Bitters is something we think we instinctively recognise. It is a primal taste sensation on our tongue along with sweet, sour, salt and the new one, umami (fullness). Most herb books give the definition of a bitter as something which stimulate the stages of digestion including increasing saliva production and gastric juice activity including bile release (Brigitte Mars).
Jim MacDonald (http://www.herbcraft.org/properties.html) expands on this a little further by saying “Bitter herbs stimulate the secretion of digestive acids, juices and enzymes, which generally improve appetite & digestion, especially of fats/oils/lipids. You must taste bitters to receive their medicinal virtues. There are aromatic bitters (Calamus), bittersweet bitters (Celastrus), and just plain bitter bitters (Boneset).” I only know boneset out of Jim’s three examples, so I would change my herbs to angelica (aromatic bitter) and burdock (bittersweet bitter).
The herb I thought to talk about originally was dandelion (taraxacum officinale). It is perhaps the easiest herb to get close to when you are trying to understand the principle of a bitter. The leaves eaten raw stimulate your taste buds to such an extent, you know they are doing what they’re meant to do. They are wonderful additions to salads with other green leaves. I like to add them to cheese or ham sandwiches along with chickweed or sorrel. The sharpness of the greens works particularly well with the heavy fat of cheddar cheese.
I’ve been working very closely with dandelion this year. There is nothing like picking the first green leaves in winter time when it’s blowing a bitter gale laced with snowflakes and your fingers freeze as you dig up roots. While dandelion leaves support the kidneys and pack a massive dose of potassium, the roots, also bitter, support the liver.
David Hoffman advocates harvesting roots in the winter while they are at their most bitter. Brigitte Mars suggests harvesting roots in the spring when complex carbohydrates are broken down and released as sugars. I have a certain problem with this.
Before retirement, my father was a small farmer with a herd of suckler cows. He told me the animals would search out dandelion roots in the autumn when the roots were sweetest and would ignore them in the spring when the roots were bitter. I have given my workshop attendees roots to chew at different times of the year and they have all reported, as I have found, that spring roots are incredibly bitter and autumn roots are fat, juicy and have an unexpected sweetness to them.
Anyway, I digress. I didn’t want to get drawn into talking too much about dandelion, because there are many other bitter herbs which I grow or which grow around me. The ones which particularly spring to mind are burdock, angelica, motherwort, calendula, chamomile, vervain, boneset and the bright, vermillion splendour of rowan berries.
You only have to drink a cup of burdock leaf tea to know that the plant is a bitter. Burdock (arcticum lappa) is described by Matthew Wood as bitter, sweet and oily. He believes it acts as an alterative (tonic), stimulating increased secretion of bile, which in turn promotes better absorption of fats and oils through the small intestine.
Burdock supports the liver and helps with dry skin conditions. The root is said to be a quick acting diuretic (20 minutes after chewing) and has also been praised for stimulating appetite after severe illness when added to stews. (Miriam Kresh, Israel) Jim recommends it for cancer patients when they require nourishment during chemotherapy – again adding the root or young leaf stalks to stews or bone broths.
Angelica (angelica archangelica) is an aromatic, warming bitter. I always encourage my workshop attendees to smell the scent of angelica and everyone loves it. They’re not quite so keen when I give them angelica leaf tea to try, because of its bitterness. Chewing angelica root is an experience! It resembles chewing a bottle of scent and is really quite revolting, yet this root is the part which can take away the intense pain of fibroids. They also make an interesting liqueur if left for several years to mature.
Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) is another, interesting bitter herb. It helps regulate temperature during menopause, reduces period pains and is a gentle nervine tonic. A tea made from its aerial parts is an intensely bitter brew, but can be alleviated by mixing with lemon balm. There is an old saying that if you need something, you will be attracted to it and its bitterness will be tolerable.
Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla ) is supposed to be a mild herb, enjoyed by all for its carmative, calming and restorative functions. Commercial chamomile tea bags have a gentle, soothing taste. The first time I grew the herb myself and made a cup of tea, I was horrified by the dreadful, bitter flavour. I was sure I must have been sent the wrong kind of chamomile. When I moaned to my herbalist friend, she laughed at me. “Chamomile is a bitter. You have tasted the proper taste of the herb!”
Calendula (calendula officinilis) is a herb you wouldn’t normally associate as a bitter, yet Matthew Wood classes its taste as such. He talks about its use for deep fevers and people who are “bone weary”, quoting herbalist Matthew Becker who likened it to boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum).
It is curious that calendula, boneset and vervain (verbena officinalis) are all recommended for severe, bone aching fevers. Both boneset and vervain are incredibly bitter to the taste when taken in tea. Vervain can make you shudder from head to toe if the tea is too strong, even when taken with other herbs.
This diversity of actions by bitter herbs got me thinking about a possible basic principle of bitters, that of causing/promoting release or letting go. Since every herb has an affinity with a particular part of the body, there will be different secretions or emotions or other tissue states which are released. Dandelion releases digestive secretions, burdock releases bile, vervain releases both fevers and the need to keep on keeping on, which could otherwise be described as personal intensity. Boneset releases the intensity of aching bones.
So where do rowan berries come in all this? Several years ago my herbalist friend presented me with a jar of rowan jelly. “You’ll like it,” she said, “herb people like bitter flavours.” I took it home and put it on the dinner table with a Sunday roast. Everyone tried it, but they all agreed the sweetness of the jelly was overtaken by the bitterness of the rowan berries. I could just about tolerate it, but one day I shall make my own and see if my tastes have changed!
Hoffman, D The Complete Illustrated Holistic
Mars, B Dandelion Medicine 1999 Storey Books
Wood, M The Practice of Traditional Western