Bitters and wild American herbalism: Celebrating the diversity of plants, people, and traditions

Dandelions

We live in a connected world. Not connected by the threads of modern human-to-human telecommunication (though these links have catalyzed big changes), but by our interactions with the plants, animals, mushrooms, microbes, soil and stone, water, air, fire and light with whom we share the biosphere. We became human, and continue to grow, fully embedded in this living, breathing system. The history of our species is written in our genetic code, where we find stories of ancient infections but also keys unlocked by the chemistry of the wild world. Our bodies and spirits remember how to walk on uneven ground, how to stay awake for hours waiting in the woods, how to find some food most days (though some days, none at all), how to handle the bracing chill of the river. And our physiology knows well how to work with bitter iridoids, polyphenols, pungent sulfur compounds, aromatic terpenes: we’ve known since before becoming human.

We are remembering that it’s important to engage with this range of human experience. It started with exercise: best to move once in a while, rather than rest, if you want to maintain good health. Now folks are talking more about putting the body through short bursts of high-intensity exercise, followed by rest and interspersed with gentle aerobic activity. This puts the heart, lungs, muscles, joints and connective tissue through their full ranges of motion and capacity: just the lungs, for example, have the ability to take in more than ten times the air per breath than is needed during rest. Let them, once in a while! If you can, stretch out your stride. Put the body through its operating ranges. The result seems to be greater fitness1.

But this phenomenon isn’t limited to exercise. Modulating our sleep schedules and including occasional bouts of sleep deprivation is a new area of research for mental health support2. Periodic fasting or reduced caloric consumption, either on a daily or weekly schedule, may help our digestion and metabolism3. Cold-water therapy, even if it’s just part of your shower, puts the body through an experience of temperature range, shifting blood flow and circulation, helping athletes bounce back from tough workouts 4. In all these cases, as with high-intensity physical activity, we see the same features: first, they all expose us to a diversity of signals, situations, and inputs (all of which had relevance in our ancestral past). Second, this diversity of exposure is part of what makes “wellness”.

The declining diversity in our diet, when seen through this lens, may be cause for concern. Production has centralized and consolidated into larger facilities focused on a few key botanical species5. Our modern diet also has a homogenous flavor profile based on sweetness and salt — a “bliss point” identified as most able to keep us coming back for more6. What’s missing? Bitterness, of course, but also microbial diversity and secondary plant metabolites (or “phytonutrients”–compounds like polyphenols, polysaccharides, phytosterols, and more). While all these elements are abundant in wild plants7, our palates today seem to prefer the blandly-sweet flavors of what Michael Pollan calls “edible food-like substances”8. With this stuff, digestion never gets to stretch out its stride. That’s part of why I am grateful that bitter herbs are easy to find and prepare: they’re like the gym for your digestion. Or rather, they’re like a trail run on a frosty morning.

Bitters are part of restoring the diversity that’s missing in our diets, and (as with the previous examples), building our wellness. We can feel it when we taste them.

The flavor can be challenging at first, but we know the benefits: digestive support, liver support, gentle daily support for our natural detox system, and appetite regulation.* But bitters are also a flag, an indicator of phytonutrient density: wild chemistry tastes quite bitter9, from the mild phenolics found in chicory root, to the intensely-flavored alkaloids like berberine in Oregon grape root. Plants produce these molecules in part as a response to the challenges they feel in their native ecologies (browsing insects, for instance, or drought stress) (10). You can see the same principle at work: challenge, a diversity of stimuli, leads to responses in plant physiology that are encoded in that plant’s DNA. And furthermore, the increased diversity in the chemistry that plants produce under mild stress ends up being an important source of dietary diversity (and wellness) for the human being. This is almost a gift-like cycle, one where the gift is that of new, challenging vistas:

The ecology brings gifts to the plants, the plants bring gifts to us, and hopefully we, as healthy humans, can bring the gifts of our own creativity and diversity back to the wide world.

A NEW IDEA: YOU MIGHT WANT TO TRY THE BITTER FLAVOR ON PURPOSE

Moving through fall, the season of gratitude, we cross the threshold into winter’s time of celebrations and gifts. This is a great time to harvest, prepare, and get to know bitters. Part of the reason, especially if you like the classic bitter roots, is that they are softer and sweeter this time of year: a summer’s-worth of sun is packed into complex prebiotic starches and stored away in the dandelion, chicory and burdock roots–a reservoir for spring. Burdock roots can be food, but they also gently support liver and digestion, and the herbal tradition values burdock for healthy skin.* Scrub one or two roots gently under water, then cut them on the bias and dress them with apple cider vinegar, sesame oil, and salt. They are crunchy and slightly bitter. Alternatively, use them as you would carrots and cook them into soup and stir-fry. All are great ways to supplement your diet if you’re looking for a bitter boost and skin support.

