Learning About Herbs
Information on herbs and their uses has been passed down to us in many
ways: through stories, in books, set to music, and incorporated into
our everyday speech. Learning about herbs is fun, fascinating, and easy
to do no matter where you live or what your circumstances. It is an
adventure that makes use of all of your senses. Reading about herbal
medicine is fascinating, and a great way to learn how others have used
plants. But the real authorities are the plants themselves. They speak
to us through their smells, tastes, forms, and colors.
Anyone who is willing to take the time to get to know the plants around
them will discover a wealth of health-promoting green allies. What stops
us? Fear. We fear that we will use the wrong plant. We fear poisoning
ourselves. We fear the plants themselves.
These fears are wise. But they need not keep us from using the abundant
remedies of nature. A few simple guidelines can protect you and help
you make sense of herbal medicine. This series of short articles will
offer you easy-to-remember rules for using herbs simply and safely.
When you have completed all eight parts of this series, you will be
using herbs confidently and successfully to keep yourself and your loved
Survival is a Matter of Taste
Virtually all plants contain poisons. After all, they don't want to
be eaten! Because we have evolved eating plants, we have the capacity
to neutralize or remove (through preparation or digestion) their poisons.
Not all poisons kill, and even poisons that are deadly often need to
be taken in quantities far larger than can easily be obtained from foods.
(Apple seeds contain a lethal poison but it takes a quart of them to
Our senses of taste and smell are registered in the part of the brain
that maintains respiration and circulation, in other words, the survival
center. Plants (but not mushrooms) advertise their poisons by tasting
bad or smelling foul. Of the four primary kinds of poisons found in
plants -- alkaloids, glycosides, resins, and essential oils -- the first
two always taste bitter or cause a variety of noxious reactions on the
oral tissues, and the last two usually do, especially when removed from
the plant or concentrated.
Sometimes the taste of the poison in a plant is hidden by large amounts
of sweet-tasting starch. Fortunately, human saliva contains an enzyme
that breaks down these carbohydrates, exposing the nasty taste of the
poison. Since even tiny amounts of some poisons can have large effects,
for safety sake, take your time when tasting.
Because our sense of taste protects us against poisonous plants, it
is always best to take herbs in a form that allows one to taste them.
Consuming just one plant at a time, with as little preparation as possible,
gives us the greatest opportunity to taste poisons and is therefore
the safest way to use herbs.
One herb at a time is a "simple." When we ingest a simple
herb-- raw, cooked as a vegetable, brewed fresh or dried in water as
a tea or infusion, steeped in vinegar or honey, dried and used as a
condiment -- we bring into play several million years of plant wisdom
collected in our genes. When we ingest many plants together, or concentrate
their natural poisons by tincturing, distilling, or standardizing, we
increase the possibility of harm. Powdering herbs and putting them in
capsules is one of the most dangerous ways to use them, especially those
containing poisons. For ultimate risk, play with essential oils; they
are far removed from the plant, very concentrated, and as little as
one-quarter ounce can kill.
Safety Second, too
In the next installments we will continue to learn how to use herbs
simply and safely. We will explore nourishing and tonifying herbs, the
difference between fixing disease and promoting health, how to apply
the three traditions of healing, and how to take charge of your own
health care with the six steps of healing.
Experiment Number One
You will need the following plants, all of which contain poisons that
you can taste: a head of lettuce (taste the leaves and the core separately),
some black or green tea (unbrewed), a fresh dandelion leaf, strong chamomile
tea (steep it overnight), a can of asparagus, some fresh mint, a spoonful
of mustard seeds, and a bottle of vanilla extract.
Approach tasting a plant as you would tasting a wine. Begin by inhaling
the aroma. Release the bouquet by squeezing the plant until your fingers
are moist (or chew briefly and spit into your hand). Do you feel enticed,
repelled, or neutral? Does your mouth water? Does your throat clench?
Observe how you react to the smell. Does it sting your eyes? Irritate
your nasal tissues? Do you want to taste it?
We do not gulp our wine, nor do we merely wet our tongues; for best
effect, taste and smell a reasonably large piece, but don't stuff your
mouth. As you chew, move the plant material around in your mouth. Roll
it around with your tongue. Make contact with it for a full minute but
DO NOT SWALLOW. No, no, spit it upon the ground, or into your hand,
or the sink, or wherever you can, but do not swallow. SPIT IT OUT.
What do you feel now? In your stomach? your throat? your head and nose?What
is your gut feeling? What sensations accompany the taste of this plant?
It is best to wait until the previous taste is completely gone before
going on to the next plant. If you are doing advanced work with wild
plants, wait at least a day before you use or consume the plant in case
you have a delayed reaction to some component.
Experiment Number Two
Taste as in experiment one, but use these inedible (poisonous) parts
of common foods: Lemon inner rind, apple seeds, rhubarb leaves, lettuce
root, the inner soft pit of a peach.
Experiment Number Three
Taste as in experiment one, these poisonous plants (fresh or dried):
wormwood leaf, goldenseal root, yellow dock root, echinacea root, eucalyptus
leaf, motherwort leaf.
Aromatic plants are rich in essential oils. We often use them to season
and preserve food. In small quantity, these oils are not harmful, but
concentrated, they threaten the liver, kidneys, and life itself. Smell
and taste, as in experiment one, as many aromatic plants as you can:
thyme, rosemary, oregano, lavender, sage, orange peel, cloves, cinnamon,
nutmeg. Brew strong teas (steep overnight) of these plants and taste.
Can you see, smell, or taste more essential oils? Smell or taste one
drop of the extracted essential oil of any of these plants.
1. What is an alkaloid? Medicinal plants often contain groups of alkaloids. Name
seven plants rich in alkaloids (specify the part); then name at least
three of the alkaloids in each plant. 2. What are glycosides? Name at
least four glycosides and describe the effect each has. Name seven plants
rich in glycosides; specify the part of the plant and the kind of glycoside.
3. What are resins? Name four or more plants (specify part) rich in
4. What are essential oils? Name a dozen or more plants rich in essential
oils (specify part).
5. What is the difference between a poison and a medicine? Are all drugs
NOTE: If you can't find the answer
to a q above use Google.com to search, you will find helpful hints.
* Give the botanical name (genus and species) for each plant you named
in the further study section.
* Taste a variety of plants that grow around you. Warning: It is possible
to experience uncomfortable or harmful effects from this experiment.
A book on poisonous plants can reassure you that the plants you are
tasting will not kill you. It is best not to put plants such as poison
ivy or poison oak in your mouth. DO NOT TASTE HOUSEPLANTS.
Reprint Authorization Information- The following 8 articles are provided by Susan S. Weed © 2002 (Link: http://www.susunweed.com/An_Article_Weed_Self-help1.htm)
These articles are designed as lessons for my students in herbal
medicine and are not intended for any use other than learning and
personal use. To contact Susan S. Weed for reprint authorization contact
her at the following email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.