Flavors and Actions of Herbs
by Susan Marynowski
In the recent discussion of cranberry, someone said that they drank pure cranberry juice (without sugar) and that it was “bitter.” Cranberry is actually a “sour” flavor! This has prompted me to write about the flavors, which I believe are a doorway to understanding the plants and their actions. As a perpetual student, this will be a review for me and hopefully interesting for the newer herbalists on the list.
Many traditions categorize plant medicines based on their flavors. Flavors are a great way to understand plants because they relate to the chemical composition of the plants, and therefore the actions of those plants. The Chinese have a 5-flavor system, while the Ayurvedic tradition honors 6 flavors. Native Americans also had flavor categories for plants, as did the ancient Greeks and other lost western traditions. Not every herb fits neatly into these categories, and some herbs have more than one flavor, but this is a great start to understanding plant chemistry. There can be many subdivisions and nuances in flavor, but here’s just a basic description of some of the flavors of plants, from a multi-ethnic perspective.
PUNGENT: Also called “acrid” or “spicy,” herbs with this flavor are warm or hot and drying in energy. Pungent plants usually contain volatile oils. Many of our favorite essential oils come from pungent plants. They are excellent digestive herbs (“carminatives”) and blood purifiers and they move poor circulation and dispel conditions of cold and mucus. They often move energy from the inside of the body to the outside of the body (“diaphoretic”), opening the pores and allowing sweating to occur. They are relaxing and also possess antimicrobial activity. They have a direct effect on the lungs and the colon. Great bunch of plants for “cold” colds without fevers! Think of herbs in the mint family (marjoram, rosemary, thyme, lavendar, mints), ginger, herbs in the Apiaceae family (angelica/dong quai, fennel, coriander, cumin, dill, anise), prickly ash, cayenne, black pepper, garlic.
SWEET: The sweet flavored herbs are warm-to-neutral and moist in nature. This kind of sweetness is the full flavor of complex carbohydrates and other macronutrients, not the empty sweetness of pure sugars (which are cooling in nature). These herbs/foods tend to build, harmonize, strengthen, tonify, and nourish the body, especially for those with a lack of energy or weak blood. They have an inward and consolidating action. These plants actually form the bulk of most diets around the world (e.g., grains, beans). It is now believed that the polysaccharides (long-chain carbohydrates) in mildly sweet herbs and foods are the reason for their long-term nourishing and immunostimulant effects. In excess, however, sweet (esp. empty sweets) can cause congestion and lethargy and dampen (quell) the digestive fires. Examples of sweet herbs include ginseng, jujube dates, cinnamon, licorice, astragalus. (While classified as a bitter herb, echinacea also contains these immunostimulating polysaccharides.)
SOUR: The understanding of sour herbs is divided among different traditions. Some of the sour herbs are warming and moistening. This warming group tends to gain its flavors through the presence of organic acids and bioflavonoids. These foods cleanse the body of toxins and promote digestion. Some are cardiac tonics. They stimulate digestion by directly affecting the liver and galbladder. Sour herbs are high in vitamins (e.g., Vitamin C = ascorbic acid). Examples of these warming sour herbs/foods include citrus, berries (blackberries, cranberries, strawberries, etc.), plums, peaches, pineapple, hibiscus (“red zinger”), rose hips, hawthorn berry, vinegar.
ASTRINGENT: Astringent herbs (also called “sour” by the Chinese) are typically cooling and drying and condensing. They gain their flavor from the presence of chemical constitutents called tannins. These herbs are most useful for tissue contraction and fluid absorption, such as in stopping excess perspiration, loss of fluids, diarrhea, or excess mucus secretion or bleeding. They are especially tonifying to the mucous membranes of the digestive tract, urinary tract, uterus, and kidneys. In excess, astringent herbs can actually harm digestion by coating the mucus linings of the digestive tract, just as tannins act to toughen the flesh when tanning hides. Examples include blackberry leaf, raspberry leaf, strawberry leaf, schizandra, black walnut hulls.
