Harmonizing With the Spring

Young Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea) emerging

Young Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea) emerging

The spring is an exciting, transformative, and expansive time. The plants and the earth are waking-up. And, since our bodies are a little microcosm of this larger macrocosm, a little spring awakening is happening within us too! Can you feel it?

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and especially 2,000 year old Chinese 5-Element Theory, provides us with a beautiful framework for understanding the spring and its energetics.  Following some simple ancient wisdom described below, we can attune ourselves with natural influences of this season and more easily tap into the rich gifts it has to offer.

This is the concept of harmonizing with the seasons.

 


To more easily begin to harmonize with this magical season, a little background and context will be helpful.....

Spring, the Wood Element, and the Liver-Gallbladder

In Chinese Medicine each season corresponds with an Element and an Organ System.  The spring is associated with the Wood Element and the Chinese Liver-Gallbladder organ system (different from our western anatomical liver and gallbladder) and meridians. Understanding this organ/element pair and its associations is a great place to start since harmonizing with the spring means balancing this element within us, i.e. being sure its not in a state deficiency or excess. 

Young Nettles  (Urtica dioica ) in early spring. A classic spring tonic. Not surprisingly, in TCM the color associated with the spring and the Wood Element is green!

Young Nettles (Urtica dioica) in early spring. A classic spring tonic. Not surprisingly, in TCM the color associated with the spring and the Wood Element is green!

Keywords and phrases for the Liver-Gallbladder/Wood Element/Spring in balance:
Upwards moving energy, yang, growth, expansiveness, clear vision and purpose, decisiveness and decision-making, ambition, hopefulness, starting new projects, productivity

Sounds just about right, doesn’t it?

In the spring it’s easy to see these actions and influences happening in nature all around us (and also feel them within ourselves!) with buds opening, sap running, plants bursting forth from the ground, melting rivers of snow, new growth and renewal of life.  There’s no indecisiveness there- the plants are going to grow!

Using appropriate foods, herbs and daily practices, is the best way to bring ourselves into alignment with these energetics of this season happening all around us. When we do so, we’ll see these qualities reflected in a balanced way within ourselves, on both a physical and mental/emotional level. The Wood Element in balance is a beautiful and powerful thing! It embodies those characteristics described above.

The Wood Element out of balance, however, in Excess, can look like a quick temper, easily frustrated, lack of emotional and mental flexibility, depression, excess heat and inflammation in the system, tight neck and shoulders, and bodily tension in general. In TCM the formula Xiao Yao San (also called Relaxed Wanderer or Free & Easy Wandered) is the classic and super effective treatment for this pattern.

The Wood Element out of balance, in a Deficiency, can look like indecisiveness, lack of flexibility, stiffness, dryness in the joints (osteoarthritis), lack of motivation, irritability, and loss of good judgement.

Whether you feel you you have one of these patterns reflected in you or not, working with balancing your Wood Element in the spring will help you cultivate within yourself the attributes of the Wood Element in balance described above- motivation, productivity, clear vision, decisiveness, and hopefulness.  These are the true qualities and nature of the spring. But if you do feel this element could use some particular balancing, here's a great thing to know- the spring the time that holds the highest potential for healing within the Wood Element. To me that's a really profound concept to reflect on. We can harness the natural influences of this season to catalyze deep healing within ourselves.


The “Gifts” of the Spring

Chinese 5-Element Theory also talks about specific “gifts” of each season that we can experience when we are harmonizing with the season at hand.

 

Gifts of the Spring and the Wood Element:

Smooth Flow around obstacles, Flexibility

 

The image to think about here is a new plant sprouting from the ground, maneuvering around fallen sticks and debris from the winter (like the Snowdrops below) with ease, reaching for the sun.  Or a young flexible sapling easily swaying in the wind with no rigidity or tenseness in response to the force of the wind, just ease. I just love this visual, especially when challenging situations arise that might tempt my temper- be like the sapling in the wind! How wonderful to think about being able to access flexibility and easy flow around obstacles particularly in the spring!

