Springtime Herbs To Have On Hand

Traditionally, the days around the Vernal Equinox (mid to late March) and the month(s) after it was seen as a time of intense, rushing energy: days get longer and the sunlight more intense, the first signs of green growth emerge, and wildlife stirs again. Herbalists still consider this a time when the more inward, ‘congealing’ energies of Winter begin to transition into the more outward, ‘expansive’ energies of Summer—and when a little attention paid to the process can improve vitality, strengthen digestion and immunity, and keep us in tune with the changing seasons.

There are specific herbal allies that have gained a deserved reputation for aiding in this transition, and each has its own peculiar “virtues” and affinities. All, however, rely somewhat on two basic strategies: either enhancing digestive and eliminative function or bolstering the power of the body’s immune and hormonal systems. Some do both! And generally, it was (and still is) considered a good idea to start with enhancing absorption and elimination, and then proceed with strengthening the underlying physiology.

The old recipes for “root beers” can be somewhat instructive in this regard: they often feature a combination of bitter roots (which enhance elimination) coupled with aromatic, sometimes pungent ingredients (which improve digestion) and hormonal tonics (to enhance energy and vitality). Many of the herbs and botanicals listed below can be combined along these lines to make a customized spring tonic for yourself or your friends and family, helping to ride along the tides of Spring and get ready for Summer. The last detail in the herbalists’ crafting of vernal concoctions is an attention to the constitution and physiological peculiarities of the individual using the tonic.

Generally, these are pretty obvious considerations – but one point to remember is to try to add “cooling” herbs for those expressing signs of overactivity, heat, and inflammation; and “warming” herbs for those showing signs of sluggishness, depression, chill, and frequent infections. Often eliminative herbs are more cooling, and tonic herbs warmer. Botanicals listed below have their traditional energetic value added as a start in this process.

Tree sap
Often from maples (Acer saccharum, and other species), the sap of Birches (Betula spp.) can also be used. I like to use the unheated, unfiltered sap as a tonic all by itself: this “tree juice” provides unaltered enzymes as well as sugars and minerals ready for optimal absorption. It can also be used as a base for decocting (simmering) some of the roots and barks described below. Usually, a pint to a quart daily is consumed – though more is not necessarily a bad thing! Alternatively, you can reconstitute a similar liquid by using about a tablespoon of maple syrup per pint of spring water.

Burdock (Arctium lappa)
This root, generally cooling in energy though somewhat tonic too, can be eaten as one would a carrot, or simmered into a tonic brew. It is best suited for those with dryer skin, and perhaps an underactive appetite. Its chief traditional use is for acne and other skin complaints. Use about 2 TBS per pint of water, along with other herbs.

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Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)A true remedy that synergizes well with herbs for almost any ailment, Dandelion is a catalyst for change that gently and safely enhances digestive and eliminative function. When in doubt, this is the root to pick! Its yellow flowers remind us early on that it’s time to pay a little attention to our bodies this time of year. The root’s energy is somewhat cooling, and it enhances detoxification through the liver, helping to resolve gassiness and sluggishness that may have accumulated after a winter of congestive, thick foods. Use about 2 TBS of chopped root per pint of water.

dandelion spring tonic

Yellow dock (Rumex Crispus)
These roots are more bitter and are best for those who might have a tendency toward constipation. They combine well with any of the other cooling, bitter roots and improve liver function and elimination. Generally, I suggest using Yellowdock for shorter (1-2 weeks) periods than Dandelion or Burdock, but it is still quite a safe plant. 1 TBS of chopped root per pint is usually adequate to relieve somewhat sluggish digestion.

yellow dock

Echinacea (E. purpurea, E. Angustifolia, and others)
This is a cooling, dispersive root that possesses a good degree of pungency as well. Its chief use as a springtime tonic is to help boost immunity, especially if there are or have been any swollen glands or recurrent respiratory infections associated with winter illness. It can also help dry, scratchy throats that sometimes linger into spring. While I often recommend an extract, the roots are excellent too provided they are simmered for a little while (10-15 minutes). This time of year the plants are just starting to poke up from the soil, making it easy to find and dig out of the garden. Use 2 TBS of chopped root per pint of water.

