For many of us, Spring means LET’S CLEAN HOUSE. It is time to clean, organize, plant seeds, and celebrate life. But, sometimes I feel like this shift happens in my mental state much faster than it happens in my body. Learn which spring herbs best support your health goals, how to grow them, and how to cook with them!
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Guided by the Seasons
Seasonally speaking, when we emerge from winter we have been eating pretty dense foods; lots of root vegetables, meat dishes, preserved foods, comforting sweets and treats, etc. While grocery stores now offer us the double-edged privilege of eating anything, anytime- there can still tend to be less raw vegetables, less fresh salad greens, and overall more high carb, high fat, high sugar foods eaten in the wintertime.
(I mean, it’s cold and gray, and wet… who doesn’t want a little pie and a hot toddy to make it all better?)
So, while I am not one to promote the ‘new year, new me’ hoopla in the depth of winter, I do think that the energy of Spring genuinely motivates us to clear the cobwebs, move our bodies, and set some intentions for the life we are trying to cultivate.
Spring Herbs for Specific Support
In this post, we are going to be talking about some Spring specific herbs that support our bodies at this time of year. We will get into all the juicy details: their health benefits, where to find them, how to grow them, and most importantly, how to integrate them into your meals.
A couple of the herbs we are going to talk about today- Dandelion and Nettle- fall into the category of ‘alteratives …’ while there is no one static definition of this term- we think about them as herbs that alter – in a gentle and beneficial way- how the body completes its functions- from absorbing nutrients to eliminating waste. Alteratives often work by supporting one or more pathways of processing and elimination. Meaning, they typically tend to support the lymphatic system, the liver, and/or the kidneys.
We are also looking at a couple of herbs that are not technically categorized as alteratives- Purslane and Green Garlic- but support our immune system and overall functioning through their high content of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Lastly, our aromatic spring superstar: Mint- is both soothing to the gut and uplifting to the spirits. In general, aromatic herbs are strong allies for the parasympathetic nervous system. They are both stimulating and relaxing; meaning they simultaneously awaken the senses to support digestion, ground us in our bodies, and quiet the mind.
Spring herbs can be amazing allies during this time of year. I know it can be easy to choose the herbs you like and easily have access to and stick to them but I am inviting you to consider the relevance, health benefits, and joy of supporting your body seasonally. If you garden, you may be familiar with some of these plants as pests, other plants you might already grow yet not realize their prowess- but they are actually wonderful indicators for the kind of support we can be giving our bodies at this particular time of year. Let’s get to it.
Spring Herb #1: DANDELION (Taraxacum officinale)
Dandelions are notorious for growing anywhere, and everywhere. Lots of people spray to get rid of them but did you know they are edible from petal to root and packed with minerals? Alongside their nutrient density, dandelion greens provide a substantial amount of several minerals, including iron, calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
The leaves of this plant also offer us digestive bitters that stimulate digestion, support the liver’s detoxification function, and most specifically, support kidney function. Including the flowers and leaves of this plant in your weekly springtime meal plan can help kickstart your body’s spring cleaning processes!
How To Grow
These days you can find dandelion greens at Whole Foods or at your local Farmers Market… but you can also grow them. They are a sure-fire crop that can be planted directly in the ground or in containers for closer kitchen access.
- Seeds can be sown directly into the ground a few weeks before the last Spring frost.
- They are not picky about their soil but since you are eating these, make sure no chemicals are being used in the area..
- For best results and fast growing dandelions, plant them in a spot that gets lots of sun and make sure to water regularly.
- Once the greens are at least 3-6 inches long, harvest a few leaves from every plant. They are pretty sturdy- so it would be hard to kill them once they are established, but you do want to leave a couple leaves behind so they can grow back strongly. The youngest leaves are the least bitter and most flavorful.
