Spring Tonics

For several years before we retired, my husband and I spent our weekends in a cabin beside a 65-acre lake about six miles from the farm where we now live. Our closest neighbors were Pearl and Jim Berry, who, though poor in ready cash, were rich in grace and country wisdom. They lived with pride in a 120-year-old cabin with a single overhead light bulb in each small room, their only inside plumbing a cold-water tap piped into the kitchen. We learned to depend on them to enlighten us about the mysteries of country living.

What Pearl and Jim really taught us is that self-sufficiency is still important in parts of America’s backwaters; that “getting ahead” is not everyone’s primary goal; that it is possible to value family and friendship over making money, and to be content far from the fast track—especially if you don’t even know what “fast track” means.

It was Pearl who initiated me into the country ritual of spring tonics. “Tonic” is a loosely used term that can be applied to many other subjects, but here it refers to those green plants emerging early in the season that reputedly strengthen and invigorate the body. In the days before supermarkets and high-speed, refrigerated long-distance shipping, such plants provided welcome stimulation for digestive and circulatory systems that had become sluggish from a winter diet heavy in cabbage, rutabagas, potatoes, dried beans, and canned corn. Those foods filled hungry bellies and were easily stored but didn’t supply sufficient quantities of the vitamins and minerals essential for good health. Without supplemental nutrition from leafy green and orange vegetables, such a diet might well result in symptoms of various nutritional deficiencies by winter’s end.

Pearl, like earlier generations of country folk, went foraging early in spring for the tender wild greens that she felt would restore her family’s health. She avoided dependence on supermarket greens, choosing instead to harvest the great variety of spring tonic herbs that grow in the wild, available to all. She didn’t know the “correct” names for several of them, but their vital uses were second nature to her.

Spring Greens

“Over there’s the plant I use when one of us has boils on our hind parts or those blisters you get on the mouth,” Pearl said one early spring day, pointing to a big-leaved plant growing next to a shed. “Don’t know what you call it, but it cleans the blood and takes the poison right out.” When I got closer, I could see that it was burdock (Arctium lappa), the farmer’s bane, the one that’s spread about by sticking in the horse’s mane or the cow’s tail. Burdock appears in all my herbals, from Dioscorides (first century a.d.) to Castleman (1991), as a blood purifier and a treatment for skin problems. Herbalists through the ages have also prescribed it to treat a multitude of ailments from leprosy to cancer, and ­although only its antiseptic properties have been confirmed by modern science, it is currently an ingredient of at least two highly controversial herbal cancer formulas.

Pearl’s list of essential tonic herbs also included lamb’s-quarters (Cheno­podium album), violet greens (Viola canadensis), dandelion greens (Taraxacum officinale), plantain (Plantago spp.), and the small, tender center leaves of curly dock (Rumex crispus). The precise nutritional reasoning for these choices was unknown to her, but the identity of the plants and the importance of gathering them were ­undeniable elements of her heritage.

7/29/2016 3:10:38 AM

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