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Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis)
An abundant relative of Ginseng, this plant possesses starches and bitter saponins that counteract fatigue and gently warm the system to enhance vitality and elimination at the same time. It also has hormone-balancing effects, especially in relation to stress hormones, making it a good adjunct for those who have intense work or personal lives, or who rely heavily on stimulants. It is a little difficult to recognize and find early in the season before the greens emerge, so marking it out in the fall can help with digging the long rhizomes in the spring. Use a piece or pieces of rhizome about the length of your index finger in a pint of water.

Spikenard (Aralia racemosa)
Another Ginseng relative, this is a sweet, spicy and warming root that is most indicated as a tonic for hormonal and respiratory function, particularly for those with chronic lung congestion. Use only 1 TBS per pint – it is a potent ally.

Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius)
Also called groundnut, this is a nourishing and rebuilding tonic that is somewhat rare in the wild, so it should be used judiciously. It flowers early in the spring, and though only a few inches tall, packs a flavor and power that is quite excellent for warming deficient constitutions that have become sluggish and undernourished over winter. If you find a good stand of it (make sure you have the correct plant ID!), you can have one corymb (a round, underground “bulb” attached to a delicate white root) two or three times a week eaten raw, straight from the forest floor, or simmered into your tonic brew.

goldthreadGoldthread (Coptis Canadensis)
This is a very bitter, cooling, a detoxifying and anti-inflammatory plant that you really don’t need a lot of. It chief indication is chronic inflammation, perhaps also involving the skin, and a more “oily” skin pattern that could benefit from drying. It enhances digestive function when taken before meals, improves sluggish bowels, and clears heat that settled into joints and muscles over the winter months. Some have reported an improvement in allergies and sensitivities. It is also evergreen, which makes it easy to find even under a little snow cover! Its thin rhizome is bright yellow, and the above-ground greens are useful too. Use one to two plants (4-5 inches of root total) per pint of tonic brew.

Sarsaparilla (various Smilax species)
Not a local Vermont plant, the root bark from this vine is still such a classic spring tonic that it bears mention. It has a distinctive, warming and spicy flavor that, while enhancing digestion, is most powerful at adjusting hormonal balance (thyroid, adrenal, and reproductive hormones) and I have always found it useful for stubborn skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis (often worse after the dry indoor heat of winter). Sarsaparilla has a strong flavor, so experiment with taste until you find what you like. It is usually available at the herbs store; start with ½ to 1 TBS per pint.

Sassafrass (S. albidum)
The FDA doesn’t appreciate the use of this bark anymore, due to its safrole content, which is considered carcinogenic. Its distinctive spicy/sweet and warming flavor and energy make it perhaps the most classic “root beer” ingredient, evoking memories of times when their brews were actually made from plants… And, for a few weeks each spring, consuming sassafrass provides such a negligible amount of safrole that, truly, doesn’t compare to pumping gasoline in terms of cancer risk. I would use about 2 TBS of dry bark per pint of brew, but I really like the flavor. Experiment and add to taste.

Cleavers (Galium aparine)
This green, as well as its cousin sweet woodruff, comes out a bit later in the spring but makes an invaluable cooling tonic for folks who are prone to swelling from chronic inflammation, edema, or water retention. They can be juiced and an ounce of juice taken as a daily tonic or steep into a more complex tonic after roots have been taken off the fire. Use about 2 TBS of chopped herb.

Nettles (Urtica dioica)
Though green, this herb is actually a bit warming and drying. It is great for those who show signs of water retention (sometimes evidenced by a swollen, “scalloped” tongue), or those in need of iron and other nutritive minerals. Finally, it’s mildly detoxifying qualities can help in seasonal allergies. Herbalists use the young, fresh leaves in soups or steep into an herbal brew after the roots are done simmering – about 2 TBS or more of chopped leaves per day.

nettle

Dandelion greens (Taraxacum officinale)
We would walk through the meadows, before they fully became green with grass, looking for the young rosettes of dandelions and collecting them whole, along with the crown of the root. Back home, my aunt would dress them with olive oil and wine vinegar, for an abundant (though bitter) spring salad. These greens improve digestion, enhance elimination through the kidneys, and are loaded with important minerals. Their reputation for cooling overheated constitutions extends to the cardiovascular system. They are excellent eaten fresh as part of salads or wilted in soups or stir-fry; alternatively, steep 2 TBS of chopped leaves into an herbal brew after the roots are done simmering.

