Make Herbal Tonics from Spring Plants

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With spring comes young greens that help revitalize us after a long and restful winter.
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Mildly bitter burdock root supports eliminatory organs and helps flush excess water from the body.
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Lymphatic and diuretic chickweed has a botanical name that means "little stars."
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The prickly hairs covering cleavers cause it to stick to passing objects.
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Harvest young new dandelion greens throughout the growing season for the most tender, mild flavor.
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One cooked cup of lambsquarters contains 1,112 percent of the recommended daily value of vitamin K.
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When cooked before consumption, stinging nettle is a diuretic, and a nutritive tonic that supports the body.
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The most common edible species of violet are sweet violet, blue violet, and Johnny-jump-up.
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Try zingy, wild pesto on pasta, sandwiches, soups, or scrambled eggs.
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The fresh kick of homemade vinaigrette pairs perfectly with spring greens.
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Looking for a light, fresh dinner? These seasoned white beans and mild nettle are just the thing!

Spring cleaning is a well-known task for the home, but seasonal cleansing can also be applied to our bodies. While winter provides wonderful opportunities for deep nourishment and rest, spring produces seasonal plants to help revitalize us. Traditionally, people have gathered these first green plants to reintroduce a wealth of vitamins and minerals to their diets, and to enlist the plants’ support for gentle detoxification and the overall strengthening of their bodies.

Many spring tonic herbs are bitter. Bitter flavors activate taste buds that promote good digestion by stimulating the production of digestive acids, enzymes, and bile. Some spring tonics are also diuretics, which aid the body in removing excess water and flushing out waste products. Yet other spring tonics, such as cleavers, chickweed, and violet, kick the lymphatic system into gear so it can filter and remove waste materials and pathogens that may have accumulated during the sometimes-sedentary habits of winter.

The following seasonal tonics are hardy, well-adapted plants that can be foraged or grown nationwide, or bought in bulk from reputable online herb stores.

Burdock Root (Arctium lappa): Typically harvested in the autumn of its first year or the spring of its second, herbalists use this mildly bitter root as an alterative to support eliminatory organs in clearing wastes from blood, and as a diuretic to help flush excess water from the body. Peel, chop, and enjoy burdock root in stir-fries and soups, or as a decoction (1 to 2 teaspoons of chopped root, simmered in 1 cup of water for 15 minutes, and then strained). Burdock has become more popular in recent years, and you may be able to find the root in local health food stores or Asian grocery stores.

Chickweed (Stellaria media): One of the first greens of spring and last greens of fall, chickweed loves cold weather. This plant’s botanical name means “little stars,” a nod to its star-shaped white flowers. As a lymphatic and diuretic, chickweed decongests the lymphatic system and clears excess water from the body. Juicy chickweed flowers, leaves, and stems are delicious raw in salads or steeped as a tea (add 1 to 2 teaspoons of chickweed to 6 ounces of boiling water). Chickweed has a fresh, green taste without any bitterness.

Cleavers (Galium aparine): Cleavers (also known as “bedstraw”) is easy to identify as it has small, prickly hairs covering its stalk and leaves, which causes the plant to stick to itself or passing objects. Harvest the aboveground parts of cleavers in early spring; these can be juiced, infused in cold water, or eaten in salads or on sandwiches. Cleavers has been used to stimulate and decongest the lymphatic system, and as a diuretic to help remove excess water.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale): Young dandelion greens are tender and less bitter than mature leaves, so harvest new growth throughout the season. One cup of these raw nutritive leaves contains 535 percent of the recommended daily value of vitamin K, and 112 percent of vitamin A. Bitter dandelion leaves are a liver tonic and are also a well-known and powerful diuretic. Eat dandelion greens in a salad, cooked like kale, or added to a zesty pesto.

Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album): Lambsquarters is easy to identify, with goosefoot-shaped leaves that have white or gray powder on their undersides. If gathered when young and tender, lambsquarters is a delicious and nutritive stand-in for spinach eaten either raw or, more usually, cooked. One cup of cooked lambsquarters contains 1,112 percent of the recommended daily value of vitamin K, 281 percent of vitamin A, 111 percent of vitamin C, and is also high in calcium and manganese.

