Christopher Hobbs needs no introduction to the herb world. If you have even the faintest spark of interest in herbs, you should know of him. I can’t even begin to count his many achievements, the number of books he’s written on herbal healing, yet he remains one of the humblest, most likable people I know and I’m proud to say, one of my closest and dearest friends. It seems like we have shadowed, competed, shared and walked this wondrous way of herbs with each other for decades. He is one of only a few colleagues I turn to when I have a question about a plant, founding the American Herbalists Guild, sharing our love of Mahler, art music, jazz, or life. I count the two or three years that I spent working with him side by side in my clinic, on patients together, as one of the happiest of my clinical career – and I could hardly feel more honored than to have served as a vehicle for his becoming a California State licensed acupuncturist.
So, this is not the first time that I found myself searching the Internet on a subject that one of his brilliant articles popped up on my screen. I am grateful that he so graciously has allowed me to feature his especially wonderful article on the quintessential European herb, Gentian lutea, and the quintessential traditional European formulation – bitters.
The English, and subsequently the Americans, are not fond of bitter foods or herbs. In fact, bitter has often been spoken of disparagingly in the English language for example in the statement, “a bitter pill to swallow,” meaning, in a wider sense, that a person found something very difficult to accept. Such events as paying taxes or being forced, as a child, to eat some food we found particularly revolting fall into this category.
It is no wonder then, that the druggist was often called upon to disguise drugs or herbal preparations that tasted bitter. For this purpose, a person trained in pharmacy would have many tricks, sugar coating, encapsulation, or the addition of sickeningly sweet syrups to bitter liquids to make an elixir. For what adult, or especially child, would take their medicine for long if it was very bitter?
Many Europeans would. For instance, in modern Germany, it is estimated that over 40 million doses of bitters are consumed every day, and not just because people think that it’s good for them; they actually enjoy them.
In the European tradition, exposure to a bitter flavor is said to give the digestive system strength and tone, much in the same way that cold water is applied in Russia. It is said that Russian people cut a hole in the ice and dip their babies in the icy water for a second or two, in order to give the baby vigor. Those who survive should indeed be the hearty ones. Referring to this effect, it was Parkinson who quoted Galen as saying, “if our stomackes could brooke (tolerate) this and other bitter medicines, and were not so nice and daintie to refuse whatsoever is not pleasing to the palate, it would worke admirable effects in the curing of many desperate and inveterate diseases inwardly…”
One could speculate that people in the English-speaking countries have become so accustomed to the flavor of salt and sweet that the bitter flavor (as well as its benefits) has been completely forgotten. This may be a pity, for modern scientific research shows that some of the bitter herbs used in soft drinks, liquors, tonic waters, and even candies may have marked healing properties. For instance, modern German research shows that bitter tonic herbal formulas (called bitters) may activate digestive substances, such as bile and hydrochloric acid, enabling us to digest our food more efficiently and effortlessly. Bitters have been shown to stimulate and heighten nervous system function, as well as the immune system, helping people recover more quickly from various chronic illnesses. Bitters are often prescribed by physicians and natural health practitioners alike in many parts of Europe for mild to moderate digestive problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome, colic, gas, and constipation. Rudolf Weiss, a respected German herbalist, physician, and author of Herbal Medicine, says of bitters, “…pharmacological studies provide the explanation for something which has been known for a long time and which any careful observer is able to confirm for himself: that bitter plant principles have marked general stimulant effects that are far from limited to the stomach….generally [benefitting] physical and mental exhaustion.”
Probably the best-known and studied pure bitter herb in the world is called gentian. Gentian is one of any number of species from the genus Gentiana in the family Gentianaceae. Some works list 40 or 50 different species; all of them seem to contain the bitter principle and sweet, aromatic taste that has made these herbs so popular. Although several ancient kinds of gentian will be mentioned below, the author has used several species that grow wild in the mountains of California completely unknown to Europeans, the Chinese, or Indians, in making home digestive tonics. These species seem to be even more bitter than the famous official species, Gentiana lutea L. In fact, it was the well-known English physician-botanist John Lindley who said in his Flora Medica (1838), “There is scarcely a plant of this natural order in which the bitter principle does not exist in considerable intensity.” Lindley considered all species of gentian as potentially useful in medicine.
Just how long have the benefits of bitter herbs been known? In Traditional Chinese Medicine, an intact system of medicine that is more than 5,000 years old, gentian was called lung tan, meaning dragon’s gall because of its exceedingly bitter taste. Bretschneider, physician to the Russian Legation at Peking in the late 19th century, wrote in his Botanicon Sinicum that gentian was first recorded from around the time of Christ in the Shen nung Pen ts’ao king, one of China’s oldest and most revered works on materia medica. Traditionally, the Chinese did not usually differentiate individual species of a genus, and thus lung tan could have been any number of Gentiana species, although the most important species used today is Gentiana scabra, known as Lung-tan. Since the days of the Pen King, and probably before the beginning of recorded history, this herb has been used in China to help ease a variety of ailments.