Friday, October 11, 2013

6 Reasons Why Herbalists Should Study the Taste of Herbs

The taste of herbs is a facet of herbalism that has intrigued me for several years. I began teaching about the Taste of Herbs three years ago with presentations alongside Michael Tierra and I’ve taught an introductory course at herbal conferences across north America.   

After several years of exploring the taste of herbs I am still completely fascinated with this sensorial exploration! I’ve even created an entire course exploring these concepts in depth. 

You can download your free copy of the Taste of Herbs Flavor Wheel and learn more about my upcoming course at

What is the Taste of Herbs?

Exploring herbs through the sense of taste is a traditional tool that has been used for as long as we can imagine. Before microscopes, petri dishes and isolated chemical constituents, taste was a practical tool to give someone insight into how to use an herb. 

This practice is still very much alive in traditional methods of herbalism. If you were to study herbs from an Ayurvedic or Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective you would find that taste is an important part of studying herbs and their methods of use. 

In Traditional Chinese Medicine there are five tastes. 

In Ayurveda there is a sixth taste, astringent. (In Traditional Chinese Medicine astringent is considered to be a part of the sour taste.) 

For me, studying the taste of herbs is two-fold. On the one hand it is a theory that has been passed down through many generations and it is something that can be memorized to gain a deeper understanding of herbs and how they work. 

But taste isn’t something that should be learned from book study alone! Our own subjective experience of taste is just as important to explore. As Paul Bergner recommends: to be a master herbalist in thirty years or more, taste an herb every day. 

Here are my six top reasons why herbalists should study the Taste of Herbs! 

1.Tasting herbs is about connection

Taste can give us a strong visceral connection with plants that goes beyond memorizing what books say or even what our teachers say. 

Our senses - taste, feel, smell, listen - are powerful ways in which we make sense of our world. They help us to take in information, record that information and learn.

Ever have a sense of smell immediately evoke strong memories? 

Ever hear a song that instantly brings you back to a particular time in your life?

How about the taste of comfort food? A favorite family recipe? 

These experiences of the senses strongly transport us to another place and time. 

They present another way of knowing that strongly activates the mind. We can easily forget something we read in a book one time, but once you really connect with a plant through the sense of taste you’ll never forget it.  

2. The Taste of Herbs is key to understanding Herbal Energetics

In my opinion, one of the reasons herbalism is such a powerful form of medicine is that it matches herbs to people instead of diseases. As herbalists we don’t diagnose eczema or fibromyalgia or heartburn and then give herbs to match those diseases. That is more the realm of western medicine. 

Instead, we seek to understand the person and their underlying imbalances and skillfully match herbs, diet and lifestyle suggestions to help them create health from the inside out. 

When using herbs in this way they go beyond being “herbs for eczema” and, instead, become a powerful tool to help someone discover and resolve the root cause of their health problems. 

Does the person have too much heat? Cold? Is there too much dryness or moisture? 

Once we understand the person, we can then match herbs to the person. 

Warming herbs can be given to help someone who has too much coldness. Cooling herbs can be given for someone with too much heat. 

How do we know if an herb is warming or cooling? 

By taste and taste sensations. 

I know you already know this! 

On a hot summer’s day do you reach for a steaming hot bowl of chili? Or watermelon? 

On a brisk fall day do you want an iced smoothie or a warm drink? 

The taste of herbs is like an herbal decoder ring for understanding herbal energetics. With this knowledge you can be more confident and effective when choosing herbal remedies. 

3. How potent is an herb?

I often hear people ask about the potency of an herb. The classic example is someone finding a long-lost jar of herbs on their back shelf and wanting to know whether it is still good. 

Since there isn’t really a broadly accepted “due date” on herbs, the best way to tell is by using our senses. If you know how the herb tastes when it is vibrant and potent herbal medicine, then you can do a taste comparison to tell if you can use your forgotten herb with confidence or if it is too far past its prime.

You can also use the sense of taste to determine if the herbs you harvested from your garden are more or less potent than the herbs you bought online or the herbs you wildcrafted. 

I love being able to taste an herb or an herbal preparation and know by taste alone whether or not it is going to be powerful medicine. 

4. If it is the right herb

Most of the time we confidently know which herb we have. Perhaps we harvested it ourselves using our plant ID skills, or it came fully labeled from a reputable company. Sometimes we can simply use our eyes to know that yes, this is really chamomile. 

But this isn’t always the case. The majority of herbal safety problems comes from adulterated herbs. This is where someone has substituted a more readily available herb that looks similar to the one desired. Skullcap being adulterated with germander is a key example.

Powdered herbs can be difficult to recognize by sight alone. Knowing the taste of an herb can help you to really know that the powdered herbs you get are the ones you ordered. 

Another way you can use taste to know if it is the right herb is fairly obscure. I am sure this would never apply to anyone reading this. But let’s just say that perhaps someone, at sometime, forgot to label one of their herbs or herbal preparations. If they intimately know the taste of herbs then they’ll be able to tell if that green jar of tincture is California Poppy or Skullcap. (Note: this is for example purposes only and has, of course, never happened to me.) 

5. Commonalities between species

Another frequent question people have is whether they can use a plant with the same genus, but different species, in a similar way. 

What about plantains? Can Plantago lanceolata be used similarly to Plantago major

Can Rosa rugosa be used like Rosa nootka

Can common mallow (Malva neglecta) be used like marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)? 

One way to tell the difference is by taste! 

Do they taste the same? Do they feel the same in your body? 

6. Differences between species or even plant parts

Just as the taste of an herb can tell us if two similar herbs can be used in the same way, the taste of herbs can tell us if they are different. 

Is Monarda dydima similar to Monarda fistulosa? Or is Holy Basil similar to culinary basil? The answer to this is fairly obvious once you know their taste. 

The taste of herbs can also gives us insight into whether different parts of a plant can be used in similar ways. For example, can elecampane flowers be used like elecampane root? What’s the difference between valerian flowers and valerian root? 

Understanding how the taste of herbs can be used in theory and in practice provides herbalists with a practical tool that they can use every day. Not only can it increase your confidence and effectiveness when choosing herbal remedies, it can also bring herbs to life through a sensorial and visceral connection to the plants. 

You can download your free copy of the Taste of Herbs Flavor Wheel and learn more about my upcoming course at 

As in ancient times, herbalists would do well to continue to rely upon their trained senses and experience to properly assess the therapeutic nature of plants, and among the different faculties there is perhaps no equal to the perception of taste. 

Used by every system of traditional medicine, taste figures prominently in the practice of herbal medicine, providing immediate insight into the properties and uses of medicinal plants.

Todd Caldecott