As the Wheel of the Year Turns: Spring

As the Wheel of the Year Turns: Spring

By Jennifer Parsons


As the wheel of the year turns once again to spring, it is time to appreciate the bounty waiting for us in our backyards! April brings new, fresh, and tasty plants patiently waiting to share their wonders with us.

My family and I had the great honor of participating in the Coshocton, Ohio Herb Society's biannual herb fair this week. Along with my "lovely assistant," Brandon, I shared a little about a few of our local plant allies. I hope this article helps serve as a keepsake and reminder of a lovely day spent with wonderful neighbors.

A reminder: I am not a doctor. I am simply the humble neighborhood herb lady who is willing to share what I have learned while walking the green path. I encourage you all to research, ask questions, and speak to your family practitioner about any herb or supplement you consider adding to your daily life. Allopathic medicine and herbalism isn't an either/or situation...both worlds can come together and work hand-in-hand to support your wellness.

Winter is hard on our bodies. We have spent months indoors sitting, eating rich foods, stressing out about big holidays, and suffering from cabin fever. Toxins build up as we clog up our systems all winter, causing us to feel bogged down and icky. Springtime finally arrived and just like our homes, our bodies need a bit of spring cleaning. We find ourselves craving fresh, cool, green things as the weather warms for a reason. Our bodies crave exactly what our bodies want, and mother nature gifts us exactly what we need, exactly when we need it most.

What if I told you there is a brand new plant available for your gardens? Easy to grow, very prolific, medicinal benefits, edible and tasty, and has bright showy flowers from March to November? I would be calling my favorite greenhouse and begging for a seedling! The thing is, we already have it in our garden. It is not a new plant, but an old friend that has received generations of bad press. Taraxacum Officinal. Dandelion. We have been trained to scorn this plant, to call it a weed and yank it ruthlessly from our gardens and yards. It is a plant that deserves a second chance and a special place in our lives.

The dandelion came here with the first pilgrims. While many of the original colonists did not survive here, the dandelion sure did. This is an old tale herbalists like to tell because it helps remind us of the attributes of the plant: strength, tenacity, and vitality. The same attributes the plant gives to us, and an easy way to remember its uses. Dandelion is an alterative, a blood purifier, that helps the body process and eliminate waste. I believe it is time to look at detoxing the body differently. Many modern detox formulas focus on purging and emptying, which can be a shock to your organs and damaging to your overall health. I choose a gentler option: fortifying, strengthening, and healing myself so my body can easily rid toxins as it is built to do. Dandelion is known to support the digestive system, urinary system, and the pancreas.

The taste of bitter is sorely lacking in our diets today as we are stuck in a constant rotation of sweet, salty, and fatty. This has led to an epidemic of indigestion. Bitters before meals send a signal to our body yelling, "hey! Wake up! Food is coming! Get ready!" The bitter compounds found in the dandelion's roots and leaf stimulate bile flow, aiding healthy digestion of fats and easing the burden of the gallbladder and liver. Less burden means fewer toxins build up and overall acidity decreases.

Dandelion leaves are known to be an effective diuretic, pulling excess water from the body. Many common water pills can pull potassium from the body as it pulls out the water, so adding a potassium supplement is often necessary. Dandelion leaves are naturally packed with potassium. Isn't this plant amazing? Studies also show the leaves contain probiotics, far more numerous, active and alive than the over the counter versions. Definitely more is free!

Dandelion energetics are cooling and drying in nature. 4-8 ounces of dandelion leaf tea can be taken up to 3 times a day, or 2-4 ounces of root decoction up to 3 times a day.

Another great alterative is Arctium Lappa, or Burdock. While burdock root is similar in its bitter properties and support of the digestive system, it is most well known as the great liver healer.  When our livers become bogged down and struggle it can cause skin eruptions like acne, boils, hives, dermatitis, and rashes. While topical salves can offer some improvement and relief, it is much better to treat eruptions from the inside as well. A struggling liver can also cause seasonal allergies. Burdock stabilizes mast cells reducing allergic reactions. The root is cooling, moisturizing and nourishing and 1/2-1 cup can be taken as a decoction 2-3 times a day. The scraped root also makes a tasty addition to meals, added as you would any root vegetable. Roasting root veggies with olive oil, black pepper, and your choice of herbs 35-45 minutes at 400 degrees is not just a delicious dish, but a great reason to try and taste different herbs in your garden.

After all that healthy spring cleaning, it is time to add a nutrient boost with Urtica Dioica, Stinging Nettle. Rivaling the label on any over the counter multivitamin, nettle contains Vitamin A, B complex, C, D, E, F, K, P, iodine, protein, phosphorus, manganese, silica, sodium, sulphur, zinc, copper, boron, and chromium. All of these nutrients delivered, not in a pill, but in a natural food our bodies recognize and understand and easily absorbs.

It is important to move slowly with great respect when harvesting nettle. Wear long sleeves and gloves when collecting the new leaves to avoid the silica tipped hairs that deliver an irritant to your skin, the sting. Proof that mother nature has an incredible sense of humor, the remedy to the sting can be found inside the nettle's stem. I spoke about my friend and teacher Rosemary Gladstar being braver than I, flattening the little hairs to eat the leaves raw. While she is a very brave woman, the truth is that she has formed a very close relationship with nettle and has a beautiful understanding of the plant. She often speaks about nettle being one of her favorite plant allies.

The sting of nettle has been used in healing, acting as a counterirritant treatment to soothe stiff joints and arthritis. Nettle leaf helps the body excrete uric acid helping people who suffer from gout and rheumatism. It is anti-inflammatory and an antihistamine, a great remedy for allergies, asthma, anemia, skin conditions, and general wellness. Forget an apple a day...go for the stinging nettle!

