Spring Vinegars

Herbal Infusions for Health and Flavor

dandelion, chickweed, burdock, and nettles

Written By

Juliette Abigail Carr

Written on

February 11 , 2015

As the earth reawakens from winter’s slumber, it takes time for the sun’s warmth to turn the earth over to spring, coaxing new growth out of last year’s seed. The same is true in our bodies: It takes time to transition from the inwardness of winter to spring’s explosion of vitality. Often in early spring we feel a little sluggish under the weight of a long, cold season, even as our minds anticipate the coming warmth.

Thankfully, the natural world provides early-season weeds that awaken our bodies and help us shake off winter’s lethargy in preparation for the energeticness of spring. These plants are known as “spring tonics,” and infusing them in vinegar makes a delicious medicinal brew.

Infused Vinegar: Why Bother?

Infusing herbs in vinegar is a longstanding practice—probably as old as vinegar itself—one that extracts and even increases the medicinal properties of herbs. And raw vinegar is itself an excellent digestive aid: Its acidity mimics stomach acid, and it contains the healthy bacteria that live in our gut and are essential to our bodies’ function.

There are also many culinary applications for infused vinegar, making it easy to incorporate the health benefits of herbs into our daily lives. Substitute infused vinegar for plain vinegar in salad dressings and marinades, or to massage that first batch of kale, and you’ll easily enjoy the added flavors and gentle medicinal properties.

Vinegar is also a versatile and forgiving base that rewards improvisation. As you experiment with infused vinegars, go beyond spring tonics to any herbs that taste good in food, such as garlic, rosemary, thyme, and coriander, or flavorful tea herbs like lemon balm and hyssop. Dried herbs work fine. The potential combinations are only limited by your creativity.

If vinegar just isn’t your thing, try simply adding dandelion leaves or chickweed to your salad, or chop up some burdock root instead of potatoes in tonight’s soup for an easy health boost.

The Medicine of Spring Tonics

In the language of herbal medicine, a tonic is a mild herb that is taken daily over a long period of time to improve overall health or specific chronic problems. Tonic herbs are the gentlest of medicines, normalizing and balancing body functions as they ease us to our most healthy state.

Spring tonics are a subclass of this category, and they rejuvenate the body after a long, sedentary winter of limited fresh produce and sunshine. They act on our bodies’ digestive and filtration systems, encouraging healthy organ and immune function and cleansing impurities. This gentle stimulation makes us feel more alert, energetic, and present in our daily lives, stronger and ready to face the challenges of the coming year with excitement instead of stress.

Spring tonics taste bitter, a flavor that was a pillar of our diet throughout human history. But as the modern diet has reduced variety in favor of sugary, starchy foods, bitter has gone missing—foods like arugula, endive, and European aperitifs are holdovers from a more varied, healthful diet. The bitter taste of spring tonics stimulates activity throughout the digestive tract, improving the health and function of the system—which translates into improved health and function for the whole body.

Many spring tonics are also high in soluble fiber, which keeps the good bacteria in our gut healthy; aids in healthy cholesterol metabolism; and is protective against heart disease, reproductive hormone imbalance, and inflammatory conditions of the gut. Additionally, spring tonics stimulate kidney function, and they have a high mineral content, that improves fluid balance and nervous system function.

As traditional food herbs, spring tonics are considered quite safe. However, if you take a daily medication, especially one that is life-sustaining, be sure to check with a natural health professional before using these herbs: Stimulating the liver and kidneys can clear medications from the body faster than normal, so the medication might not last as long. Additionally, stimulating the kidneys can lower blood pressure, so use caution if you are on blood pressure medication or diuretics (water pills).

Herb Profiles & Harvesting

There are many spring tonic herbs; here are some of the easiest to identify in our area. (Do not harvest these herbs from waste places like roadsides and train tracks, as they can uptake heavy metals from the soil. Harvest in the morning, when the water content is highest.)

