Herbal Allies for the Return of Spring
Ah, the quickening of Spring. This time of rebirth in the natural world began in February and continues to flourish as we reach the day we have all been waiting for: the Spring Equinox. As such, the winter chill has begun to thaw, the forest floor is dotted with beautiful spring ephemeral blooms, and more greenery surrounds us with each passing day.
Spring is truly a season of growth and beginnings – a time where we can begin to see the sprouts of the intentions we planted during the dark months begin to break through the ground and climb towards the warmth of the Sun. This year the Spring Equinox falls on the first day of Aries season making it the start of the astrological new year. With the fire of Aries lighting our paths forward, in this season we begin to come alive again, to take action on new ideas or projects, and to reconnect with the wildness within.
Now, here in the Southeast we are already experiencing warm, sun-filled days and our garden is truly in full bloom. But I know that many of you are still stuck under snow and experiencing the harsh realities of a long winter. You are not alone in your struggle!
Historically speaking, winter was a time of hardship. Even just one or two hundred years ago, your ancestors may have been able to stash plenty of roots away in the cellar after the harvest, there were likely jars of ferments stored away for winter nourishment, herbs, seeds, and berries were collected and dried to maintain the health of their community as the nights grew longer, and meat was carefully hunted and preserved. But by the cold moon in January, rations were often running low. People were running out of supplies, praying for an early spring, and often times living without adequate nourishment that resulted in mild scurvy at best or at worst, death.
It’s easy to forget the realities of winter that our not-so-distant ancestors experienced. Especially as today we can maintain a sense of abundance year round. Our modern life has shifted us away from a sense of cyclical living…retreating inward and conserving energy in the wintertime, re-emerging in spring and preparing the fields for the first planting, intense physical activity in the sun for the duration of spring/summer/early autumn, and preparation for winter throughout the fall. But this pattern still lives on inside of us, even with the modern luxury of not having to follow the turning of the wheel to survive. This is why we crave fresh fruits in the summertime, heavy potato and meat stews in the depths of winter, and why eating a tomato in January is ludicrous. Food connects us to the cycles of the Earth and how she grows in each season.
So while no one today is coming into springtime with a case of mild scurvy (I hope), many of us may still be struggling with a sense of stagnation due to a diet focused on rich and heavy comfort foods that we naturally crave in the wintertime. Couple that diet with a tendency to be stuck indoors, lack of sunlight, and less movement compared to the warm season and we have a recipe for stagnation.
Enter spring greens! These nutrient dense little “weeds” were a welcome sight for our ancestors who didn’t have the convenience of grocery delivery on a weekly basis. With the coming of spring, came the growth of herbs that could replenish vital nutrients missing from their diet during winter; herbs that would help cleanse the body from stagnation, illness, and associated toxins that had accumulated during wintertime; herbs that would restore vitality to the mind, body, and spirit.
It is no coincidence that the first greens you may be seeing in your garden today correspond with what our bodies are in need of after a long winter. These hardy plants have braved the cold, frozen Earth and sprung forward with great exuberance! They are flourishing despite harsh conditions, refusing to succumb to the stagnation and inward energies of wintertime. Perhaps you feel this way too…as if you yourself were a tiny seed tucked into the cold Earth, overwintering until nature offered you just the right conditions to grow. Now that the conditions are here, you are feeling like bursting forth with a renewed energy. The palpable shift in ourselves and the natural world is undeniable during this time of year.
Today these delightful little spring plants have a reputation less associated with post-winter cleansing and nourishing forage, but are unfortunately more often called pesky weeds. But I say, eat the weeds my friends!!! They’re absolutely incredible for you. And nothing tastes more like spring than a fresh green salad with the first green “weeds”.
Herbal Actions for Springtime
There are tons of early spring herbs to get to know, but today I’d like to share three that are likely growing in abundance in your own backyard. These three beloved “weeds” boast a variety of different herbal applications, but here we will focus on their most potent springtime actions as alterative and lymphatic herbs.
