By Erin Smith
Intuition is something that can be hard to write about because it can mean so many different things to different people. But as those that have taken my programs know, I feel it’s one of the most important aspects of working with plants and developing a personal relationship and deep knowledge of herbs. In a world where we are always focused on the outside world and interacting with it almost exclusively from our head, deepening your intuition also inevitably leads to a deeper understanding of self.
For some, intuition refers to a deep inner knowing that operates outside of the head and in many ways defies logic. It is the “gut feeling” that we have all felt at least once in our life. The word intuition itself can make some feel uncomfortable because it refers to something that is intangible and so hard to nail down.
But there is a science side of intuition too. It’s not all “in the head” or “in the gut”, but also rooted in our senses. Having worked with indigenous communities around the world and in the field of ethnobotany, I’m no stranger to the many romantic images that exist of native peoples having a “sixth sense” or special knowing when it comes to nature. While we often love to make this type of “knowing” seem almost magical, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. But it’s not magic.
In truth, it’s not that some cultures have a “sixth sense” but that they still fully use all of their senses to know their environment. This is something we are all capable of but have simply forgotten over time. When I talk about working with plants intuitively, its not just about getting to know them from a deep inner space but also using all of your senses to fully know and understand how a plant works in the body. In science, this is called a plant’s organoleptic properties: using taste, smell, sight, touch, etc. to identify a plant and its possible biological actions. Before all of our additional modern scientific ways of understanding plants and their actions, this is how we all got to know plants. It was the only way to know. This type of plant knowing is the root of all the traditional medicinal knowledge we have today. It is what allows expert plant healers from some traditional cultures to know how to use a plant they’ve never seen before.
And I recommend that it be a part of how you get to know plants as well.
Here are some easy ways to hone your senses and deepen your intuition when working with plants. The more you practice this, the easier it becomes, and the deeper your knowledge of plants will be. Please remember to never taste a plant that is unknown to you. Practice this first with herbs that have a long history of use and you know are safe. You can practice this with herbs you are just learning and those you’ve used before.
The next time you are going to use an herb, take the time to get to know it. Use all of your senses: smelling, feeling, and tasting some of the raw herb (fresh or dried, or both). Really look closely at the plant and notice its defining characteristics, even if it’s in dried form.
Make an infusion of the herb. Smell it, noticing if there are layers to the smell. Is it sweet, bitter, pungent? Take a small sip and notice the flavor. Is it different from what you expected from the smell? Are there layers to it? Can you get an idea of its use from the taste? (For example, bitter herbs often work on the liver and digestion; sweet taste often indicates nutrient dense herbs)
Then taste a bit more and close your eyes. Can you feel it in your body? What sensations can you feel? Do images arise? Don’t dismiss anything. For now just put the head aside and notice everything. Write it down if you want. Repeat the process with other forms of the herb – tincture, syrup, etc. Is the smell, taste different? Do you feel it differently in the body?
As you continue to study an herb, do any of its well-known uses line up to the impressions you had when you first met it? You will be amazed how many times you can actually feel how a plant works in your body when you take the time to pay attention.
The more you practice this, the more honed these senses and your intuition become. You will also notice that you have a deeper connection and knowledge of a plant. Don’t be surprised if you become attached to the herbs you get to know this way. They are now more than herbs; they are your friends.
You might also be surprised that you have a deeper awareness of your body in general and a greater trust in yourself.
If you combine this way of getting to know plants with all your scholarly learning, overtime you will develop a deep knowledge of plants and their uses that you can’t get from books alone.