that the method of examining systems by taking them apart is all that is needed. Reductionists are certain that there is nothing in the whole system that cannot be predicted from the knowledge of the parts….[But] to understand [the universe] and its most complex entities – living systems – reduction alone is not enough.”

Stephen then further comments; Reductionism presents further significant problems. The greatest indicator of fundamental errors in the epistemology of science is what happens over time to the peoples and nations that internalise it as a primary epistemology. Specifically: How do they treat other people, other life forms, the environment? What happens to their culture?

Let’s all take a moment to think about that. Like, seriously. How many specialists did you say you have? How many drugs are you taking? They want to do What?!

While reductionism, or breaking things down and isolating their parts, has proven itself in helping further our knowledge of the intricacies of our exquisite organism, and granted, conventional biomedical thinking has its place in therapy, it has also given us the age of ‘wonder drugs’ and the mindset of the silver bullet, that ‘quick fix’ approach to medicine, the one-size-fits-all approach. The poison, cut, and burn! approach. It has given us antibiotics, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, opiate drugs, vaccinations, and hormone drugs – to name but a few – all of which fail to address the bigger picture and, due to their designed nature of not being readily broken down by the body and thus readily excreted along with your normal waste into the waterways, have done indisputable and potentially irreversible damage to the Earth’s eco-systems.

Alienated from Nature, human existence becomes a void, the wellspring of life and spiritual growth gone utterly dry. Man grows ever more ill and weary in the midst of his curious civilisation that is but a struggle over a tiny bit of time and space.”

(Masanobu Fukuoka; The Natural Way of Farming.)

So my eight year old self grew, and I found that there is a better way of viewing life, and a more complete way of how we can heal. And I began to practice Western Herbal Medicine as a Vitalist, just as the sense-able humans had always done, because there’s nothing new under the sun and when you’re onto a good thing, you should probably stick to it. This accounts for the success of Ayurveda and TCM.

So what does a Vitalist foundation or a truly wholistic practice of Herbal Medicine look like? And what differentiates it from the biomedical approach – or conventional medicine?

I’m glad you asked.

After assessing the necessary lifestyle and environmental factors, we seek to determine the unique constitution of the individual. This allows us to see behind the physiology, the psychology, and the organism as a whole. (Sajah Popham)

In the Ayurvedic tradition of India, it is said that we have two constitutions;

  1. Prakviti– the innate or essential nature that we are born with. This is where we see inheritances of personality, physical appearance, genetic inheritances and weaknesses, and the influence of our womb experience manifest.
  1. Vikruti – the assumed or current patterns that we see that have arisen from our diet and lifestyle practices, habits, and environmental influences. In modern speak, we may think of this as  our epigenetic constitutional picture and will largely influence the local state of the tissues as described further on.

In the majority of systems that acknowledge constitutions, the basis of differentiation is on the elements – earth, water, fire, air – each representing various aspects of the body such as structural – bones and connective tissue (earth), fluids – water, oils, blood, plasma, lymph (water), digestive and metabolic power (fire), and respiration (air). We see these in the four temperaments of early Greek medicine (Melancholy, Sanguine, Choleric, Phlegmatic), the three doshas of Ayurveda (Vata -air, Pitta -fire, Kapha water/earth), and the 5 elements of TCM (they include wood and metal as a sub for air), and there are others. There are also constitutional systems that I am aware of based on endocrine (or hormone) preponderance, body type (ectomorph, mesomorph, endomorph), and the animal representations devised by NZ medical herbalist Richard Whelan. However these also follow the same energetic patterns of the elemental models. It is a universal application. The relative ratios of these elements differentiates the organism and this determines the individual constitution.

