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by Alex Williams May 30, 2023
What’s the difference between potions, tinctures, and tonics?
There are dozens of words thrown around to describe a slew of different herbal preparations, so it can get a little confusing to understand why different herbalists use different words in different applications.
My nomenclature is inspired by the practical traditions of folk herbalism and herbcraft, so the words I employ in my practice often point to their intended use.
But first, it might be helpful to define the tincture, a word that you typically don't hear everyday, unless you've chosen to infuse deeply in the world of herbcraft.
Tinctures are herbal preparations that use alcohol as a solvent. Alcohol allows the most effective extraction of plant properties while preserving the herbal preparation much longer than water-extraction methods.
While utilized for many purposes, tinctures are most often offered to support, nourish, and/or balance various aspects of our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being.
Tinctures vary widely in personality based upon the plant material extracted within and the potency/extraction rate at which the plant material is extracted. Read more about potency on our blog post, A Note on the Potency of Herbal Preparations.
Importantly, many of the terms used below may also (but not always) be tinctures, in that it is an herbal preparation that uses alcohol as a solvent.
Ahh, tonics. One of the most widely utilized, least understood, and ambiguous terms applied in herbalism. It seems as if any of these formulas could potentially be tonic in its ability to support well-being. But this can actually be a misleading term as some herbs are intended for long-term use and some short-term. And then if we take the literal meaning of tonic into account things get more confusing!
So let's start with the literal meaning of tonic:
The word ‘tonic’ comes from the action of an herb as ‘tonifying’ or restoring tone to weak tissues. The action most commonly associated with tonic in this more literal sense are astringents.
Astringents are astringent primarily due to the presence of tannins derived from phenolic acids present within plant material. The ‘drying’ action of tannins are viscerally felt when the tannins in an astringent come into contact with the proteins in tissues or in bodily fluids, such as mucous. The tannins bind to the proteins, constricting the surface of tissues in the process, and creating a thin and temporary coating.
This is also where we get the word 'toner' from and is more accurately a tonic in its astringent and tissue toning nature.
Potions are preparations to be taken as needed and not intended to be taken long-term, although some can be taken long-term.
Yes, this can be a little confusing, but given the myriad constituents in different herbs (and even the variety in the amount of constituents among individual plants of the same species), it would make sense that some herbs can be supportive long-term, some supportive in the short-term (and potentially less efficacious or harmful in the long-term).
Herbal formulas like our gently sedative and sleep-supporting Underworld Potion, or the immune system stimulating Weather Feather Potion, which need to only be taken as needed when the circumstances call for their use.
There are also formulas like Peace Portal Bitters which can offer immediate calming benefits to those experiencing moments of intensity and stress, but can also be supportive as a nervous system tonic in the long-term.
In the case of our Apiary Bitters, long-term use promotes balanced immunity throughout allergy season while short-term, in the moment use helps to soften our body's acute response to seasonal allergies.
This speaks to the wild versatility of many of the herbs we call upon to promote everyday wellness.
I think of potions in a very folkloric and whimsical sense. When I think of the myths and fairy tales I grew up on, the potions were always offered in delicate bottles that seemed to disappear in a cloud of purple smoke upon use. This is echoed in the fantasy RPG games I would play, where a simple potion would diminish your inventory by one upon each use.
Fortunately, our 'potions' stay in your inventory much longer as they contain dozens of servings, but their everyday use is 'as-needed' rather than cumulative.
Here are some other words commonly thrown around by myself and other herbalists. Both are considered tinctures in that they employ alcohol as the primary solvent, but there are a few distinctions that are helpful to be aware of:
Bitters are a 'tonic' preparation (that is, can be taken long term) that includes bitter herbs where bitterness is perceivable on the tongue. While bitters are tonic in nature, they can also be used as needed to support digestion of meals, but their long-term benefits can be quite profound.
Bitters tend to have an affinity for the digestive system and promote overall digestive health. Bitters are often, but not always, slightly sweetened.
Our Over/Under Bitters is a great example of a well-rounded bitters blend that supports optimal digestion.
Elixirs are tinctures sweetened with honey to a greater degree than a bitters preparation and may or may not have bitter herbs included. Elixirs tend to require higher dosage than tinctures and may utilize herb-infused honeys to enhance their health-promoting properties. Some elixirs straddle the threshold between herbal syrups, water-based infusions, and tinctures.
Language is important when we discuss the therapeutic value of herbs and how we use herbs to support well-being and vitality in ourselves and our communities. There are many studies that like to emphasize the lack of efficacy of herbs, while also lacking clarity around the kinds of preparations and potency of the preparations they are using in the study. While the language I provide here clearly does not attempt to cater to the more scientifically inclined crowd, I employ it here since it is practical, accessible, and inspires curiosity and wonder. These are the virtues that herbalism also offers and that individuals deeply need in regular, healthy, and tonic doses if we are going shift our perspective and way of being towards that of a deeply connected and embodied community of people in the years to come.