BITTER: The bitter herbs are generally cooling and drying in nature. The bitter flavor comes from chemical components such as alkaloids and glycosides. Bitter herbs are detoxifying, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antiviral in action. They stimulate the secretion of bile, which stimulates the digestion and normal bowel elimination. They also help clear the blood of cholesterol. This taste stengthens the hearts and small intestines and cleanses the blood. Bitter is America’s least favorite flavor, with the notable exception of coffee, with its stimlulating alkaloid, caffeine. Bitter to excess can cause too much cooling and drying. If bitter herbs are being used for more long-term digestive treatment, they often are balanced with warming “carminative” pungent herbs. Examples include dandelion, gentian, turmeric, any of the berberine-containing plants (goldenseal, barberry, etc.)
SALTY: The salty taste is generally cold in energy. It stabilizes and regulates fluid balance and also has a softening effect, such as on hardened lymph nodes, tight muscles, constipation, or tumors. Salty herbs have an effect on the kidneys, adrenals, and bladder and they can improve elimination and bowel action. Salty herbs also help control gas and coughs. A craving for salt is often a sign of adrenal exhaustion. In excess, plain salt can be irritating and heating to the body, causing water retention and high blood pressure. Herbs high in mineral salts, however, will not cause these complications. Examples include nettles, plantain, seaweeds (considered warming in some traditions).
I recommend that you and your herbal friends to get together during the cold of winter and have an herb tasting. Have one or several friends be the hosts, who prepare the “mystery” infusions ahead of time. Then, just like tasting fine wines, you can taste and describe and discuss the flavors (one at a time!) and try to guess what effects the plants would have and perhaps even identify the plants from their flavors. This is a great exercise for even experienced herbalists, and for new herbalists helps to develop the refined sense of taste needed to begin to know and understand the plants. The bitter flavor, in particular, is one for which we should all cultivate a better appreciation!
Now for the person who thought that cranberry was bitter: If you aren’t sure what bitter tastes like, start with some turmeric from the spice rack, or make some strong yarrow tea, which is mildly bitter. Graduate to some goldenseal or boneset tea to really get a hit of bitter. Or try some Swedish bitters before a meal to stimulate digestion. Then compare the flavor of straight cranberry, and you will know the difference between sour and bitter. Sour makes your cheeks pucker, while bitter hits the back of the tongue in a very satisfying way! Cheers! –Susan
herb descriptions will follow this order:
cautions, if any
salty, bitter, cooling, neutral
arthritis, fatigue, pituitary gland, mineralizes, blood thinner
seeds unless sprouted.
Aloe Vera (aloe barbadensis)
aloin, aloes, muco- polysaccharides cool, moist
Burns, wound healing, laxative, radiation, frostbite, anti-biotic, anti-viral, immune stimulant, anti-inflammatory
allergenic for some. Inner-leaf latex is purgative. Do not use whole-leaf juice unless a laxative is desired.
Angelica (Angelica sinensis, Dong Quoi)
essential oils and fatty acids: ligustilide, safrol, carvacrol, ferulic acid. aromatic, pungent, warming
antibacterial, ant fungal, immuno-stimulant, anti tumor, stimulates progesterone secretion, reduces arrhythmia.
excess mucus, estrogen, whooping cought, colic, intestinal cleanser
Astragalus (astragalus membranaceus)
Anti-viral (papillomavirus and herpes) synergistic with inteferon, deep immune building
drying, cooling, astringent, aromatic
polyps, blood builder, jaundice, goiter,
Bearberry (Uva Ursi
hydroquinone, arbutin, allantoin
diuretic, astringent, urinary antiseptic, cystitis, herpes & flu virus.
linolenic acid, sterols, amino acids, vitamins, enzymes, minerals, trace elemets
lower blood fats, suppress atherosclerotic plaques
use commercially processed products to avoid allergies.
Bilberry (vaccinium myrtillus)
antiviral: herpes, influenza. anti-fungal, yeast, bacteria, protozoan. antihistamine, improves vision.
