How to Learn the Unwritten Herbs

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Determining a Plant’s Properties from Scratch

When studying plants in an environment where the plants haven’t been studied from a Western model or the information isn’t readily available, can quickly become tricky. Often this issue comes up when my students live in other areas of the world, like Africa, where there are lots of local medicinal plants – but there isn’t a typical Materia Medica reference book with a Western perspective on the local medicinal plants in their area and. If this is something that you’ve faced when studying Western herbalism, I’d love to offer you a few helpful tips so you can understand your plants in terms of their medicinal actions, their energetics, their organ system affinities, and so on. 

So where do you start? How do you start to decipher the properties of a medicinal plant when you’re starting from scratch? How do you start to understand how to use those plants when you can’t look those herbs up in a book or maybe you don’t even have any teachers to turn to, or any local references.

Today I want to share a nice framework on how you can start to approach looking at a medicinal plant that you don’t know, or that you can’t look up and reference, and how you can start to build your experiential knowledge and understanding of that medicinal plant.

A Plant’s Properties and the Experience of a Plant

First, how do we determine some of the Western ways of understanding the properties of a plant, things like herbal actions, organ system affinities, and energetics? How do we determine those things in plants that haven’t been traditionally documented that way or that you can’t look up in a standard Western materia medica? How do we know how to formulate with that plant?

There are a couple of different ways of approaching this. One of the most ideal ways is if you can find a person who has any of this traditional knowledge about how those local medicinal plants are used. I would encourage trying to find someone like this if possible and ask them questions, and see what they’re willing to share. You probably can’t ask them what the herbal actions are, but most herbalists are going to be able to tell you what organ system they go to or what they’re traditionally used for.

Elecampane (Inula helenium)

For example, a certain herb is used for a cough, therefore we know it’s going to have a respiratory affinity. Then you can ask more clarifying questions like whether it’s better if the cough is really dry or very wet. Maybe it’s good for a dry cough. Well, that gives you a sense for some of the energetics—moistening. So you can infer some of these Western ways of understanding a medicinal plant just based on a conversation. Even if they’re not using the same terminology, you can quickly start translating it based on how that plant has traditionally been used. That’s valuable. Obviously, sometimes it’s not easy to find someone who practices herbal medicine based on the traditional ways of using all those local plants. But if you can, this is the best.

From there, it comes down to your own experience with the plant and starting from scratch in a way, and working with that plant in the sense of engaging with it and tasting it and ingesting it, obviously making sure that it’s a safe plant to work with first and foremost, and understanding that there are no major contraindications or side effects that you need to be concerned about. But there is great value in experiencing a plant for yourself and deciphering its medicinal virtues from there.

The Experience of a Plant: Taste

One of the best places to start is the taste. With Chinese medicine, there are five, and Ayurveda adds a sixth: bitter, pungent, sweet, salty, sour, and then the sixth that Ayurveda adds is astringent. Just by tasting those tastes, you can infer a lot.

The taste of a medicinal plant can give you a wealth of information about that plant. The taste of a plant can inform you of the organ system, tissue affinities, and energetics. The taste of a plant can inform you of its medicinal actions. You can infer a lot of those things just by an initial taste of the herb.

Here are a few examples: Bitter plants tend to have an affinity for the liver, the gallbladder, and the digestive system. Bitter plants typically have a cooling, energetic property. Bitter plants tend to be on the drying side of things. Bitter plants have the action of being a bitter tonic. Oftentimes they can be cholagogue and choleretic. Cholagogue means they increase bile secretions from the gallbladder, and choleretic means they increase bile production in the liver. These are things that can be inferred from that bitter taste. Each bitter plant is going to have its specificities and its nuances that are learned from longer-term usage of the plant, but you can, at the very least, start to infer some of these things just based on taste. 

Pungent plants—plants that have a lot of volatile oils and taste spicy or peppery—oftentimes are plants that have a carminative action. Many times volatile oil or resinous plants can also have an expectorant property (to expel mucus from the lungs) if you feel them in your lungs. More often than not they are warming energetically, and they tend to have a drying effect on the system. In terms of formulation, those pungent plants oftentimes are drivers—99% of the time drivers in herbal formulas are pungent. These plants are spicy, aromatic, warming, stimulating plants that will move the blood and circulation.

Cayenne (Capsicum annuum)

With blood flow, there are two ways to think about it. There’s the actual driving of blood—increasing blood flow through pungent plants, like Cayenne pepper (Capsicum annuum) or Ginger (Zingiber officinale). These two are well-regarded drivers, and cayenne especially is classic in traditional Western herbal medicine. 

The other aspect of blood flow is dilating blood vessels. If you open up blood vessels and make them wider, you’re going to bring more blood flow to that area. This can come from the action of antispasmodics or vasodilators and a great example in Western herbalism is Lobelia (Lobelia inflata). This is where we see Lobelia and Cayenne being a major pair used in Western herbalism because Lobelia dilates all the blood vessels and cayenne drives it, and this is how we equalize the circulation. That’s a pretty classic driver pair. 

