Be Your Own Herbal Expert: Part 1
By Susun S. Weed
Editor’s note: You can read Part Four of this series only in the June NFO eUpdate newsletter. Not a subscriber yet? Join now for monthly updates and subscriber-only content.
Herbal medicine is the medicine of the people. It is simple, safe, effective and free. Our ancestors knew how to use an enormous variety of plants for health and well-being. Our neighbors around the world continue to use local plants for healing and health maintenance. You can, too!
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 ones whole, healthy and holy.
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 their poisons through preparation or digestion. 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. For example, apple seeds contain a lethal poison, but it takes a quart of them to cause death.
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 a 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’s 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 us to taste them. Consuming just one plant at a time, with as little preparation as possible, gives us the greatest opportunity to taste poisons. This is the safest way to use herbs.
We call one herb at a time 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 of an 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 toning 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.
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.
Taste as in Experiment 1 but use these inedible (poisonous) parts of common foods: lemon inner rind, apple seeds, rhubarb leaves, lettuce root and the inner soft pit of a peach.
Taste as in Experiment 1 these poisonous plants (fresh or dried): wormwood leaf, goldenseal root, yellow dock root, Echinacea root, eucalyptus leaf and motherwort leaf.
Aromatic plants are rich in essential oils. We often use them to season and preserve food. In small quantities, these oils are not harmful, but concentrated, they threaten the liver, kidneys and life itself. Smell and taste (as in Experiment 1) as many aromatic plants as you can: thyme, rosemary, oregano, lavender, sage, orange peel, cloves, cinnamon and 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.
For further study
• 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.
• 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.
• What are resins? Name four or more plants (specify part) rich in resins.
• What are essential oils? Name a dozen or more plants rich in essential oils (specify part).
• What is the difference between a poison and a medicine?
• Are all drugs poisons?
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 taste 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.
See Part Two of Be Your Own Herbal Expert here.
© Susun S. Weed; for permission to reprint this article, .
Susun Weed has been living the simple life for more than 30 years as an herbalist, goat keeper, author, homesteader and feminist. See Susun's complete Wise Women Herbal Series books. Visit www.susunweed.com and www.ashtreepublishing.com.