How To Cook With Them
Dandelion greens are notoriously bitter AND very delicious. While it might take a little extra consideration, finding a preparation that works for you is what matters when it comes to this mineral-rich, liver lovin’ herb. I also want to say here that if growing Dandelions isn’t accessible to you and you can’t find them at the store, you can opt for another bitter plant such as Radicchio or Chicory. While the mineral content of these plants might not be as robust, their bitter taste is equally supportive of digestion and stimulating the liver.
I really love making a salad that mixes a bitter green like Dandelion OR alternatively Radicchio with a softer green like butter lettuce. I typically only add a little bit of raw onion chopped finely and toasted walnuts. For the dressing, I use oil and ACV with salt and pepper to taste. Then, when the acidity is at the right spot, I add maple syrup. This brings it all together- it still gives you that bitter medicine but with a little sweetness that makes it go down just right. Here are some other ideas:
Spring Herb #2: STINGING NETTLE (Urtica dioica)
Oh! Nettles… if you don’t know about these prickly friends, it’s time to learn. Although nettles are infamous for their sting- they are actually one of the most nutrient-dense plants out there and they are particularly suited to support us in the Springtime. With just a little caution, we can access some really amazing nutrients and befriend an incredible plant. Especially delicious when young and tender, Nettles support our bodily functions by improving nutrition in our cellular tissues.
They are not only packed with potassium, silicon, calcium, iron, zinc, and chromium- they are also rich in protein and said to be anti-inflammatory. They are a tonic for the kidneys, the skin, and overall support bodily functions by making sure every organ is receiving the nutrients and proteins it needs to operate optimally. Nettles are so versatile- as long as they are blanched or boiled before use- you can really get creative with how to consume them.
How To Grow
Nowadays you can find Nettles at the Farmers Market but they are really easy to grow at home if you have some outdoor space. However, keep in mind that Nettles aren’t called stinging for nothing- whether you are taking them out of a bag fresh or harvesting be sure to wear gloves and go slow. While their irritation shouldn’t be toxic and will pass on its own, it can be pretty uncomfortable.
- Nettles are pretty easy to grow and can be grown from seed or propagation.
- When choosing your spot, consider that Nettles pull up the minerals from the earth around them, so avoid planting near drainage and sewage areas. Also consider that you don’t want them amongst your other veggies – no one likes to get nettled when trying to reach for a tomato.
- They do particularly well in areas that get a little bit of protection from sun, with rich soils that stay moist but not waterlogged.
- If you are growing them from seed, in the spring, broadcast seeds and press them lightly into the soil or cover with a very thin layer of soil, only about 1/4 inch at most because they need light to germinate.
- Once the plants are 6-12 inches tall, you can harvest the top 4 inches with scissors or a knife.
- If you are super interested in developing your own nettle patch, check out this article for lots of useful information and growing tips.
How To Cook With Them
Nettles are extremely versatile… They have a salty, earthen flavor that blends well with mushroom dishes, burgers, stews, you name it… BUT you do need to blanch them before consuming to ensure their stinging components are broken down. Incorporating nettles into your Spring diet will support your body in having the nutrients it needs to revitalize and reset for the year ahead.
Spring Herb #3: PURSLANE (Portulaca oleracea)
Like the last two herbs we have talked about, Purslane is mostly known as a weed. However, calorie for calorie- this is one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. I mean, a 3.5oz portion contains 35% of your daily value of Vitamin C and is rich in calcium and magnesium-helping to keep your collagen and blood vessels in good shape, as well as helping injuries heal. This zesty, succulent plant is rich in antioxidants and contains more omega-3 fatty acids than any other green. It contains both melatonin, which supports sleep, and glutathione, which protects cells from damage.
How To Grow
Purslane grows in most places so you can usually find some at a local farmers market. However, you can also grow purslane at home both as an ornamental and a food. You can grow purslane year-round as a microgreen or in the summer as a vegetable.
Purslane is a beautiful plant that spreads easily and has bright yellow flowers. If you are able to find seeds and/or cuttings, getting it to grow is the easy part. They grow well from cuttings so if you find some at a spot that you rather not eat from you can cut a little piece off and plant it to start your own Purslane planter.
