Written by Ruth Weaver
Foraging and finding herbal medicines is an instinct found across many species, however it is a skill that many of us haven’t nurtured. This article discusses how we connect with herbs by sensing and feeling and why it is important.
Since the beginning of time, animals have interacted with plants for food, medicine and shelter. Humans and animals have evolved with the native flora as has the practice of hunting and gathering. Foraging for wild medicines and edibles is at the heart of the animal instinct to survive, however as a result of societal life and industrial scale agriculture, the majority of us in the Western culture are detached from our primitive ways and as a result, we are more detached from the natural world.
In this article we will take a look at the relationship between the human sensory systems, instinct, intuition and the plant world and exploring primitive sense as a fundamental principle in the animal- plant relationship. We will uncover insight into the evolution of our relationship to plants as food and medicine, and explore how we may enable ourselves to learn more directly from the plants through a rediscovered primitive instinct and the informed use of our own senses.
First we have to ask, how do wild animals stay so connected to their instinct to forage? And how are we different?
The instinct to forage: Nature or nurture?
Most animals are born with an innate skill to forage and hunt. Many of us will have observed the incredible wisdom of a domesticated pet self-medicating with wild plants, most of whom were unlikely to have been taught this skill directly by their mother. Think of dogs chewing on grass for digestion, or cows eating blackberry and raspberry leaves when pregnant- herbal medicine is an instinct. In fact animals self-medicating with plants is a branch of science known as zoopharmacognosy.
It is understood that learning about food begins in early life as flavours of the foods eaten by the mother are then transferred to her offspring both in utero or in her milk. This would suggest that neural connections between the sensory systems and our subconscious brain are made during gestation. Which may explain, in part, how animals who were separated from their parents during infancy would still retain a degree of this transferred sensory knowledge (4).
Wild animals who stay in parental care throughout early infancy will however learn through parental guidance about the environment, the location of water and shelter, safety and protection from predators and which edibles are nutritious and which are toxic as well as where to find them.
Animal instinct when it comes to learning the foods that are beneficial also in part comes from a level of trial and error, through biofeedback. Palatability is influenced by the nutrient or toxin content of food. Where nutritional needs are met by a certain food, this is thought to increase palatability. Where as if a food is low in nutrients or contains high levels of toxins, this will decrease palatability. This information is then held in the sensory memory which informs the intuition (4).
What is the intuition?
The intuition is defined by the scientific community as an innate sense used in decision making which involves little or no ‘conscious’ deliberation. The subconscious brain attempts to recognize, process, and use patterns of thinking based in part, on previous experiences (3).
The hidden neurological processes involved in intuition, effect decision making and creativity, allowing one to respond instantly with confidence prior to a more cognitive analysis (3).
Wild nutrition, eating seasonally and the human-nature connection
In most Western cultures we are now at our furthest point of disconnection from the natural world. For most, hunting and foraging is no longer an essential part of daily life. We are less connected to our food sources than we have ever been. When we look at the wild foods and plants that grow wild around us, against the limited range of conventional vegetables and fruits that constitute the majority of our Western diet, it is not hard to believe that we are eating only a fraction of the food types once available to us (or that were once a part of our daily routines).
Wild plants contain an incredibly diverse range of phytonutrients and micro-bacterias compared to the farmed and comparatively sterile produce found on the shelves of the supermarket. A diversity that we would have once benefited from, least not for providing a far superior source of ‘living’ nutrition but for the vital energy that foraged edibles offer (higher vitality- meaning closer to ‘life’, due to being consumed or prepared soon after gathering).
With more foraging and use of wild food and medicines we gain both an enhanced nutritional diversity and a better sense of wellbeing purely through time spent in nature. This makes a strong case for re-engaging with the practice of foraging as a means of enhanced personal and environmental wellbeing.
With this, we can see a clear link between the missing connection that is caused by a lack of interaction with the natural world and lower level of overall wellbeing, in both mind and body.
When humans engage with the world more primitively through foraging, spending time in wild spaces or working with natural resources, the value of the human – nature relationship also becomes more immediate, or more important. With restored connection comes a true value for the natural world.
The primitive diet vs the Western diet
The Palaeolithic diet understands that our more primitive diet would have been predominantly based on seasonal leafy green vegetables, lean meats, fish, fruits, nuts and seeds – foods that in the past could be obtained by hunting and gathering (1). The paleo diet limits foods that became common when farming emerged at about 10,000 years ago. These foods include dairy products, grains and legumes (1).
Foraging for medicine would have also been included in the primitive diet. We have evolved alongside the plants in our environment, therefore there is an affinity between our bodies and some of these plants. It is only relatively recently that we are less in touch with our food and medicine, to the point that we are less likely to have forged this sensory understanding in comparison to our ancestors or other wild species.
