Ancestral intuition; The use of sensory recognition in herbal medicine.

Herbalism is one of the oldest (if not the oldest) practices of healing in human history. The use of wild natural beings to encourage healing is one that can be traced back five thousand years or more. Generation after generation knowledge and experiences with herbs and other beings have been passed down. Thousands of years of learning and observing. The application of these teachings and what has yet to be learned, on a person to person basis, can come from ones own experiences and use of the senses. We have adapted and grown with the world around us and we have the ability to sense the medicine found within that world, as well as the dangers. In some ways self awareness is of the utmost importance, because if you can not connect with yourself you will have a harder time denoting the sometimes minuscule messages our bodies can present to us. Like wise, not taking for granted those things we experience day to day, such as taste, color, smell and sensation, can play a big role in learning and experiencing. We have a built in chemistry set right within our own sensory organs. After all the whole point of senses is to experience the world and to be able to discern whether something is safe or not.

This is a concept that has taken me years to fathom and even longer to relearn. I had to break down those things ingrained in me from childhood and relearn how to listen to myself and to recognize the world I live in for what it is. A part of this was reconsidering how I looked at health and the world around me. In conventional western medicine health is the absence of disease. In traditional Western, Chinese and Ayurveda (among a wide array of other traditional healing methodologies) health is the vibrant vitality of the whole body when it is working in balance with itself and the world around it.

Breaking the mindset of disease treatment is perhaps the hardest part. The easiest way I can think to help redirect this thought process is to consider the symptoms surrounding a disease and ask what those symptoms mean. The disease is irrelevant at this point, it is just a name, often a Latin name simply repeating the symptoms; i.e. Arthritis broken down is “Artho” meaning Joint, and “itis” meaning inflammation of a tissue. So when some one says they have an inflamed joint and their doctor tells them they have Arthritis they are being redundant in expressing the symptoms. Or perhaps Bronchitis, “Broncho” referring to the bronchial tubes of the lungs and again “itis” referring to the inflammation of those tubes. I hear all too often that Inflammation is the cause of all disease. Well, our question should then be what is the cause of the inflammation? Infection, habit, diet, or all of the above?

This is only the beginning of opening yourself up to redirecting thoughts of what defines health and how to use herbs to restore it, rather than using them to treat a disease. Ultimately it is a matter of giving the body an assist in breaking though the barrier and bringing to a balanced state. The herb is not the cure or remedy but a means of giving your body a tool to achieve its goals, like cayenne as a stimulant to clear out a blockage or enliven a sluggish gut that is drawing on your bodies energy reserves. I like to think of it as a scale sometimes, 0 being absolute health and +/- being the antagonist. Your body always wants to be at 0 on the scale, 0 blockages, 0 stagnation, 0 infection, 0 over exertion of unnecessary energy (this doesn’t mean sit on the couch all day), 0 disruptions in its day to day functions. Anything + or – is an irritant/over stimulation or depletion (functional, substance, or nutritional).

So how do we recognize what our body needs and what herbs suit that situation or individual? The same way our ancestors did, with their on board chemistry set. For thousands of years we have been adapting and shifting to our environment, perceiving threats, connecting with beneficial, and using cleaver manipulations of other organisms to trigger our own biological responses, providing our bodies with what they inherently know they need. Our senses are finely in tune with the natural world around us as we have evolved and adapted to those surrounding. Our bodies are keenly aware of what is around us on an instinctual level, yet our modern societies have done a very good job at teaching us to second guess those instincts and to over think what our bodies already know. Our sight observe, our sense of smell remembers, our taste responds and protects, our touch embraces or rejects. Each of these senses can give us a deeper understanding of our world and the beneficial or undesirable organisms we interact with every day. All of this to discern friend or foe.

  • Sight:

This sense allows us to observe in an objective way. How does the organism interact with its environment and how does its environment interact with it? Where does it thrive? What other organisms frequent it and how often? What organisms tend to avoid it? What part are the organisms drawn to (if not the whole thing)? What time of year are they consuming those parts? How does it protect itself from attack? What tends to thrive around it? If a predatory carnivore suddenly went from flesh to flower, there is a good chance it was using it for medicine, considering this is unusual behavior. If a black bear (omnivore) frequents the berry bush for berries, but occasional nibbles on the leafs, we can then reason out that perhaps the berries are for food while the leafs are an aid of some kind. If an animal or insect takes a small portion of a plant and consumes it, yet leaves the rest alone, there is a good chance that this is powerful medicine not to be consumed in large quantities and only as needed. By observing the animals behavior you can then begin to figure out what might be wrong with it and track it to what it is doing to tend to itself. These are visible observations that can be made, and some of the things our ancestors used to decide what they could consume and what should be left alone.

