Spring planting time is upon us, as warmer weather beckons us outdoors to clean away the winter leaves and work the soil. While the spirit is willing, one questions the body’s willingness to shed the lazy habits of indoor winter activities. But lucky for us, we gardeners and herbalists have a botanical arsenal to help us fight this sluggish feeling. We can energize our bodies by getting out into the garden to cut some of the weeds that threaten to overtake our perennials and, at the same time, collect the ingredients for a cleansing spring tonic.
A tonic is anything that invigorates and strengthens the entire body. It can be an activity, such as digging in the earth or taking a yoga class. It can be reading an inspiring magazine article or listening to a motivational speaker. It is “an agent designed to restore enfeebled function, and to promote vigor and a sense of well-being,” according to Phyllis A. Balch in Prescription for Herbal Healing (Avery, 2002).
Because we are herb gardeners, we know how invigorating the plants in the garden can be, both when we are in the garden collecting them and when we use them to cleanse and energize our bodies. Several plants regarded as weeds in our gardens and yards help to detoxify and rejuvenate our bodies for spring.
Spring Weed Primer: The Wonder of Weeds
Chickweed (Stellaria media) has slender stems growing from its center and white, star-shaped, edible flowers (stella means “star” in Italian). With a thick mass of fine white roots, chickweed grows almost flat along the surface of the soil, forming a leafy green blanket. When it encounters other plants, it will grow over them and can suffocate them by blocking light and air circulation.
Snipping bite-size lengths (about 2 to 3 inches) of the tender-leaved stem tips with scissors is the most efficient way to harvest chickweed for salads or a greens pot—a pot full of steamed mixed greens, such as tonic herbs, sorrel, spinach, kale, collards and chard, picked from the wild or the garden. Chickweed’s leaves have a fresh, green, sweet scent, somewhat like peas, and they have a mild herb flavor reminiscent of spinach. The older stems, which are closest to the center of the plant and thicker than the newer growth toward the tips, are rather chewy due to their tough, threadlike inner core.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) plunges a thick taproot deep into the earth as soon as it germinates. Its leaves are long and pointed with notched lobes. Dandelion greens contain vitamins A and C, and its leaves are high in lecithin, which helps replace cell membranes and assists the liver in processing toxins. Dandelion also is very high in beta-carotene, and contains calcium and potassium, some phosphorus and iron.
The leaves taste bitter and tart—smaller leaves are less so, and larger leaves become more so after the plant has flowered. During late winter and early spring, gather leaves by severing the entire crown of the plant at ground level. Strip the leaves from the central vein, wash in vinegar and water, rinse and spin in a salad spinner. Nibble a leaf or two to make sure the grit is thoroughly washed away and to test for bitterness. You can parboil the leaves to reduce bitterness, but remember that the bitter flavor stimulates the digestive juices, aiding the liver.
When the plants form buds, harvest these tasty morsels for your scrambled eggs or stir-fries. They are not as bitter as the leaves and offer an interesting texture. After the flower petals appear, remove them from their calyxes and strew them over green salads, egg, tuna and chicken salads, soups or scrambled eggs to lend appetizing color.
The root often is used to lower blood sugar in diabetics. It is most often harvested for that purpose in the late fall when it contains high levels of inulin. The root is bittersweet, full of nutrition and can be dug in the spring and used like carrots or parsnips in soups, stews and stir-fries.
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) or, in the Northeast and Canada, slender nettle (U. gracilis), grows in moist places. You’re not likely to find this plant growing wild in your yard or garden unless you live near a spring or creek. But a hike in nature to gather nettles is as bracing a tonic as eating a big bowl of the steamed greens. Be sure to gather the young shoots and leaves, as the older leaves are bitter and contain gritty calcium deposits. Also, be sure to bring gloves when gathering nettles—the plant’s deeply veined, toothed leaves are covered with bristly hairs that sting when you touch them. Many inexperienced people have learned this lesson the hard way, stumbling unaware into a patch of nettles and feeling the intense burn. Nettles are a common weed around the globe, and although they do sting, folk traditions hold nettles in high regard as a spring tonic.
