A voice for
herbal medicine

We share traditional, scientific and practical insights written by experienced herbalists and health experts from the world of herbal medicine and natural health

Jamaican Dogwood is an analgesic and sedative herb

Jamaican dogwood

Piscidia piscipula / P. erythrina Fabaceae

Jamaican Dogwood is useful for neuralgic pain, migraine headaches and insomnia caused by pain or nervous tension.

Sustainability Status

Sustainability status

At risk from overharvesting and habitat loss. Read more about our sustainability guide.

Key benefits
  • Analgesic/anodyne
  • Sedative/ Hypnotic
  • Anti-spasmodic
  • Neuralgia
  • Migraine
  • Insomnia
  • How does it feel?

    The smell of Jamaican dogwood is difficult to describe, with a slight sweetness, but notes that are chemical-like, described in the traditional pharmacopoeias as “opium-like”. Although it does not contain any opium-related constituents, this fragrance could relate to the narcotic and hypnotic properties. Jamaican dogwood is quite fragrant and sweet in flavour, but then bitter, acrid, sharp and slightly aromatic. The aftertaste is somewhat sour and produces a slight tingling and burning sensation in the mouth. The sour taste is associated with the cooling and sedative action (1). It is the sour, slightly acidic taste that accounts for the mild burning sensation which can be experienced in the mouth after tasting Jamaican dogwood. The acrid taste indicates the relaxant and antispasmodic properties (1). The antispasmodic action has been linked to the isoflavone constituents (2). The aromatic and fragrant bitterness indicates several different actions, but in this case links to calming and relaxing effects. A soporific sensation sweeps over the body quickly after taking Jamaican dogwood, as the aromatic compounds directly calm the nervous system. 

    The key actions of Jamaican dogwood are: analgesic, antispasmodic, narcotic, sedative, soporific, hypnotic.

  • What can I use it for?

    Jamaican dogwood is a mild narcotic and analgesic herb which is used primarily for pain relief (3). It is particularly effective if the pain stems from the nervous system, such as in cases of migraine headaches, toothache, sciatica and other neuralgic pain (4). 

    The sedative action makes it a potent remedy for insomnia, especially if the sleep disturbance is caused by pain, nervous tension or stress (3, 5). Jamaican Dogwood is a potent relaxant on the nervous system and mildly hypnotic in action. 

    The antispasmodic action makes Jamaican dogwood suited to dysmenorrhea (painful periods), and the anti-inflammatory actions suit musculoskeletal pain such as rheumatism and arthritis (3). 

    Due to potential toxicity, and a restriction on dosage applied by some professional herbal institutes, Jamaican dogwood is best used for short-term relief of symptoms. For this reason it is advisable to work with a qualified herbalist to identify the cause of an ailment and determine the suitability of Jamaican dogwood as a treatment. 

    The narcotic, analgesic, sedative, antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties of Jamaican dogwood have only been scientifically evidenced in pre-clinical, animal studies. Although the toxicity is reported to be low in animal studies (6), there is a lack of direct investigation into the toxicity in human trials. Therefore, there is an absence  of clinical studies to support the use of Jamaican dogwood, or assess the efficacy and safety of this herb for general use. It is advisable to work with a qualified practitioner before using Jamaican dogwood. 

  • Into the heart of jamaican dogwood

    Energetically Jamaican dogwood is considered to be cooling and relaxing (3). A cooling action is required when there is an excess of heat in the body from over-excitement or irritation (1). This state often stems from the nervous system, and presents as nervous over-excitement, restlessness, irritation, and a heightened sensitivity to pain (1). 

    A relaxing action is suited to constricted and tense states, which result from prolonged overstimulation of the neuromuscular system (1). This prolonged tension in the system can lead to muscle tension, headaches, muscle aches, and digestive tension causing cramps, trapped wind, constipation or diarrhoea.  

