The temperature of herbs varies from very cold to neutral to very hot. This is fairly obvious in some herbs, and the hot bite of Cayenne or the cool, slippery taste of Plantain doesn’t require too much consideration. However, some herbs can confuse even the most experienced practitioner with their apparent contradictions. The simple way out is to look it up in your favorite herbal text and just go by that. Yet we’ve all had instances where the book, no matter how much we usually agree with it, doesn’t mesh with our intuition or experience.
If you look up Yarrow in one herb book, it’ll tell you it’s warm, and another will tell you it’s cool. Hmm, you think, how I am ever supposed to sort this out? And then you taste a bit of Yarrow leaf and flower: acrid and lightly bitter by some tongues, and pungent and bitter by others. Next you check out the standard actions of the plant in herbal medicine:
bitter digestive tonic
and I would also consider Yarrow to be an immune system tonic, though that’s not nearly so standard.
From the first glance at the list you might assume it’s cooling by the fact that it’s an alterative and bitter, which fits a common pattern. And yet the circulatory stimulant aspect as well as the action upon the sinuses might cause you to reconsider. So hmmm, it can’t be both, or can it?
In my opinion, some herbs have variable temperatures, meaning they can have both cooling and warming properties depending on the way they’re used, the herbs they’re used with and even the person they’re used for. Once we accept everything doesn’t have to fit into one category or another, life with energetic herbalism will be much easier. In their profound intelligence, a great many herbs wander over borders, change with circumstance and act in other surprising ways. Plants are more likely to act from a certain individual core nature than from a static list of actions, or a certain category of energetics. One benefit to working with a small number of local plants is that we are more likely to recognize that unique nature and way of being than if we were using three hundred herbs traditional to a foreign country. Depending on a very large materia medica, especially one not based in the land around us is more likely to tempt us into using charts or books to figure out what each herb does rather than depending on our own knowledge and common sense. On the other hand, working with the weeds growing right beside our doorstep is more likely lead us into an intimate relationship that teaches not only the already accepted uses of any given plant, but also the fine subtleties, rare quirks and unusual qualities of each one.
Some herbs I consider to have both warm/cool properties besides Yarrow (Achillea spp.) are Garden Sage (Salvia off.), Peppermint (Mentha pip.), and Sunset Hyssop (Agastache rupestris).
Try to be open to the possibilities and work from there. One of the very best things about North American herbalism is that there’s so many possibilities, so much ingenious adaptation and so little dogma at this point. The more we can strive to avoid categorization and work towards a dynamic understanding the more vital our traditions will become.
Combining Western Herbs with Chinese Herbalism by Jeremy Ross
Personal correspondence with jim mcdonald
Herbal Actions handout from the Fundamentals of Vitalism Seminar at the North American Institute of Medical Herbalism
The Yoga of Herbs by Vasant Lad and David Frawley
The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism by Matthew Wood
Healing with the Herbs of Life by Lesley Tierra