We are also predominantly consuming imported and non-native foods, or foods grown out of season. The native, seasonal varieties that we evolved with are probably only a small fraction of the food types that make up our modern diet (2). This seasonal variety would have once provided the exact nutritional/ medicinal benefits needed to support us throughout their respective season of availability i.e. berries in autumn – increased carbohydrates – energy, antioxidants, immunity whilst faced with the colder months; bitter leafy greens in spring – increased mineral content, blood detoxification – building back up nutrient stores and increasing vitality for the more active months of the year etc (2).
The chemistry of taste and the sensory systems
The five senses are key in our understanding and relationship with plants as food and medicine. In view of the above, we may see that our relationship to food in the Western world is limited to a fraction of what would have once been a diverse range of gathered and grown wild foods.
Medicinal plants contain a significantly more diverse range of medicinal and nutritional compounds than that of which is found in the typical foods of a Western diet. The 7 tastes found both in plants and foods are listed as follows; sweet, sour, bitter, salty, pungent, aromatic and umami.
These can all be understood in terms of their chemistry i.e. each taste will indicate the presence of certain groups of nutrients or compounds. The following graph demonstrates how these tastes translate chemically with examples of foods and plant medicines in which these tastes can be experienced;
|Taste||Chemical / Nutritional||Actions||Botanical Examples|
|Sweet||Carbohydrates Polysaccharides Energy Rich Substances.||Energising, Immune Stimulating.||Licorice Fennel Marshmallow Slippery Elm|
|Sour||Detects Acidity Vitamin C Antioxidants.||Cell repair/ regeneration Immunity, metabolism, liver stimulant.||Rosehips Elderberries Lemons Citrus fruit|
|Bitter||Bitter principles||Liver stimulant, detoxifying, blood purifying.||Dandelion Burdock Raw Cacao Chicory|
|Salty||Minerals||Adrenal regeneration, improve blood quality, kidney tonification.||Kelp, Seaweeds, Nettle|
|Pungent||Volatile Oils||Circulatory stimulant, Anti-infective, diaphoretic, vermicide, expectorant.||Horseradish Pepper, Chillies, Garlic, Mustard|
|Aromatic||Volatile Oils||Antimicrobial, nervine, anti-infective.||Lavender Rose Geranium|
|Umami||Nutritive substances B Vitamins Amino Acids||Tissue regeneration, building blocks.||Mushrooms, Roots, Nuts, Grains|
Whilst we may now be a degree separated from the primitive sense found in wild animals to identify wild foods and medicines, a relationship to plants created through the intuitive and sensory mind is still well within our reach.With some more understanding about the chemical indications of the seven tastes, hypothetically, it is possible that we can learn about the actions of herbs purely through experience. We know about the pharmacology of these herbs through rigorous scientific research into their actions, which is why we can reference each chemical group to having the actions shown in the graph above.
However, as we have already seen, from the more primitive animal connection to the chemistry of plants, through biofeedback, there is a valuable relationship to be forged. Within us all will be an engrained ability to learn in this way, beyond the world of science and information.
Of course, with the advances of information and science we can understand these processes more deeply. However one thing is lost- the primitive sense that is our relationship to the plant world, the instinct, the intuition, that heritage of knowledge passed down from our descendants. You may wonder why is this still so important? And if it is, what should we do differently?
There is everything to support the value in gaining this quantifiable scientific understanding of the actions of medicines, because it allows us to be accountable, it measures efficacy and safety and creates a solid knowledge base on which to teach. However, as individuals in our own lives, if we were to reawaken this primitive sense as a means to connect with plant medicine; we enable ourselves to create authentic knowledge through experience, we create a personal connection with the information, we gain a deeper understanding of the nutritional value of our food and above all we can hope to bridge the gap, restoring our value in nature and our connection to the environment.
Many people feel disconnected, and this article highlights in part how we are disconnected from our food and the nature around us. Nurturing our natural instincts allows us to revive a part of ourselves that means we can live in more harmony with our environment, and with more curiosity and reverence. This is invaluable for our wellbeing, and giving more meaning to our large and complex world.
- Challa, H., Bandlamudi, M. and Uppaluri, K., (2022). Paleolithic Diet. [online] Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.
- S. Walsh PhD (2003) Plant Based Nutrition and Health. The Vegan Society. England.
- M. Gladwell (2005). Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Penguin Books. England.
- Marten G. C. (1978). The Animal-Plant Complex in Forage Palatability Phenomena. Journal of Animal Science, Volume 46. Issue 5.