Tinctures are herbal preparations that use alcohol as a solvent. Potions are any herbal preparation that is not intended for long-term, regular use. We call a preparation a potion to evoke more of a temporal (and perhaps esoteric or magical) usage of a preparation rather than to describe the solvent used to extract the benefits from the herb. So a potion can be a tincture, but it can also be any other preparation that is taken in the moment for more immediate effects. Preparations like tincture (alcohol-extracted), acetum (vinegar-extracted), decoction (water-extracted), oxymel (vinegar/honey extracted), are examples of different preparations that are named for the solvent employed to create them.
Herbal tonics have been traditionally employed in herbal medicine to aid in revitalizing, strengthening, nourishing, and energizing various bodily systems while supporting overall health and vitality. Tonics tend to be taken over longer periods of time and are crafted from carefully chosen herbs, yielding a preparation designed to promote well-being and balance within the body.
Herbal tonics, tinctures, and other preparations can be safe when used appropriately and under the guidance of a trained clinical herbalist. It's also important to let your primary care provider know when you are using herbal supplements, and to follow recommended dosages especially if you have specific health concerns or are taking medications. Individual responses to herbal remedies may vary, so it's prudent to exercise caution and informed usage.
by Alex Williams May 30, 2023
the tea smoke
and the willow
As a kid, there was always something about the scene in movies where the hero is invited in from the rain into some wise hermit’s dwelling. Invariably, the hermit would offer the weary traveler some bitter brew to lift their spirits. There was always a magical quality to the vessel, the brew inside, and the spiraling vapor rising above it. Since then, the image of potency that this scene conjures has been linked with nourishment, healing, rest, and of ritual offering to bring oneself back into body.
In this same spirit, we want the herbs to be able to speak their own language. It is our understanding that the taste and feel of specific herbs, when their active constituents are properly extracted, offer a form of healing and insight into the very nature of the herb itself.
Long story short, our extracts are prepared to emphasize and amplify the 'voices' of the herbs inside. When sweetener like honey or maple syrup is added, it is not just to make the formula more palatable, but to balance the formula and draw our the flavors of the herbs. We let the herbs speak for themselves.
We prefer liquid extracts over products that are powdered or capsuled. Liquid extracts are easier to absorb and more bio-available than extracts which are processed through high-heat drying. We want our products to be as effective as possible. The effectiveness of any extract is the outcome of how much your body absorbs, not how much you take. Because of the nature of liquid extracts, there is the possibility that use in high doses can agitate those with digestive sensitivities. With dosage, start small, and never exceed the recommended daily amount. A little goes a long way.
by Alex Williams April 10, 2022
Tinctures are any herb macerated in alcohol to extract their health supporting constituents. Alcohol allows the most effective extraction of plant properties while preserving the herbal preparation much longer than water-extraction methods.
While utilized for many purposes, tinctures are most often offered to support, nourish, and/or balance various aspects of our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being.
Our tincture blends combine a variety of herbs to support your everyday needs. From building immunity to supporting your nervous system during moments of acute stress, tinctures offer a convenient, accessible, and unique way to integrate the health supporting power of herbs into your daily rituals. They travel well, dispense easily, and often provide a unique and enlivening flavor to bring you back to your senses when needed!
So why tinctures over powders or capsules? We prefer tinctures because they are easier to absorb and more bio-available than extracts which are processed through high-heat drying. We want our products to be as effective as possible. The effectiveness of any extract is the outcome of how much your body absorbs, not how much you take.
So how do we take our tinctures?
Starting small helps you find the sweet spot for your body. Some people need more, some need less. Taking tinctures many times throughout the day also gives you more opportunities to 'check in' with your body, remembering the reason you are taking these herbs, and bringing awareness to your wellness journey.
It can be a meditation, a moment to take a pause, to set an intention, or to pray.
For most tonic herbs, we tend to take around 5-15 drops (~1 dropperful) 3-5 times a day.
Other things to keep in mind:
Tinctures come in many forms. In our case we offer Tincture Blends, Bitters, and Mushroom Extracts. Give them a try for a month or two and let us know how they are supporting you on your health journey!
With infinite dropperfuls of love,
photos by cam sand
by Alex Williams April 10, 2022
"Whatever the situation, whatever the race or creed,
Tea knows no segregation, no class nor pedigree
It knows no motivation, no sect nor organization,
It knows no one religion,
Nor political belief."
– The Kinks, Muswell Hillbillies, 1971
Figured I'd start off with some Kinks to talk about one of the primary pillars of my practice as an herbalist: having some tea.
For starters, herbal tea can offer deep nourishment on the physiological and psychological levels.
