Understanding herbs is as simple as authentically interacting with them, and learning about them is as easy as using your senses. Taste is an amazing portal into understanding the properties of herbs. When you meet a new herb, whether it’s fresh or dried, put a bit into your palm, rub it with your thumb to release its aroma, then take a good, deep smell. Aroma is integral to taste, as well as memory. Once you`ve experienced an herb’s aroma, and you know it is edible, taste a pinch, slowly rolling the herb on all areas of the tongue and palate. Taste buds on different parts of the tongue pick up different taste sensations and you’ll find that information listed under each of the taste descriptions that follow. The taste of a plant indicates its chemistry and a basic knowledge of plant constituents gives you clues to the possible actions of a plant. You’ll find a chapter on plant constituents in Herbal Pharmacy.
THE SWEET TASTE nourishes the body/mind/spirit, and builds tissue, muscle and bone. Sweet is tasted at the tip of the tongue. Sweet/bland tasting foods and herbs are usually long term tonics. Sweet tasting herbs contain polysaccharides and starches and include immunomodulators, adaptogens and demulcents. Sweet is neutral in temperature and promotes the emotions of calm, contentment, love, compassion and joy. It harmonizes the mind. Plant parts that have a notable sweet taste include fruits and roots, rhizomes and tubers. Sweet foods/herbs include grains, meat, fish, red clover, burdock, slippery elm, astragalus, codonopsis and licorice.
THE BITTER TASTE is cold and cleansing to the body. Bitter is tasted at the middle edges on the left and right sides of the tongue, and a small band across the middle, connecting these edges. It usually indicates the presence of alkaloids, which often affect the nervous system and are consistently bitter, and glycosides, which often affect the circulatory system and are frequently bitter. Most flavonoids, which have broad beneficial health effects if taken in sufficient quantities, are also bitter. Bitter herbs stop the accumulation of pathogens, stimulate enzymatic action and the production of hydrochloric acid. By stimulating digestion, bitter tastes promote health. They do not build tissue and vitality directly. Positive emotions associated with the bitter taste include clarity, introspection and self-awareness. Bitter herbs/foods include dandelion, turmeric, angelica, coffee, artichoke leaves, willow, motherwort and skullcap.
THE ASTRINGENT TASTE is consolidating and helps to tighten or bind energy in the cells. Astringency is sensed at the center of the back of the tongue. It is mildly cooling and has a drying action that is usually produced by tannins in the bark, leaves and outer rinds of fruits and trees. It causes the mucus membranes in the mouth to contract and results in an immediate dry, chalky sensation. The astringent taste tones tissues, reduces sweating, cools excess heat, is anti-inflammatory, stops bleeding and acts as a vasoconstrictor. Astringent tastes support the feelings of stability, and help us to feel collected and grounded. Sometimes astringent herbs are added as a last ingredient in a building formula to bring the energy of the tonic herbs into the tissues. Astringent herb include agrimony, meadowsweet, oakbark, pomegranate, rose and red raspberry.
THE SOUR TASTE helps to warm the system, increase digestive capacities and thus mildly builds the tissues. Sour is tasted on the front edges of the tongue and along the tapered curve. It is primarily the result of acids such as citric acid, lactic acid, malic acid, oxalic acid and ascorbic acid. The sour taste is thirst relieving, immediately moistens the mouth and increases the flow of saliva. It can promote bulk, holds fluid in the tissues, act as a demulcent, laxative and cholagogue. The sour taste awakens the mind and helps to coalesce scattered energy. It can be energizing, refreshing, satisfying and nourishing to the heart. Positive emotions associated with this taste include appreciation, understanding and comprehension. Fermented foods are considered to be sour and have enzymes and probiotic activities that aid in the digestion and the assimilation of food. Thus, they are building to the tissue. Foods include miso, buttermilk, sauerkraut and citrus. Herbs include sorrel, rose hips, hawthorn berries and schisandra berries.
THE PUNGENT TASTING herbs are heating, increase digestive fires, clear out stagnation and thus are eliminating in nature. The pungent taste is sensed on the center of the tongue. It usually indicates the presence of glycosides and affects the blood and generative tissues. Its actions include blood-thinning, antispasmodic, antiparasitic, carminative, diaphoretic and vasodilating. The warming spices, being light in nature and usually high in essential oils, help to lighten food and make it more digestible. They also act as stimulating expectorants and diaphoretics. The pungent taste supports vigor, enthusiasm, vitality and expansiveness. Foods/herbs include ginger, cinnamon, cayenne, rosemary, horseradish, resins and essential oils.
THE SALTY TASTE is mildly warming, increases digestive fires, moistens the system and stimulates enzymatic action. It is picked up at the rear edges of the tongue. The salty taste is associated with dissolving hard or soft masses, and removing moisture and phlegm. The salty taste supports digestion, absorption, assimilation and elimination. It promotes growth, supports muscle strength, moistens the body and helps to maintain the water electrolyte balance. It can be energizing, nutritive, demulcent, grounding, soothing to the nervous system and can help to guard against tumors. The salty taste enhances the spirit and helps to combat dullness, depression and a lack of creativity in our lives. It supports courage, confidence and enthusiasm. Salt makes the tastes of food stronger. Foods include sea salt, rock salt, kelp and other seaweeds, celery. Herbs include nettles and chickweed.
MEDICINAL APPLICATION OF THE TASTES
Bitter and Astringent - fevers, infections, traumatic injury
Pungent - stimulates defensive reactions, moves stagnation
Sour, Salty, Sweet - tissue building, long term tonification