Snowdrops  (Galanthus   nivalis)  pushing through the winter debris and leaves with flexibility and ease

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) pushing through the winter debris and leaves with flexibility and ease


Harmonizing with the Spring

Harmonizing our energy with the spring and the Wood Element doesn't have to be complicated and can be as simple as nibbling young leaves, drinking maple sap, or moving our body daily, but there are some basic guidelines and ancient wisdom we can take inspiration from to guide our choices during this season. Read on for some suggestions. Choose what appeals or works for you. If you don't have access to these particular foods or herbs, come back to the flavors described below and let you taste buds guide you!

Food Energetics
Eat light. Lightly cooked, more raw than any other season. Not a time for an abundance of heavy, oily, and salty foods.

MOST IMPORTANTLY:  If it’s growing outside right now, it’s the best food choice we can make.  When we eat these wild foods straight from the ground we're aligning ourselves with this same upward-moving, nothing-can-stop-it energy of the spring. Also, fresh local spinach, asparagus, arugula and greens from the farmer's market, or any spring green grown locally has this same energetic influence!

Young Knotweed  (Fallopia japonica)  bursting forth. These shoots can grow more than an inch/day. It really exemplifies the upward-moving, yang energy of the spring! Asparagus is a great example of this too. Young Knotweed shots are delicious- I like to cook them like asparagus and often cook them together. Some folks like to use them in place of Rhubarb in desserts.

Young Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) bursting forth. These shoots can grow more than an inch/day. It really exemplifies the upward-moving, yang energy of the spring! Asparagus is a great example of this too. Young Knotweed shots are delicious- I like to cook them like asparagus and often cook them together. Some folks like to use them in place of Rhubarb in desserts.

Flavor
Eat foods that emphasize aspects of yang- upward moving, rising and expansive. The sweet and pungent (aka spicy/aromatic) flavors have this influence on our body.

What….what? Sweet and pungent for the spring? You were probably thinking sour and bitter, for the liver and spring, right?

Paul Pitchford puts it best:
“One misunderstanding often arises regarding the use of flavors for seasonal attunement:  The flavor associated with each Element affects the organ in that Element in specific, therapeutic ways, but it is not used for general attunement to the associated season. “- Healing With Whole Foods, By Paul Pitchford

So, in other words, if you have a hot, angry, over-heated liver, i.e. the Wood Element in Excess, then yes, the flavors for you are bitter and sour, as they are very cooling.  But if you’re looking to attune with the spring, the best flavors to emphasize are sweet and pungent. Why? In TCM it is said that the sweet and pungent flavor have upward-moving, yang energy.  So eating this flavor helps harmonize one with all the seasonal influences of the spring that we’ve discussed above.

It’s important to remember that very few plants have just one true flavor. Look for plants that contain the pungent and/or sweet flavor, which you will almost never find alone, which is fine! Common pairings are bitter/pungent, salty/sweet, and bitter/sweet.  Many other flavor combinations are possible!  And of course, a little bitter in the spring (or anytime really) definitely doesn’t hurt!

Pungent Foods and Herbs
Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris), Bee Balm (Monarda sp), Catnip (Nepeta cataria), Oregano (Origanum sp), Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), Chives (Allium schoenoprasum), Dill (Anethum graveolens), Garlic Chives (Allium tuberosum), Scallions/Green Onions (Allium fistulosum), Garlic greens and Spring Garlic (Allium sativa), Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), Evening Primrose Lvs (Oneothera biennsis), Peppermint (Mentha piperita), Spearmint (Mentha spicata), Thyme (Thymus vulgaris), Sage (Salvia officinalis), Onions (especially Spring Onions), Shallots, Mustard Greens, Arugula, and so on. These are all wonderful plants for the spring and among the first to come back in the garden and hit the farmers markets!  And remember, if it's growing from the ground outside right now, it's absolutely the best food you can find for harmonizing with the spring!

Young Catnip  (Nepeta cataria)  emerging. Catnip comes back very early in the spring and is pungent in flavor. Add the tops to salads, make tea, or just nibble on from the garden!

Young Catnip (Nepeta cataria) emerging. Catnip comes back very early in the spring and is pungent in flavor. Add the tops to salads, make tea, or just nibble on from the garden!