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Mustard greens (Brassica species)
There is a wide range of mustards that come up quick in springtime since they are so tolerant of late frosts. They are warm and spicy, wake up the digestion and liver, and additionally contain compounds that show much promise in preventing and treating cancer. Of course, they are best as part of a wild food salad or cooked in soups (though they lose a lot of pungencies if cooked). I don’t normally brew these into tea.

Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)
This is a very aromatic and cooling plant, rich in anti-inflammatory salicylates and endowed with wonderful flavor, another aroma often found in classic root beer preparations. It is a good digestive normalizer, especially if there is a lot of gas, bloating, and irritation; it can also help with chronic inflammatory conditions of the joints and back especially if these get worse over the more sedentary winter months. Steep 5 or 6 fresh leaves in 8oz of herbal brew, covered so as to not lose the volatile aroma, and do not boil!

Birch bark (Betula species)
The black birch is perhaps the most flavorful, but the bark of any species yields a wintergreen-like essence that is similarly cooling, and much more readily available. Use a good handful of crushed bark (perhaps a cupful) per pint of water, and add it to your brew for the last two or three minutes of simmering.

A note on preparation
Many of the plants mentioned above release their medicinal constituents during a process of light simmering, known as “decocting”. The resulting brew is often called a “decoction”. It is best accomplished by simmering the herbs in a stainless steel container, covered, for 15 minutes or so on low heat. Afterward, the brew can be removed from the heat and more delicate greens added and left in the pot, covered, for another 10-15 minutes or so. Finally, strain the brew and drink immediately, or bottle for 1-2 days.

Winter Self-Care

When you feel those dreaded flu symptoms coming on, you want to take something you know will stop sickness in its tracks. According to a recent study, your options now include herbs. A new study shows a combination of echinacea and elderberry is as effective as the conventional antiviral medicine Tamiflu in the early treatment of influenza. In the study, 473 patients with flu symptoms for less than 48 hours were randomly given either a syrup containing echinacea herb and root supplemented with elderberry for ten days or Tamiflu for five days followed by a placebo for five days. Observing the two groups at one, five, and ten days of treatment to see who had mild or no symptoms, researchers found a similar number of patients had recovered in both groups. Researchers even noted a small trend towards a higher percentage of recovered patients after ten days of treatment with the herbal syrup. Early intervention is key with any flu treatment, so consider keeping a bottle of echinacea/elderberry extract on hand just in case.

Winter Health Benefits Of Echinacea And Sage

Beautiful Echinacea and earthy sage both have extensive historical uses. They’re easy to grow, and — in the case of Echinacea — you’re helping to cultivate and restore an endangered plant if you grow certain cultivars. The health benefits of Echinacea and sage are particularly helpful in winter, as both plants can be used for respiratory ailments and to ease sore throats.

Health Benefits of Echinacea

Members of the genus Echinacea have been used most effectively as an internal application against the common cold, fatigue, upper respiratory infection. Practitioners often recommend Echinacea for a sore throat, strep throat, tonsillitis, bronchitis, flu symptoms, canker and cold sores, swollen lymphatics, septic conditions, and gangrene. Externally, as an ointment or poultice, it’s been used for boils, eczema, bee stings, and snakebites.

Echinacea is not, contrary to popular belief, useful to take day in and day out as a preventative. The compounds within this plant marshal our white blood cells to move efficiently toward a place where our body is losing a battle with infection.

Contraindications: Echinacea may be detrimental to those with autoimmune diseases. People who have allergies to chamomile, marigold, yarrow, ragweed, chrysanthemum, or daisy, or people who have asthma, might develop allergic reactions to Echinacea.