Once cooked or dried, the plants will no longer sting you. Nettles are full of immune-strengthening nutrients that also renew and tone body tissue and nourish and purify the blood. Its leaves contain vitamins A, C and many of the B complex vitamins, along with beta-carotene, calcium, iron, phosphorous and potassium. A cup of nettle tea is a wonderful spring tonic that detoxifies and promotes healthy kidney function, helping the body cleanse itself of waste. Nettles have a lovely, mild flavor. They taste slightly sweet, not bitter or strong, so they are good wilted, in soups and casseroles. Always cook nettles before ingesting them.
Violets (Viola spp.) can refer to the blue-violet and white-flowering wood violets (V. papilionacea), birdfoot (V. pedata) and sweet violets (V. odorata). Most wild violet leaves are heart-shaped, except for birdfoot, which looks appropriately like its name. The flowers have five petals on long, thin stems that stand above the foliage. You can eat the flowers and young leaves, which contain vitamins A and C, raw in salads, or cook the leaves and eat them with other spring greens or add them to stews as a thickening agent. The leaves contain saponins that can cause nausea and vomiting if eaten in large quantities; these saponins also are thought to be responsible for the tonic “cleansing” effect experienced after eating them.
Spring tonic wild onions and garlic (Allium spp.) include nodding wild onion (A. cernuum), wild onion (A. stellatum), field garlic (A. vineale) and wild garlic (A. canadense). The same health benefits apply to chives (A. schoenoprasm), garlic (A. sativum) and garlic chives (A. tuberosum) that have gone wild in the garden. All alliums have the characteristic odor of the genus. This is caused by sulfur compounds, which have beneficial effects on blood circulation, breathing and in the digestive tract. The bulbs and leaves are most tender in the spring, before the flower stalks appear. Snip the leaves into any dish that you would season with onion or garlic. Chop the small, peeled bulbs and use them like garlic. The smell and taste are pungent, hot and spicy.
When gathering wild alliums, be sure the leaves have that unmistakable odor. The leaves of crow poison and death camas (Zigadenus spp.) resemble alliums, but do not have the smell. Crow poison and death camas can cause serious illness and death when eaten, especially in the spring.
Spring Tonic Weeds Recipes
Nettle Tea with Lemon Balm and Mint
I find this tonic tea is tasty any time of day as a light pick-me-up. It is soothing to the digestive tract about an hour after a meal, and sometimes we will have a cup an hour or so before bedtime to relax.
2 cups water
Generous ⅓ cup nettles
Generous ⅓ cup lemon balm ( Melissa officinalis )
Scant ⅓ cup spearmint ( Mentha spicata )
Bring water just to a boil. Rinse teapot with warm water and place herbs in warm teapot. Add boiling water and cover. Steep 5 to 10 minutes; strain and drink hot.
Favorite Wilted Greens
For this recipe, gather fresh, wild weeds, such as chickweed, dandelion, nettles and violet leaves. You can mix these with cultivated greens, such as spinach, kale, arugula, chard, cress and sorrel.
8 to 10 cups fresh and cultivated greens
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
Salt and pepper
Wash greens and remove tough midribs, if necessary. Spin or pat greens dry, and chop them roughly.
In a large pot, heat olive oil over medium heat and add garlic. Stir 1 minute. Add greens, stir and cover. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, and then test to see if the greens are tender. Season lightly with salt and pepper and enjoy.
Spring Tonic Salsa Verde
Makes about 2 cups
This sauce goes well with any type of vegetable—grilled, steamed, oven roasted or crudités. It also is good with simply prepared meat, chicken, fish and pasta. You can vary the herbs according to what you have on hand or what is in season—if you don’t have one or two of the herbs, use a little more of some of the others.
1 slice crusty, whole-grain bread, torn into pieces
About 1 cup packed Italian parsley
About 1 cup packed chickweed sprigs
About 1 cup loosely packed watercress or arugula leaves
¼ cup each violet and dandelion leaves
¼ cup minced sweet-tasting onion
8 wild garlic bulbs with green tops, minced, or 3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard
⅓ to ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Soak bread in a little water for 10 minutes, then squeeze liquid from it, reserving soaked bread and discarding water. Pound parsley, chickweed, cress or arugula, violet and dandelion leaves in a mortar using a pestle, or chop in a food processor. Add bread to mortar or food processor and mix with herbs, along with onion, garlic, vinegar and mustard.