Chicory

Roasting bitter roots is a perennial favorite, and though chicory is classic, dandelion and burdock work well, too. One interesting variation is to add nuts, at about 10% of the blend. Hazelnuts are excellent, as are almonds, walnuts, sweet acorns like those of the bur oak or Gambel oak, and pine nuts. Another option is to explore the bitter taste of the reishi mushroom, which could make up between 5% and 15% of the blend depending on taste. The fall roots, whose starch caramelizes just a bit during roasting, temper reishi’s lingering bitterness. After you’ve made your blend of chopped roots, nuts, and mushrooms, you can roast the ingredients in a 300F oven for about an hour or until they are crispy and a bit toasted. Grind these with a food processor to a coffee-ground consistency, and brew in your French press, drip filter, or even espresso maker as a new (yet familiar) way to enjoy the digestive benefit of the bitter flavor.

To make a simple batch of dandelion bitters, take about one cupful of fresh, washed and chopped dandelion roots and put them in a pint mason jar. Using a carrot peeler, peel an orange (include some of the bitter white pith), and add it to the jar. Finally, if you’d like, add a tablespoon of raw honey. Cover the whole mix with 80 or 100-proof vodka (about 10-12 ounces), and close with a tight-fitting lid. Shake this jar daily for a few weeks, then strain out the contents and serve with sparkling water to support digestion before a rich meal.* You can also pour it into small bottles to take on the road, for yourself or to give away as gifts. These bitters are so helpful for travelers, often in limbo during the colder, stormy months; chefs and food enthusiasts you know will appreciate having some, too. At the very least, when you turn someone on to bitters, you will participate in the plants’ gift cycle and widen its embrace. The result: exposure to a wider range of nature’s chemistry, and a deeper connection to the biosphere. And maybe a conversation about a new idea: that we might want to try the bitter flavor on purpose.

Diversity of ideas and perspectives is a good thing–so bringing bitters to the table when we get together with friends and family can help just by catalyzing an interesting conversation. But herbalists may also tell you that, in the traditional view, “bile” was seen as a stand-in for irritability itself, and that bitter herbs, with their ability to support bile release, might just be able to help manage volatile or angry turns. So even though this understanding falls more into the realm of herbal “energies” than pharmacology, traditional stories tell us that bitters may also help us feel more understanding when exploring different (or challenging!) ideas, and this could be another reason to offer them when we gather with folks who hold different opinions. But in terms of diverse perspectives,

herbal medicine has offered me yet another lesson: one I learned from the unique qualities of the American herbal community.

AMERICAN HERBALISM TODAY IS A WILD, DIVERSE, GLOBALLY UNIQUE MOVEMENT

I grew up in an intact herbal tradition, meaning that using certain herbs as part of the toolkit for family health was a relatively familiar and expected part of being a kid in an Italian family. Furthermore, though there are regional variations, Italy is very similar to the rest of Europe in its approach to medicinal plants. So as I began to explore herbalism in the United States, I encountered Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, 18th-century herbal medicine systems still in practice, the strong indigenous herbalism of those native to this hemisphere and more. While some herbs had drifted over to Europe over the last 200 years (take Echinacea, for example), the riot of diversity on this side of the Atlantic was new, challenging, and exciting to me–it seemed everyone had their own style, and the same concern could be effectively addressed with totally different languages, stories, and herbs. I still feel that this environment was, paradoxically, created by the suppression of herbal medicine in the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century 11, but the result has been that herbalism in this country has largely escaped standardization–unlike everywhere else in the world.

Echinacea

We have a rich and diverse ecosystem of herbal medicine in the U.S. today. This includes diverse traditions, varied practice styles, and bioregional “menus” of herbs unique to different areas of the country. It is clear to me that this richness has made American herbalists incredible innovators, seen directly in the explosion of herb shops, schools, farms, tea houses, farmer’s market booths, clinics and free clinics, traveling storytellers, academic and research institutions, and unique products. It is reflection of the diversity of nature itself: American herbalism, largely left alone, is as wild as the weeds we harvest. And while this may exist all over the world, in the folk traditions of herbalism still found at the end of country roads, the U.S. is the only place where mainstream herbalism walks this wild, diverse, folk path. If you visit Italy today, you’ll find mainstream herbalism in the pharmacy, in pills sold like drugs, in blister packs. What we have in the U.S. is truly unique, and worth preserving.