Consider this: over the course of several centuries, the Western diet has transformed radically as a result of industrial food production and factory farming to exclude many important trace minerals and nutrients that just aren't present in the processed foods, and tamed fruits/veggies available to us. Eating wild foods is one solution, but may not always be accessible for some people.
A good middle ground is to integrate a daily cup of herbal tea to provide those missing nutrients and minerals excluded from our habitual diet.
Herbalist Maria Noel Groves also offers this from her wonderful book, Body into Balance:
"Many of the herbs that benefit our nervous system -- particularly the relaxing ones -- are highly aromatic, so that a cup of tea provides not only the healing constituents you swallow but also the vapors you inhale. For these reasons, a daily tea ritual is one of the best ways to allow herbs to multitask and help you feel better. The simple act of making and drinking tea is an affirmation that you are taking care of yourself and that plants have the power to heal."
So we have the health supporting benefits, but there's something else going on here that it took me a while to discover: having my cup of tea brings me back to the essence and power of plant medicine every single day (and at least 5-7 times throughout the day if I'm lucky).
You see, water as a vehicle for plant extraction is as old as humanity itself, and many of our current practices as herbalists would not exist without these first human experiments in boiling wild plants in a pot of water.
Making an infusion is the easiest way to cast a spell: it is an act of magic that anyone can practice. By doing so, you are able to bring together all earthly elements in a slow act of meditative bliss.
Making herbal infusions is a pillar of any home herbalist's daily practice. You start with a couple herbs on your shelf: maybe chamomile, lemon balm, and spearmint. Herbs you can grow in your garden or in your window planter. You get to known the herbs one at a time: their personalities, their virtues, their tastes, their smells, their feel on your fingers when you throw them in the jar. Then together: how their flavors swirl and play in the water together. You begin to learn the 'energetics' of herbs intuitively.
Then maybe you throw more herbs into the mix. Perhaps you start making yourself a weekly tea blend at the beginning of the week and Monday becomes a day to look forward to because you begin the week by paying deep attention to what your body needs.
From this approach, an infusion becomes the sensuous core of the radical potential in everyday herbalism. It is at once a meditation, a ritual, a love letter to your body, a rebellion against the busyness of our culture, and an ever unfolding practice of self-care.
Although making infusions might seem like a lot of work at first, it becomes easier and something to look forward to the more you do it.
*For a standard infusion, use 1-2 tbsp (5-7g) herb to 8oz water. For a 32oz (Quart) mason jar, use 1/4 cup (20-25g) herb and fill to the top with just boiled water.
Start of with some of our herbal tea blends and find one that resonates with you. Then I highly encourage you to start a little dried herb shelf of your own to start making your own blends (check our resources page for some great herb farms and suppliers).
To make it even more easy on yourself, grab one of our tea straining straws so all you need to do is make some tea as outlined above, and when the straining step comes, just stick your straw in and sip away!
With love and a warm cup in my hands,
photos by cam sand
by Alex Williams October 31, 2021
For the Greenspell Bioregional Herbalism Intensive, we do blind tea tastings each month to immerse ourselves in the energetics and actions of a particular plant, without attempting to name or define the plant, we let the plant speak for itself!
Oftentimes we come to 'know' a particular plant. Chamomile is good for this, feverfew is good for that. We begin to pigeonhole these alive and complex beings into categories that, while often telling us quite a lot about what a plant has to offer, severely limits what else the plant is offering us in addition to the unique manner in which the herb offers its virtues.
This month, on the precipice of Samhain itself, we immersed ourselves in Wood Betony (Stachys officinalis / Betonica officinalis).
This plant is considered an analgesic nervine that helps to relax tension in the musculature. It has a traditional use as a remedy in the Middle Ages for demon possession, and dark magic, and has a more contemporary use for 'persons who have had unwanted alien abduction experiences' according to Matthew Wood.
Needless to say, I love this herb, and thought it would be a fun one to explore and create a container of protection during this season of Samhain as the veils between worlds are quite porous.
BUT, most of us weren't aware of these traditional uses. We were simply sitting with tea, and a lack of known associations, allowing the herb to play freely upon our senses and within our bodies.
The image to the right is our cute little drawing of what we were feeling.
As we sat with the herb (for around 1-2 hours), slowly taking in the aroma and flavor, we felt a myriad of sensations and movement.
Some words we gave to the experience of the herb: warming, toning, relaxing, 'quieting', mildly psychoactive, focusing, a more 'porous awareness', meditative, circulatory, buttery, melty, viscous, flowy, safe, grounding, anchoring.
Nicole felt a somewhat moistening effect, and we all noted the viscosity of the herb, much fuller mouthfeel than expected given the aroma. We felt the herb was circulatory, but when comparing it to our last herb we blind tea tasted (Yarrow), we felt that it was circulatory in a slightly different manner. We felt more wavelike movements throughout our body, slow and viscous like butter, or like the undulating movements of a jellyfish.
