Spring Tonics

This is my favorite time of year for wild-crafting! So many edible & medicinal plants light up the fields and forests- chickweed, dandelion, violet, cleavers, nettles, red buds, ramps and morels to name just a few. Did you know that even the invasive garlic mustard is a highly nutritious green that makes a great pesto? And that the apple and cherry blossoms that grace us with their beauty make a lovely cordial?

I love how Mother Nature provides  us with the bitter and  pungent flavors to help us detoxify our bodies and eliminate excess from winter. Many of the plants available in spring are lymphatics and alteratives (An alterative is an herb that gradually restores proper function to the body and increases overall health and vitality by supporting the ability of the body to eliminate waste through multiple channels of elimination (i.e., lungs, skin, liver, kidneys, lymph or bowels)- what used to be referred to as “blood cleansers”) Dandelion, cleavers, chickweed, violet, nettle, sassafras, burdock- all of these were used as spring tonics (aka blood cleansers) among Appalachians before the age of refrigeration and grocery stores.

While these traditions seem to have faded from popular culture over the past few generations, they remain strong among herbalists, folk healers, wise women and mountain-dwellers. And there is a resurgence of interest in learning these traditional practices. So for those of you who are curious about the wild nutrition that your backyard can offer, here are some recipes for you to play with this season…

Before you begin to forage, I have to emphasize the importance of proper plant identification. Dandelions, cleavers, violets and nettles are all relatively easy to identify, but if you are new to this, please consult a field guide or go with someone who can help you. Do not rely on the plant identification apps! I have found them to be woefully inaccurate.

Violet gelation in a bowl


This is not the bright purple, boxed gelatin of your youth. This is an all-natural, low sugar, nutrient-rich treat.
Recipe & photo from: Homestead Lady


  • 2 Cups Violet Flower Tea* OR 1 Cup Violet Tea Plus One Cup Organic Apple Juice
  • 2 TBSP Organic Beef Gelatin, flavorless
  • Raw Honey to taste (About 2 TBSP)

To Make Violet Tea

Gather 2-4 cups of violet flowers and pinch off the green backs. Bring 2-3 cups of water to a boil and pour over the violets in a heat safe container. Cover and let steep for 2-6 hours. The longer it sits, the stronger the flavor (and the more beneficial for your health). When its done, strain out the flowers and measure the tea for this recipe. Drink whatever is left over.


  • Put the tea or the tea/juice combination into a saucepan and warm the tea gently.
  • Add gelatin, a little at a time, and stir to incorporate.
  • Add honey and test sweetness until it makes you happy.
  • Place into gelatin mold, ice cube tray, glass baking dish, whatever!
  • Refrigerate for 4-6 hours OR for better results, leave in fridge overnight.
  • Tip: add a little bit of lemon juice to the tea after straining for a colorful reaction!

I made this yesterday with my 3 year old and it turned out great! We poured it into little heart-shaped molds. He was so excited this morning to bring his violet “jello” to school for lunch.


Please note that honey syrups must be stored in the fridge for preservation.

Violet Syrup Ingredients
1 oz. freshly picked violet flowers
5 oz. water
organic sugar

To Prepare:
* Boil water and pour over the violet flowers.
* Cover and allow to steep for 4 hours.
* Strain into stainless pot and gently warm on the stove.
* Add 2 oz of sugar/honey by weight for each 1 fluid ounce of violet tea.
* Mix until the sugar is completely dissolved.
* Bottle. Shelf stable for 1 year.

Use violet syrup to sparkling water, teas, cocktails or as a sweetener for lemonade. It is a cooling, nutritive


Note: only harvest wild greens from clean areas, at least 20’ from the road


  • 1 cup of young dandelion greens
  • ⅓ cup of young violet leaves
  • ⅓ cup chickweed (optional-if you can find it)
  • ¼ cup grated carrot
  • 2 TBSP wild spring onions, roughly chopped
  • a handful of violet, dandelion or red bud flowers as garnish


  • 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice or raw apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tbsp tamari
  • 1 tbsp maple syrup
  • 2 tsp dijon mustard
  • salt and pepper to taste (note, you may not need to add salt due to the tamari)

(This recipe makes dressing for more than one salad. Keep in the fridge for up to a week for more salads!)

Mix the greens, wild onions and grated carrot in a salad bowl. Whisk together all ingredients for the dressing. Add 3 Tbsp of dressing to the greens, tossing well. Sprinkle violet flowers over the greens and then serve.


  • 2 cups of greens (stinging nettles, watercress, dandelion greens, chickweed, garlic mustard, lamb’s quarters, or any combination of the above)
  • 1 tbsp minced fresh parsley, mint, dill, or other fresh herbs for flavor
  • 3 fat cloves of garlic
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts, pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds
  • 1 TBSP lemon juice
  • Hard cheese such as parmesan to taste (optional)
  • Olive oil
  • Salt & Pepper

Note: If you are using nettles in your wild pesto, you can blanch them for a minute or two to remove the sting before proceeding with the recipe below. I have found that the chopping action of the food processor is sufficient to break open the hairs and release the acid, but if you are not confident, blanching or steaming them will definitely do the trick.


Add the garlic and seeds/nuts to the food processor and pulse to coarsely chop these.

Rough chop the greens and herbs and add them to your food processor. Add a splash of lemon juice to brighten the flavor and color. Start blending, adding olive oil, one tablespoon at a time until you have your preferred texture. If you want to make a pesto sauce you will need more oil. If you want a paste for pizza, use less oil. Flavor with salt, pepper and hard cheese. (Omit the cheese if you plan to freeze it, you can always add that later after thawing).