  • Smell:

This is the memory sense which is hardwired into our instincts, communication response, life experiences and our emotions. I’ll use aromatherapy as an example here for a moment, using lavender essential oil as an example. Everyone is pretty well familiar with lavender and how calming it can be. Lets say someone grew up near a lavender plantation, or better yet worked in one. The work conditions are rough for this person, they are paid little and the owners and those they higher for overseeing the plantation are abusive. Do you think later down the road this person will be calm and relaxed at the scent of lavender? Not likely. The scent of lavender while triggering certain chemical responses to ease tension in the body, will probably have the opposite and over-riding effect, because it is tapping into the memory reservoir as well. While the exact memory may not necessarily surface they might feel a bit of that tension and become snappy or recede into themselves.

Our sense of smell also is linked into our ancestors and what our bodies have come to use as natural instincts. You are not likely to consume a plant that smells like rotting flesh as your body knows this is a good pathway for invaders, either parasites or infection. Something pleasant might indicate that it wants us drawn towards it for some reason. A berry for instance that has a pleasing aroma might be so we consume it and deposit the undigested seeds later at another location. Plants and other organisms who are looking to attract certain creatures will use scent as a means of drawing them in. these scents are predominantly pheromone based, and often used in mating and reproduction, warnings of danger/stress response, or as a means of defense or repulsion.

  • Touch:

Touch can be a safeguard to consuming things that may, if even so much as placed in our mouth, might have dramatic and detrimental effects. For instance, if your where to see, smell and taste poison ivy the first two would not be so bad, but by placing it in your mouth you have caused a serious problem for yourself. By touching it and getting the rash on the outside of your body rather than inside, you have saved yourself throat, lung and gastric constriction that could potentially prove fatal. Yes, the external rash may not be comfortable, but sometimes it is wise to choose how you wish to take your poison (so to speak).

This sense can also be a means of aid in identifying the herb at hand. Is it soft, hard, succulent, sharp, fuzzy, astringent, irritating and so on?


  • Taste:

This is where we really begin to divine the medicinal capacities of herbs we have already been able to identify. The taste buds are highly sensitive and can pick up five different flavors of varying degrees, sweet, sour/tart, savory, bitter, and salty. Along with these flavors we can also discern the various sensations that go along with them, such as astringent, pungent, cooling, or damp.

  • Flavors:
    • Sweet is typically an indication (in nature) of nutrients, a source of energy and associated with heat or warmth.
    • Sour/tart will typically trigger a reflexive tightening similar to the sensation of astringents but is much deeper, causing the muscles to squeeze and contract. This is helpful when fluid is trapped and needs a bit of encouragement. For instance I like tart green apples for deep respiratory congestion as it seems to trigger a rapid elimination of that fluid. This action can also cause pathways to constrict causing increased fluid movement.
    • Savory is the stimulant, pleasure center, and swooning flavor (all too abscent in the average American diet).
    • Bitter is the responsive flavor, triggering a powerful reaction from a body that has been trained to register bitter as poison. If bitter enough our first instinct is to spit it out for (whether we know it or not) fear of being poisoned, or in some cases may even trigger vomiting (a good sign that it in fact was poison). This response raises a powerful red flag that triggers the detox and digestive organs into high gear, ready to eliminate and dispose of the threat as fast as possible. This also triggers a higher functionality of the gut and digestion while in some cases cooling the nervous system. Some plants use this as a deterrent however like the dandelion leafs being eaten by rabbits and other animals we have been able to observe the safe from the dangerous. I would also like to point out that not all poisons are bitter, and thus the flaw in our wiring (know what you are consuming!!!).
    • Salty can also have an effect on the pleasure center while balancing fluid pathways through ionic responses within the cell. Salty, as you may have guessed is an indication of the presence of sodium, and has an effect on fluid retention within the tissues and cells. If you have ever soaked dried beans without salt and then did it again with a dash of salt you can see first hand how sodium can cause the transference of fluid through tissue barriers.
  • Sensations:
    • Astringent is the drying or tightening of the mucosa tissue of the mouth. This typically accompanies bitter or sour/tart herbs, but may also be found in others. This triggers a strengthening of the tissue and reduces permeability. It has a valuable role in restricting bleeding and reducing excess surface fluid, it can also be used to aid in strengthening weakened tissue.
    • Pungent is often confused with bitter, and while it may have some bitter elements it presents a heat to it which can range from mild (oregano) to hot (cayenne). This is the clearing or moving sensation, generating blood flow and stimulating movement of fluids in the body. It is also good for clearing blockages (via fluid pressure), enlivening sluggish organs, and aiding elimination.
    • Cooling sensations tend to be opening of various pathways, like peppermint or eucalyptus on congestion of the lungs or sinuses. These can be used to good effect in combination with pungent herbs (I like sniffing peppermint and then shaking a jar of black pepper and taking a sniff for deep sinus congestion… clears you right out! And fast (close your eyes though)). By opening pathways you relax the smooth muscles and ease the constriction that may have previously been there. Another example might be wild cherry bark for irritated cough (although I feel this is far over used). The cherry bark contains cyanide compounds that trigger a release of muscular function (hence the cardiac [the heart being a muscle] failure associated with concentrated cyanide). If the lymph nodes are being too constricted and can not clear due to muscular constriction then this will assist in clearing them and thus resolve the problem, otherwise it may have an antagonist effect down the road if the correct issue is not addressed. Essentially cooling herbs are the antispasmodics (often aromatic herbs), easing overactive muscle response and opening pathways.
    • Damp is associated with the fluid movement of the body. Many of these herbs are those first to come up in the spring. One of their primary roles in nature is fluid dispersal, and these same herbs have a valuable role in the fluids of our own bodies. Dandelion, violate, nettles, and bed straw(s) are just a few. Then you have those succulent herbs which present fluid rich nutrients to the body, soothing the mucous membranes and healing them. Others might aid the lymph flow, clearing blockages and encouraging elimination of congestion. Mucilaginous herbs like marshmallow or slippery elm likewise have a powerful effect on the mucous membranes (which coat all of the tubular or open caverns of our internal organs). The mucous membranes are vitally important as they are the means of transportation of the immune cells, elimination of unwanted substances or organisms, and a means of utilization of enzymes to break down complex elements into simple ones.