    The combination of the cooling and relaxing energetics of Jamaican Dogwood makes it suited to conditions of nervous system excitability and tension. These states are seen in both acute anxiety, and the ailments that manifest from a period of prolonged stress. 

  • Traditional uses

    Jamaican Dogwood flowers (Piscidia piscipula (L.) Sarg. (syn. P. erythrina L.))
    Jamaican Dogwood flowers (Piscidia piscipula (L.) Sarg. (syn. P. erythrina L.))

    Due to a lack of contemporary research into Jamaican dogwood, much of the modern day knowledge, uses and indications are still based on the original pharmacopoeias from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The specific indications listed in King’s American Dispensary (1898) were: “insomnia and nervous unrest; to allay spasm, control pain and allay nervous excitability; migraine; neuralgia” (7).

    The narcotic, analgesic, and soporific properties of Jamaican Dogwood were identified in 1844 (8). Its chief use was for pain and to produce sleep, and was recommended as a replacement for opium (7). The British Pharmaceutical Codex (BPC, 1911) recommended Jamaican dogwood as a narcotic that does not have the side effects of constipation or headaches (9). In 1919, Ellingwood reported that although it lacks the same power as opium, it operates as a desirable analgesic (10). He stated that it was especially useful in cases where the patient could not take opium or morphine, and does not produce toxic or undesirable effects in medicinal doses (10). It was used as an analgesic for pain of all kinds, including toothache, migraine headaches and neuralgia, particularly sciatica and facial neuralgia (8,10). In 1953, Auxence wrote “The bark and wood of the root and stem of this West Indian tree have long been used by the natives of the Antilles as an analgesic” (11). 

    In 1915, Wren listed Jamaican dogwood to be used for its antispasmodic action, to control asthma, whooping cough, chronic bronchitis and a “consumptive cough” (12). The properties of Jamaican Dogwood were used to promote a restful sleep, and to support cases of nervous debility (8). Jamaican dogwood was a favourite remedy, recommended instead of opiates, for prolonged insomnia “particularly in the aged, and in those of an excessively nervous temperament” (7). Ellingwood extended this recommendation to when insomnia was due to nervous excitement, mental worry or anxiety, neurasthenia (fatigue causing physical and mental exhaustion, similar to chronic fatigue syndrome), and children (10).

    Grieve (8) states use for dysmenorrhea, and in 1915, Wren (12) stated that Jamaican dogwood combines well with black haw (Viburnum prunifolium) for “female complaints”. Felter echoed this, stating that “in the disorders of women it has rendered excellent service in alleviating neuralgic and other forms of dysmenorrhoea and in various pelvic neuroses. With viburnum, it has been administered to check false labour-pains and threatened abortion and hysterical convulsions” (7).

    At low doses side effects of Jamaican dogwood were reported to include nausea, vomiting, headaches, excess salivation, perspiration, bradycardia (7). It was known to produce toxic and unpleasant side effects and gastric distress if taken in excess (8, 12). Overdose of Jamaican dogwood would cause shortness of breath (dyspnoea),  tetanic spasm, convulsions and eventual death by heart failure or asphyxiation from respiratory paralysis (10).

    The recommended dosages for internal use were 10–20 drops of a fluid extract (1:1 strength tincture) every 2–3 hours (7). In 1919, Ellingwood stated that the dose needed to be repeated to be effective (10). Direct, local application of Jamaican dogwood was recommended for toothache, infections in the mouth and haemorrhoids (7). 

  • Traditional actions

  • Traditional energetic actions

    Herbal energetics are the descriptions Herbalists have given to plants, mushrooms, lichens, foods, and some minerals based on the direct experience of how they taste, feel, and work in the body. All traditional health systems use these principles to explain how the environment we live in and absorb, impacts our health. Find out more about traditional energetic actions in our article “An introduction to herbal energetics“.

  • What practitioners say

    Jamaican Dogwood (Piscidia piscipula (L.) Sarg. (syn. P. erythrina L.))
    Jamaican Dogwood (Piscidia piscipula (L.) Sarg. (syn. P. erythrina L.))