Cleavers (Galium aparine) is classified as a lymphatic, alterative, diuretic and nutritive tonic. It helps our lymphatic system during a time when our immune systems may be tired and sluggish following a long winter.

Cleavers is fairly easy to identify, but please be sure to consult a good field guide to make sure that you are working with the right plant. Cleavers has tiny hairs that allow them to stick to your clothes. They have narrow, pointed leaves that grow in whorls of 6-8. Each whorl is spaced about every 2″ along the stem. They have square stems and tiny white star-shaped flowers.
Cleavers are best made as a cold infusion:


  1. Place one or two handfuls of finely chopped, fresh cleavers (the leaves and stems, not the roots) into a quart-sized canning jar.
  2. Fill the  jar with cool water and cover with a lid.
  3. Place the jar in a refrigerator and allow the cleavers to infuse overnight, or eight to twelve hours.
  4. Strain and enjoy cold, warm or at room temperature. Store any remaining infusion in the fridge for up to 3 days.


This recipe was taken and slightly modified from Simply Recipes

PREP TIME- 30 mins * COOK TIME- 45 mins * SERVINGS- 4 servings


  • 1/2 large shopping bag of fresh nettle tops (***Fresh, raw stinging nettles sting! While the sting has medicinal value (it’s a rubefacient and anti-inflammatory), you may want to wear gloves when handing them raw. Once they are blanched they loose their sting.
  • Salt
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, butter or ghee
  • 1/2 cup chopped shallots
  • 1/2 cup chopped celery
  • 3-6 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 pound Yukon Gold or russet potatoes, peeled and chopped
  • 4 cups chicken stockhomemade or store-bought
  • 1 to 2 cups water
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1-2 tablespoon fresh parsley 
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons heavy whipping cream (or coconut cream if you don’t do dairy)


  1. Blanch the nettles:

    Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Prepare a large bowl of ice water. Wearing protective gloves, transfer the nettle tops into the boiling water. Blanch for 2 minutes.

    Use tongs to lift the wilted blanched nettles out of the pot and transfer to the bowl of ice water to shock them. Strain in a colander.

    Cut away and discard any large stems from the nettles. (This should be easier to do now that the nettle stingers have lost their sting due to the blanching.)

    You should have 3 to 4 cups of blanched tender nettle tops and leaves for this recipe. Any blanched nettles not used at this point can be frozen for future use.

  2. Sauté the shallots, celery and garlic:

    In a 6-quart soup pot, heat the olive oil on medium heat. Add the chopped shallots and celery and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Then add garlic and sauté another minute or two.

  3. Add the potatoes, stock, bay leaf, and thyme:

    Add the chopped potatoes, the chicken stock and bay leaf. If using unsalted or low sodium stock, add one teaspoon of salt. Bring to a simmer and simmer for 5 minutes.

  4. Chop the blanched nettles, add to the soup pot, and simmer

    Roughly chop the blanched nettles. Add 3 to 4 cups of the chopped blanched nettles to the pot. Add enough water to just cover the nettles and potatoes, 1 to 2 cups. Return to a simmer and simmer for 15 minutes or until the potatoes are soft and the nettles tender.

  5. Purée the soup:

    Remove the bay leaves  from the pot. Add the fresh parsley. Using an immersion blender or working in batches with a standing blender, purée. Return to the pot and take off the heat.

  6. Adjust the seasonings and serve:

    Add salt to taste. Depending on the saltiness of the stock you are using, you may need to add at least a teaspoon or more to the soup. Add 1/2 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. Add lemon juice. Right before serving, swirl in the cream, sour cream or coconut milk. Adjust seasonings to taste.

    Sprinkle with black pepper and garnish with a sprig of fresh mint to serve.


Wild garlic by Maxlegran via Wikimedia commonsWhen I search for Wild Onion Infused Vinegar, the first articles that come up are about how to use vinegar to kill wild onion grass. Why would you sacrifice such a free and available source of flavor for the sake of visual uniformity in your lawn? Have you ever tasted onion grass? It is powerfully pungent. It may be small and tedious to chop, but an easy way to utilize this wild green is to make an infused vinegar. This makes a flavorful vinegar that can be added to salad dressings or marinades all year long.

To make an infused vinegar:

  • Gather a few handfuls of onion grass (just the tops are fine, but if you can dig up the bulbs you can  include those too. I like to selectively weed them from my garden using a dandelion weeder)
  • Rinse the dirt off, pat them dry. Trim off the roots and coarsely chop the leaves
  • Loosely pack a canning jar with the onion grass and cover with your choice of vinegar (apple cider, white wine or rice vinegar have nice, gentle flavors). Make sure that the plant material is fully submerged by the vinegar and that the jar is filled to the top.
  • Cover the jar with a lid. Plastic lids are ideal for vinegars because they don’t react with the vinegar. If you only have a metal lid, you can place a piece of wax paper between the vinegar and the lid before securing the lid.
  • Let sit for 10-14 days and then strain out the plant material through a sieve lined with cheesecloth, reserving the vinegar.
  • Pour the vinegar into a bottle and store in the refrigerator. Use within 6 months.

I could go on and on with more of these recipes, but time and space are limited. Dandelion wine will have to wait for another blog. If you want to play with more spring foraging, I highly recommend these two books:

  1. Stalking the Healthful Herbs by Euell Gibbons
  2. Healing Wise by Susun Weed

Again, please be careful when identifying wild plants for the first time. Happy foraging!

Disclaimer: these statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease.