Before the advent of unseasonal food flown year-round across the world, previous generations would have welcomed the signs of new growth in the hedgerows and woodland with great joy. These plants would have been the first green, fresh food available for many months; throughout the winter vegetables and plants would have been eaten pickled, accompanying salted and cured meat or fish. Imagine the first sight of nettles and dandelions after a winter of dreary, dried food! Now we tend to frown upon nettles and dandelions as weeds and spend many an effortful hour trying to rid our vegetable plots and gardens of them. Instead, why not take a leaf out of your great-grandparents’ book and enjoy them for what they are: a gift from nature to heal, renew and invigorate.
Though the detox industry is huge and growing every year, you don’t have to fork out loads of cash to cleanse and strengthen your body. No need to buy lots of green powders and health supplements when you have an absolute abundance of power-packed green goodness just waiting to be harvested for free!
Health in the hedgerows
Those who brew a spring tonic every year, or who enjoy wild green salads report stronger immunity and a general sense of being more connected to the earth. Certainly, enjoying this kind of foraged food reminds us of the bounty on our doorstep and connects us to the cycles of nature. If you eat seasonally, this time of year is truly one of abundance and pleasure as our mouths savour the bitter tang and juicy crunch of fresh greenery. Wild garlic is abundant on banks and in woodland – you’ll smell the garlic before you see the speared green leaves and star-shaped white flowers – and makes a fantastic addition to salads, breads, stews, and as a substitute for spinach. Hawthorn leaves were once considered part of the staple diet according to Richard Mabey, author of Food For Free, the forager’s bible. Recognisable as the glossy, green leaves next to abundant white blossom, these tasty foraged treats make a nutty addition to salads and sandwiches. Look out for hedge garlic too. With a mild taste, hedge garlic has toothed leaves and small white flowers and can be found in woodland and on the banks of hedgerows. Arm yourself with a good spotter’s guide, like Mabey’s book above, and you’re away.
Packed with nutrients
Probably the most recognisable of all spring greens, however, are the dandelion and the nettle. Both humble-seeming plants but absolutely packed with minerals and vitamins, they form the bedrock of a spring cleanse. Nettle leaves contain more protein than any other native plant, plus an amazing cocktail of minerals including iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, manganese, zinc and chromium. That’s why nettles have long been used to enrich breast milk and support recovery after childbirth. Traditionally, nettles were seen as a blood and liver tonic and with this level of nutrients (vitamins B1, B2, B3, C and E all feature too) it’s easy to see why. Those trying to get pregnant would be wise to seek out the nettle as a reproductive tonic. Nettles can be cooked much like spinach, in pies, pizzas, stews etc. They can be brewed into delicious nettle tea, or dried/dehydrated to eliminate the sting and preserve for nettle tea throughout the year.
Dandelion leaves are especially rich in potassium, plus vitamins A and C, iron, calcium and zinc to name but a few. Herbalists have long used dandelions as a kidney tonic to reduce oedema and lower blood pressure. Young dandelion leaves make a delicious addition to salads – aim to pick them before the flower buds as after this they can become too bitter. You can use them much like spinach in lasagne, quiche, scrambled eggs, bread etc. Using them as part of your daily diet will not only boost your health but give you a fresh perspective on a garden overrun by dandelions. If you do cook the dandelion leaves in water, make sure you drink the cooking water as this is rich with water-soluble vitamins. In fact, a better way to ensure you don’t miss out on the nutrients is to make a soup with your foraged greens.
Keeping it simple
One of the simplest ways to enjoy the power of nettles and dandelions together is to harvest the young leaves (when harvesting nettles, wear gloves and stash your harvest in a paper bag), wash thoroughly and place several big handfuls in a large, clean jar. Fill the jar up the brim with mineral water, seal, and leave in a sunny spot for several hours, or ideally overnight. This concoction can be enjoyed over the following days and harnesses the energy of the spring sun too to create something magical. Or you can brew a restorative dandelion and nettle tea by adding the same harvest to a large pan, adding water and simmering for five minutes. Strain the liquid into a clean pan and dip into as and when required. Add some raw honey to sweeten the taste if desired.
There are many, many ways in which to enjoy these simple but incredible herbs – a quick search on the internet for recipes throws up a veritable smorgasbord of delights especially now foraging and wild food is growing in popularity. Sometimes it’s nice to keep it simple though, and enjoy these nourishing plants just as teas. However you take yours, make sure you harvest some of that spring goodness and give thanks to the earth for her magnificent bounty.
Tip: Be sure to harvest your spring greens in areas away from pollution (roadside, farm chemicals etc.) and dog-urinating spots! Give your harvested greens a good wash before eating.