By Carissa Wills-DeMello.
Curling green ribbons of field garlic, golden dandelion blooms, delicate violet petals, and purple-tinted nettles decorate an awakening landscape. Spring is the herbalist’s Christmas. We brush away nature’s wrapping paper of fallen leaves and peek about every hidden corner for the gifts of life. “It’s spring fever…,” proclaimed Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, “And when you’ve got it, you want to—oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!” The herbalist’s heart aches for the bitter bite of wild greens, and she searches her garden feverishly for the return of old green friends. Yes, spring fever it surely is. Join in the celebration!
You, too, are an herbalist at heart—a person uncovering the healing properties of even the most common plants. You’re a descendant of plant people. Folks who knew the wheel of the year’s turning as they knew the beat of their own heart. Ancestors, perhaps not far back at all, who didn’t question their place in “the family of things.” Do you feel it? The curiosity tingling in your bones? Let’s take that seed of curiosity outdoors and see what can grow!
In this series of Herbalism Through the Seasons, we’ll explore accessible and joyful ways to make the age-old tradition of herbalism a personal practice. Like an ancient Concord grape vine, herbalism still hangs on at the edges of society. Strong as ever, she waits for her fruits to be noticed, harvested, and enjoyed once again. And what is herbalism? It is the practice of working with plants to cultivate health and vitality. It belongs in kitchens and gardens, not just lecture halls. Herbalism is learned through trial and error; it’s both an art and a science.
For those wishing to get their hands dirty awakening their inner herbalist, spring is the season to begin. In traditional systems of healing, this is when our vital energy begins to rise after winter’s deep rest. Our bodies begin to crave fresh spring greens and bitter teas, and we long to sink our hands into the dirt once again. Foraging and gardening are the perfect practices to begin your herbal journey this year.
If you have yet to try your hand at foraging, simply grab a good field guide and begin. New England boasts an abundance of delicious edible wild foods. Not only are they free, but they’re also incredibly nutrient-dense and boast minerals and trace elements that can be hard to find in other foods. Wild spring greens tend to be bitter, sour, and pungent. These flavors indicate properties that stimulate our liver, which is working extra hard to transition into spring. Because those flavors are sorely lacking in most diets, foraging wild greens is a simple yet powerful way to introduce these properties into our diets.
Whether you’re looking in your planting boxes, backyard, meadows, or woods, there’s a spring green waiting for you to harvest. Some of the most abundant and easy to use are: nettle, dandelion, chickweed, field garlic, plantain, lamb’s quarters, violet, and garlic mustard. Notice that most of these are often thought of as weeds. In fact, a few would be considered pesky or even invasive (we’re looking at you, garlic mustard). Harvesting these plants then becomes an act of land preservation, too. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a weed is “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” After you’ve discovered a taste for these virtuous plants, you’ll surely think of them as more than just pesky weeds.
Peterson’s field guides to Edible Wild Plants and Medicinal Plants & Herbs are two solid resources for foragers of all abilities. They offer vivid photos and detailed descriptions of plant habitat and use, and you’ll have no problem finding the previously-mentioned plants—they’re weeds, remember! For all those plants, aside from nettle, harvesting is the same: pick the tender young leaves and rinse them well. For nettle, harvest just the top third of the stalk and pull off the leaves wearing gloves to avoid the sting! Some of the simplest ways to enjoy these spring greens are mixed into soup, added to sauces, blended fresh into pesto, or dried into a nutritious Power Powder (see EdibleSouthShore.com for details).
Looking for an even easier way to begin your foray into foraging and herbalism? Try a wild greens infusion. An infusion can result in a strong tea with medicinal qualities. Grab a mason jar and pack it halfway with chopped dandelion, chickweed, nettle, and mint. Cover the greens with boiled water and steep for 20 minutes. Strain and enjoy with local honey for a nutrient-dense spring tonic rich in vitamins C and A, and the minerals magnesium, iron, and calcium.
Just remember: be a responsible forager. Only consume plants you’ve confidently 100% identified. Also, be sure to harvest from places that have not been sprayed with chemicals or have a history of pollution (like roadsides or abandoned lots). Never take the first or the last plant that you find. And finally, take only what you need and leave enough for other foragers and critters.
While we turn to foraging for early spring nourishment, we can also be waking (or perhaps starting) our herb gardens to prepare for early summer abundance. In the herb garden, perennials are king. That goes even more for those of us for whom fighting groundhogs or investing in annual seedlings isn’t our idea of a good time. Perennials save you time and money in the long run. Plus, seeing the same plants return or self-seed year after year is immensely satisfying. Depending on how mild the winter has been, perennial herbs might start popping their little heads up as early as March. Under good leaf or mulch cover, they’ll start growing even sooner, leading to a long and bountiful growing season.
For those who’ve yet to begin their perennial herb garden, it’s a simple endeavor. Because even small quantities of most herbs are so potent, you don’t need much space. Also, most herbs are easy to grow. From a single raised bed to a grand backyard plot, you’ll find your efforts well worth it come harvest time. Starting seed is a cost-efficient method if you’d like a wide variety and a lot of seedlings. Purchasing seedlings from a local farm might be a better bet if you’ve little experience, are short on time, or want to ensure you start with vigorous growth. It will cost more upfront, but your single purchase will result in many years of harvest—well worth the investment! Keep an eye out for spring plant sales at local farms known for their variety of medicinal and culinary herb starts. A few standouts in the quality department include Ivory Silo Farm (Westport), Peckham’s Greenhouse (Little Compton, RI), Holly Hill Farm (Cohasset), Osamequin Farm (Seekonk), and Blue Stem Natives (Norwell). Ivory Silo Farm in Westport has an impressive variety of medicinal herbs that are always top-notch. Peckham’s Greenhouse in Tiverton also offers a wonderful selection of herbs and a very knowledgeable staff.
Some of the best perennial herbs to get in the ground include: mint (try a few varieties, but be aware as they can be invasive), yarrow, lemon balm, lavender, echinacea, thyme, oregano, chamomile, anise hyssop, bee balm, and marshmallow. These herbs can be a medicine cabinet unto themselves. With a handful of them, you’ll be perfectly set up to have a blast experimenting with herbal recipes for healing and enjoyment come summertime. More to come in our next installment.
By taking time to forage and garden each spring, our collective roots sink deeper into the place we call home. This is the herbalist’s way: finding a sense of home among the weeds and relishing the return of perennial garden friends each year. With roots set deep enough, the body starts to remind us each spring that it’s time to grab a harvesting basket and celebrate the return of life.
Carissa Wills-DeMello, @townfarmtonics, is a practicing herbalist who stops to smell the roses as much as possible. Peace Corps service in Fiji first opened her eyes to the healing power of common plants, and herbalism has been her obsession ever since!