This unique quality speaks of a living, thriving ecosystem that is made more resilient and creative by its rich diversity–much like an herb garden, or a forested canyon, or a seaside archipelago. We’ve been able to enjoy being in the center of this convergence of traditions: new ideas, some as simple as the burning of white sage (Salvia apiana) leaves, have certainly enriched my life by showing me rituals and recipes that I never would have learned in the Alps of Italy. Exposure to this diversity is a huge gift, and a benefit I enjoy as a European herbalist who’s come to reside in the Northeast of this continent. I’ve found that, just as we need the range of flavor, the phytonutrient density, the exposure to bitter-tasting messenger molecules from the world around us, we also need the range of voices, bioregions, and perspectives so we can learn from the universal human experience of plant medicine and plant people. Exploring this range of voices, I think of three points: first, diverse herbal traditions are a gift, not a commodity–and while this gift brings abundant benefits, we can’t assume these traditions are ours for the taking. Second, just as we realize that indigenous language systems are under threat (both in First Nations communities12 and in immigrant communities13) in the face of the expansion of the English language, it is our collective responsibility to help advance the voices of indigenous herbalism in this country. It is our responsibility to increase awareness about the roots of our herbal traditions so we all can know and celebrate both our different histories and styles, but also what makes us the same: a shared love for plants, and a unique way of looking at the world.

Salvia

Third, this unique way of looking at the world–from the perspective of the plants, the living ecology, the garden, and the human-as-garden–is a very ancient and primal way of interfacing with nature. Herbalism teaches it, but it is also the way of the stars, waters, and animals: all nature teaches it. I was reminded yet again about what makes this mindset unique when, recently, I attended an excellent presentation by Reginaldo Haslett-Marroqin. He’s billed as a farmer, but in truth he is an eco-philosopher, systems thinker, and bio-engineer (of the best kind). He has invented a low-intervention, regenerative method for raising chickens at large scale while also reducing his costs, nurturing the landscape with a multi-level planting system, preventing disease and die-off, and providing well-paying jobs–all while working less than typical chicken farmers do14. His technology is similar to that of herbal medicine: respect the living system; increase biodiversity and exposure to relevant stimuli; and focus on support over control. I couldn’t help but resonate with his approach. Towards the beginning of the presentation, Reginaldo offered us an image of the chicken in its native environment, captioned simply with “Gallus gallus: a jungle fowl”. He went on to talk about the chicken as a bird who enjoys a good canopy of trees, and scratches around for grubs and seeds while staying safe from flying predators. Why, he asked, would we ever dream of putting chickens out in an open field? Or in cages where they can’t roam and be true to their nature? These strategies have led to two strange outcomes: a physical deformation of the chicken itself, and a huge rise in death and disease in flocks. So why do we still pursue them–in farming, in architecture, in medicine (and more)?

The answer is simple. It has to do with how we look at the world: a mindset of control, seeking to efficiently impose its methods on a living system, is very different from a mindset of support, which seeks to slow down, observe, and work within the living system. The first is a colonialist mindset: discover, take, impose. But the mindset that takes the chicken’s perspective first (or the plant’s, or the physiology’s) is an indigenous mindset. This is what we learn as herbalists, and it underlies the strategies for healing to which we turn: support, nourishment, and a true curiosity for the story and context each client brings to clinic. It is why I have to express my gratitude for the diversity of experience that plants bring to our dinner tables, and for the fact that more and more folks are hearing about digestive bitters and getting excited about the benefits they bring.

But I would be remiss if I did not also express gratitude for the wild, unique voices and traditions that make American herbalism what it is today, and for the plant knowledge those voices have carried and stewarded for so long.

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE INDIGENOUS PERSPECTIVE

Taking bitters exposes us to a diversity of plant chemistry and supports our digestive and metabolic processes (no coincidence that these are the systems primarily tasked with handling the chemical diversity we put into our bodies).* In so doing, they may also open our minds and spirits to new ideas and perspectives! It is imperative that we celebrate, seek out, and support these perspectives (for they have been sidelined by the dominant, homogenizing, colonialist mentality for too long). At Urban Moonshine, we believe in the power of bitters, and in the power of the American herbal movement. But we also believe that we can do better in taking the perspective of the non-European, in exploring the roots of our global herbal traditions. The green world flows through women, indigenous people, people of color, rich and poor alike. By focusing more on these perspectives, we can both celebrate and support the diversity of our shared movement–and help show folks that herbs are not commodities, herbalists are not healthcare technicians, and that our perspective is different–it’s led by plants.

Over the next year, look for stories, recipes, and herbal wisdom from the amazingly diverse, vibrant, living system of American herbalism. We’ll celebrate bitters, but we’ll revel in different ways of looking at the world, too. We hope that you will enjoy learning about new herbs and traditions, and feel joy at being a part of a movement that respects and values them all. But we also hope that you will join us in the work that always follows the receipt of a great gift: the work of gratitude, the responsibility to speak up for diversity and foster its vibrancy. We may introduce you to new ways of seeing the world, and ways to give back to the diverse communities that have stewarded our herbal roots through the 20th century (and for a long time before that). Be a part of this conversation: by bringing bitters to the dinner table, by taking a cold plunge in a frigid stream, by exploring new ideas and ways of approaching nature, you’ll be challenged and feel stronger, more connected, and more creative (just like Reginaldo’s chickens, I suppose). It is only together, embracing the challenge that diversity brings, that we can change ourselves, our culture, and the world. Let the plants lead the way.

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  1. For more about Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin, visit http://www.mainstreetproject.org