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Backyard Herbalism: Common senses when using herbs

Updated on August 2, 2017


Knowing just a few things about the characteristics of herbs can go a long way towards successfully using them. Use your resources, read and learn but nothing beats just trying something, you just want to do it with a little care if you're new to it.

Learning about herbs means understanding how they taste, smell and look and what it tells you about the herb. Using the senses can go a long way towards your goal. Smell and appearance are particularly important for identification and determining potency. Taste can tell you much about the characteristics of an herb in regards to what it does and how to use it. Using your senses along with your head can make your herbal experiences much richer.

Seek help from your health care provider.... blah blah blah

It has to be said and having said it I have to say, but who doesn't self-medicate in one way or another these days? Use common sense, folks, if your trying to treat something serious on your own. Know what not to take if you are already taking medications. Not everything mixes well. Check with your pharmacist or an online pharmaceutical reference to find out what is not compatible with your daily meds!

On another note, most of your "regular" healthcare providers don't have a clue about herbs. They know how to warn against them but not how to safely use them. If you want to integrate herbal and allopathic (the regular AMA doctor) medicine find a provider who is willing to work with you and you can be open with. Most of the healthcare providers I have known who integrate natural health remedies into their care have been nurse practitioners. Of course, I'm biased.

Do's and Don'ts

  • Don't use an herb for medicinal purposes without guidance from an experienced herbalist as well as some research on your own. And remember, an herb that might help one person's ailment may not help another person with the same ailment. What this means is: if you're trying to treat a serious illness, you want to use a LOT of an herb or use it for a long time, or you want to use a very potent herb - talk to someone in-the-know first.
  • I often suggest to people, as it has been suggested to me, if you're going to use an herb every day, take the seventh day off to give your body a rest.
  • Don't consume large quantities of an herb unless it is for medicinal purposes (see above). Everything in moderation.
  • Don't keep your herbs past their time. How long an herb will stay good will vary according to the time it was collected and how it was dried and stored. A good herb should retain its color, taste and smell. Once those are gone it's time to throw it in the compost. I've had calendula petals turn pale and odorless in a year. I've had St. John's Wort flowers last for years. When in doubt - open the jar, take a good look in the light and a good sniff.
  • Do know the herbs you wish to try. You should know their appearance and how they are generally used as well as what parts are used. A very common herbal remedy is echinacea tincture to ward off a cold but if you just buy something that says "Echinacea" you may very well be buying the herb (aerial parts) and not the root which is what is used as an immune stimulant. A good book with pictures can go a long way although many common plants you'll know on your own. Start checking them out when they are out of season. You may know a dandelion when it has flowers, or a wild blackberry bush when it has berries, but would you know them when they don't have their flowers and berries?
  • Do become acquainted with the smell and taste of the herbs you wish to get to know as well as appearance of herbs as you get to know them. Once you have identified an herb as safe, a small piece of a leaf or a flower petal can tell you much about an herb's characteristics. Is it bitter? Sweet? Sour? Spit out anything you do not want to ingest. Dried herbs can smell different, sometimes much stronger, than their fresh counterparts. Get in the habit of sniffing your teas before you brew them.
  • Do experiment with your herbs as you get to know them. If you know that an herb can be consumed as a green, try it in different recipes. If you know an herb is good for the skin, try incorporating it in your own lotions and salves and so on and so forth. Google some weed names and see what you come up with for recipes. Have some fun with it.

Holes in the leaves?

These little larger-than-life leaves seem to have dots on them. Hold one up to the light and see there are lots of little holes in the leaves where the light can shine through.  This a hallmark to identifying St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum).
These little larger-than-life leaves seem to have dots on them. Hold one up to the light and see there are lots of little holes in the leaves where the light can shine through. This a hallmark to identifying St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum). | Source

Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica)

Honeysuckle flowers are sweet and cooling as anyone who has sucked the nectar from their buds knows. They are brewed for feverish conditions, particularly in summer.
Honeysuckle flowers are sweet and cooling as anyone who has sucked the nectar from their buds knows. They are brewed for feverish conditions, particularly in summer. | Source

Using Your Senses When Using Herbs

Herbs have many characteristics that you can sense that may help to clue you in to the particular properties of the herbs you are playing with. Some of these properties are are obvious, such as hot things will heat you up and cool things will cool you down. Some characteristics just take a little observation. Does a particular tea make your mouth feel dry? Sage will do that. Make you sweat or feel flushed? Cayenne would do that. Try a little cayenne in your orange juice in the morning to heat you up, if you want to know what I'm talking about. As you get to know herbs and their characteristics it may help you choose herbs for your particular day. If you're feeling chilly, the coolness of dandelion and burdock in a tea may not be for you. Maybe the spice of a ginger tea would be better for you on that day. Then again, if you have a hot stomach (think heartburn and reflux) don't take ginger. Try something warm, not hot, like chamomile but add a little mint to chill the stomach.

Herbal Tastes

  • Bitterness - stimulates the digestive system and the removal of toxins. The old custom having bitters after dinner promotes digestion after the meal. Tends to be cooling.
  • Sourness - stimulates digestion by getting the juices going and aids in the expulsion of air. Tends to be warm and moist.
  • Pungent/Spicy - both stimulating and relaxing. Tends to be warm and sometimes hot.
  • Sweetness - increases elimination of fluids such as urine, breastmilk and semen. Tends to be cooling.
  • Saltiness - decreases the elimination of fluids. Too much can cause urine retention and bloating. Small amounts are good to draw out toxins from tissues.
  • Astringent - very drying. Plants that are high in tannins (like your English breakfast tea) are very astringent. This can be very useful to apply to skin inflammations. An old remedy for the sore nipples of breastfeeding moms is to use a used teabag as a compress to decrease the inflammation.


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    • heartwort profile image

      heartwort 5 years ago from Virginia

      My pleasure. Thanks for sharing. I love to hear how people bring herbs into their lives. I like ginger, too. I have a balm with ginger and eucalyptus that does wonders for my neck. Smells good, also.

      Stay well!

    • lmlynde profile image

      lmlynde 5 years ago from Nevada

      Thank you for your great herb usage information! I will have to read it a few more times to catch all of the herb do's & don'ts. I take ginger, black cohosh, and milk thistle daily. I take the ginger for my rheumatoid arthritis, and it really helps with the pain and inflammation. I take the black cohosh for my menopausal and PMS symptoms, and it has eliminated problems I used to have before my cycles. I take milk thistle for my liver since I have post-traumatic epilepsy and have to take Depakote which is hard on the liver. I make sure I have my blood tests every 6 months to monitor all of my body levels, etc. Thanks again for your great herbal article!

      Peace to all....Lori