Once you have discerned the flavor and sensations associated with the herb you can begin looking at the personality of the herb. This takes a great deal of time and patients as you observe year after year how it grows and interacts with its surroundings. There is something to be said about taking the time to truly getting to know your medicines and all of their complexities. Like us all living organisms are deeply complex, not only in chemistry but in personality. Each one is unique and a product of their environment. Some herbs, like yarrow or oregano, like dry depleted soil, thriving under harsh hot conditions, while others like angelica prefer cold, shady and damp conditions. They each can grow in a variety of environments yet have their preferences and will thrive as a medicine under those circumstances. Valerian for instance, comes up fast in the spring, waits a bit and then shoots out the very aromatic and airy flowers. Its a kind of flighty plant in its personality, preferring full sun and well drained soil. The flowers are very fragrant yet dissipate quickly in the early summer. After that you have a tall lanky stalk that sticks up awkwardly in the middle of your garden… this herb is great for people who are too grounded and need a bit of flighty in their life. On the other hand those that are too flighty may go off the deep end and in some cases become over stimulated by it.


There is something to be said for tasting your herbs and giving your body a moment to take in the chemistry as it sits on your tongue. I have found that in many cases I get a better effect from my herbs when I have a chance to taste them. I believe that this has something to do with the triggering of response as the body recognizes the elements at play and thus can prepare for what is to come. This triggers a powerful response as the digestive tract is directly linked to the central nervous system. This interaction of sensory tissue stimulates a cascade of reactions from enzymatic, to acid production and even neurotransmitter release or production.

This brings me to my next and final point, identifying the individual, herbs that suit them, and whether the issue at hand is produced by the body or an outside source. This can be tricky, and often requires calculated questioning to decipher. To be honest this takes time and practice. By getting to know a select few herbs really well you can begin to use them in very creative ways to get the results you want. For instance I have a strong preference for cleavers (or bed straw in general) for irritated, dry, nonproductive cough following a cold or flu, as well as general recovery from these issues. The reason being is that after (and during) a cold or flu your body is trying to dispatch with dead red and white blood cells, tissue cells and toxins released by the dieing infectious organism. This causes lymphatic and mucosal irritation as elimination occurs. If you feel the sides of the neck of someone who was recently sick and has an irritated cough, you will probably notice that the lymph nodes there are swollen. The lymphatic system does not have its own self propulsion system and thus relies on muscle contraction to compress the lymph nodes to move fluid along. If left too long and made stagnant the mucous membranes of the lymphatic tissue becomes irritated and thus signals contraction from the associated area. In this case the throat. As we cough we contract our neck muscles and they squeeze the lymph nodes moving the lymphatic fluid. Cleavers aids in triggering lymphatic drainage, fluid movement and at the same time helps to break up congestion within the lymph nodes. Combine this with other lymphatics such as Echinacea or Calendula and you have a powerful post infection tonic.

This is a basic rundown of how to gain herbal wisdom as you work to achieve herbal knowledge. Sometimes it can be cryptic and hard to grasp at first, taking time to gain that experience. You will make mistakes, you will have failures, but you will also have successes and possibly find stunning and unique ways to assist those around you.


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