Learning to use herbs can be overwhelming because of the massive amount of literature and information available. You could study each herb and learn the chemistry of the plant and how it affects particular health conditions. You could also study the spirit of plants and their relationship with the characteristics of an individual. I have found that an easy way to begin understanding herbs is by learning the energetics of plants and how they function in relationship to body systems. Once you understand the actions of the five herbal flavors and the body systems they affect you will be able to begin choosing herbs for yourself that support your health and well-being.
Five Flavors of Herbs
In most traditional medicine systems around the world, there are five recognized flavors that we experience in herbs. Each flavor has particular actions and a relationship with one or several body systems.
Bitter herbs stimulate the production of normal digestive secretions and promote healthy digestion and elimination. The flavor of bitter on the tongue starts the flow of saliva in the mouth and sends hormonal signals to the rest of the digestive tract to prepare hydrochloric acid and digestive enzyme production so that we can break down food and absorb nutrients. The bitter flavor also stimulates motility of the digestive tract supporting healthy elimination.
Examples of bitter herbs are dandelion root, globe artichoke, and bugleweed.
The herbs with a sour flavor also affect digestion by promoting production of bile in the liver and excretion of bile from the gallbladder in order to break down fats in the diet. Many of the sour herbs are also bitters.
Examples of sour herbs are burdock root, dandelion root, blueberry, and globe artichoke.
Sweet herbs are often calming to nervous system and soothing to inflamed mucus membrane tissue. Many herbs that are considered adaptogens, herbs that help us adapt to stress, are considered sweet in flavor. We also have demulcent herbs, those with mucilage that promotes healthy mucus membrane tissue, that are also considered sweet.
Examples of sweet herbs are skullcap, elder, slippery elm, and mullein.
Pungent herbs are spicy in flavor and aromatic. The pungent flavor is present in plants that are antimicrobial in nature and assist in supporting a healthy immune system response. Our most common culinary herbs are considered pungent.
Examples of pungent herbs are garlic, ginger, and osha.
We have two different kinds of salty flavors we experience in plants. The first is true salt that comes from our seaweeds such as kelp. The second is the salt flavor that comes from minerals in the plants. The salty plants are nutritious foods and are used to support normal healthy cell structure and function.
Examples of salty herbs are dandelion leaf and yellow dock.
Herbal Energetics Guide
The Wise Woman Herbals® Energetics Guide gives you a way to understand the relationship between the flavors and the body systems. I recommend choosing herbs in a flavor category and experience each herb individually to begin feeling how that herb works in your body. You can download your free guide HERE or by clicking the image below.
There is also a Botanical Fundamentals Kit that is available that includes sample sizes of all of the herbs represented in the Energetics Guide along with a fun deck of Botanical Cards to learn more about each herb.
Always research an herb before using it and consult your qualified healthcare practitioner to make sure the herb is safe for you. The information provided in this article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the guidance of your medical professional.
Kris Vaughan, CH is the Owner and Program Director of Herbal Wisdom Institute in Arizona.