DandelionDandelion is a drying tonic for the digestive system, liver, and kidneys. It stimulates sluggish digestion and balances intestinal activity, improves the function of the liver and gall bladder, and increases kidney activity. The flower is gentlest, followed by the leaf, which is the most stimulating to the kidneys, and then the root, which is the strongest for gut problems. Avoid in pregnancy because of the strong intestinal stimulation. Dandelion should not be used by people with Crohn’s disease or serious gall bladder problems, as it is very stimulating.

As the weather warms, dandelion gets increasingly bitter, but in early spring it has a sharp, peppery bitterness reminiscent of homegrown arugula. Add flowers to salads for an intriguing burst of color and flavor. Leaves are tastiest before the plant has bloomed, use in vinegar or as part of a salad mix; cut leaves of young plants with pruners or scissors. Roots are easy to dig with a trowel and are generally too strong-flavored for food, although they add a nice kick to vinegars.

BurdockBurdock is a cooling, moistening, calming root that nourishes the deep tissues of the body, helping us reground from the inside out. It is used to improve digestion, kidney, liver, and lymphatic function. Its ability to cleanse the body’s filtration systems makes it an invaluable remedy for skin conditions and chronic inflammation. Burdock is an excellent kidney tonic and is anti-inflammatory to the lining of the gut, so it can be useful where dandelion is too strong; however, it is often considered too stimulating to use in pregnancy; use caution. Burdock has a high soluble fiber content. This is an anabolic herb that helps us rebuild our core strength, so it is perfect for people who feel frazzled or depleted.

Burdock is a biennial, which means it has a two-year flowering cycle. Choose plants that are entering their second year and haven’t bloomed yet (no flowering stalks and burrs lying on the ground). Burdock roots can be quite large, so dig them with a shovel. It has a mild, starchy, nutty flavor that provides low-note depth to your vinegar and is appropriate as a food—use it like any starchy root.

ChickweedChickweed heals and nourishes the tissues of the body that relish moisture, like the lining of the intestinal tract, kidneys, and skin. It cleanses the blood, lymphatics, and kidneys and leaves a cool, moist, healing feeling in its wake, making this herb very helpful for improving kidney function and skin conditions. It is healing to internal skin (mucosa) conditions also, helping relieve ulcers and inflamed sinuses. Chickweed is very high in minerals.

Chickweed is also delicious as part of a salad, with a bright, crisp flavor; in the vinegar recipe, it provides the high notes. Simply cut chickweed stems with scissors or pruners, selecting for the brightest green parts. Flowers are fine; leave them on.

nettle leafNettle balances the moisture in our bodies, so if we’re too dry it will moisten us and if we’re too moist it will soak up the excess. This plant has a high mineral content and an affinity for energy deficiency, so it is extremely helpful for deep-seated, chronic fatigue and frazzled or exhausted depression, in addition to other conditions of mineral deficiency. Nettle’s stimulation of the kidneys and lymphatics makes it one of the most useful herbs for skin conditions and conditions relieved by improved kidney function. Nettle is particularly famous for its effect on tempering allergies, as well as its role as an ally to new mothers, stimulating milk production and lessening postpartum depression. It is the kale of the wild foods world, or possibly the mustard greens; it is strong-flavored for a green and can take anything you throw at it. In infused vinegar, it yields a mineral-heavy boost with a mid-note flavor.

Wear gloves to harvest nettles! Be sure to harvest before they bloom, with tiny green flowers hanging from their armpits. Use pruners to cut stems above a leaf node, like you’re cutting flowers from the garden. Hold one end of the stem in your (gloved) hand and run the other up the stem to remove the leaves. Cooking, drying, or infusing in vinegar takes care of the stingers. Stems can go in the compost—chickens like them—or you can use them for papermaking or spinning if you’re feeling really creative.

Illustrations by Meg Lucas

About the Author

Juliette Abigail Carr

Juliette Abigail Carr

Juliette Abigail Carr is a clinical herbalist in South Newfane and the proprietor of Old Ways Herbal. She teaches about family herbalism and homesteading at her family’s farm and locations around the state. Read more and contact her on her blog.

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