I felt a profound sense of safety after sitting with the herb for some time, but also a sense of strength. An extreme relaxation the verged into the territory of mild psychoactivity.
We related the feeling and evocations of this herb to two cards of the Major Arcana: The Empress and Strength.
After about an hour and a half of sitting with the herb, I revealed who the herb was and we referred to a couple resources which profoundly reflected our experience sitting with Wood Betony.
I highly recommend this practice at home, even if you can't go in blind, just allowing yourself to relate to each plant you work with one-on-one, and deeply:
Plants are like people in the sense that when we spend time with one plant at a time, we are able to forge a more intimate connection with that plant. This is why I encourage learning about herbs as simples—drinking a tea of just one herb, or tasting a single plant tincture—at least as long as you need to begin forging your relationship with a particular plant. By simplifying the interaction, we can focus on the plant that is right in front of us and tune more deeply into its virtues and complexities as an individual being.
“I began spending several hours a day deepening my relationship with different plants. Sometimes I sat quietly with a plant. Sometimes I kept an image and feeling of the plant in my mind as I carried out other tasks in my daily schedule.
As I spent weeks, and often months, with each plant, I came to be able to distinguish one “feeling tone” from another. I worked with this for over a year until I could distill the essence of each feeling tone into usable knowledge. That is, I learned what essential elements lay at the heart of the feeling tone, those things that gave it its distinct emotional flavor, different from all others.Each species and each plant within a species possesses a distinct energy or life essence that I experience internally as a feeling. These feelings are much subtler than the more readily identifiable emotions of anger, grief, joy, and fear. They represent a wide spectrum of emotional shadings, each distinctly representative of a particular plant or species.” - Stephen Buhner, Sacred Plant Medicine
Take the time to dive in deeply and really get to know the characteristics of one plant at a time—and not just what you learn in books, but how you observe and relate to a plant in nature and how you experience a plant by spending time with it or taking it into your body. Over time, you will slowly deepen your relationship and build your understanding of each plant, and begin to amass a deep body of knowledge of the plants you relate to. And this knowledge will not simply be abstract, but embodied.
Like the few of us who engaged in this blind tea tasting, we now have a real, intensified, embodied experience of the herb, rather than just an abstract idea based upon words on a page. Learning herbalism, like all learning, is embodied, so don't lean too heavily on the books, because the plants are already talking to you, if you'll just listen.
If you are interested in learning more about herbalism from the perspective of the body oriented in the heart, check out our in-person / online hybrid Greenspell Bioregional Herbalism Intensive.
post photo by cam sand
by Alex Williams October 17, 2021
Here are what I consider to be the foundations of health and vitality. These are fundamental areas of awareness and are important to address before even considering the use of herbs. Using herbs without an awareness of and focus on these foundational areas can often cover up issues and encourage a dependency on herbs to ease symptoms rather than address root causes. Using herbs in this way is making herbs do more than their fair share of the work.
The integrity of each foundation is reinforced through a combination of rituals and habits that we can work to become more aware of as we deepen our relationship with our body. These rituals and habits become points of self-awareness that shed light on where we need to challenge ourselves to change and grow.
Additionally, these foundations remind us that there is no magic potion, no quick-fix, and no such thing as “swallowing the solution”. Our journey towards vitality, well-being, and self-actualization requires work, self-discipline, and often challenging ourselves to do the very opposite of what we’ve learned to become comfortable with. While the work is hard, you’ll find that what you discover along the way about your body and self is absolutely worth the trouble.
I hope to offer future writings to dive more deeply into these foundations, exploring rituals and habits that move us towards a deeper resonance with ourselves in each of these areas. For now, here’s a quick summary of each foundation:
Everything you ingest influences your body. Every human body is equipped with a resilient and intelligent digestive system which breaks food and drink down into tiny little pieces and absorbs or eliminates them. What is absorbed through the blood or lymph serves as the building blocks for all physiological structures and processes your body creates and carries out. This is why all aspects of nourishment mentioned above, including the relationship you have with the food you eat, are fundamental points of awareness for any long-term health journey.
It is also a foundation I revisit frequently with every person I work with. Digestion and elimination via the GI tract, liver, urinary systems, and skin are often the first place herbalists start since optimizing the health and function of these systems tend to benefit many other organ systems in indirect ways, including allergic sensitivity, infections illness, hormonal balance, and musculoskeletal inflammation. This is also the starting point when it comes to sustainable energy, since it is the food we ingest, along with how we process and make use of that food, that informs our energy levels throughout the day.