    Nervous system

    Pain: Physical pain is not a disease or illness, but almost always a symptom of an imbalance in at least one area of the body (13). A truly holistic herbal practitioner will seek to determine the root cause of an ailment rather than focussing on the isolated symptoms (4). However, it may be necessary to relieve suffering in painful conditions, since the pain may have been the main motivator for someone seeking a medical support (13). Jamaican Dogwood has analgesic action, making it suited to relieve acute and chronic painful conditions. Herbs aimed at relieving pain should be used in combination with other herbs as part of a whole treatment plan, focussing on the root cause of the painful condition (4). 

    Headaches: Headaches can stem from many causes which can be psychological or physical, including: stress; anxiety; lack of sleep; postural issues; muscle tension; eye strain; digestive problems; diet; hydration; hormonal fluctuations; allergies; or have environmental origins (4, 14, 15). A herbalist will work with a patient to determine the cause of the headache, however, Jamaican Dogwood is a useful herb to add to a herbal prescription to relieve symptoms while the root cause is being treated. Headaches are usually acute and short term, so a herbalist may provide a separate medicine to use in cases of a headache attack, as opposed to including in a daily formula. Jamaican Dogwood is particularly effective for relief from a migraine headache, and combines well with feverfew, wood betony, and ginger. A recent systematic review in 2020 (15) exploring herbal treatments for migraine did not identify the Jamaican dogwood within their findings because there are no human randomised controlled trials that have been carried out. However, the study identified feverfew, butterbur, curcumin, coriander, menthol and chamomile to be efficacious (15). These herbs provide a sensible alternative to Jamaican dogwood for cases of migraine headache. 

    Neuralgia: Neuralgia (nerve pain) can be caused by a degeneration of the nerve pathway (multiple sclerosis), viral infection (shingles) or a musculoskeletal impingement on the nerve (sciatica). Regardless of the cause, analgesic herbs such as Jamaican dogwood can provide acute, short-term relief. In order to heal neuralgia in the long term, the cause of the pain will need to be addressed and treated. For example, Jamaican dogwood can be included in a formula to treat shingles and provide pain relief, but will need to be combined with herbs to strengthen the nervous system and support the immune system (4). 

    Insomnia: Jamaican dogwood is a very helpful herb to induce sleep and relieve insomnia. This sleep-support should not replace the need to address the underlying cause of the sleep disturbance. However, in the short term it may be necessary to aid sleep in order to reset the sleep cycle and support the body when other ailments are causing sleep deprivation. Jamaican dogwood is particularly helpful when pain is interfering with sleep. The mild hypnotic action of Jamaican dogwood combines well with other gentle nervines such as chamomile, limeflower, hops or valerian to support a restful sleep, particularly when pain is interfering with a restful night (4). 

    Anxiety: Sedative action of Jamaican dogwood can also help with acute anxiety or to calm the nervous system when an individual is experiencing long term anxiety. Jamaican dogwood can be taken acutely to abate a panic attack, and combines well with passionflower, motherwort and lemon balm in this case. 


    Jamaican dogwood is both analgesic and anti-inflammatory, which can reduce painful conditions such as arthritis, but will only be effective when combined with measures to address the root cause of the arthritis (4). Similarly, headaches may be rooted in muscular tension or postural problems, which Jamaican dogwood can relieve in the short term but the underlying cause will need to be addressed. 

    Digestive system

    The analgesic and antispasmodic actions of Jamaican dogwood can help to alleviate the acute symptoms spasm and pain in the gastro-intestinal tract. As with all the conditions outlined, the cause of pain and spasm needs to be explored and remedied, rather than repeatedly relieving the symptoms. Headaches can often stem from the diet or an issue in the digestive system, meaning Jamaican Dogwood may be indicted to relieve a stomach-related headache in the short term, while the digestive cause is being treated. 