In brief, if we were to take the Ayurvedic constitutions (doshas) as an example, they would look a little like this (these may also occur in combination);

Constitution Main Characteristics
Vata (air/wind) Cold, dry, changeable, nervous restlessness, typically thin build and quite tall, or petit. Overactive mind, hard time focussing. Very imaginative. Digestive issues such as gas and bloating. Dry skin and hair. Worse for movement.
Pitta (fire) Hot, driven, ambitious, focussed. medium height and build. Hot temper. Strong digestive fire, can lead to acid reflux etc if imbalanced. Active.
Kapha (water/earth) Slow moving, sleepy, sluggish. Slow metabolism. Nurturing by nature. Can become depressed, sad, dull and foggy, and needing to hold onto things.

But we can go even deeper in our differentiation

The Vitalist practitioners of the physiomedical tradition of 19th century North America introduced the Six Tissue State observations. This has been further developed by the master herbalists, Matthew Wood and David Winston, along with the corresponding tastes and vitalist actions of the plants, which I’ll outline further on and go into more depth in my next post. The six tissue states determine the specific constitution of the tissue and therefore determines the state of the organ. This provides an extraordinary insight into the movement of the Vital Force in the pathology of illness and disease. It also provides a more specific, wholistic, individual, and appropriate use of the herbs. The Six Tissue States are as follows and they are based on Temperature, Moisture, and Tone of the tissue.

  • Heat/Excitation
  • Cold/depression
  • Damp/Stagnation
  • Dry/Atrophy
  • Damp/Relaxation
  • Wind/Tension

and we can observe them in the body like this;

Tissue State Spiritual Mental Emotional Physical
Heat/Excitation Zealot, enthusiastic in the faith- can lead to Extremism. “Type A’ personality, driven. Temper, ‘fired up’, passionate. Irritability. Anxiety, tension, restlessness. Warm/hot to touch, redness, irritation, swelling, tender, burning sensations. the tongue is elongated, flame-shaped, bright pink/red. The mucous membranes and the capillaries are typically affected by heat. Rapid bounding pulse. may have high blood pressure. Hypersensitivity, hyperimmunty.
Cold/Depression Lacking in faith, no sense of purpose, unfruitful. Dullness of mind, apathetic. Prone to depression and melancholy. Low energy. fatigued. Cold skin and extremities, poor peripheral circulation. Pale skin. Pale tongue with white or thick coating. Under secretions. Septic, or putrefying conditions, prone to infection. Slow wound healing. Pulse is weak and slow.
Damp/Stagnation Stuck in a rut, bogged down in one aspect of their belief, but wanting to grow. Depression, dullness, cloudy thinking, can’t concentrate, lack of focus. Languid. A build up of waste products due to poor elimination, which leads to a thickening of fluids (lymph,etc). Pain feels heavy, dull, dragging, bearing down. Bloating. Because of lymph stagnation and liver congestion, the skin is typically affected and skin conditions are common. Hangover. Fibromyalgia type pain.
Dry/Atrophy Once had faith and and a sense of purpose but it wasn’t affectively nourished. Withered, weathered, diminished. Nervousness, tension, stress, lack of confidence, hard time asserting themselves. Low will power and vital reserve. Anxious. Weakness, withering, emaciation, loss of flesh. The tongue is typically dry, the skin is dry, and there may also be constipation or poor digestion. The mucous membranes, the skin, and the synovial fluids that lubricate the joints are most typically affected due to a lack of secretion. Sticking, sharp pains. Irritated coughs due to dry respiratory conditions. The dryness is due to lack of water as well as oils. The atrophy due to undernourished tissue.
Damp/Relaxation No solid framework to their faith or belief system. Goes with the flow, can’t seem to grasp a clear sense of purpose. Often a mellow, relaxed disposition. Goes with the flow’. The tissues can’t hold onto fluid due to a lack of tone. There may be prolapse or herniation. Excessive sweating, salivation, diarrhoea, urination, menses. Varicose veins
Wind/Tension Fixed in a belief, but is changeable and then they become fixed in that belief. Anxiety, stress, tension. There’s a significant nerve/gut connection here. nervous, tense, wound up. Constriction and cramping, spasms. Symptoms come on suddenly or come and go, they are irregular, or alternating (eg; constipation and diarrhoea). The gut is typically affected, although this has much to do with its connection to the nervous system as the smooth muscle tissue is affected.