It is important to remember here that dietary perfection is an unattainable goal, and striving for such may cause ourselves stress that impedes our ability to digest our ‘perfect’ diet in the first place. Striving for good habits, while being flexible and kind to ourselves will allow us to explore the ways we get our nourishment with playfulness and curiosity.
If you're still looking for that panacea, the best I've got for you is sleep. Sleep is the time when your body does a majority of its restorative maintenance. Your body is able to repair damage, detoxify, fortify and strengthen your immune system, hormones and neurotransmitters are given a chance to come back into balance, and your musculoskeletal system is given a much need chance to relax and let go of any tension held throughout the day.
When you don't get enough sleep, your body doesn’t have enough time to engage in this restorative maintenance. With chronic sleep deprivation, our body begins to deteriorate and all major areas of our health start to break down.
On the other hand, getting extra rest when you’re sick or recovering from strenuous activity, you will recover more quickly and be able to get back out and enjoy the activities you are passionate about.
The capacity to rest and reflect upon our lives in a holistic fashion also allows us to reflect upon areas beyond our basic physiological needs like purpose, spirituality & relationships.
Humans evolved to move, and our bodies desire play. We did not evolve to be sedentary in the ways our culture encourages (through work environments and human connection being limited to virtual space). Movement, or lack thereof, has just as much effect on your overall well-being as nourishment. We grew as a species to collect our food and carry out chores without the luxury of machines or other people doing it for us. Movement was built into the cultures our bodies evolved through. Carving out time to move into our daily routine can help compensate for the more sedentary lifestyle our culture succumbs to. The kinds of movement accessible to you may vary from person to person. Depending on your body type, or limitations to range of movement from disability, you may have to make accommodations and adjustments to your movement.
Like plants, we are all woven into an ecological context, the inputs and outputs of which have a drastic impact on all aspects of our health. We are both a part of the environment while the environment passes through us either absorbed through our skin, respiratory system, digestive system, and nervous system (as sensory input).
So, it's important to be aware of environmental factors that can contribute to our everyday and long-term health.
Our purpose and gifts intersect, inform, and relate to every foundation of health mentioned above. Likewise, our bodies constitute themselves around our purpose, our direction, and our actions in life.
We are informed by the experiences we encounter, while simultaneously shaping these very encounters and experiences. When we are aligned with our purpose, are connected spiritually, and are tending to meaningful relationships, there is a unique aliveness in our physical body that is palpable, like we are a string resonating deeply and in tune with all of life. Likewise, if we get in the way of our own unfolding, the body responds and communicates this to us. Some go as far as to say that if we abandon our purpose, and do not tend to our spiritual practice and relationships, this is a way of sabotaging our unfolding, and our physical body will reflect this spiritual malnourishment.
I employ the term 'relationship' here in the way Krishnamurti uses the term to evoke not just relationships among humans, but relationships with parts of yourself, the non-human world, your behaviors, and stress. This final foundation addresses our mind-body connection, bringing awareness to areas of psychological need and self-fulfillment that have potential impact on our physiological health. It encompasses more overtly psychological needs as well as spiritual and creative self-actualization. But they all connect and deeply inform our health and vitality. Cultivating self-awareness in the foundations of health mentioned above (nourishment, rest, and movement) will also help us to refine our self-reflection skills which we can learn to apply to our relationships, the ways we experience and handle stress and anxiety, and the ways our thought patterns influence our actions and behavior.
This self-awareness also helps us to tune into what herbalist Stephen Buhner refers to as ‘Heart Perception’, or perceiving the world through our emotional heart in tandem with our thinking mind to gain a more comprehensive feel for the world we navigate daily.
On a physiological level, how you think and feel has a direct impact on your overall health (and your overall health has a direct impact on how you think and feel). Paying attention to this foundation will help support your nervous and endocrine system health, improve your stress response, and foster resilience by increasing your resistance to illness and disease.
Reflect upon where you are at in each of these areas. What is getting in the way of flourishing in each area? Consider: am I getting in my own way here, or are there social barriers that get in the way of achieving quality nourishment, depth of rest, energizing movement, healthful environment, and a sense of purpose in my life and relationships?
In sociological terms, asking these questions helps us to parse out the difference between personal problems and public issues. More often than not, we might think of an individual health issue as a personal problem when really it's a public issue (shared by many individuals of similar background and social location). Seeing it as such can help often help to resolve guilt and shame related to your unique state of health in any of these particular areas, allowing for clarity in how you may move forward.
So, in each category make a list of all the social barriers you can think of (for example in nourishment: cost of good quality food, living in a food desert, access to knowledge around what constitutes good quality food, etc...).
Then make a list of all the ways you get in your own way in each of these areas (for example in movement: "while gym membership is expensive and exclusive, it is still possible to find ways to exercise at no cost in my apartment, but I find it difficult for these reasons...")
