In the past when winter came upon the land, it was impossible to get fresh greens into the diet. This was before grocery stores, refrigeration and freezing, or canning. Families would have to wait until the first of spring to get their much needed nutrition that only plants can provide. I define a spring tonic as “a plant appearing in the spring that is medicinal and nutritive providing many essential vitamins, minerals, and natural constituents to sustain the body systems and move the body towards optimal health”. In other words, they are natural supplements and medicine that can help provide nutrition, strength, and energy our body utilizes for many functions. Today, many people are lacking basic nutrition. Even with our technology and well-stocked grocery stores, many are deficient. Multiple reasons such as the standard American diet, hybridizing seeds, modern farming practices, lack of money, and living in a food desert can contribute to this deficiency.
There are many spring tonics available near you growing in the wild and in your yard (as long as you aren’t spraying toxic chemicals). I will introduce a few for you, but it is best if you check your local neighborhood, or your local Department of Natural Resources for a list of native plants growing near you that could also be defined as a spring tonic. If you are unsure what vitamins and minerals a plant provides, a good resource that I have found is “Nurtitional Herbology” by Mark Pedersen. This book is a good reference guide to have on hand.
The very first spring tonic that appears to me in my garden is Chickweed (Stellaria media)(Pictured above). You will find this particular herb especially in disturbed soils. So anywhere the soil has been tilled, dug up, or prepared for planting. This could also mean in the lawn. There are many people that would prefer that this “weed” is eliminated from their gardens and lawn, but they really don’t understand what they are throwing away or killing. Chickweed contains very high amounts of iron, magnesium, calcium, silica, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, protein, thiamine, zinc, and vitamin A. It is also a good source of Vitamin C, and many other forms of Vitamin B. There are many ways to get these benefits from chickweed. First and foremost, eat it! Pick the stems with leaves and flowers, wash them, and cut them up into small pieces to add to salads, soups, smoothies, or a vegetable dish. This is the best way to incorporate the nutrients. You can also receive some of the nutrients by drinking the infusion (tea). Since I love the many medicinal benefits chickweed provides, I usually make a fresh tincture to have throughout the entire year when I need it, and collect enough to dry. This herb is good as a wash for irritated skin, a mild diuretic, an antihistamine, an anti-inflammatory, a cooling compress, or even to speed up the metabolism.
Another important spring tonic is Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). Just before they flower, collect the top four inches of the plant (with gloves!) and place them in a paper bag. The edges of the leaves contain formic acid which is responsible for the sting, but once dried or cooked, the formic acid is no longer active. If you do happen to get “stung” by nettles, look around for plantain to chew and place on it (or bring your own salve to soothe and draw out toxins). Nettles are an important medicinal herb and nutritive tonic for many reasons. They are loaded with many of the same vitamins and minerals that chickweed contains, but with added amounts of selenium, chromium, and Vitamin K. It helps to build the blood. This herb can also be used as an antihistamine, as an anti-inflammatory, to release excess uric acid, as an alterative or blood purifier, or even a hair tonic! I use nettles in many of my tea blends at home, and it is a main herb (along with chickweed) in Sprigs Breathe Easy formula to help with respiratory and allergic reactions. Throw some in a soup, or substitute for spinach in many of your recipes. These are great sauted, steamed, or in a pesto once blanched!
I can’t talk about spring tonics without mentioning the prolific Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). This is another “weed” that infuriates many people, but I personally love looking at the sea of yellow blanketing my lawn. I also love getting free nutrients and medicine from my own yard! Dandelion is said to contain beneficial antioxidants along with being loaded with vitamins and minerals. It has almost every vitamin and mineral known to man including calcium, potassium, Vitamin A, Vitamin B, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, and Vitamin D. It is also complete with folate, phosphorus, copper, and iron. I collect the youngest leaves on the dandelion because they are not as bitter. Use them in your salads, soups, casseroles, tea blends, and vegetable dishes. Dandelion is also considered an alterative or blood purifier, a bitter to stimulate digestion, and is beneficial to the gut flora. And this is just one part of the plant! Dandelion root is also used to cleanse the liver and aide in elimination, and benefit the pancreas and kidneys. I prepare a tincture with the fresh root, and make many detoxifying tea blends with the dried leaf/root.
These herbs are just a few of the most common spring tonics nature provides. However, there are many more such as Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium album), Purslane (Portulaca oleracea), Plantain (Plantago major, P. lanceolate), and Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) which is from the Mustard family and has a peppery taste. Instead of pulling those “weeds” out of your garden, let them grow and harvest them for food and medicine as a benefit for your whole family!