Organoleptic Herb Walk
On our Organoleptic Herb Walk we’ll practice the art and science of exploring plants with our senses – this is called organoleptics. As herbalists we can practice and develop our organoleptic skills to better understand the identity, potency, and quality of living plants, dried herbs, and herbal preparations. This way of understanding the messages and information carried by scent and flavor molecules is a skill that all animals possess, as we easily see when we observe the focus and attention of a ground-sniffing dog on their daily rounds. Our wild relatives, including Wolf and Bear, are honored as traditional experts in organoleptics - understanding the food, medicine, or poison of a plant through deep sensory perception and instinct developed by constant practice and the necessity of life in the wild.
Practicing the Scratch, Snort, Savor & Spit method
When I began learning traditional herbalism, we were encouraged to understand every herb (with the exception of known toxic plants like Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, Datura, Poison Hemlock, Water Hemlock, etc.), by picking some of the leaves or flowers and thoroughly rubbing them between our fingers. This crushes the cells and releases the volatile constituents. You can also grind a bit of the plant material between two rocks (especially if you’re nervous about toxicity). Our animal relatives do this by scratching at plant material with their claws. Once the plant is pulverized, we imitate their organoleptic skills by snorting the aroma, rather than politely sniffing at it. Smell it like a wolf or dog: repeatedly snort air out of your nose (to vaporize the compounds with warmth) and draw the vapor cloud deeply back inside. This snorting power comes from belly-breathing rather that the more shallow upper-chest movements. It may look silly but social standards, but it really works. When plant molecules are deeply inhaled, they quickly enter the ancient part of the brain known as the limbic system – the part that connects smell with memory, emotion, and instinct. When you learn a plant’s aroma by this method, you rarely forget it. I think it’s a critical part of plant identification. Some plants are difficult to tell apart visually, so learning their characteristic textures and aromas is very helpful.
If the smell of an herb doesn’t ward you away, and you’re sure a plant isn’t one of the fatally poisonous few, it’s time to chew and chew for a minute or more, and then spit out, a sample of the plant. This gives us a good idea of its taste without having to actually swallow any. It’s a great way to understand the medicine of plants, as well as to get a feel for the character of (non-fatal) toxins without actually having to make yourself sick with them. When you’re testing a new plant for flavor, be sure to chew and spit for a long time – two or three minutes at least – because some flavors take considerably longer than others to make themselves known. Join us for an organoleptic romp through the herbs at Elderberry’s Farm in the Rocky Mountains!