This week I received a package of herbs in the mail. From the moment I opened the box the smell of herbs filled the room. The minty freshness of peppermint was the most prevalent, but after looking through the bags I could also smell chamomile, elderberries, and sweet spices in the chai tea. This is how you know you have some good herbs on your hands, when the smell is so strong it penetrates the bags they are in!
Importance of Using Organoleptic Assessment
This reminded me of the importance in using our senses as we work with herbs. There is a big word used to describe this: organoleptic. Simply put “impression of the organs.” I like that. What impression do our organs, namely our sense of taste, touch, sight, smell, and possibly hearing, receive when they encounter a plant (or dried plant material)?
Organoleptic assessment can help herbalists in several key areas.
1. Plant identification – Does the plant feel smooth or rough? Does the color of the stem look solid green or mottled? Can I smell the typical minty aroma? Does it taste bitter or sweet?
2. Evaluating quality – Does it have a bite to it or has it lost it’s pungency? Are there any volatile oils still left in the plant?
3. Characteristic odor or taste – Was this plant exposed to poor growing conditions and lacks the characteristics common to the plant?
What Our Senses Tell Us
I have been buying herbs from the Bulk Herb Store for years now, and I have always found their herbs to be of an exceptional quality. As I mentioned before, the first thing I noticed when I opened my box was the smell of the herbs.
I remember several years ago, I had purchased a bag of chamomile from the Bulk Herb Store. My mom was visiting and caught a whiff of the chamomile as I was making tea. She took the bag and inhaled deeply, then exclaimed, “I never knew that chamomile smelled like that!” She had only made chamomile tea from tea bags bought at the store (which had probably been processed long, long ago) and they didn’t retain the strong aroma that is characteristic of chamomile.
Herbalist Jim McDonald made a comment in one of his herb walks that really made me think about the strength of herbs and our smell. He said that if you are in a pinch and need an herb, go out to your garden and find old dried remnants of the plant, rub it between your hands and smell of it. If it still smells strong and vibrant, it still has medicinal properties that can be used.
After breathing in the wonderful herbal fragrance, I opened up some of the bags of herbs. Right away I noticed how vibrant the colors were! The red clover flowers in the cough tea were a gorgeous purple hue. Looking at the bag of snooze tincture herbs I could pick out the cute little green hops flowers and the small yellow chamomile flowers.
The herbs in the bag were very visually distinguishable and full of vibrant colors. What you don’t want in a bag of herbs is something that looks like a bunch of dead, brown grass (well, there are some herbs that can’t help it, but most should still retain their color). Even powdered herbs should have some remnant of their original color.
Taste is one of our senses that we have to exercise caution in using. We can’t just go around tasting every herb, especially if we have not positively identified it as a safe herb. But once we do know what the herbs is, taste is a great way to determine the strength and constituents of an herb.
For instance, dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis) contains different plant constituents at different times in the growing season. The digestive bitters (sesquiterpene lactones) increase substantially by the time fall arrives. In the spring, the leaves of the plant have a sweet taste, but by fall they turn bitter. If your purpose in harvesting the dandelion is to utilize its bitter constituents, tasting them in the fall will help you determine if they are ready for harvest.
Our sense of taste can help us determine whether or not our herbs still contain the desirable properties we want them to have. When I drink my Red Rooibos Spice Chai Tea, I want to experience all the yummy flavors coming out in the tea. I should taste the cinnamon, orange, ginger, and hint of pepper.
Part of the healing and nourishing properties of herbs is in their ability to stimulate the body through our taste. Going back to the bitter properties of dandelion, did you know that it is the bitter taste that stimulates bile production and secretion? Our taste receptors trigger this mechanism!
Normally we use our sense of touch in plant identification. Feeling whether or not a plant is smooth or fuzzy or prickly can help us determine what family a plant is in? I suppose we could also use our sense of touch in determining whether dried herbs are still crisp or are dull and lax.
Not much that our sense of sound can accomplish, especially when you don’t believe that the plants can talk. But there is something so serene about gathering herbs in the wild and listening to the wonderful sounds of nature all around.
Taking It All In
The next time you make a cup of tea or walk through the garden, let your senses fully experience the herbs. Take a minute to think about how the herbs you come in contact with effect your senses. What impressions do the herbs leave on the organs? Use your new big word “organoleptic” to experience the world of herbs in a whole new way!