Many of the medicinal properties of an herb, both energetic and pharmacological, are very much reflected in the taste. There are five primary tastes - sweet, bitter, sour, salty and pungent. These five primary flavors may also be further subdivided. Pungent can be divided into acrid, spicy and pungent proper. The bitters include fragrant bitters. The salt category includes mineral/salty. And the astringent taste is another category.
This category has been especially developed in traditional Chinese medicine. Sweet herbs increase appetite, digestion and nutrition. They are good for dry conditions. Some examples include American ginseng, solomon's seal, slippery elm, fennel, astragalus, marshmallow root, and licorice. However, they are also stimulants to blood sugar levels, which increases activity in the liver and pancreas, in the cells and nervous system. In large doses they are over-stimulating and ultimately they wear out and destroy the liver, pancreas, nerves and cells. Sweet herbs are often tonic herbs such as ginseng, astragalus and licorice. These strengthen the endocrine system (glands). Other sweet herbs such as slippery elm, fennel and marshmallow root are excellent for digestive problems such as ulcers and irritable bowel.
SWEET : Harmonizes, cools, calms, slows down, thickens, moistens and restores
On the most basic level, bitters stimulate the secretion of fluids and thus act directly on dry tissues and indirectly reduce heat and irritation. Others act not only on dry states but on torpor (metabolism and elimination are faulty so unmetabolized toxins and waste products build up and block elimination channelsthrough the skin, lungs, colon and kidneys). In this case bitters stimulate secretion and hence, tissue nutrition, metabolism and elimination, building torpid tissues to remove excess fluids and increase lost function. Bitter herbs include gentian, goldenseal, Oregon grape root, atractylodes, greater celandine, hops , yellow dock, cascara sagrada, and rhubarb root. These herbs are especially good for improving digestion and restoring appetite. They are also mild laxatives.
A special category are the fragrant bitters. Among these are black walnut, butternut, wormwood, and elecampane. Fragrant bitters kill parasites. These are associated with cold, inactive tissue conditions, where the tissues are too inactive to keep outside organisms away and the parasites arrive as scavengers or they exude substances which suppress cell life so that they can take up residence. (It is for this reason that it is not necessary to kill the parasites with large doses but to stimulate tissue life with small doses!)
BITTER : Stimulates, grounds, drains, cools, detoxifies and dries
Acidic, sour medicines are cooling (like lemonade). They act as sedatives on hot, irritated tissues when used in moderate doses. These herbs include rosehips, peach leaf, hawthorn, wild cherry bark, viburnum, linden flowers, raspberry leaf and wild bergamot. In large doses they irritate and burn the tissues. These would be good for small intestine irritations such as Crohn's disease and colitis, or, in the case of hawthorn, irritated blood vessels which can lead to high blood pressure and heart problems. Sour herbs for cooling irritated nerves include lemon balm, viburnum (black haw and cramp bark) and linden flowers.
SOUR : Coagulates, tightens, stimulates and decongests
Salty herbs contain salts and minerals which disperse water (water follows salt). They are also alterative (alteratives are herbs that will gradually restore the proper function of the body and increase health and vitality) and especially act on torpor because they increase elimination. Salty herbs contain sodium chloride and include Irish moss, kelp and most other sea vegetables.
Mineral/salty herbs are similar to salty herbs, but they have more calcium, potassium and magnesium than sodium, thus they have a mineral taste. This is the taste in crispy vegetables and herbs (dandelion leaves, plantain, spinach, nettles, alfalfa, cleavers, burdock root, and oatstraw).It also occurs in plants that grow on rocky ground (horsetail, bayberry). This property is nourishing but water-reducing (diuretic). Thus these herbs are especially good alteratives. They increase digestion and elimination (burdock and dandelion); help to maintain bone density (nettles, horsetail, alfalfa); and many are good lymphatic system tonics (cleavers).
SALTY : Moistens, softens, sinks, drains, dissolves and resolves
Pungency is usually associated with sulfur containing herbs and vegetables (cayenne, cardamom, garlic, onion, horseradish, osha, prickly ash, ginger). A subcategory of pungent is spicy and is usually associated with culinary herbs in the mint family (peppermint, sage, rosemary, basil, thyme, oregano, wild bergamot). Pungent and spicy herbs are almost always stimulating, warming and antiseptic. They stimulatethe organism to greater activity such as increased acid production during digestion and increased excretion of wastes from the body. These herbs contain many antioxidants and can be helpful for a depressed immune system and inflammation.
Another subcategory of pungent is acrid. The acrid taste, associated with some resins and alkaloids, belongs to a small category of plants that disperse tension in the nervous system acting as antispasmodics. These include kava, lobelia, skunk cabbage, agrimony, black cohosh, blue vervain and wild yam.
PUNGENT : Activates, energizes, warms, speeds up, dries and disperses
The astringent taste of herbs is most often caused by the action of a group of constituents called tannins which act to "curdle" protein molecules (as happens when you add vinegar to milk), a property used through the ages to make leather from animal skins. Put very simply, the action of astringent herbs is to produce a "leather coat" on mucus membranes or exposed tissue, thus numbing these tissues to irritation, reducing inflammation, and providing an impenetrable barrier to most infective organisms and many toxins. Astringent herbs are used for wound and burn treatment, but especially for treating problems of the intestinal tract. These include diarrhea, peptic ulcers, hiatal hernia, colitis, diverticulitis and hemorrhoids. These herbs include oak bark, witch hazel, cranesbill (wild geranium), agrimony, blackberry leaves, comfrey, plantain and sage.
ASTRINGENT : Solidifies, tightens, dries, decongests and slows down
Although certain physiological effects can be ascribed to the flavors, each of our perceptions of these flavors may differ to an extent. The determination of flavor is a very subjective experience, especially when considering that the sense of smell is intimately linked to, and very much influences, our perception of taste. This is one reason why it is important for herbalists and others delving into herbal flavors to taste and smell the actual herbs for themselves, developing their own sense of these properties.