Sweet Foods and Herbs
In terms of getting that sweetness in- we’re not talking sweet like sugar or really even honey. What we want is that mild sweetness found in many greens (that is often paired with some bitter and salty flavor), especially in the spring when that yang energy is the strongest. Remember that many greens are sweetest in the spring before they become more bitter in the summer. In terms of domesticated species, the Brassicas like kale and collards, asparagus, spinach and some lettuces really exemplify this. Spring Asparagus is quite sweet too. In terms of wild greens, Dandelion Lvs (Taraxacum officinale), Violet Lf (Viola sp), Plantain (Plantago spp), Lambs Quarters (Chenopodium album), Chickweed (Stellaria media), and Nettles (Urtica dioica) are have some sweetness to them, particularly in the spring.  A garden plant with lots of sweetness is Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum).  And don’t forget the roots! Dandelion Rt (Taraxacum officinale), Evening Primrose Rt (Oneothera biennsis), Burdock Rt (Arcticum lappa) all have some sweetness paired with the bitter flavor, and are quite abundant in our northeast bioregion. And don't forget the early spring fruits like Strawberry, and also sweet fruits in general clearly contain the sweet flavor and are appropriate.

Supportive Daily Lifestyle Practices
Create a little Spring within! Launch new projects, be decisive, forage for wild foods, get plenty of movement and exercise, plan and set goals for the year, get your hands in the dirt- grow something! Keep trying to embody that flexible young sapling swaying in the wind, or the daffodils or spring bulbs pushing through the leaves and sticks without an hesitation, yet with flexibility and ease. Nature is truly our biggest teacher- when in doubt look to her for inspiration.

Wishing you all a wonderful spring full of flexibility, ambition, decisiveness, and clear vision and purpose.


Some spring recipes and articles from this blog to get you going

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata). Folks often confuse this with Violets, but Garlic Mustard has a more curly edge to the leaf, comes-out earlier (it's our earliest wild green!), and- of course- smells strongly of garlic when you crush the leaf. This pungent wild green contains the wild and expansive essence of the spring, and harmonizes us energetically with the spring.

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata). Folks often confuse this with Violets, but Garlic Mustard has a more curly edge to the leaf, comes-out earlier (it's our earliest wild green!), and- of course- smells strongly of garlic when you crush the leaf. This pungent wild green contains the wild and expansive essence of the spring, and harmonizes us energetically with the spring.


Spring Garlic (Allium sativa). Simply harvest some of your garlic early in the spring before it fully matures. It is delicious and quite pungent- perfect spring medicine

Spring Garlic (Allium sativa). Simply harvest some of your garlic early in the spring before it fully matures. It is delicious and quite pungent- perfect spring medicine


References

Healing With Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition
By Paul Pitchford

Staying Healthy With the Seasons
By Elson M. Haas

Foundations of Chinese Medicine
By Giovanni Maciocia

The Web That Has No Weaver
By Ted Kapchuk

The Yellow Emporer’s Classic of Medicine/ The Neijing
Circa 200-400 BC

“Living Medicine”
Larken Bunce, Herbstalk 2014

Clearpath School of Herbal Studies
Chris Marano, Clinical Herbalist


Hungry for more herbal learning? In addition to our in-person classes, we also offer online learning through our Patreon Community! Membership starts at just $5/month and there are offerings like monthly online classes, monthly herbal study groups, and more. Join by June 15th to get my herbal ebook “For the Love of Nettles” as an added bonus and thank you! It’s also just a great way to say “thanks” if you enjoy the blog!


 

Roasted Dandelion Root-Pumpkin Spice Latte

Ok, so I know this post is a little whimsical….but I must admit that I am a huge fan of pumpkin spice, but having a sugar-y caffeinated drink is not always my cup of tea so to speak, so I invented my own!

Fall is for grounding roots and warming spices.  The bitter and cleansing roots we harvest in the fall, like Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), Burdock (Arcticum lappa), and Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus), help support our organs of elimination (liver, kidneys, skin, lungs), helping us enter the cold and flu season in better health and less susceptible to sickness. This is why in Ayurveda cleanses are often done in the spring and the fall.  In the herbal wheel of the year, fall is for letting go of what we don’t need, be it emotions, experiences, possessions/stuff, or accumulated metabolic wastes and toxins (this is where those fall roots come in handy). If you need a little inspiration for letting go of that which you no longer need, take a look at the plants this time of year, which model it for us so beautifully, or read my post here on the fall and letting go.