In your reflections, remember to challenge yourself, but also be kind and forgiving to yourself. This exercise is intended to expand your awareness around your personal health and well-being. It is not about shame or guilt around your health and vitality. If you find yourself experiencing shame or guilt in any of these areas, remember: everyone is enough as they are, there is no perfect picture of health and no perfect ideal to strive towards. Ultimately, growth and transformation is guided by a deepening of awareness in the process of becoming more essentially who you are.
by Alex Williams April 09, 2021
Many of the histories written on bitters coincide with the origin story of the “cocktail”. It was as early as 1803 when the Farmer’s Cabinet (an agriculture periodical published in Philadelphia) first mentioned the word “cocktail” to refer to a drink. Just three years later, the Balance & Columbian Repository of Hudson, New York, shared the earliest description of a cocktail: “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”
Bitters have, especially in the past 15 years or so, been strongly connected to cocktail culture are lore, with a lot of people believing bitters’ sole purpose to be an additive ‘spice’ to elevate the flavors of an alcoholic beverage.
If the histories go further back, they mostly just nod to bitters as a curious ‘patent medicine’ that pharmacists of the 18th and 19th centuries might sling as panaceas for every common ailment.
The history of bitters I prefer to share is one that integrates bitters and the bitter taste into the overarching development of humans navigating their own evolution in relation to the ecosystems in which they traversed. This is the history that follows.
In a sense, bitters are our ancestors. Plants, notably the bitter ones, existed long before us humans staggered up onto two legs, and it was in the hundreds of millions of years before we arrived that they evolved poisonous alkaloids that might stave off the giant insects and herbivores roaming the earth at the time (pictured here is an artistic rendering of what Southern Illinois might have looked like around this time – Painting by Mary Parrish of the Smithsonian Institute).
So by the time we got here and started rummaging around for food, we had to contend with some heavy-hitting botanicals who teased us with their abundant nutritional value while challenging our tongues and digestive systems with a potential slurry of toxic constituents.
If we think about what types of foods humans have eaten historically, we see that our diets have shifted significantly over time. Before we began cultivating vegetables and grains, ten or fifteen thousand years ago, we mostly consumed meat and wild plants. Toxins came from bacteria through spoiled meat or contaminated water, the bites of venomous insects or animals, or directly from the poisonous roots, barks, leaves, seed, and berries I mentioned above.
It is our liver, the four-pound blood sponge in our upper right abdomen, halfway behind the rib cage, that works to process all of these toxins and compounds for both energy and to be eliminated as waste.
And if we look at the early history of what we ate, we can start to gain a picture of the environment out of which our digestive and metabolic systems—specifically our liver—evolved.
To people who lived (or who still live) in a world absent of agriculture, where hunting and gathering were the primary means of sustenance, wild plants and meats provided the bulk of the chemistry that their livers came into contact with on a daily basis. Meat may have been abundant and was certainly crucial in nourishing the human species, but it wasn’t and still isn’t a source of much chemical diversity (other than iron, some trace minerals and important B vitamins, animal flesh is primarily a source of macronutrients, such as protein and fat). So while plants may not have always represented the bulk of the macronutrients calories present in our diets, plants were certainly responsible for providing both the greatest number of different individual chemicals to the liver and also its greatest challenge in metabolizing all those different chemicals.
So how does bitterness play into all of this? As we’ve already discovered, bitters trace their roots to a time long before humans grew out of our shared ancestral tree, where plants were more often poisonous than not. One perspective is that we developed the ability to perceive bitterness to avoid the deadly fate of eating such poisonous plants and eventually our digestive systems found ways to adapt to the plant's bitter poisons, so we could digest and assimilate their nutrients.
So why did plants develop the bitter flavor? Well, like I said above, to avoid getting eaten. The chemical compounds plants created were part of their evolutionary strategy to keep on keepin’ on.
But if a plant is simply toxic, an animal could come by, eat its fill, wander off and fall over dead later on. This is hardly helpful to the plant who was just eaten, nor is it helpful to the animal.
What’s required is a signal, a way of telling a hungry animal that it may not want to overdo it.
So, to be of deterrent value, plant chemicals need to be able to communicate their toxic presence to the animals that might consider eating them.
Outright deadly poisonous plants often contain alkaloids that are intensely bitter. You would have a hard time consuming appreciable quantities of them. But that’s the point, the plant makes the chemical to keep the animal away, and the animal develops a broadly sensitive taste receptor to warn it about the chemical’s presence. That warning comes to us as ‘bitterness’.
Plants that aren’t outright deadly, but still want to deter animals from eating them, might create chemicals that, when eaten, resemble the bitterness of poisonous plants to similarly deter animals from eating too much of them.
Taste is a great way of communicating this, as taste can give us an idea of the possible chemical content of what we are eating.