Nettle seed shows promise, a study showed slowing, halt, and reversal of patients with renal failure. Studies on nettle root showed improvement of BPH (benign prostatic hypertrophy) in men. 81% of men showed improvement of symptoms while only 18% felt improvement in the placebo group. Nettle is neutral and nourishing, 8 ounces of tea can be taken 1-4 times a day. Once the leaf is cooked or dried, the sting is neutralized. It makes a great pot herb in soups, and is lovely steamed and prepared like other greens.

Finally, we add a plant to give some attention to our lungs after a long cold and flu season. Viola Odorata, Violet leaves and flowers help to relieve congestion in both the respiratory and lymphatic systems. It also helps soothe frazzled nerves and benefits people who suffer with insomnia. Violet has anti-inflammatory properties, and is a gentle way to help a child break a fever. The plant is cooling and moistening, and 4-8 ounces of tea made from the leaves and flowers can be taken 3 times a day. Violet flowers are a favorite ingredient for our family and it marks the start of spring. Brandon calls us all to announce the first deep purple blooms when they appear with the great hope we will make violet jelly. We all love the colorful spring jelly, but Brandon loves violet jelly like no other. To create it for your own family, simply follow the sure-jell recipe for mint jelly, substituting mint leaves for fresh violet flowers. We love the magic that happens when lemon is added to the dark purple violet flower infusion, turning it a bright fuchsia before your eyes! It is easy to see why violets were used as some of the very first litmus tests. Add it to a pitcher of lemonade for a healthy and dramatic afternoon treat this summer.

While all of these plants are best incorporated in your meals, it is hard to do that every single day. While I spoke about these herbs growing in our backyards, my lovely assistant was busy filling a mason jar with their leaves and roots to create a spring tonic to make it simple to incorporate them in our daily routines.

It is important to use a non-reactive container of glass, pottery, plastic, or enamel for your tonic, as vinegar can corrode metal. We used an ordinary canning jar, and placed a piece of waxed paper between the lid and the contents to protect it. Label the jar with the names of the plants used, type of vinegar, and the date. Place your jar in a spot that is out of direct light but still easy to see, so you will remember to give it a shake every day. After 3-4 weeks your tonic can be strained of plant material using cheesecloth, a coffee filter in the plastic filter basket from your coffee pot, a plastic strainer or colander. You can make your tonic double strength by starting the process over again. Once strained, you can store in a cool pantry and take 1-2 teaspoons in a small glass of water each day. Or, get creative and use the tonic vinegar in your cooking!

We chose to use organic apple cider vinegar bottled with the mother, but any vinegar will work as a menstruum to pull the medicinal and nutritional compounds of plant material. We discourage the use of white vinegar, as it is created from corn byproducts and aged using chemicals. It also tastes very strong and is difficult to incorporate in recipes. You should buy the vinegar you enjoy the most, and the best version of it you can easily afford. Balsamic, rice, wine, sherry champagne...the vinegar options are endless.  

Raised by an herbalist, I spent most of the 1990's creating herbal vinegars and cooking oils with my mama. No herb or fancy bottle was safe from our zeal, and every friend and family member had been gifted a pantry full. We all became very adept at finding creative ways to use them!

Salad dressing is the obvious choice for herbal vinegars. Simply mix 1 part vinegar to 3 parts oil and add a little mustard, salt, and pepper. Shake and pour over your freshly picked backyard greens. Use your tonic as a marinade for meat and veggies, add to your liquid when you steam vegetables, or use it to deglaze your pans to make some sauce. Mix equal parts vinegar and honey or maple syrup to create a yummy glaze for food destined for the BBQ grill. Add a dash to chicken, tuna, macaroni, egg, or potato salads for a bright flavor. Pickles, chutney, preserves, jelly, popsicles, and sorbets...the options and ideas are endless.

Add the herbal tonic to your bath water to soften your skin and absorb nutrients while you relax. As a hair rinse it adds lots of shine and body to your mane. Mixed with water it can be used as a facial tonic to help restore healthy acids soap strips from our skin.

Vinegar is one of our oldest menstruums and is now often passed over due to the greater strength of alcohol. While I also use alcohol for most tinctures, I believe there is still an important place for vinegar remedies. For instance, if someone has a chronic condition that calls for herbs every day for extended amounts of time, or for a wellness tonic to be used regularly, like this one. I like to use this method for children's remedies, as well as for those struggling with alcoholism. Vinegar mixtures have a shorter shelf-life than its alcohol counterpart. The books tell us we must use our vinegars within 6 months, but my family (and our decade of vinegar mixing) say otherwise. We have had some that lasted many years. If your tonic has turned it will smell sour and form a foam of bubbles near the top. If in doubt, toss it out.

I hope this sparks excitement to pull your herbals from the bookshelf and pull some backyard plants to try. I hope it makes you see your garden in a different light...they are not weeds that need yanked out, they are medicinal! Rosemary Gladstar has started a podcast called, "Voices of our Herbal Elders." In each episode she interviews some of the greatest herbalists from around the world, the elders who have spent their lives learning and generously sharing with all of us. She asks each person to talk about their most loved and most used plant allies. These are the people whose shoulders we stand on, who have had access to the most rare, exotic, and precious of herbs from every corner of the earth. Yet, when asked they all answered the same...burdock, dandelion, plantain, chickweed, nettle are the plants they always come back to and use the most. I was surprised, though I shouldn't have been. These are all people plants, they seem to follow us around shouting, "over here! Let me help!" We live in an incredible place filled with incredible plants. I hope you all go outside and let them help you.

I wish to send a big thank you to the Coshocton Herb Society. It was an honor to be included in your herb fair, and my family and I had a wonderful day sharing and learning from you all.

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