- To grow them from seed, you can sow them directly into the ground after the last frost has passed and soil temperatures are at around 60 degrees fahrenheit. Alternatively, you can start seeds indoors.
- Purslane likes warm sunny spots and prefers loamy, porous soil. When it comes to watering, this sun-loving plant can stand some dryness. While it wants regular watering, it doesn’t want to be wet.
- When sowing, spread seeds onto moist soil and press them in lightly. Because they need light to germinate, you should not completely cover them.
- Once they have sprouted – you can thin them to 8 inches apart so they have room to grow. But be sure to munch on those sprouts!
How To Cook With Them
Purslane is a crunchy, slightly sour or salty, succulent green. Similar to spinach or watercress- it can be used in many of the same ways. You can add purslane to salads, use them as microgreens, or saute them. They add great texture and zing to any meal and can also be used raw as garnish on a sandwich or taco bowl. One thing to be aware of is that purslane is high in oxalates. Therefore, people prone to kidney stones should be cautious when eating large amounts of purslane- even though it is typically the seed, not the leaves/stems- which contain higher levels. If this isn’t an immediate risk for you, eating purslane regularly is extremely nourishing to the bones, the blood, and our overall well-being.
I honestly like to harvest it by the handfuls and chop it up into any salad that I make, but:
Spring Herb #4: GREEN GARLIC (Allium sativum)
Green garlic aka Spring Garlic is basically an immature garlic plant. When farmers plant their garlic crops, they thin out the excess shoots so the ones left in the ground have a chance to become bulbs. Originally, green garlic was sold as “extra” so it wouldn’t go to waste, but it became so popular that now many farmers grow garlic specifically to have a green garlic crop.
In addition to being absolutely delicious- but we will get to that a little later- green garlic is full of antioxidants and like its older sister garlic bulbs, has natural antiviral properties. If you feel a cold coming on you can load up with green garlic to get your blood warm and circulating. Most notably, Spring Garlic- like garlic- contains allicin– converted from the enzyme alliinase, it is a powerful antioxidant that contributes to lowering blood pressure, reducing inflammation, and protecting the body from free radicals.
How To Grow
Green garlic can be found at farmers’ markets and at the grocery store. You can also grow them pretty easily… Growing green garlic is relatively simple and a really great starter crop for someone who doesn’t garden. It is also a really great plant to have in your garden because of its pungency that will keep a variety of plant pests at bay. It is also one of the few vegetables that are resistant to deer. However- to consume your own green garlic in the spring, you’ll have to plan ahead for next year. BUT, if you want to start now- you can plant garlic in the spring and have a beautiful green garlic//garlic crop in the summer.
- To begin, acquire a few heads of organic garlic. It is important that it’s organic since non-organic garlic might be sprayed with a growth inhibitor that won’t let it sprout.
- Split the heads while keeping the papery cover on them and plant them a couple inches into the ground, root end down. Because you will be harvesting them before the bulb develops you don’t have to worry about planting them too close.
- You’ll want to cover them with mulch and water moderately until you are ready to harvest. Garlic appreciates full sun and rich, well-draining soil.
- Check out this article for some specifications on fall vs. spring planted garlic and how to care for your garlic crop when seeking to grow green garlic.
How To Cook With Them
Gosh, you can really put green garlic in anything. One of my favorite Spring breakfasts was to sauté some shiitake mushrooms with green garlic, throw in some balsamic vinegar, and serve that over eggs. Simple, easy, so so yummy. While you can basically use green garlic to substitute onions, scallions, or leeks, there is a sweet and subtle difference that I feel makes green garlic that much more special. Garlicky without being overpowering- the can at times feel more akin to an onion the garlic- the young garlic bulbs (which don’t need to be peeled at this point) and edible greens have an incredible nutty-oniony flavor that is delicious fresh or cooked.
There are so many recipes on the TCK blog that can be adapted to include green garlic; these super versatile wraps can have green garlic both in the wrap and for the mayo, these juicy pork patties, this scrumptious glazed salmon, and more! Just search for green onion in the search bar and sub green garlic.
