The neighbours’ dog spends a bit of time at my place. He’s a jack russel cutie, about a year or so old. I’ve been impressed by the range of things he eats, even by dog standards. There’s the usual revolting things he’s dug up from somewhere, and he eats an array of items from the compost bucket each visit. But he’s also a bit of a herbalist. Today I stood and watched as he chomped on the wild thyme growing along the edge of the garden. He took big bites, pulling off the leaves, and then chewed them for a bit before moving on to the next bush. He did this six or eight times. Thyme is a strong plant, and a good medicine (anti-microbial, digestive aid and a lung healer) so I’m pleased to see him doing this (and I guess I should plant more thyme this year).

The other thing that impresses me is when we play tug-of-war or chase games with green birch sticks, he spends quite a bit of time chewing and eating the bark off the end of the stick. Birch bark is also good medicine, notable for its pain relieving properties but I suspect that there is something else he is after (I’m sure he’s not in pain generally).

He’ll eat couch grass of course, but also peach stones seem to be a favourite in the summer. I’m sure some of the value there is similar to bones – chewing on hard things promotes gum and tooth health – but peach pits are medicinal too.

Looking at that list now – thyme, birch, couch, peach pit – and given the dog’s penchant for eating pretty disgusting things as well as herbs, I wonder if it’s to do with limiting intestinal parasites (thyme, birch and couch are known anti-parasitics).

Modern ideas are often sceptical about animals’ abilities to use plants to heal but anyone who’s spent time with animals outside knows that they do eat a range of herbs. There’s a lovely book on animals and their ability to self medicate. Wild Health by Cindy Engel, is based in both traditional knowledge (Engel has been influenced by the grandmother of modern herbalism and holistic animal care, Juliette de Bairacli Levy) and science (Engel was a biologist originally).

There’s a couple of instructive things from watching animals eat medicinal herbs. One is that the boundary between food and medicine is often quite blurry. Some medicine is quite obviously not food (I wouldn’t want to eat echinacea for instance), but often food is medicine and medicine is food – think raw garlic or nettle soup. With animals this seems even more so. They’re not making tinctures and teas after all, so is that food in the birch bark or medicine or both? I’ve seen tree bark eaten by possums too, including willow and houhere (lacebark) and wondered the same thing.

The other instructive thing is that taste and smell are crucial aspects of self-medicating and herbal medicine. My neighbours’ dog isn’t relying on books or the internet ;-) or even oral-tradition herbal medicine to make choices about what herbs to eat. When he sniffs at and chews on birch bark, the communication between his taste buds, his brain and millions of years of evolution kicks in and he knows instinctively that this is a good and useful thing to eat. Further to that, instinctual eating based on taste also allows us to know when we’ve had enough. There are feedback loops in the body so that food and herbs start to taste different when we’ve reached our limit i.e. herbs that initially taste good start to taste less appealing, or even down right bad as our need for them diminishes.

This isn’t foolproof of course. Modern human and pet diets have altered our experience and perception of taste and smell hugely, and farmed animals certainly aren’t immune to poisoning themselves if exposed to the wrong plants in the wrong way. I’m not sure about wild animals though.

And the idea that our bodies can tell us directly what medicine we need and don’t need is so contrary to medical science where an expert and pharmaceutically funded, randomised controlled trials are needed to tell us what our medicine is, that we can sometimes doubt our own innate abilities. But the more we use herbs that we can taste and smell as our primary source of medicine, the more our bodies give us the cues about what we need (a diet not overloaded with highly processed foods is important too).

I’ve experienced this change in taste and need many times. Most notable was when waiting for my mahonia tincture to brew, I took up Kiva Rose’s suggestion and chewed on the twigs daily. Mahonia by most accounts is a strong bitter, and as such is a good liver herb (which is why I was taking it). As a tincture a dose is measured by the drop rather than the dropperful. When I started on the twigs they tasted so good to me it was like chewing on licorice root. Not that the mahonia was sweet*, but the twig chewing had the same degree of ‘yes I want more’ that licorice does (kids go mad for licorice root).

I had to be careful to not overdo it (mahonia is still a strong medicine after all), but I took my body’s reaction as a sign that this was the right herb for me at that time. And certainly I needed a liver support herb – mahonia resolved the problem over time (by the time the tincture was ready and then I didn’t need it, which is another learning in itself). My desire for the twigs did diminish over that month i.e. the taste became less appealing, and in the end I just stopped eating it rather than making a definite decision I didn’t need it anymore.

Taste and smell are also important ways of learning about plants and their medicinal uses. Bitter tasting herbs have distinct actions on the liver and digestive system, and slimey plants have mucilage which soothes mucous membranes. Plants with aromatic oils (thyme, rosemary) are often good antiseptic and anti-microbial herbs. When getting to know a plant, it’s good to spend time tasting and smelling it as well as making medicine from it.

*although recent explorations of the tincture, where I’ve been putting a few drops on my palm and licking them off, do yield a dark sweetness in amongst the stronger bitter flavours.