For most of human history, winter has been a time of nutrient depletion, if not starvation. After months of living on staples like sugar and flour, with hardly any fresh vegetables, it was common for those who made it out the other side of winter to forage and devour whatever non-poisonous, or even semi-poisonous, green leaves and shoots that could be found beneath the melting snow. The preparations made from these plants were often referred to as a "spring tonic."
Spring tonics came in many forms, including salad, soup or teas. In addition to providing nourishment, spring tonics were used to flush out a winter's worth of buildup from the body's gastrointestinal pipes. Often, spring tonic was served with "sulfur and molasses" to enhance this spring cleaning. There were also poor-man's versions of sulfur and molasses, like a handful of metal nails soaked in a jar of water.
A contributor to a Fishingtx.com discussion thread, who goes by the handle "Ole Bill," gives an example of how sulfur and molasses can be used along with the semi-poisonous poke plant, widely dispersed in the U.S., as a spring tonic: "After breakfast on the first day of spring granny would dose everyone with sulfur and molasses then serve up poke and fixins for the rest of the day ya didnt dally in the outhouse or someone would get excited."
The poke shoots and leaves are typically boiled, first in salt water and again in clean water, to make them safe to eat. But this isn't safe enough, according to Dr. Jean Weese in a June 2012 Alabama Cooperative Extension System newsletter.
"The boiling process removes some of the toxins but certainly not all of them," Weese writes. "I suggest that people avoid this plant no matter how many times your mother or grandmother may have prepared it in the past and no matter how good it tasted. Why would you want to eat something that we know is toxic when there are so many other non-toxic plants out there we can eat?"
Grannies across the land, meanwhile, would probably counter that if it doesn't kill you it will make you stronger.
Today, even though we have access to bottled vitamin supplements and year-round vegetables, I believe there is still a place for spring tonic. It's a way of calibrating your body and gut flora to where you are. And the act of getting outside the house and squishing through the mud, catching rays, breathing fresh air, getting scratched by twigs and buzzed by flies, after months of enclosure, is a tonic of its own.
- Photo by Greg Fewer
A good plant identification book is an invaluable tool for the spring tonic forager. In addition to telling you what to eat and what to avoid, it will also key you into legends, stories and traditional uses of the various species. If you're new to a place, learning the plants and ingesting their earth concentrate is a meaningful step toward fully inhabiting that place. Even if you have spent your entire life living there, tromping around with a plant book can open your eyes to the point that it feels like the first walk you've taken.
There's also a semi-wilderness to be found in your own garden. Early in spring, long before you've turned the soil or decided what to plant, the weeds are often already out in force. Many are edible, and can make just as potent a spring tonic as wild plants.
I have a decent collection of wild plant identification books on my shelf, but only recently have I begun picking up some weed identification books, which focus specifically on weeds common to my area.
One thing that's immensely satisfying about weed books is that, unlike my wild plant books, I recognize most of the plants in my weed books. I guess it goes to show where I spend most of my outside time—in the garden, not the woods. Even if I don't know the weeds' names, I've already seen them, swore at them, pulled them and all too often watched them re-sprout. It's much easier to retain information about a familiar adversary than a stranger.
One of my favorite ways of consuming weeds—not just in early spring but all season long—is a puree I call weed pesto. I usually make it from the usual suspects like lambs quarter, dandelions, mustard greens, chickweed and purslane, but most any edible weed or foraged plant is a candidate. Garden weeds can also be combined with foraged greens like nettles, watercress and wild onions in a wild and weedy spring tonic pesto.
Most weeds and wild plants are processed similarly: simply de-stem, wash and dry. Nettles are a special case, with their own handling and processing rules. They should be harvested when young, and even then just the top six-to-12 inches, which are the most tender. They should be harvested carefully, with gloved hands and scissors. And they should be steamed before cooking so the spines wilt. This extra hassle is worth it for several reasons. Nettles are super healthy, and can grow in great abundance, and have a mild, spinach-like flavor. Nettle pesto, even without any other weeds or wild plants, is a treat in itself.
Puree your cleaned and processed weeds and wild plants in a food processor or blender with olive oil, garlic, salt, cheese and the toasted nut of your choice. In other words, make pesto.
One difference I've noticed with wild weed pesto is it's best made a few days in advance, which allows the flavors to mix, mingle and mellow. But even straight out of the food processor, wild weed pesto is still a much tastier and nutrient-rich option than that jar of soaked nails.