“….making the Earth a Common Treasury for all…”
First Digger Manifesto, 1649
Many traditional ‘spring tonics’ serve the purpose of a spring cleanse after a winter deprived of fresh food. Such herbs ripe for harvesting now are cleavers, nettle and dandelion roots.
A delicious dark green cold infusion can be made by simply steeping nettle tops in cold water in a bowl or pan for about 24 hours - strain and drink a cup 3 x a day. Early spring nettles yield up their nutrients in a way unlike nettles later in the year. Make this fresh each day, as it doesn’t keep well. This pleasant and refreshing drink can be drunk for pleasure, and also detoxifies by stimulating the circulation, helping elimination, stabilising blood sugar levels and providing minerals (iron, calcium, chromium, zinc, potassium, phosphorus and silica), vitamins (A and C), and chlorophyll, in an easily absorbable form. As such it is ideal to boost iron levels, maybe mixed with apricot juice for extra iron.
Nettle was considered a sacred herb by the Anglo Saxons who knew it as ‘wergulu’. Harvest the leaves before flowering, the seeds and the roots. It is anti allergenic (reducing histamine production), anti-arthritic, lowers blood pressure via its action on the kidneys, is an adrenal tonic, a useful hair rinse, and useful in many chronic health problems by aiding mineral deficiencies brought about by modern intensive farming practices.
Nettles also give us fabric, fibres, dyes, food, rennet substitute, paper, green compost, manure and a foliar feed. Cleavers is one of the earliest plants to sprout – the tea helps flush the lymph system, which removes all the waste products from cells and returns the cleansed fluid via the lymph nodes and vessels to the bloodstream. Its useful as a ‘spring cleanse’, specifically for infections, and generally to keep the lymph system, and thus the whole body, healthy. Fill a teapot with a large handful of the fresh herb (picked before it flowers) and fill with boiling water. Steep for 10 - 15 mins, strain and drink 2-3 cups a day. It is rich in minerals, especially silica (good for hair and teeth), is cooling, laxative and tonic and cleansing to the urinary system. It’s great for skin and joint problems, as a hair tonic, and as a poultice for cysts and abscesses. Cleavers juice is an ideal way to take the herb – chop up fresh leaves, squeeze through a jelly bag, and take one dessertspoonful 2-3 x day.
Lastly, dandelion root – favourite of the great Arab herbalist, Avicenna. Scrub and chop up a large root, and simmer in about a pint of water for 15 mins. Strain and drink a cup, 2 -3 x day. This bitter tea is the best liver tonic I know – a blood cleanser, blood tonic, and lymphatic. It helps the immune system, hormonal balance, sugar metabolism, strengthens the urinary and digestive systems, and contains minerals and vitamins A,B,C and D. Try dandelion coffee – roast and grind the roots, perhaps with some fennel, cinnamon or cardamom- use 1 tsp per cup of boiling water, leave for 10 mins to steep, drink and enjoy – knowing that you are helping every aspect of your health!
I recently watched an inspiring film about Juliette de Bairacli Levy, one of my favourite herbalists. She beautifully describes how she learnt from ‘natural herbalists’, the peasants and gypsies of many different regions of the world. Over her 30 years of travelling, she collected first hand knowledge that was not written down in earlier herbals, and exchanged this as she travelled with different groups. She also learnt from watching wild animals as they select their food and medicine.
She talks about how nomadic people valued their environment and lived in harmony with nature. We may not live in this way, but I’d like to encourage anyone to look around them and see what seasonal plants (wild or cultivated) have to offer us, so that we can maintain and nourish our links with the natural world on a daily basis.
When thinking about what plants are available to harvest in spring, I was reminded by Juliette that one of her favourite herbs, Rosemary, (ros marinus, ‘dew of the sea’), is there all year round, and a beautiful specimen is in full flower (often a sign that it’s the ideal time to pick some!) outside my window as I write this, in late February. Juliette spent the last part of her life living a simple life on a Greek island, where Rosemary grows abundantly, but even here, when there is frost on the ground, Rosemary flourishes.
One of the most valued aromatics, growing Rosemary nearby protects other plants and orchards from insect pests (it is also used as an insecticide). Its camphorated dark green oil has many medicinal uses, including muscle pain and neuralgia. The tea from the flowers leaves and twigs is refreshing and slightly bitter, astringent and powerfully antiseptic. It is used as a wound herb, (pounded with salt by the Spanish peasants, and in Arabic tradition as a powdered herb on the umbilical cord of newborns), as a tea by nursing mothers to carry the value of the herb into the feeding infant, for bites and stings, digestive problems, depression, debility and colds. It is good for the scalp and the hair, as a flavouring and much valued in perfumery. I used it for many years as a hair rinse, with no need for shampoo.
Written for The Hedge, Spring 2016