Antispasmodics oftentimes will also have an acrid taste. Acrid plants oftentimes are antispasmodic, oftentimes are nervine (they affect the nervous system), and they have an affinity for the muscles. Some will have different specificities, for example, Wild yam (Dioscorea villosa) tends to have a little bit of a stronger affinity for the digestive system, where, Lobelia works everywhere, it does have a little bit of a stronger orientation toward the respiratory tract. Kava-kava (Piper methysticum) is another example of a pungent plant that relaxes muscles everywhere but tends to have a urinary tract affinity. 

Astringent tends to have a drying energetic on the tissues. It tends to affect the mucosa. They tend to be vulnerary, wound healing. They affect the skin, oftentimes drying out the mucosa in the GI, in the urinary tract, in the respiratory tract, and tightening and toning, so they’re typically used for a relaxed tissue state to bring more tensile strength and tone to those tissues. 

There are varying opinions among traditions about the sour taste. Some say they’re warming, and some say they’re cooling. In Western herbalism, we note that sour-tasting plants tend to have a strong effect on the cardiovascular system. They tend to be cooling and antioxidant, reducing inflammation and heat and irritation. We drink lemonade on a hot summer day or eat berries because they cool us off. Many sour plants are flavonoid-rich and sedative. That’s why, for example, hawthorn berry and elderberry are great for the heart and cardiovascular system.  

Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.)

The sweet taste tends to have a moistening energetic. It tends to build and strengthen tissues. It provides sustenance and strength. So we tend to use it for dry, atrophic-type tissue states. Sweet plants tend to be demulcent in action, and we’ll see them moisten and hydrate tissues that are dry, cracked, weak, especially in the mucosa. Astringents tend to dry the moisture in the mucosa, and sweet plants tend to bring moisture back into the mucosa. But moistening plants will have different organ affinities, for instance, some will be a moistening demulcent expectorant in the lungs, some will be moistening demulcents as a diarrhetic in the urinary tract, some will be moistening demulcents in the digestive system, and lastly, some might have a general moistening effect all over the body. 

Understanding the salty taste is a little nebulous for a lot of herbalists at first. We’re trained to think of salty as the taste of salt, but the salty taste according to Western herbalism is like a crispy mineral-rich plant. If the color green had a flavor, that would be the salty taste. The best examples are Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) and Nettles (Urtica dioica). Other sea plants like Kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) are also salty, but Horsetail and Nettles are a good example of a more subtle, subdued salty taste. These plants oftentimes are diarrhetic, working through the kidneys and urinary tract. Oftentimes they’re mineral-rich plants that help to nourish and rebuild and sustain weakened tissues. 

Listening to your body

Those are the kinds of details that you infer from the longer-term usage of the plant. If you’re just working with a plant through your experience, you take it for a longer period, and you just start to pay attention to your body. For example, if you need to go to the bathroom more consistently, or your digestion has changed, or you feel more calm and relaxed.

There’s a dynamic of cultivating physiological and anatomical sensitivity that is an important skill for herbalists. You should develop a heightened and refined awareness of your body and how your body feels naturally, what its baseline is. Then when you start working with a medicinal plant, you can start to be aware of how that physiological baseline starts to shift. This is a really valuable skill.

I’ve been consciously working on that for a long time so that when I take a plant, I can feel in my body where that plant is going. I can feel when something’s working through my kidneys and my bladder. I can feel an herb when it’s affecting my nervous system or my lungs. Just through paying attention, just through sensitizing your body to those sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle shifts that a plant can bring when you introduce it into your body.

Effectively Using Plants

So the best place to start studying new plants is with your tastes. From those tastes, you can start to infer what types of actions, what types of organ affinities, and what types of energetics you might start to see from those plants. From there, if you work with that plant, say, every day for six weeks, that’s a really good amount of time to start to get a sense of how that herb is altering or adjusting your physiological processes. Cultivating sensitivity to how plants feel in your body and having a notebook to write down your experience can be so helpful. Just pay attention. Drink the tea of that herb and pay attention to your body and make note of what you feel like.

Coupled with any traditional knowledge that you can glean can help to start to put the pieces of the puzzle together so that you can start to decipher how that herb is going to just be used medicinally, which will then guide how you’re going to formulate with it as well. You can’t know how to formulate with an herb until you understand the core properties of that plant as it exists on its own. Start there, and then you can piece together how you might combine it with other plants to have a nice synergistic effect.

Particular characteristics that determine the qualities of an herb for a formulation, come down to knowing the actions, the affinities, and the energetics of a plant. If you’re working with a formula for the respiratory system, you want to know that the herbs going into that formula has an affinity for the lungs and maybe have an expectorant property. Then you look at the tissue state of the person you’re treating. If it’s cold and it’s damp, you’ll want more warming, drying, stimulant expectorants as opposed to moistening, demulcent expectorants – and that’s where you can get a little bit more precise.

When I’m looking at a plant, I don’t want to know just the energetics. I don’t want to know just the affinities. I don’t want to know just the actions. I need to know all three and how they come together in a pattern. And that in turn informs me how to use that plant effectively.

So I hope that gives you a little framework to work with if you find yourself in a position where you don’t have any references to look up a plant your curious to learn more about. Please post any questions below and if you found this post interesting, and you’d like to continue your studies – you may also like the following articles:

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