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.
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/holy.
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.
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.
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
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
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 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
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
What are resins? Name four or more plants (specify
part) rich in resins.
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 poisons?
Susun WeedPO Box 64Woodstock, NY 12498Fax: 1-845-246-8081