Add olive oil to herbs as if making mayonnaise, drizzling a little at a time, blending or pulsing to incorporate. Stop after about 1/3 cup olive oil. If you are happy with the texture and taste, you might not need to add all of the oil. If sauce seems thick, add remaining oil. After you’ve added the olive oil, season sauce with salt and pepper.
Allow sauce to stand 30 minutes before serving, so flavors will meld. Adjust seasoning and serve at room temperature. The olive oil will not emulsify completely; a little will remain on top of the sauce. Store any leftover sauce in a tightly covered glass container in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Spring Green Soup
Makes about 4 cups
This is an amazingly simple soup that you can prepare quickly. Vary this soup with herbs and greens that you have on hand. It is so thick that you almost have to chew it, rather like a puree. If you prefer it to be a little thinner, add a cup of vegetable broth.
About 1 pound asparagus
10 to 12 wild alliums, including bulbs and tops, or 2 tablespoons chopped garlic chives
8 sorrel leaves, washed (and stemmed, if tough)
2 cups milk, divided
Generous handful chickweed, arugula or small spinach leaves, washed and dried
Generous handful watercress or dandelion leaves, washed and dried
1 slice whole-wheat bread, cut or torn into large pieces
Freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon salt
Wash asparagus and snap off tough ends. Cut asparagus spears into 1½-inch lengths. Put asparagus into blender along with garlic or chives. Add 1 cup milk and puree until smooth. Pour asparagus puree into nonreactive soup pot. Add sorrel and other herbs, bread, salt and remaining cup of milk and blend until mixture forms a smooth puree. Transfer puree to soup pot and bring just barely to a simmer over medium heat. Cook 6 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Do not allow to boil. Taste for seasoning, add salt and pepper, and serve hot.
Wild Greens Omelet
Serves 1 or 2
Use whatever greens you have on hand in the garden for this pleasant combination. You can make a single, three-egg omelet if you are very hungry or a four-egg omelet for two to share.
12 sprigs chickweed, about 3 inches long
12 dandelion leaves, 2 to 3 inches long
12 sprigs wild onion foliage or sprigs of chives
3 sorrel leaves, 3 to 4 inches long
3 to 4 extra-large eggs
Wash and dry herbs and chop them coarsely. Beat eggs with milk or water.
Heat sauté pan over medium heat. Add butter, and turn to medium-low. Add garlic and stir for 1 minute. Pour eggs into pan and cook slowly over medium-low heat for 3 or 4 minutes. When eggs are set on the bottom, sprinkle chopped greens evenly over the top and season with salt and pepper. Cover pan for a minute or two. Lay slices of cheese on half of the eggs and fold half of the omelet over to cover the cheese. Cook for another minute or two, until the eggs are cooked through. Serve immediately.
Spring Harbinger Salad
This salad is the essence of spring with new baby lettuces, greens and herbs from the garden. It is simple and delicious—even if you have only two or three of these greens, it will still taste fine.
About 6 cups mixed baby lettuces
2 to 3 handfuls each chickweed sprigs and small dandelion leaves
1 handful each violet and sorrel leaves
Small handful fennel sprigs
¼ cup coarsely chopped, toasted walnuts
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
⅓ to ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground pepper
Wash, pick over and dry salad greens and herbs. If leaves are small, keep them whole. Combine lettuces and greens in a large, shallow bowl. Tear dandelion and sorrel leaves into smaller pieces and scatter on top of salad along with chickweed sprigs and violet leaves. Cut or tear the fennel into small sprigs and use it to garnish, along with toasted walnuts, if desired.
In a bowl, stir salt into vinegar with a fork. Slowly drizzle in olive oil, stirring with the fork. Dressing should emulsify as you pour in the oil. Stop and taste dressing after incorporating about ⅓ cup oil and see if you need to add the rest. Season dressing with freshly ground pepper.
Serve salad and pass dressing, or dress salad, toss and serve.
Susan Belsinger lives in Maryland, where she teaches herb and cooking classes, gardens, takes photos and writes. Tina Marie Wilcox works at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, Arkansas, as the park’s herbalist and program coordinator. They are presently working on a book titled.