Birch (betula spp)
poultice, tea, fevers, rheumatism,
estrogen, bronchitis, nerves
Blessed Thistle (Cnicus benedictus)
bitter, cooling drying
diuretic, diaphoretic, febrifuge. Indigestion, appetite stimulant, liver, gallbladder, candida
Bloodroot (sanguinaria canadensis)
tormentil, tannic acid
astringent, polyps, tumors, wound healing
Not to be taken internally. Poisonous. Causes death.
nerves, cramps, induces labor, spasms
lymphatic cleanser, swollen glands, clogged liver
bitter, cooling, moistening
tranquilizer, virus, insomnia, expectorant
Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)
sesquiterpene lactones bitter, acrid, cooling, drying
reduces fever, body pain, influenza, induces perspiration
purgative in large doses.
Boswellia (Boswellia sernata)
gum resin containing boswellic acids
anti-inflammatory, arthritic rheumatic
Buchu (agathosma betulina)
limonene, diosphenol, glycosides, flavonoids
urinary, kidney, prostate
bitter, sweet, alterative
blood purifier, liver detox, gout, arthritis, skin blemishes
hot, dry, astringent
blood cleanser, tumors, skin pigment disorders, healing salve for cuts and wounds
Cayenne (Capsicum frutescens)
general stimulant, used internally and externally for pain, improved digestion., circulation
liver purge, gall bladder, laxative
fevers, virus, relaxant, digestion
Chamomile (matricaria chamomilla)
flavanoid apigenin, essential oils: alpha-bisabodol., soothes intestines
digestion, soothing, antispasmodic, bowel gas pain, sedative. eye wash
some allergic response.
Chaste berry (vitex agnus castus)
reduce sexual desire, adjust production of female hormones, progesterogenic, endometriosis, PMS.
bland, salty, cooling, drying
emulsifies fat, obesity , blood purifier, dissolves fatty tumors, aids fat metabolism
Cherry (Prunus spp)
hydrocyanic acid (cyanide) benzaldehyde amygdalin
bark: cough sedative fruit: gout
All parts except fruit toxic in large doses.
goiter, diuretic, liver, skin
bland, cooling drying
lungs, bones, muscle, digestion, poultice, fast wound healing.. not for deep wounds
soothing, bitter, mucilant
kidneys, bladder, liver
cramps, lung, heart, uterus
diuretic, nerves, depression, mucus
bitter, salty, cooling drying
liver, diuretic, spleen, urinary tract
inflammation, liver tonic, arthritis, headaches, cholesterol
nervine, gas, digestion, calmative
stimulates progesterone, nerves, female glands
thyroid, depression, female problems, palpitations, enhances absorption of calcium
bitter, acrid, cooling drying
antibiotic, antiviral, lymph, prostate,
cough, colds, fevers, allergies
bronchitis, phlegm, cough, lungs
astringent, tonic, cooling, drying
eye-wash, feather spray, sinus, cataracts, upper respiratory
digestion, cough, kidneys
suppresses appetite, indigestion, colic, spasms
sweet, bland, warming
mucus, lungs, lymph, cholesterol, weight gain
bitter, cold, aromataic, dry. for exploding headaches
pain, migraines, sinus,
Garlic (allium sativum)
alliin & allinase convert to allicin when garlic is crushed. quercetin, cyanidin, selenium, over 75 sulphur compounds.
Allicin is destroyed in cooking. Use fresh cloves or dried. Antibiotic, viral, fungal, tumor, parasitic. antioxidant, lowers cholesterol, inhibits clotting and inflammation.
Can cause heinz body anemia in dogs and cats.
liver, jaundice, spleen, circulation, digestion
aromatic, warming, pungent stimulating
indigestion, colic, nausea, circulation, vertigo
aids vasoconstrictive headaches.
circulation, memory, muscular degeneration, stroke
bitter, cooling, drying
infections, pancreas, blood sugar, antibiotic, urinary
Substitute with Oregon grape when possible.
memory, brain, pituitary, depression, senility
Grapefruit seed extract (GSE)
must be diluted before use. must use probiotics after use.
do not use in eyes.
