Spring Herbs: Bitter Is Better

Enjoy spring’s earliest greens for health and vitality


Plants that grow in early spring burst forth with gusto. They are, by design, shaped and adapted to succeed and produce quickly, no matter what the lingering winter weather conditions hold. The ones we eat this time of year offer us just the flavors we crave. They give our bodies a boost in nutrition and important physiological triggers to cleanse, refresh and renew.

Before refrigeration, winter food selections in colder climates consisted of a lot of meats that had been preserved by salting, brining, smoking, drying and canning. People also ate thick-skinned fruits and vegetables, often from a dark, dank cellar. After months of this kind of diet, livers become sluggish, causing people to feel bloated and moody. The body’s filtering process could grind to a halt.

At the first scent of bare soil, people instinctively set out to find anything fresh and green to eat. Dandelions were among the earliest leafy greens to appear, and folks harvested them by the basketful. They craved the bitter taste of the leaves that stimulate the digestive tract and the rich minerals that nourish the blood.

The same is true today. Our preference for the richer, heavier foods we needed during the winter naturally shifts to foods that clear and release and that bring a “spring” to our step.

Herbs also offer nutrient-rich, flavorful possibilities. Before the snow has even melted, lovage can be seen spearheading its delicious, celery-flavored leafy tips through the shallow blanket of white. Within a few days, oniony chive points might be visible and soon after, tart, sour, lemony sorrel leaves can be harvested. Sour tastes are essential for us and come in varying degrees. They are astringent and cause a tightening and tonifying action to membranes and some organs.

Herbs picked in early spring have a potency to them that wanes when days become longer and warmer. Their flavor and nutritional value are at their best at this time. Chop them all up fresh in a salad with some arugula, which also might be ready to pick at this time, and toss with a bright vinaigrette or lemon and oil dressing. Add the peppery heat of a crisp, early radish to stimulate circulation that helps the body move blood, fluids and waste, thereby avoiding stagnation.

Add them to warm (not hot) tabbouleh, quinoa or pasta just before serving. This helps release their aromatic scents. If you are looking for a way to ensure happy guests and good conversation at a dinner party, include these just-picked herbs in your menu and watch the energy in the room naturally lift.

There will also be sweet, lacey anise-flavored chervil available in abundance in the garden. It is especially high in potassium. Get it while you can to chop into chicken salad or cook, briefly, with a slivered shallot and delicate light fish sealed in foil to capture its flavor. Mix in mayonnaise or yogurt spreads and dips, drop into omelets and egg dishes or toss into green, rice or pasta salads.

You might discover dainty wild asparagus shoots while walking through a fallow field in early spring. Eating it fresh on the spot is a real treat—nothing like the days-old, limp, grocery store variety. They go down like candy, so eating just a few is impossible. The complexity of their earthy and slightly bitter flavor delights our appetite, while their diuretic properties help move fluids in the body.

In the forest, fiddlehead ferns remind of nature’s wisdom in their graceful process of emergence. After the long winter, when conditions are right, they unfurl, but before they do, we can cut them at ground level and eat them lightly sautéed. Their green flavor and slick texture (similar to asparagus) are pleasing and soothing to the palate.
Tender young nettles are also at their best, and they don’t sting yet. Cook the leaves like spinach or even dry them for a tea. Nettles are a superfood because they are specialists at absorbing minerals from the soil. Therefore, be sure to harvest them in very clean area. They also have diuretic properties.

Some of these foods might be available year-round, but the changing of the season is a good reason to introduce them into your diet. For those who embrace the concepts of eating food in season and food as medicine, or who just enjoy foraging in nature or markets, consider indulging in some of our earliest healthful spring greens. You, too, might find your body craves them.

Merry Lycett Harrison, RH (AHG), is the owner of Millcreek Herbs in Salt Lake City. She’s also a teacher, author and a professional member of the American Herbalists Guild. Learn more at MillcreekHerbs.com

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