 

Herbalist, Sajah Popham teaches the wonderfully useful perspective of our internal ecology as a reflection of the earth’s ecology – hence tissue states may be likened to dry desert like conditions, swampy or boggy conditions, cold tundra, or humid rainforest conditions etc. This is useful because it begins to reconnect us with the rest of creation, and it also increases our understanding of the plants that we might use.  The tissue state isn’t always this delineated however, and some tissue states can give rise to others, for example a hot/excited state can lead to dry/atrophy. A damp/stagnant state might also lead to heat/excitation, which may then lead to dry/atrophy. The beauty of this system is that coupled with an understanding of anatomy and physiology, we can still observe these patterns through our modern eyes, through the lens of biomedicine and see that it is translatable. The main difference is that with this wholistic understanding we are viewing life through a wider lens. We are treating the whole person.

 

Perhaps the most classic example of the intelligence of the Vital Force and it’s movement in the body can be seen in the mechanism of Fever. The body’s ability to generate a fever is an important part of our immune health. At the beginning of an illness which produces a fever, we feel cold and shivery and look pale. This is because the hypothalamus, (which regulates our body temperature) has turned up the heat, whilst at the same time constricted the blood vessels under our skin so the heat can be kept inside. This increase in heat creates an environment which pathogens don’t find very hospitable. But if it gets too hot, damage to the internal organs (especially the brain) can occur, so once the immune response has been stimulated the hypothalamus begins to cool the body down by relaxing the constricted blood vessels allowing sweat to escape. This is when the fever ‘breaks’. The sweat contains toxins and debris from the pathogens as well as the body’s own metabolic waste. It is a relatively quick and efficient method of cooling the body and excreting waste products, and people typically feel much better afterward. (The sheets on the bed that the patient is resting in should be changed regularly during the course of the illness due to this toxic sweat). Conventional wisdom uses drugs such as Tylenol or Panadol to suppress the fever, however this ‘quick fix’ approach of suppression can do more harm than good in the long term, because it stops the movement of the Vital Force and can drive the infection deeper into the body.

Chronic suppression of acute conditions leads to chronic disease.” (Sajah Popham)

The Vitalistic and wholistic approach endeavours to support the movement of the Vital Force. For this we typically use herbs appropriate to the underlying tissue state and that also possess a diaphoretic action. A diaphoretic opens the pores to allow heat and toxin-laden sweat to escape the body. This has an after effect of cooling the body down. The art and science of herbal medicine therefore meet in the skill of the practitioner to assess the underlying state, and then prescribe accordingly.

So why do my alarm bells go of when I read infobytes on the internet about this herb being good for that? Because, conversely, just as the human body is enlivened by a Vital Force, so to are the plants, and just as we experience patterns of energetics, so too do the plants. For example, the taste and effects of Juniper is spicy, pungent, and stimulating. The essential oil (volatile oils) concentrates these characteristics. Infection in the actual kidney is a pretty serious affair, and somewhere in its pathology will be a hot and irritable state. Giving a plant that is by nature warm and stimulating will only aggravate this state and potentially cause more serious damage. The same can be said for Turmeric. It is also a warming, pungent, and drying plant. It is often combined with black pepper to increase it’s absorption in the body – a plant which is warming, pungent, and stimulating. If a person is constitutionally hot and dry, then taking turmeric and pepper long term will aggravate that constitution. The ‘anti-inflammatory’ effects of Turmeric are based on the biomedical isolation of a key constituent called curcumin. If we take the whole picture of person and plant energetics into account, then a typically hot, dry, and inflamed person can take turmeric when it is balanced in a herbal formulation with more energetically appropriate herbs by a skilled practitioner. This will then ensure a much more successful treatment.