    Reproductive system

    The antispasmodic and analgesic actions of Jamaican dogwood make it suited to dysmenorrhea (8). In such cases Jamaican dogwood combines well with valerian and cramp bark for acute relief. Menstrual cramps and menstrual headaches are likely to be rooted in a hormonal cause, which will need to be treated to correct the imbalance (4). However, this can take several months of treatment, and in the short term Jamaican dogwood can acutely provide relief to the symptoms. 


    Jamaican dogwood is useful as an antispasmodic for violent coughs, or the persistent coughs that can result from bronchitis (16). Asthmatic wheezing, and spasming coughs which are tight, breathless and non-productive can often stem from the nervous system (14). Other herbs to consider for a spasming coughs include wild cherry bark or hyssop, and elecampane.

  • Research

    Very little research has been carried out on Jamaican dogwood, with no human clinical trials existing in the literature. The indications and current knowledge of the herbal usage is based on the original pharmacopeia’s from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

    Early research using animal models identified Jamaican Dogwood to have a depressant and antispasmodic action in uterine tissue in vitro and in vivo (6). More recently, an animal study using mice has demonstrated both anxiolytic and sedative activity (17). The antispasmodic activity of Jamaican dogwood has been attributable to the isoflavone constituents (2).

    The evidence for toxicity is limited to data from animal studies. One study orally administered rats very high doses of Jamaican dogwood extract (90g/kg) with no toxic effects (6). 

    A review article in 2005 evaluated the evidence for the safety and efficacy of non-prescription therapies for insomnia, including Jamaican dogwood (18). The paper concluded that Jamaican dogwood demonstrated sedative effects in animal studies, but there is no clinical or scientific studies verifying this effect in humans. 

  • Did you know?

    Some of the constituents on Jamaican dogwood are toxic to fish, and it is used extensively throughout Central and South America as a fish poison (5). Pounded leaves and branches are dropped into the water which stupefies the fish and eases the catch (8).

Additional information

  • Botanical description

    Jamaican dogwood is a perennial, deciduous, medium to large (25–41 feet/ 12–15m), non-climbing tree (21). The trunk expands to three feet in diameter, the crown is irregular and composed of many erect or irregularly-shaped branches (22). The leaves are compound, with unequally pinnate, oval leaflets (7). The leaves are dark green coloured on the top of the leaf and pale underneath (22). Flowers appear in spring, which are white, pink and lavender coloured have a broad, bell-shaped, five-toothed calyx (7). The fruit is light brown, bean-like pods with four papery wings, in the autumn (22).

  • Common names

    • Fish poison tree
    • West Indian dogwood
    • Piscidia
    • Fish fuddle
  • Safety

    Jamaican dogwood does not have a legally enforced restriction upon use, but does have a voluntary restriction applied by several professional herbal practitioner associations. This means that medical herbalists practising as members of various professional associations will apply a restriction on the dose prescribed. Overdose can be toxic by causing neuromuscular depression, with symptoms including numbness, tremors, sweating and salivation (5). The prescription for use should be of limited duration (16). For these reasons, is advised to consult with a qualified medical herbalist before using Jamaican dogwood.

  • Interactions

    Jamaican dogwood may potentiate the sedative effect of central nervous system (CNS) depressant medications, strong analgesics, sedatives, tranquilisers (5, 19, 20). Jamaican dogwood should be discontinued for 7–10 days prior to surgery (20).

  • Contraindications

    Jamaican dogwood should be avoided or only taken under the guidance of a medical herbalist in cases of hypotension or cardiac insufficiency (14) and bradycardia (20). Use Jamaican dogwood with caution in cases of liver and kidney disease (16).

    The neuro-muscular depressant effects are particularly potent in children and the elderly, and this heightened sensitivity contraindicates Jamaican dogwood from use in these populations (19). Use with caution in cases of depression due to the sedative effects (19).