We have two primary pathways of circulation in the body: the blood vessels and lymphatic vessels. Blood and lymph are unique substances but both are connected with our detoxification pathways and work to nourish our organ systems and keep us well (to put it really simply). The term “alterative” and “lymphatic” describe actions that work to purify, detoxify, and cleanse these living rivers of vital fluids.
More specifically, a lymphatic herb is one that works on the lymphatic system of the body. The lymphatic system is a network of tissues and organs that helps to rid the body of toxins and waste. It is a major component of our immune system, containing white blood cells called lymphocytes that act as our internal defense system against harmful invaders. It is primarily made up of lymphatic vessels that transport the lymph fluid and then connect to hundreds of lymph nodes, where lymph is then filtered. There is lymphatic tissue in the digestive tract as well; lymphocytes can be found in the brain and the nervous system; the detoxification process of the lymphatic system is interconnected with the liver and other channels of elimination; and the tonsils, adenoids, spleen, and thymus are also all part of the lymphatic system.
There are a variety of lymphatic herbs and nearly every single spring herb is one of them. These plants work by helping to either move the lymph or support its internal detoxification process. Thus, we can infer that these “weeds” are powerful allies for immune and liver support but are, generally speaking, incredible tonic herbs to incorporate into our diets come spring after a long period of stagnation. The thing about lymph is that it moves passively, it doesn’t have an organ like the heart to force its circulation. Lymph moves when you move. As we know, winter isn’t exactly a time of intense movement! So, get out there in your yard and support your lymphatic system by 1) foraging and moving! and 2) ingesting these delicious herbs.
Most lymphatic herbs are also alteratives. Herbalist David Winston describes alteratives as, “a substance that gently increases elimination of metabolic wastes through the major eliminatory organs thus improving the body’s abilities to heal and function in a healthy manner.” While alteratives have a broad spectrum effect on the body, they are most well known as “blood-purifiers”. So, both alteratives and lymphatics have a cleansing effect but alteratives have an affinity for the blood and lymphatics for the lymph – it’s that simple!
Medicinal Herbs for Springtime
Botanical Name Stellaria spp.
Parts Used Leaves, Flowers, Roots
Astrological Correspondance Cancer
Planetary Ruler Moon
Native Region Europe & Asia
Geographic Distribution Chickweed can be found throughout the Northern Hemisphere and seemingly grows, quite literally, everywhere. It’s probably growing in your garden, in the sidewalks, at the edge of the forest, an abandoned planter on your patio…anywhere that has a bit of sun really. She’s very prolific.
Actions Alterative, Antimicrobial, Astringent, Diuretic, Demulcent, Emollient, Expectorant, Galactogogue, Lymphatic, Nutritive, Refrigerant, Vulnerary
Taste Grassy, Mild
Energetics Moistening, Cooling, Diffusive
Key Constituents Triterpenoid saponins, phytosterols, coumarins, mucilage, vitamins A, C, E, B-complex, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, silicon, sodium, zinc, rutin, gamma-linolenic acid, and bioflavonoids.
Uses Chickweed boasts a long lists of uses but to keep it simple, remember her as the go-to nutritive herb to help tonify the body after a long winter. She is extremely rich in vital nutrients and helps to clear lymphatic congestion, soothe inflammation internally and externally with her cooling quality and mucilage content, and is wonderful for cuts/burns/bites. Chickweed is quite tasty and can be eaten directly in salads though it may cause stomach upset in large amounts (because of the seeds). I like to add a handful to salads with arugula, henbit, pea shoots, and other spring greens.
Dosage Up to 1-3 cups per day of fresh Chickweed can be eaten raw, cooked, pickled, or stewed. This quantity can also be brewed fresh or dry as an infusion (fresh is best.) A tincture of Chickweed can be used Can be used topically in a salve or oil for up to 6 months. I also like to use the hydrosol as a skin toner for red, irritated skin.
Safety Safe for most people including pregnant and lactating women (in food doses). Large doses may cause digestive upset.
Botanical Name Viola spp.