As for the bitter taste, It’s much harder to define a single type of chemical responsible for the bitter flavor. There is usually an underlying hint of bitterness riding on the palate together with any of the other tastes, sweet, salty, sour, umami… etc. Especially before we domesticated wild plants through agriculture and selectively bred the bitterness out of plants: apples would be bitter, carrots were bitter and also not orange at all, unprocessed grains contained bitter bran.
The common thread here is that the bitter flavor was present in virtually all plants before we bred the bitterness out in favor of sweetness, color, or other nice attributes we like. Kind of like dogs, we bred out their bite in favor of their fluffiness.
Taken together, the bitter flavor seems to be the signal from the plant world to watch out—eat less—and activate your digestive, metabolic, and detoxification mechanisms. Additionally, some might argue that the bitter plant constituents that comprise the bitter flavor are so interwoven with our metabolic chemistry after millions of years of coevolution that they are essential to our wellbeing. Guido Masé, herbalist, and strong proponent of the bitter flavor, would likely agree here.
Guido Masé also offers us the best retelling know of relating the shift from eating bitter plants out of necessity for nutrition, to using bitter herbs specifically for healing. While bitter herbs such as gentian were widely used in Egypt around 1200 BC for its medicinal properties, Masé points to Mithridates VI Eupator, a famous king of a Hellenistic kingdom called Pontus, as being the first to craft an actual bitters formula. The thing is, Mithridates was not attempting to make a concoction that would tonify his digestion or enliven his old fashioned. Instead, he was attempting to make an antidote for poison.
For a more robust retelling, I refer you to Guido Masé’s excellent The Wild Medicine Solution, the source from which a lot of this info comes, specifically the chapter on Bitters where Masé goes in depth on the story of Mithridates. I’ll only summarize here:
Mithridates IV Eupator was the ruler of the Kingdom of Pontus from 120-63 BC and one of the Roman Republic’s most formidable and determined opponents. Early in his life, Mithridates is said to have retreated to the wilderness for seven years after the assassination of his father Mithridates V in 120 BC by poisoning, which injected Mithridates with a healthy dose of paranoia and necessitated a desire to evade all possible assassination attempts towards him should he take over the throne. So he retreated with the purpose of developing a universal antidote to poison, snake venom, and the bite of wild beasts.
Through his experiments in poison formulation, as well as his research into antidotes, the young prince hit upon the possible solution:
“[P]erhaps, if full doses of poison could kill, then smaller doses might strengthen him against death. Simply employing plants that tasted like the poison but were not toxic themselves (like the root of high mountain gentian) might do the trick. Mithridates retreated from palace life for a period and apparently delved deeply into venom brewing and antidote crafting, because when he returned, both his mother and his brother were poisoned and died. The prince became king, married his sister, and set about building an army—all while looking over his shoulder, fearing the murder in his evening meal, but confident that the regular use of his antidotes would keep him alive.” (Masé, 2013, 115-116)
His antidote—which was known as the mithridate—would also be considered the first recorded bitters formula in the Western world. Its ingredients included some very bitter plants such as gentian, along with resinous, aromatic herbs such as ginger, opopanax, St. John’s wort, myrrh, and cinnamon.
“To these were added salty bitters from the parsley family and, finally (for good measure), a touch of opium. Crucially, the entire formula was then blended with honey to form what was called an ‘electuary,’ a sort of thick syrup meant to be taken by the tablespoon.” (Masé, 2016, 41)
Eventually, Pontus was conquered by the Roman Empire, and the formula fell into the hands of Mithridates’ enemy, the Roman Empire. Over the next century or so, it made its way into the hands of Roman physicians, including Galen, who called it “theriac” and added his own bitter plants into the mix, although the general formula of bitter herbs, flavorful herbs (whether that be aromatic or salty), and a touch of sweetness to balance the formula remained consistent.
And while the conception of the formula as a universal antidote to poison did not hold as fully as Mithridates might have hoped, the idea that smaller doses of a poison might strengthen against illness or death endured as a concept in medicine, from the homeopaths of the 1800s to the modern invention of the vaccination.
But the most enduring idea of Mithridates in his formulation, was in employing plants that tasted like the poison but were not toxic themselves. This encouraged physicians to employ bitter plants to help stimulate digestion in different capacities, encouraging the proper breakdown, assimilation, and elimination of foods that pass through one’s body.
At this time, however, the “theriac” was heralded as far more than a humble digestive tonic. It was recommended as a cure for almost any ailment. First, of course, being digestive complaints. But physicians also considered the theriac beneficial in rheumatism, headaches, fever, skin complaints, depression, hysteria, and even wound healing (likely to varying results).
