We've moved the clocks ahead and the days are starting to get longer. The brilliant light of the equinox calls us to rise earlier and engage in more physical activities.
This renewed energy awakens budding trees, singing birds, and our own bodies. Over the winter, our bodies slowed, matching the rhythm of the cold winter months; we took to nourishing our bodies with warm, rich, comforting foods. But, just as the flowers begin to poke up from the earth, our own internal fire has been rekindled. We begin to feel more active, more energetic, and craving those deeply nourishing leafy greens and sweet fresh fruits. To help our bodies reignite that internal flame, there are many detoxifying, and bitter herbs we can incorporate into our diet to support our digestive system and help get our body back on track.
Herbalists believe that health and vitality begin in the digestive tract. Bitter-tasting herbs are best taken before each meal to enhance digestive function, improve fat metabolism, and support a balanced state of mind. People worldwide have traditionally called upon spring greens to cleanse the body and clear the mind. Because the taste of sour resonates with the liver, spring greens tend to be bitter, sour and pungent in flavor and are perfect for supporting healthy liver function. It is during this time of the year we begin foraging for our favorite edible spring greens like dandelion, nettle, watercress, lamb’s quarters, violet, chickweed, chicory, amaranth, red mustard, and arugula.
Spring is also a time to incorporate fresh nettle leaf into tea blends while adding burdock and dandelion tinctures into our daily routine. As spring weather in Maine can be damp, cold, and rainy, we continue to add the roots of astragalus, codonopsis, and ginger to soups and teas to support our immune and digestive systems.
There certainly are a number of books devoted to detoxing and cleansing the body. Perhaps, the most important thing to take away from these books is to incorporate as many plant-based meals as possible. The fiber in leafy greens helps support natural detoxification and incorporating certain foods that help increase bile production and foods that act as diuretics. Try adding more bitter greens, cruciferous vegetables, berries, green tea and tonic herbs like turmeric, parsley, and garlic to your meals. Many benefits can be derived from attuning our consumption—food, drinks, and remedies—with the natural flow of the seasons.
Dandelion: Taraxacum officinalis
Dandelion, originally from Asia and Europe, today is found around the world in temperate regions. Dandelion root tea and tincture is one of my favorite tonics and the greens bring great delight to our palate after a long, cold Maine winter. Old timers used to gather dandelion roots to make tea or soup, and dandelion tempura is a seasonal favorite among the staff at Avena Botanicals. Generations of Mainers ate the nutrient-filled roots to help kick-start their bodies as they emerged from their winter hibernation. A fantastic supporting tonic for the liver, dandelion leaves contains calcium, potassium, and iron. Tender spring leaves make a wonderful addition to salads, soups, and pestos as these young leaves are not as bitter as their older, summer cousins.
One way to enjoy these bitter greens is to make an herbal infused vinegar. Using organic apple cider vinegar as the base, fill a 16oz mason jar 3/4 of the way with the vinegar and fill the rest of the way with a combination of fresh dandelion leaves, horsetail, chickweed, and nettle and let the herbs infuse in the vinegar for a month. This wonderful tonic can be taken on its own before meals to stimulate digestion and add a mineral-rich kick to salad dressings.
Milk Thistle: Silybum marianum
Milk thistle leaf, flower, and seed help support healthy liver, gallbladder, and kidney function, promote the production of healthy liver cells, optimize the body’s detoxification pathways, enhance healthy digestion, and not to mention, are a powerful antioxidant. The best way to extract the nutritive ingredients from the hard seeds, is to first grind them either in a coffee grinder, Vitamix or with a good old-fashioned hammer. The resulting powder can be easily incorporated into teas, smoothies, soups, and stews. If you want to create a tincture using milk thistle seed, be sure to add a little bit of alcohol to the blender to extract all the healing properties of this beneficial seed.
Burdock: Arctium lappa, A. minus
Burdock root is truly a remarkable herb for supporting the detoxification process in the body, ensuring healthy liver, kidney and bowel function, enhancing lymphatic circulation and promoting healthy, clear skin. Burdock is rich in magnesium, thiamine, iron and a number of vitamins and minerals. Supportive during seasonal transitions, especially in fall and spring, burdock roots slightly bitter and moderately sweet taste encourages liver and lymph detoxification. Many herbalists will use burdock in stir-fries, soups and in teas to support healthy gut flora.
Burdock's bitter taste stimulates digestive activity helps to remove toxins from the gut, curb sweet cravings, and soothe indigestion. For women, this roots sweet and oily properties help support the endocrine system and make for a lovely nutritive tonic for those entering menopause and beyond.
We dig burdock root in the spring of the second year. The root will begin to lose vitality when the plant uses its energy stores to send out a flower. It can be difficult to dig this tenacious taproot as if easily finds its ways around rocks and other roots. With a little patience, a long digging pole, and some muscle you can eventually get to the end of the root and put it out with a slight "popping" sound. There is nothing like the rewards of unearthing this root on a warm spring day with knees and hands covered in dirt. One can find burdock root, or gobo root, in many well-stocked natural food stores or Asian markets.
Red Clover: Trifolium pretense
The sweet fragrance and flavor of these flowers are beloved by bees and herbalists alike. Avena's gardeners enjoy collecting these blossoms in the early morning light when the flowers are freshest. These beautiful flowering tops are one of an herbalists favorites as a detoxification herb and upper respiratory tonic. Rich in minerals like calcium, iron, and nitrogen, red clover makes a wonderfully delicious tea to use during the months where we transition from the cold of winter to the cool dampness of spring. Red clover is one of our favorites to help support the lymphatic system and circulatory system. Drawing a warm bath with red clover and calendula is a beautiful way to enjoy the aromas of these lymph moving herbs.
Stinging Nettle: Urtica dioica
Nettle, or stinging nettle as it is sometimes referred to -- due to the tiny "stinging" hairs on the stalks filled with formic acid -- is a hardy perennial can be found just about anywhere there is moist, fertile soil. Herbalists crave this springtime nutritive tonic, as it is high in vitamins, minerals, macronutrients like iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and protein. Nettle leaf has mild diuretic properties and can help flush toxins from the kidneys, and has long been used to support healthy liver, and bladder function. Harvesting these fresh green tops in spring is something we always look forward to. With long pants, shirt-sleeves and thick gloves we gather several pounds of the fresh tops and make it into fresh tea, substitute it for spinach in recipes, add it to soups, pickled or made into a tincture.
This spring, we encourage you to take a renewed look at the “weeds” popping up in your yard, along riverbanks, and delight in the benefits of these springtime greens.