Parts Used Flowers, leaves
Astrological Correspondance Taurus
Planetary Ruler Venus
Native Region Europe, North & South America, China
Geographic Distribution Violets can be found in temperate areas of the northern hemisphere, Europe, parts of India, Australia, Asia, and South America. You’ll most likely see her in forests, lawns, parks, and other way places with a bit of shade and moisture.
Actions Alterative, Antipyretic, Diuretic, Expectorant, Lymphatic, Nervine
Energetics Moistening, Cooling
Key Constituents V. odorata: Mucilage, flavonoids, phenolic glycosides, saponins. V. tricolor: Flavonoids, methylsalicylate, mucilage, gums, resins, saponins.
Uses Cooling herb that acts on the heart, liver, and blood. Violet is a known anti-inflammatory and is used for coughs, helps to cool hot flashes, lifts the spirit and soothes the heart. Its list of uses is quite long but our favorite way to enjoy her in the springtime is by adding the edible flowers to salads and baked goods, infusing the flowers in oil to be used for lymphatic massage, and enjoying her as a tea.
Dosage To make an infusion, add 1 teaspoon of violet leaves or flowers to one cup boiling water and drink this up to 3 times/day. As a tincture, take 1-2 mL of 1:5 in 40% Alcohol, 3 times/day.
Safety Safe for everyone and edible!
Botanical Name Galium aparine
Parts Used Aerial portions
Astrological Correspondance Libra
Planetary Ruler Venus
Native Region Europe, Asia
Geographic Distribution Naturalized in North America, sub-Antarctic Islands, Australia, and New Zealand. You can find Cleavers just about everywhere! It starts out low to the ground in early spring and quickly climbs up to 6 feet tall!
Actions Alterative, Aperient, Astringent, Diuretic, Hypotensive, Lymphatic, Nervine, Refrigerant, Styptic
Taste Sweet, Salty, Bitter
Energetics Cooling, Drying, Heating (externally – can cause contact dermatitis)
Key Constituents Volatile oils, coumarins, polyphenolic acids (citric, rubichloric, galitannic), anthraquinones, saponins, chlorophyll, tannins, trace minerals, glycosides (aperuloside), flavonoids, iridoid monoterpenes, alkaloids
Uses Cleavers is a superior blood purifier and helpful spring tonic that clears the lymphatic system of stagnation and toxins, flushes the kidneys, and can be used for skin irritations, wounds, and burns. It has been used throughout history for a variety of ailments including snakebites and skin conditions; there is a long history of lore around Cleavers in the various areas of the world that it grows. In recent years, science has turned its attention to Cleavers for its potential aid in cancer treatment, furthering its folkloric/historic associations with clearing tumors and cleansing the blood.
Dosage Cleavers isn’t an herb I would outright eat because of its little barbs on the leaves and stems. But, it does make a great infusion, tincture, or juice. For an infusion, use 3-9 grams fresh. As a tincture Matthew Wood recommends 1-3 drops, 1-3x per day; David Winston recommends 10-20 drops up to 3x per day; and David Hoffman recommends 2-4ml 3x per day. I stick to 5-10 drops 3x per day as a baseline during springtime when I really need help with lymphatic cleansing.
Safety Considered mild, non-toxic and generally safe. There is a suggested contraindication for those with diabetes. It is also very diuretic and may be best avoided by people who are already taking prescription diuretic medications.
If you’d like to learn more about each of these spring herbs (and hundreds of others), I highly recommend checking out The Herbal Academy’s Online Herbarium! This resource is full of monographs, articles, short intensives, and other education opportunities that will help you take your herbal studies to the next level.
I hope this article inspires you to step outside and get to know these lovely spring plants. Some other medicinals that may be growing around you to research include Dandelion, Red Clover, Curly Dock, Stinging Nettle, Henbit, Dead Nettle, and so much more. Springtime is truly an incredible season, full of greenery and blooms that fill the heart with gladness after a long and cold winter. Even just sitting outside with these dear plants offers us some of their cleansing medicine and a sense of renewal.
Have a lovely Spring Equinox, dear friends.
Until next time,