It is at this point that Guido Masé (2016, 43) discusses the apex of the history of the theriac in Venice, Italy: “Traders there had access to all the necessary ingredients, and apothecaries could spend months, sometimes years, perfecting the Theriac Venezian to sell for exorbitant sums. The recipe remained a closely guarded secret, but still retained the strongly bitter roots coupled with the pungent, aromatic plants, al little saltiness, and a final addition of honey.”
With an incredible botanical abundance as a result of the varied elevations and climates of the Italian Alps, in addition to the expansion of the spice trade in Italy, we find a context where small villages and monasteries would concoct their own bitter tonics that reflected the local flora of the bioregion in which they inhabited. These bitter tonics would eventually come to be known as amaro (Italian for “bitter”), and the bitter herbs which were once solely intended for medicinal purposes began to find their way into many of our modern day spirits and liquors.
This brings us to the point where bitters, which were once primarily medicinal potions, now come to be imbibed as recreational drinks and become officially included in the earliest definition of the “cocktail”. And we find ourselves right back right where we started, where most people begin their history of bitters.
Masé, Guido. The Wild Medicine Solution: Healing with Aromatic, Bitter, and Tonic Plants. Rochestor, VT: Healing Arts Press, 2013.
Masé, Guido and Jovial King. DIY Bitters: Reviving the Forgotten Flavor. Beverly, MA: Fair Winds Press, 2016.
Smith, Peter. “A Brief History of Bitters.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 20 Mar. 2012, smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-brief-history-of-bitters-159271950.
by Alex Williams January 29, 2021
What is your relationship to the bitter taste? For a lot of us, bitters evoke familiarity while presenting a challenge to the taste buds. We know what it tastes like and we know it takes a bit of grit to endure. It's not a taste we have to search for, because when present, bitter tends to shout.
For those of us who love bitter, we can probably trace back to a time when we would have preferred against a dish a bitter greens. For those of us who presently can’t stand bitter, know that there will be a time when you will come to welcome the bitter taste into your palate, given the courage to embrace the new and challenging.
How do I know this? Because it's part of who we are as humans, we evolved with bitter plants, evolved to ingest them, and we made it so far partially in our ability to discern bitterness from other tastes (more on this later).
The often used term ‘Bitters’ tends to refer to something beyond what the isolated flavor a certain leaf or root might convey. ‘Bitters’ are formulas, recipes balanced and constructed atop a bitter foundation which grounds both the formula and our bodies when we ingest them.
We've all enjoyed a bitters formula whether or not we've purchased a bottle of 'bitters' for our own home bar. Consider a wedge of grapefruit: the flesh with its sweetness and acidity combined with the strand of white pith from the rind of the grapefruit balancing, and even amplifying the sweetness of the grapefruit with its bitter tinge.
But we're probably more accustomed to associating 'bitters' with the small, curious, and often cluttered collection of bottles you spot on the backbar of your favorite neighborhood cocktail bar (wow, it's been a while hasn't it?). In this case, the bitters formula refers to an intentional concoction made by human hands, using the same principles of construction and balance atop a bitter foundation that we find in the example of citrus above.
To ensure that we're all on the same page before we set forth on our journey into the strange realm of bitters, let's really pin down what we mean by 'bitter'. Yeah, we know it experientially, but what do we really mean when we refer to something as 'bitter'?
Simply put, we're referring to one taste among the five our taste buds can perceive: saltiness, sourness, bitterness, sweetness, and umami (savoriness).
Taste is differentiated from aroma and flavor, but all of these perceptions are included in the experience of bitters. Okay, one more time, maybe slower... or, I'll just let Samin Nosrat clarify:
"Aroma involves our noses sensing any of thousands of various chemical compounds. The descriptive words often used to characterize the way a wine smells, such as earthy, fruity, and floral, refer to aroma compounds.
Flavor lies at the intersection of taste, aroma, and sensory elements including texture, sound, appearance, and temperature."
So while we will be emphasizing the bitter component here, the whole pantheon of perceptions will be activated in our practice of crafting bitter formulas for our own health, pleasure, and enjoyment.
My hope in introducing you to the wild world of bitters will be to empower you and your community to reintroduce the often avoided but powerful ally we have in bitter plants, and to cultivate and nourish the latent wildness of our bodies that the wild weeds do so well in arousing.
Bitters trace their roots to a time long before humans grew out of our ancestral tree, where plants were more often poisonous than not. We developed the ability to perceive bitterness to avoid the deadly fate of eating such a poisonous plant and eventually our digestive systems found ways to adapt to the plant's bitter poisons, so we could digest and assimilate their nutrients.
We are who we are because of bitters, and conversely, we end up less of who we are if we fail to embrace the powerful allies we have in wild and bitter plants. In embracing bitters, we carry forth a lineage of ancestral wisdom and folk medicine inspired by the wild bitter plants themselves.
This post was in support of First Curve Apothecary’s 2021 Bitter’s Club
photo by cam sand
The content on this website is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.