Spring is finally here, welcoming us with a warm breeze rich in wildflowers scent and cherry blossom petals. As Nature wakes up after the long-frozen rest of the Winter and trees start to bud, some culinary and medicinal herbs begin to appear in the public parks and along hedgerows and canals. Interestingly, most of these herbs have alterative (blood and tissue cleansing) properties, meaning that they support the body in eliminating excessive toxins and metabolism by-products from its tissues. They do so by promoting lymphatic drainage and by stimulating the elimination processes in liver and kidneys. By observing the bigger picture, it appears that Nature is given us, at the right time, the tools eliminate the excessive metabolites accumulated during the cold months and prepare our bodies to enjoy the warm months in a lighter state. In the following paragraph I will discuss some of the most common spring alterative herbs, including their properties and how to use them.
Allium ursinum (Wild garlic or Bear garlic)
Commonly spread throughout the UK, wild garlic is the most used ingredient for spring pesto. It likes to grow along canals and water streams and its identification is straightforward. It has smooth, long leaves and a white flower with six petals which grow in a sphere-shaped arrangement. As you rub the leaves in between your fingers, you can smell the unmistakable smell of garlic.
From a Western herbalism prospective, Wild garlic has warming and drying qualities as its cousin bulb garlic (Allium sativum), meaning that it makes a good remedy for conditions with cold/damp energetic patterns such as colds, flu, slow digestion, poor circulation, poor immunity etc. Wild garlic, as most of the members of its family (Liliaceae) contains sulphur, which is the element responsible for its smell and taste (1). These compounds have shown to exert antimicrobial, antithrombotic (prevent formation of blood clots), antitumor, hypolipidaemic (decrease the fat levels in the blood) , antiarthritic and hypoglycemic (decrease blood sugars) activities (1).
Wild garlic can be used as an alternative to normal garlic in fresh in salads, pesto, sauces or used as a flavouring ingredient for stews and soups.
Urtica dioica (Stinging nettle)
We all share the similar memory of that time when we went to catch the ball from the bushes after one of our mates kicked it poorly and cover our hands and arms with an itchy rash; we realised just too late and in the harsh way that it was a bush of stinging nettles. But nettles aren’t sprouting nearly everywhere just to irritate us with their leaves loaded with formic acid; they are a very powerful medicine and highly nutritious wild food. They are rich in iron, promote the excretion of uric acid (a by-product of protein metabolism) from the body, promote kidney filtration, counteract the release of histamine from mast cells (the process that happens during allergic reactions) and much more (2).
Nettles, which in Western herbalism are classified as a dry/cold remedy, can therefore be a wonderful remedy to promote detoxification after a sustained period of consuming large rich meals, to enrich the blood with iron and to fight the symptoms of allergic rhinitis (hay fever).
The young leaves are collected and dried to make a earthy-flavoured infusions or are cooked and used in soups, stews, stir fries in the same way you could use other dark green leafy vegetables.
Galium aparine (cleavers)
It is difficult to talk about nettles and do not mention cleavers. Often these two herbs grow in the same spot and you can admire how cleavers have the tendency to entangle around nettle stalks.
Cleavers, also possessing drying and cooling qualities, has a powerful blood purifying property as they stimulate the draining activity of the lymphatic system, the sewerage system of your body (2). Cleavers is recommended for resolving skin conditions caused by toxic build up (eczema, urticaria etc.), enlarged lymph nodes and fluid retention.
It is best consumed as an overnight cold infusion but can be dried and used in hot infusions throughout the springtime. Some herbalists suggest that to experience the benefits of cleavers, the infusions should be consumed in large doses spread throughout the day.
Taraxacum officinalis (Dandelion)
Dandelions are among the first flowers to blossom in the middle of March and most people can easily recognise them. They do not have a strong scent, but the intense golden colour of the petal easily strikes our vision while we walk across our local park.
Dandelion has cooling and drying qualities (which you may have noticed is a curiously common feature of Spring herbs). Both the leaves and the roots are used to make medicine. The leaves are rich in water balancing minerals (especially potassium) and promote kidney function increasing the output of urine (3). The root is used as a remedy for the liver, promoting the production and release of bile (3).
Young dandelion leaves is harvested throughout spring and is consumed in salads or hot infusion as a good natural source of minerals and to decrease water retention. Dandelion roots are best harvested later in the year when the plant prepares for the Winter and concentrates the nutrients beneath the ground.
Alliaria petiolata (Garlic mustard)
Part of the mustard family (Brassicaceae), garlic mustard is a very common herb found especially by the side of canals and hedgerows. Its thin leaves have a noticeable mustard flavour with a bitter aftertaste.
Garlic mustard has not been used often in Western herbalism, as its cousin yellow mustard has similar but stronger properties. Nevertheless, some resources state that it has been used as an antiparasitic for intestinal worms and as a remedy for the lungs for conditions such as bronchitis and asthma (4).
The young leaves, used sporadically, make a great addition to salads, stews and pesto.
Note: members of the Brassica family sometimes exert an inhibitory effect on thyroid hormones, therefore better avoid using garlic mustard if you are concerned about your thyroid function.
Most of the aforementioned herbs have mainly been widely used in British folklore as food and medicine in early springtime to cleanse the body from toxins and impurities. It is now time to choose a day of sunshine and stop for 10/15 minutes during your daily run alongside your local creek or near the hedgerow of the park to collect these wonderful free remedies and foods that Nature provided our land with!
1) Mickhova et al (2009) 'Chemical Composition and Antimicrobial Activity of Wild Garlic Allium ursinum of Bulgarian Origin', Natural product communications , 4(8), pp. 1059-62.
2) Bartram, T (2007) Encyclopaedia of Herbal Medicine, 2 edn., Christchurch, Grace Publishers
3) Easley, T; Horne, S (2016) The Modern Herbal Dispensatory, 1st edn., Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
4) Cavara; Grande (2007) Alliaria petiolata, Available at: https://pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?LatinName=Alliaria+petiolata (Accessed: 4th April 2020).