heart, adrenals, blood pressure, stress, angina, arteriosclerosis
aromatic, bitter, cool, dry. estrogeni
nerves, sleep, alcoholism, spastic, hyperactivity
bitter, aromatic, cooling and drying
expectorant, antispasmodic, lungs
bone spurs, kidney stones, gall stones, bladder infection, arthritis
irritating diuretic, hot, dry
infections, urinary infections diuretic, pancreases, diabetes
poisonous to birds
nerves, relaxant, pain killer, antifungal, anticonvulsant, muscle relaxant
do not overdose, can paralyze muscles
thyroid, goiter, pituitary, obesity
Kudzu (chinese Gen gen)
sweet, acrid, cool. dehydrogenase inhibitor, diadzin, diadzine, Riboflavin.
May cure alcoholism. Goes to stomach an and spleen.
anti-viral, circulation, antipyretic, digestion
diuretic, immunity, antibiotic, colds
sweet, bitter, warming, moistening
low blood sugar, coughs, hoarseness, sore throats, toic
nervine, relaxant, coughs, congestion
Use cautiously, can kill.
cool, moist, bland to sweet
kidneys, bladder, soothes digestive, urinary , respiratory
gastritis, antacid, pain, inflammation
bitter, cooling drying
liver tonic, hepatitis, rashes depression
bland, salty, drying nourishes lungs
lungs, pain, asthma, lymph
sour, astringent, cooling, drying
antiseptic, inflammation, skin sores, lung. contains manganese
salty, mineral rich
circulation, blood purifier, blood pressure, rheumatism, nourishing mineral rich
heart, nerves, urinary problems, kidney stones
pungent, warm dry
digestion, phlegm, coughs
bitter, cold, dry. replaces goldenseal
lymph, liver, acne, anti-inflammatory
nervine, sedative, blood pressure
sour, astringent, drying, cooling
blood purifier, prostate, ant tumor, anti fungal
colds, flu, heartburn, digestions, nauseas
Prickley Ash Bark
heart, circulation, tissue builder
eyes, liver, gall bladder, kidney
sour, astringent, cooling, drying
diarrhea, female tonic, fevers
Liver tonic, lymph, expectorant
colic digestion, diarrhea, bioflavanoids
antiseptic, astringent, reduces sinus inflammation
St John’s Wort (Hypericum)
nerves, insomnia, bronchitis, depression
sweet, bitter, warming, moistening
blood purifier, liver tonic, skin, male tonic
prostaate male reproductive organs, digestion,
high blood sugar, sedative, sweating
bladder, brttle nails, circulation, bleeding
longevity, blood pressure, endurance, depression
nerves, insomnia, high blood pressure
cool, moist, sweet, bland soothing, nourishing
burns, colitis, lungs, diarrhea, coughs, digestive tract
Substitute with Marshmallow when possible
colds, flu, gas, dalmative
acne, pulmonary, expectorant, diaphoretic
natural sweetner, diabetes, heart problems
heart, colon cleanse, worms
Curcumin, a natural derivative of the spice turmeric, induces glutathione S-transferase activity and reverses aflatoxin induced liver damage (produced by aspergillus).
hot, dry, aromatic
colds, coughs, indigestion, antiseptic
Una de Gato (Cat’s Claw)
joint pain, immune builder, anti viral
dry, irritating, astringent, disinfectant
urinary tract problems, spleen, kidney
bitter, aromatic, cooling, drying
nerves, pain, insomnia, anti-spasmodic
hot, dry astringent
mucus, throat problems, lung,
White Pond Lily
tumors, prostrate, uterine problems
astringent, cooling, drying
pain killer, anti-inflammatory, fever, astringente
mucus, phlegm, bronchitis, fever
bitter, cold, dry
pain killer, bronchitis, cramps, whooping cough, nerves
anxiety, blood oxygenator, liver, aches and pains
worms, cholagogue, stomachic, anti-inflammatory
lung tonic, liver tonic, anti-inflammatory, antipyrretic, stops bleeding
hot, dry, resinous
lungs spleen, expectorant, alterative
testosterone stimulant, impotency, frigidity