    Avoid Jamaican dogwood in pregnancy due to possible uterine depressant effects, and risk of foetal malformation (19). Only consume Jamaican dogwood when breast-feeding under the guidance of a medical practitioner (19). You can find qualified medical herbal professionals on our page “Where to find a herbalist“.

  • Dosage

    Decoction: 1–2g dried root, three times per day (5). Maximum of 5–10g (1–2 teaspoon) per day as decoction simmered for 10–15 minutes (4)

    Tincture: 0.5–3ml every four hours, 1:5, 80% (3). 2–4ml (1:5), three times per day (4). Up to a maximum of 50ml/week of a 1:3 extract

    FE (1:1 extract): 1–2ml, three times per day (5)

    Glycerite: 5–10ml (1:8) every four hours (3)

  • Plant parts used

    • Bark
    • Root bark
  • Constituents

    • Isoflavones: Ichthynone, jamaicin, piscerythrone, piscidone, dehydromillettone, lisetin (5). Rotenoids: rotenone, milletone, isomillettone (20)
    • Glycosides: Piscidin, jamaicin, icthyone (4, 5)
    • Tannins (4)
    • β-sitosterol (4, 5)
    • Volatile oil (0.01%) and resin (5)
Jamaican Dogwood illustration (Piscidia piscipula L.)
  • Habitat

    The Jamaican dogwood tree is native in Mexico and across Central America from Florida to Caribbean (21). This ancient tree prefers coastal locations with moist, well-drained sandy soil and a humus top layer (22).

  • Sustainability

    Jamaican dogwood is reported as “secure” by Nature Serve (23) and does not appear on the U.S. Endangered Species act (23) or the United Plant Savers “to watch” list (24). The International Union for Conservation of Nature (25) have global assessed Piscidia piscipula and list it as “Least Concern”. The species is widely distributed across North and South America, with a stable population that currently has no major threats reported (25).

  • Quality control

    When buying any herbal medicine it is important to obtain from a reliable source. Unreputable sources can be contaminated, adulterated or replaced with the wrong plant material. To ensure the quality of a product look out for certified organic labelling, check that the correct botanical name is used, and obtain information from suppliers regarding the origin of the product’s ingredients.

  • How to grow

    The Jamaican dogwood tree can be grown from the seeds in the ripe pods, germinating in 8–10 days.  Cuttings will take root and establish quickly. The tree grows quickly and has a high drought tolerance, not requiring any supplemental water once it is established (22).