Growing: Three species of Echinacea are most commonly grown and used medicinally: Echinacea purpurea, E. pallida, and E. Angustifolia. Newer hybrid cultivars grown for interesting color may not have the same potent medicinal properties as these three traditional species. The perennial prairie plants are in danger of overharvesting and loss of habitat, so source Echinacea responsibly or grow it yourself — it’s easy to do.

Echinacea seeds germinate best when given a period of stratification (cold conditioning). Either store the seeds in your refrigerator before planting, or direct-sow untreated Echinacea seeds four to six weeks before your average last frost. Sow seeds in full sun or partial shade, and keep the soil well-drained. Echinacea will thrive almost anywhere and will require very little tending, as long as it’s not overwatered.

Harvest notes: All parts of the plant are useful; however, it is the root that has primarily been used in traditional applications. Harvest leaves just as the flower is developing; harvest flowers just as they’re unfurling, and dig the roots either in spring or fall after they’ve had three or four years to become established.

Health Benefits of Sage

One of the most prized herbs on our farm, the health benefits of sage far exceeds its culinary flavoring. Sage (Salvia officinalis) is high in volatile oils, which makes it especially good for ailments in the digestive system, for bleeding gums and tongue inflammation, sore throat, laryngitis, tonsillitis, gas, chronic diarrhea, ulcer, and excessive salivation.

This wonderful plant is also well known for its work on the reproductive system. It has been talked about and researched for some time in regard to menopausal hot flashes. It does indeed cool the experience of a hot flash while also providing a tonic to the underlying endocrine imbalance in the adrenal glands.

Sage is also useful for missed cycles and a lack of sufficient bleeding in them, for morning sickness, preventing yeast infections, and for cysts in the breasts. Because of its ability to decrease fluids in our bodies, sage is often used to decrease the flow of breast milk while weaning a child to solid foods.

Sage behaves differently depending on the temperature at which it’s served. A warm sage tea will encourage secretions in the body, stimulating sweating to reduce a fever. A room temperature tea will allow the antibacterial qualities of sage to shine — this is how you want to serve your sore throat tea (see the sage tea recipe below). A cold tea will decrease the flow of secretions and cause tissues to dry.

In the nervous system, sage has applications for canker sores, memory improvement for Alzheimer’s patients, treating symptoms of arthritis, headache, and insomnia. For the circulatory and lymphatic systems, sage has benefits for lipoma, hair loss, dandruff, excessively dry skin, and blood stagnation. In the urinary tract, it can help with cystitis and stones.

Contraindications: Sage should not be taken long term or in excessive doses during pregnancy. Except for in small amounts in food, it should be avoided during lactation. Avoid internal use of essential oil or alcoholic extracts during this time as well; the thujone in sage stimulates blood flow to the pelvic area, thus promoting menstruation and possibly causing miscarriage.

Growing: Sage grows well in full sun and cooler climates, so plant in partial shade (if you have hot summers) and in well-drained, slightly acidic soil. Prune plants to 4 to 6 inches as soon as they begin to grow the first year, and pinch back stem-tips two or three times during the first summer to encourage branching.

Plants become woody and less productive after three or four years, so you can replace them or root a few stem cuttings each year.

Harvest notes: The leaves are used for medicine, and the flowers are a delicious edible. Collect leaves on a dry day just before or just as the plant is beginning to flower. You can harvest leaves during the first year after the plants become established.

Hang small bunches of sage upside down to dry in a well-ventilated area out of sunlight or dehydrate leaves in a 150-degree-Fahrenheit oven. Store your sage in airtight containers.

Keep your dried sage on hand for a hot or room-temperature tea or to use as a garnish or flavoring in a variety of warming winter dishes.

