Though they are known for their fresh, sweet fragrances, chamomile, mint, and dandelion each have a place on a list of bitter herbs. Indeed, a "bitter herb" is essentially any herb that possesses a bitter taste.
Historically, people have used this group of plants for ceremony, healing, and cooking. Ranging from mild to strong, these herbs can be as light as chamomile or as biting as rue.
Common Bitter Herbs List
For thousands of years, bitter herbs have been used in alternative healing. Known as "bitters," these herbs can affect physiological reactions within the body, working as an astringent, a tonic, a relaxer, a stomachic, and an internal cleanser. In particular, bitter herbs have been used to improve digestion and counter inflammation.
For centuries, people have used Angelica (Angelica archangelica) to remedy colds and ailments, such as rheumatism. Its properties make it a stimulant, stomachic, and tonic. For liquors, it's been used to flavor gin. Research is also underway to study its antitumor effects.
Chamomile's (Matricaria chamomilla) curative properties include helping anxiety and gastrointestinal conditions. This mild bitter herb is used as a sedative and antispasmodic.
Dandelion (Taraxacum) is a mild bitter herb used as a blood cleanser and diuretic, which is also said to lower cholesterol and blood pressure. It is still used in traditional cooking in the Mediterranean and parts of Asia. However, The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health notes that there is very little research about dandelion's health effects.
Goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis) is a strong bitter herb used to stimulate the appetite and eliminate infections. In archival essays maintained by the National Library of Medicine, Professor Benjamin Smith Barton declared goldenseal a tonic, observing, "The root of the plant is a very powerful bitter."
Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) originated between the Mediterranean Sea and Central Asia, and the name derives from Hebrew. It has been used as a treatment for colds and respiratory ailments (such as cough syrup and throat lozenges). It's also a good antioxidant agent and is used in wound care.
Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum), which is also known as "holy thistle, lady's thistle, and St. Mary's thistle," is also used for healing. According to research in Medicinal Herbs in Primary Care, milk thistle has powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer effects, and it's beneficial for several conditions like lactation and diabetes.
Peppermint (Mentha piperita) is a flavor, fragrance, and medicine. This herb is used for abdominal pain, nausea, headaches, and irritable bowel syndrome. Peppermint is also used for oral and dental uses. Peppermint essential oil also has additional uses.
Rue (Ruta) is a strong bitter herb used as an antispasmodic, a sedative, and a mild stomachic. It is mentioned in William Shakespeare's Richard III -- "Here is this place/I'll set a bank of rue, sour herb of grace."
Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) is a perennial plant used as an antiseptic, tonic, diuretic, and stomachic. The herb's strong bitter taste is still used in wines and spirits such as vermouth.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a flowering plant that produces a mild bitter herb used as an astringent and cold remedy. The entire herb can be used.
Bitter Herbs of the Bible
A list of bitter herbs mentioned in the Bible will be quite different from the above and focus instead on the original bitter herbs likely used by the Hebrews during Passover. Among them are the following:
- Wild lettuce
For the Passover Seder ceremony, bitter herbs symbolize the embittered slavery experienced by Jews in Ancient Egypt, according to the British Library. The herbs ensure that this history is never forgotten, that it is taught each and every Passover. The bitter herbs commonly used today are horseradish and (Romaine) lettuce.
Tips for Using Bitter Herbs Safely
Whether your interest in bitter herbs is medicinal, religious, or culinary, remember that all herbs should be used properly to obtain the best results. Before you decide to use an alternative medicine approach such as herbal treatments and remedies, it's wise to consult with your healthcare professional.
Some herbs can interact with prescription medicines or be toxic if used improperly. While bitters herbs may not be as tasty as other herbs and spices, their beneficial properties make them worth the slight inconvenience of an unpleasant taste.