In my next article, I will discuss the Vital intelligence and the energetic patterns of the plants in more depth. As a brief outline, plant energetics also follow the same principles of Temperature, Moisture, and Tone. These are largely ascertained by the taste of the herb and the effects that we notice in the body as a result. This way of directly experiencing a herb as a potential medicine using our senses is known as Organolepsis.

Temperature – the herb may taste or produce a sensation of warmth or heat (the effect of this is a stimulation of the vital force, metabolism, so we use it to relieve the cold/depression tissue state.) Conversely, it may produce a cooling sensation (this sedates or slows down the metabolic fire, so we use it reduce tissue irritation.) The plant can also be neither hot nor cold. This is a neutral temperature and can be used across all constitutions and tissue states.

Moisture – the effects of the taste, or the mouthfeel of the herb might be moistening, and may produce more secretions such as salivation, or it might be a mucilaginous plant (this energetic lubricates and softens hard tissue, and reduces atrophy.) A plant might be considered drying if the effect is to produce a dry mouth, or it has a diuretic action. It removes excess fluid from the tissues, and we use it relieve stagnation or relaxation. The final sensation is balanced and it us used to harmonise a herbal formula and normalise the tissues.

Tone – The herb may have the effect of constricting, or tightening tissue (such as ‘puckering’ effect in the mouth), this increases the tone of the tissue, it also reduces excess secretions, and we use it to counteract increased relaxation of the tissue structure, such as with bleeding. A plant might have a relaxant effect – we see this as an antispasmodic action and therefore useful in tension and cramping pain. This effect also increases secretions and counteracts tension and constriction. The final energetic effect here is nourishing. These are the nutritive herbs which are typically rich in mineral salts and help to feed and heal the tissues.

There are Five key tastes and Four ‘mouthfeels’ that give rise to the energetics as well as the actions of the herbs on the body, and the affinities they have for the specific organs. The tastes are also largely indicative of the constituents (or chemical makeup) of the herb. The tastes are:

  • Bitter
  • Pungent
  • Sour
  • Sweet
  • Salty

The ‘Mouthfeels’ are: astringent (drying, puckering), acrid (like Bile), oily, and mucilant (slippery, moist, slimy)

If you’ve stuck with me this far, well done and thank you so much. Coupled with the aspects of life that we should always first consider: good diet, regular movement, nourishing sleep, optimal hydration, regular exposure to sunshine, an environment conducive to good health, and a sense of purpose in life, we can see that an understanding of the Vital Force, and how it moves in our unique body as well as the plants we use, outlines a truly wholistic system of healing. What I have shared in this post is but a brief glimpse at this beautiful model. I hope it has piqued your interest enough to join me as I endeavour to go into further details in future posts.

Michelle x

References and Resources.

Buhner, Stephen. The Lost Language of Plants. White River Junction, VT. Chelsea Green. 2002.

Griggs, Barbara. The Green Pharmacy.

Popham, Sajah. The School of Evolutionary Herbalism. Lecture notes.

Waller, Pip. Holistic Anatomy: An Integrative Guide to the Human Body. Berkley, CA. North Atlantic Books. 2010.

Wood, Matthew. The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism. Basic Doctrine, Energetics, and Classification. Berkley, CA. North Atlantic Books. 2004.

_____________ The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. Berkley, CA. 2008.

______________ The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants. Berkely, CA. 2009.

www.joyfulbelly.com  assessment of constitution from an Ayurvedic perspective. Also has a great list of recipes and looks at the energetics of food.

http://www.rjwhelan.co.nz/articles/constitutional_medicine_introduction.html New Zealand medical herbalist, Richard Whelan’s animal archetypes.

http://www.cauldronsandcrockpots.com/2016/03/phlegmatic/ Herbalist, Rebecca Altman has written several articles discussing the four temperaments.