Sage Herbal Tea for Sore Throat

For sore throats, my absolute favorite remedy is sage herbal tea served lukewarmly. Remember that temperature does matter when it comes to this plant, and lukewarm is where it’s at its best in fending off bacteria. In our house, if someone has a mild sore throat, we make a strong sage tea with honey and lemon, and the throat heals very quickly. When a sore throat is a little more serious, we use sage herbal tea as a gargle and combine it with a pinch of salt and cayenne. The gargle is used every couple of hours and is also effective.

Sage Tea Recipe: To brew an infusion of our own sage herbal tea at home is not just as easy as throwing a tea bag in some hot water. To obtain the most medicinal benefit from your herbs, consider different methods depending on the part of the plant that’s being brewed.

When using leaves, fruits, flowers, and roots high in volatile oils (such as sage), heat water in a tea kettle and then pour over the herbs. (On the farm, we use a mason jar and brew teas by the quart for simplicity.) Cover and let steep for at least 10 to 20 minutes. Then, strain, (let cool to lukewarm for sage) and drink, or store in the refrigerator for one to two days.

Looking for more ways to use Echinacea?

We often use Echinacea for a sore throat. If we need to be away from the house while one of us is suffering from a sore throat, I will often make an Echinacea spray. The best part about this throat spray is that it can fight the infection while providing a soothing, numbing sensation.

Ingredients:

• 2 tablespoons Echinacea tincture
• 2 tablespoons raw honey
• 1 tablespoon warm water
• 2 drops essential oil of your choice (peppermint, eucalyptus, or tea tree are great options)

Mix all ingredients together and pour into a small spray bottle (preferably glass).

Store the bottle in the refrigerator, and it should keep for a couple months.

Always shake before spraying. Use as needed.

Season’s Of The Witch ~ Medicinal Echinacea

Echinacea is one of the most well-known herbal medicines today. Its characteristic cone-like flower has graced gardens and medicine cabinets for centuries as a trusted plant in our wellness toolkit.

It is a member of the Asteraceae or Compositae family (commonly referred to as the aster, daisy, or sunflower family) and a hardy perennial flower which is native to North America, although much of what is available out there today is cultivated. The name “Echinacea” comes from the Greek word ekhinos and the Latin prefix echino-, both of which describe something prickly (these words are also the origin of the echinoderm “spiny skin” family of marine animals, which includes starfish and sea urchins.) Echinacea is commonly called purple coneflower because the rich, bright purple flowers gradually form into a hardened cone.  The most commonly used medicinal varieties are Echinacea purpurea and angustifolia. In the northeast where our growing season is much shorter compared with other temperate places, the plant takes two years to flower and become large and potent enough to harvest for medicinal qualities. With Echinacea, the whole plant can be used, and often the most well-rounded Echinacea tincture is made from the root, leaf, and flower.

The fresh root is slightly sweet and pungent and has a characteristic tingle that lingers on the tongue. The tingling sensation is due to the alkylamides, which are especially concentrated in the roots. This is a good way to determine the quality of your medicine; potent Echinacea is strong and tingly.

Echinacea’s energetic qualities are cooling, drying and stimulating, and the plant has been traditionally used for added immune support. Our bodies often bear the brunt of seasonal changes or busy periods in life. There are naturally-occurring processes in our bodies that are designed to keep our systems active and strong, but extra support from herbs and from lifestyle decisions can aid our bodies’ natural processes of being well.

 

There is historic textual evidence from a group of early American physicians called the Eclectics that indicates extensive use of this plant during the early 18th century. The Eclectics were introduced to the plant by various Native American peoples, whose usage of the plant included chewing the root and applying it topically as a poultice, and making a tea use internally.

Today, modern research on the chemical compounds of Echinacea has shown that the plant can play a supporting role for our immune cells.  Our immune system is the protective shield of our body, and immune cells or white blood cells are the system’s worker bees.

A relatively large dose, alongside other synergizing plants, keeps our immune system doing its best work. To encourage healthy immunity, the extract is taken at doses of 1 teaspoon up to 5 times a day. At these dose ranges, Echinacea is a safe herb for short-term use.

While we have many excellent tools in our kit, Echinacea carries with it a long history of use and has become one of our true “Elder” herbs. The plant has deep roots in North American herbal tradition and