Also, check out these Green Garlic specific recipes:
Spring Herb #5: MINT (Menta spp.)
Many of you are probably familiar with Mint already- you might even have some in your tea pantry. Mint tea is a well-known digestive upset remedy and overall cooling beverage. While these uses are super beneficial at any time of year- I think it is pretty amazing that Mint is one of the first garden plants to start growing back after winter. Its strong aromatic properties make it great for mental health- lifting the spirits and getting us into our bodies.
The strong essential oils- such as menthol– present in mint are supportive for the central nervous system and help get into rest & digest mode. The invigorating and refreshing smell of mint is said to improve brain function and reduce fatigue– not to mention it is great for bad breath. Enjoying a mint tea in the morning or before a meal can really set the tone for how to digest your foods and your experiences. Moreover, integrating mint into your meals can help digest your food better and add the uplifting breath of fresh air we are all looking for in Spring.
How To Grow
Commonly grown in the garden, mint is one of the first plants to come back in the Spring. A strong perennial plant that will return year after year, and even spread into spaces you don’t want it to… Mint’s vigor speaks for itself. You can definitely find it at a local nursery already in a pot- if you do this you can keep a mint pot close to your kitchen or plant it in the ground to develop a mint patch. If you want to start from scratch, you can either grow from a cutting or grow from a seed. There are so many varieties of mints, they are all aromatic and powerful, but make sure you are choosing ones that you especially enjoy.
- Mint prefers damp/moist areas that drain well. In terms of sun, they prefer a little bit of shade but will thrive almost anywhere with some sun and adequate watering.
- If planting seeds- spread them on moist soil about ¼ inch deep in the ground. They need light to germinate so don’t cover too much. Make sure to water them plenty until they start growing.
- If you get cuttings: Plant the cuttings in the ground in the Spring once the threat of frost has passed. With two cuttings planted 18inches apart you should have plenty of mint since it grows so vigorously. The same applies for container planting.
- You can begin to harvest the mint once the plant has multiple 6 to 8 inch long stems. Try not to take more than a third of the plant at once so it has a chance to grow back.
How To Cook With Them
Mint has so many uses in dishes around the world. I think it can be easy to pigeonhole mint as a tea- and while the tea is incredible and super supportive- there is also so much we can do with mint in the kitchen. Be it as a garnish, in a sauce, mixed into salads or in desserts- the refreshing and revitalizing energy of mint is a powerful friend for springtime.
If you follow the blog you’ll know mint has a place there; as a garnish in this instant pot chicken recipe as well as on the creamy crack chicken recipe and more predominantly in the zingy sauce for this beet dish. But here are some other ideas on integrating mint into your spring cooking:
Which Herbs will you Grow this Spring?
As you all know, here at TCK we strongly believe that food is medicine. And while it is important to recognize that eating these herbs occasionally is different from consuming them daily at medicinal quantities, they still carry immense value in supporting our day-to-day bodily experience.
Moreover, these spring herbs are particularly suited for food as medicine uses as they pack a punch of nutrients and nourishment with just a few bites. Integrating herbs into our kitchen routines is a beautiful way to connect more fully to the seasons and support our bodies in ways akin to how our ancestors did.
When we pay attention to what is growing around us during any given season, we get clues as to how the plants are inviting us to love our bodies. When we integrate alternative and mineral-rich herbs in our foodways as we come out of winter, we are aligning with traditional seasonal indicators around us and helping our bodies move into Springtime!
Anavictoria or Ria Alfonso is a Community Herbalist and part-time farmer. A student of Terra Sylva School of Botanical Medicine, they apply a radical vitalist perspective to their herbal practice. They are a curious and heartfelt person that is dedicated to reconnecting their lineage to herbal medicine and earth-based living. Passionate about education, sustainability, and social justice- Ria aspires to develop an herbal practice that is authentic, accessible, and impactful.