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica): Harvest the bright-green tops of nettle as soon as they emerge in spring. (Wear gloves to avoid the sting, which can be neutralized by drying or cooking.) Nettle is a nutritive tonic that supports the body, as well as a diuretic. Blanched nettle can provide between 90 and 100 percent of the recommended daily value of vitamin A, and it’s a good source of dietary calcium, iron, and protein. Cook nettle as you would spinach, sauté it before blending it into pesto, or steep it in boiled water for a nutrient-rich spring tea.

Violet (Viola spp.): While there are more than 550 species of violets, those most commonly chosen for edible and medicinal use are sweet violet, common blue violet, and Johnny-jump-up. Violet leaves and flowers are used for lymphatic congestion and are diuretic as well. As lovely and mellow spring greens, the tender young leaves are a delight in pesto or salads. Violet flowers make a pleasant tea or garnish and can also be candied or frozen in ice cubes.

Spring Tonic Recipes

While the following recipes call for particular greens, feel free to mix and match from the previous list to suit your tastes and what grows near you.

Forager’s Pesto

This wild-harvested version of pesto is zingier than regular basil pesto, but just as creamy and delicious. Try wild pesto with pasta, as a sandwich spread, stirred into soups and scrambled eggs, or layered in a lasagna. Yield: about 2 cups.

• 2 to 4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
• 1/2 cup pine nuts or walnut pieces
• 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
• 3 cups mellow greens (lambsquarters, spinach, chickweed, violet leaf, lettuce, or blanched nettle)
• 1/2 cup bitter, spicy greens (dandelion or arugula)
• 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
• Sea salt, to taste

1. In the bowl of a food processor, combine garlic, nuts, cheese, and greens. Process until finely chopped.
2. With processor running on low, slowly add oil, and then process until smooth.
3. Season with salt and either serve immediately, refrigerate for several days, or freeze.

Wild Greens Salad

Bitter greens, such as dandelion, pair perfectly with mellower greens, such as lettuce, violet leaves, and chickweed. You can garnish the salad with lovely violet flowers, too. Yield: 2 servings.

• 2 cups butter lettuce
• 1 cup young violet leaves or chickweed
• 1/2 cup young dandelion leaves
• Handful of violet flowers (optional)

1. Tear or chop butter lettuce into bite-sized pieces.
2. In a bowl, combine lettuce with remaining greens.
3. Garnish with violet flowers, if using.
4. Toss with 4 tablespoons Simple Vinaigrette (recipe below), and serve.

Simple Vinaigrette

Homemade salad dressing is so simple! To the basic formula below, you can also add chopped herbs and garlic, or try substituting different oils and vinegars. Yield: 1/2 cup. 

• 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
• 2 tablespoons balsamic or white wine vinegar
• 1 teaspoon maple syrup or honey
• 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
• Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Combine the ingredients above, stir or shake well, and then enjoy over a fresh spring salad.

Spring Nettle with Garlic-Lemon White Beans

Nettle can be substituted for cooked spinach or other dark leafy greens in about any recipe — just be sure to steam nettles well in order to inactivate the sting! Yield: 2 to 4 servings.

• 1 medium to large bunch fresh nettle leaves (about 4 to 6 cups)
• One 15-ounce can white beans, such as cannellini, drained and rinsed
• 2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
• 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
• Juice of 1/2 lemon
• Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1. While wearing gloves, carefully remove nettle leaves from their stems. Rinse in a colander.
2. Add rinsed nettles to a steamer basket set over water, and then steam for 10 to 15 minutes, or until tender.
3. In a soup pot, combine beans, garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice. Heat through.
4. Stir the greens into the beans, and then season the dish with salt and pepper. Serve warm.

These recipes are just a starting point for integrating spring tonics into your diet. They can invite creativity into the kitchen while nourishing you with their vitamins and minerals. As winter turns to spring, these humble plant allies can help you greet the new season with vitality.

Marlene Adelmann is an experienced herbalist and the founder of the Herbal Academy.

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