Guest Post: Learn Herbalism through your senses
Foreword by Helmsley Walled Garden
Herbs have a rich and fascinating history spanning centuries. From their culinary and medicinal uses to their cultural significance, herbs have played a vital role in human civilisation. In fact, the concept of a physics garden, where science and nature intersect, can be traced back to ancient times when people first recognised the power of herbs. These gardens served as a living laboratory, allowing people to study both the properties and the effects of various plants. And physics gardens still exist to this day. Here at Helmsley Walled Garden, we have been creating our own Physics Garden, which is an especially soothing place to sit and ponder. By delving into the history of herbs and their uses, we can uncover the secrets of these remarkable plants and unlock their potential to improve our health for the better. Meghan Rhodes is a qualified herbal medicine practitioner, whose practice is rooted in the belief that we can take control of our health, through an innate understanding of the power of herbs. Meghan has been running her popular workshops in our Garden for a couple of years. Her last workshop in the Garden for this year is in November and she has already set some 2024 workshop dates. See our website for more details. In today’s blog, she explores the benefits of warming, pungent herbs such as rosemary, lavender and sage.
By now many of us have heard how getting out in the garden supports positive mental health. Helmsley Walled Garden has been pioneering this by providing a space for people to volunteer in their beautiful gardens and feel the benefits of getting your hands in the soil, growing and tending plants, spending time in community with others and breathing in the fresh air for decades.
But did you know that using your senses – particularly in the herb garden – can help you understand the specific health benefits of these tasty and fragrant plants beyond what you get out of the experience of gardening, itself?
Taste as a gateway to understanding herbalism
Within the long-established practice of herbal medicine, which uses whole plants for their medicinal properties to support the body in addressing the root causes of feeling unwell in order to get back to a balanced state of health, there is the concept of organoleptics. Whilst this sounds like something from ‘ye olde days of yore’ – and it is quite traditional! – it simply means using your senses to understand how a plant you may not be very familiar with can support you without having to memorise a huge list of facts. On the workshops and courses I teach at Helmsley Walled Garden, I usually describe this as wine tasting for herbal tea. (Now I’ve definitely got your attention!)
The easiest way you can explore this is through the sense of taste. We have taste receptors all throughout our bodies and the brilliant thing is, just like many other automatic functions within the body, we don’t have to actively do anything beyond tasting a herb for it to kick off a cascade of beneficial activities in the body.
But wouldn’t it be great to know what some of these tastes you’ll find in herbs do, so you can be a bit more intentional with your cup of chamomile or peppermint or your Sunday roast seasonings?
Here’s a ‘taste’ of just what those herbs are doing…
All those culinary herbs and spices – rosemary, sage, thyme – and the really fragrant ones many of us love to grow – for example, lavender – have the aromatic (sometimes called pungent) taste. They have a strong fragrance. They’re flavoursome. Most of them are quite warming when you eat them. And they sit nicely on the blurry line between ‘food’ and ‘medicine’.
Whenever you taste a herb that’s aromatic or pungent, your body knows it’s antimicrobial, as they’re commonly rich in a range of compounds called volatile oils (which is what gets skimmed off the top of the distillation process and bottled up as essential oils). So now the tradition of pairing them with meat in our cooking has a new dimension – yes, it’s tasty, but these herbs were also helping make the meat safer to eat before the days of refrigeration. If the meat was slightly on the turn, these antimicrobial herbs would help mitigate any pathogens beginning to take hold on the family dinner.
Some herbs – like lavender – are so highly aromatic, so rich in these antimicrobial volatile oils, that they have been used across civilisations for bathing, as well as for strewing and burning in hospitals or places where the sick were tended to keep the area clean and sanitary. The ancient Romans used lavender this way, as did French hospital wards in the early 20th century.
What’s more, that warming element to the pungent taste that spreads through the body with most aromatic herbs is also getting the digestion going – warming up the fire in the gut, if you will, that will help break down the food and ensure nutrients are distributed throughout the body – as well as the circulation. So you’ll digest that heavy meal easier, absorb more nutrients from it, and keep your body warmer, which is especially helpful in our chilly Yorkshire climate. (Rosemary is a brilliant herb for this – it’s one of my favourite winter warmer herbs and goes in everything at that time of year!)
So now, without having to sift through a pile of reference books, you know that the aromatic herbs you may be growing in your own garden are antimicrobial and warming, addressing unfriendly microbes, as well as supporting digestion and circulation. If you know the plant is safe to ingest, have a nibble or make a pot of tea with just that one herb and see what you can feel in your body. Where does it go? How does it make you feel? Pay attention to the taste.
More to explore
There are six more tastes we work with within herbal medicine – so this is just one blossom on an entire plant, if you will! But it’s a great one for getting started.
If you’d like to explore the other six tastes and dive into learning more about herbalism, I teach a range of herbal medicine courses and workshops at Helmsley Walled Garden across all four seasons, where we start from the sense of taste and then branch out to all things hands-on (with all the facts written down for you to refer to later).
Whether you’re able to join me in person or you’ve got a beautiful garden you want to explore on your own, I invite you to taste the many benefits your garden can bring to your health. You’ll be surprised how many nuances you can find and how easy things are to learn and remember when you start with your senses.
Meghan Rhodes is a qualified herbalist who has helped over 80 people start living herbalism, making healthier, safer solutions for themselves and their families a reality. As the founder of Rhodes Roots & Remedies, she teaches herbal medicine courses and workshops across all four seasons in North and East Yorkshire, including at Helmsley Walled Garden. You can learn about her upcoming events here (https://www.rhodesrootsandremedies.co.uk/events-workshops).
N.B. All information shared in this article is based on traditional uses and practices of herbs for personal use and is not in any way intended to provide medical advice or substitute for diagnosis or prescriptions from medical practitioners. Do not ingest any plant if you are uncertain of its identity or safety.
Find out more about Meghan and the workshop’s she runs: Herbal Medicine | Rhodes Roots & Remedies