  • References

    1. Wood M. The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism: Basic doctrine; energetics and classification. North Atlantic Books; 2004.
    2. Della Loggia R, Zilli C, Del Negro P, Redaelli C, Tubaro A. Isoflavones as spasmolytic principles of Piscidia erythrina. Progress in Clinical and Biological Research. 1988;280:365-368. PMID: 3174700.
    3. Easley T, Horne S. The Modern Herbal Dispensatory: A Medicine-Making Guide. North Atlantic Books; 2016.
    4. Hoffman D. Medicinal Herbalism, The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. Healing Arts Press; 2003.
    5. Barnes, J., Anderson, L.A. and Phillipson, J.D. Herbal medicines: a guide for healthcare professionals: Third Edition. Pharmaceutical press; 2007.
    6. Costello CH, Butler CL. An investigation of Piscidia erythrina (Jamaica dogwood). Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association. 1948;37(3):89-97. https://doi.org/10.1002/jps.3030370302. Accessed on 1st March 2024.
    7. Felter H. W, Lloyd J. U (1898) Kings American Dispensary. Piscidia – Jamaican Dogwood. Available as reprint at: https://www.henriettes-herb.com/eclectic/kings/piscidia.html. Accessed on 3 March 2024.
    8. Grieve M, Leyel CF, Marshall M. A Modern Herbal. the Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees with All Their Modern Scientific Uses. Dover Publications; 1982.
    9. BPC – The British Pharmaceutical Codex. Council of the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, 1911. Available as reprint at: https://www.henriettes-herb.com/eclectic/bpc1911/piscidia.html. Accessed on 3 March 2024.
    10. Ellingwood, F. The American Materia Medica, Therapeutics and Pharmacognosy, Group I Agents acting on the nervous system. Division I Sedatives and depressants. Chapter III Sedatives used to induce sleep; 1919. Available as reprint at: https://www.henriettes-herb.com/eclectic/ellingwood/piscidia.html. Accessed on 3 March 2024.
    11. Auxence, E.G. A pharmacognostic study of Piscidia Erythrina. Economic Botany, 7, 270–284 (1953). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02984953. Accessed on March 1, 2024.
    12. Wren, R.C. Potter’s Cyclopedia of Botanical Drugs and Preparations. Second Edition. Potter and Clark Ltd; 1915.
    13. Barker JE, Meletis CD. Naturopathic pain management. Alternative & Complementary Therapies. 2004, 1;10(4):188-93. https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/1076280041580350?journalCode=act. Accessed on 3 March, 2024.
    14. Bone K and Mills S. Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine. Elsevier Health Sciences; 2013.
    15. Lopresti AL, Smith SJ, Drummond PD. Herbal treatments for migraine: A systematic review of randomised‐controlled studies. Phytotherapy Research. 2020;34(10):2493-517. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ptr.6701. Accessed on 3 March 2024.
    16. Thomsen M. The Phytotherapy Desk Reference: 6th Edition. 6th ed. Aeon Books; 2022.
    17. Della Loggia R, Tubaro A, Redaelli C. Evaluation of the activity on the mouse CNS of several plant extracts and a combination of them. Riv Neurol. 1981;51(5):297-310. PMID: 6118937.
    18. Meolie AL, Rosen C, Kristo D, Kohrman, M., Gooneratne, N., Aguillard, R. N., Fayle, R., Troell, R., Townsend, D., Claman, D., Hoban, T., Mahowald, M.,& Committee of Sleep Medicine. Oral nonprescription treatment for insomnia: an evaluation of products with limited evidence. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. 2005;1(2):173-187. Available at: https://jcsm.aasm.org/doi/pdf/10.5664/jcsm.26314. Accessed on March 1, 2024.
    19. Brinker, FJ. Herbal Contraindications & Drug Interactions: Plus Herbal Adjuncts with Medicines. Eclectic Medical Publications, 2010.
    20. McIntyre A, Boudin M. Dispensing with Tradition: A Practitioner’s Guide to Using Indian and Western Herbs the Ayurvedic Way. Anne McIntyre & Michelle Boudin; 2012.
    21. Royal Botanical Gardens Kew (RBGK). Piscidia piscipula Sarg. Plants of the Word Online (POWO). Accessed February 26, 2024. https://powo.science.kew.org/taxon/urn:lsid:ipni.org:names:199978-2
    22. IRC – Natives for your neighborhood conservation of rare plants, animals, and ecosystems. IRC – Natives for Your Neighborhood. Accessed March 1, 2024. https://www.regionalconservation.org/beta/nfyn/plantdetail.asp?tx=Piscpisc.
    23. NatureServe explorer 2.0. Natureserve.org. Accessed February 26, 2024. https://explorer.natureserve.org/Taxon/ELEMENT_GLOBAL.2.135857/Piscidia_piscipula
    24. UpS list of herbs & analogs. United Plant Savers. Published May 14, 2021. Accessed February 26, 2024. https://unitedplantsavers.org/ups-list-of-herbs-analogs/
    25. IUCN SSC Global Tree Specialist Group & Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI). 2020. Piscidia piscipula. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T156770819A156770821. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-1.RLTS.T156770819A156770821.en. Accessed on 26 February 2024.
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

Sign up to our Newsletter

Sign up to our newsletter to receive the very latest in herbal insights.

Sign up to our newsletter