dandelion botanical.png

Dandelion Medicine

So Dandelion is a potent tonic this time of year.  It is often called food for the liver, and for good reason! Dandelion leaf and root (but especially the root) has been shown time and time again to strengthen and support the liver. In herbalism if you’re thinking about liver health, you’re immediately thinking about Dandelion as a part of the protocol. Its bitter flavor stimulates bile flow, which aids in digestion and nutrient absorption of fat soluble vitamins. It filters the blood coming from the digestive tract and breaks down harmful chemicals and substances, some of which are then excreted into the bile through the large intestine and the feces, and some of which are excreted into the blood (in a broken-down form) and sent to the kidneys which then further filters the blood and excretes the waste through the urine. The liver literally filters every foreign substance that comes into our body, and our own metabolic waste from normal cellular function, and even excess hormones too. 

Dandelion Rts and lvs.jpg

We often talk about the liver only in terms of detoxification, but it is a nourishing organ too! It stores iron (this is why eating liver is so good for you- it’s not as bad as you might think!), filters out nutrients from the blood for the rest of the body, stores-up glucose to be released as needed, and even helps immunity by helping remove bacteria from the bloodstream. Supporting the liver is square one in so many of my client’s protocols, be it hormonal/menstrual/pms issues, poor digestion/nutrient absorption, low energy, chronic skin issues, and even emotional imbalances (especially excess anger and frustration). I most often work with the leaf as a nourishing food as medicine and the root in the form of tinctures, teas and decoctions. The root has a mild bitter taste that is delicious in a savory beverage like the recipe I’ll be sharing with you below- it’s bitter, but not too bitter. It’s about the same level of bitterness as coffee, but nothing even as remotely bitter as Goldenseal, if you’ve ever tasted that!

Pumpkin Spice Medicine

And what about those warming spices I was mentioning too? Well, “pumpkin spice” is of course not an official collection of spices, but this blend most often contains Cinnamon, Ginger, Clove, Allspice, Nutmeg, and Clove- yum! These spices (often called carminatives in herbalism) invigorate digestion and stoke the digestive fires, aiding in nutrient absorption, increasing circulation to the digestive system, and boosting metabolism.  They are also potent anti-spasmodics, easing digestive pain and reducing gas and bloating. Being rich in essential oils, we can infer that they have some level of anti-microbial effects as well, and indeed many of them have been studied for this, particularly Cinnamon.  And speaking of Cinnamon, this spice is particularly well-known for its blood sugar-regulated effect, and considering millions of Americans are pre-diabetic and don't even know it, that's an added bonus for all of us!  Plus all of these spices are uplifting, warming, and have an over-all mood-enhancing effect- they just feel good. By imbibing in these warming spices as the wheel of the year turns to the colder seasons of fall and winter, we are providing our body with much-needed warmth and stimulation to adapt to the seasonal transition at hand.

So, yes, drinking a pumpkin spice latte (provided it’s not loaded with sugar and caffeine, of course!) is actually quite good for your health and seasonally appropriate! The current craze of pumpkin spice everything actually makes me smile because I can’t help but to think that deep down in our souls- even though our culture’s largely SO removed from food as medicine- we still intuitively know that the warming, carminative spices are good for us this time of year, because it just feels right!

So, ready to make your own? Here’s how.....


dandelion root latte.jpg

Roasted Dandelion Root-Pumpkin Spice Latte

1 tsp ground, roasted Dandelion Root (see instructions/where to buy below)
1 tsp pumpkin spice blend, powdered (see below)
1 cup full fat coconut milk from the can, or milk of choice
raw honey to taste

To make: Combine all the ingredients in a pan and bring to a simmer for about 3-5 minutes. Turn off heat, pour into a mug, add a dash of raw honey to taste, and serve! Make sure to eat/swallow any ground-up roasted dandelion that ends-up at the bottom of your cup for full medicinal effect.

To make your own Pumpkin Spice Blend: You can often find this blend ready to go this time of year, or you can make your own. My favorite blend is 3 parts cinnamon rt, 2 parts ginger, 2 parts nutmeg, 1.5 parts allspice, and ½ part clove. You can make each part any unit you want, ie 1 tsp, 1 tbsp, 1 cup, etc. My recommendation is to make a big batch and powder it up all at once or as needed (or buy the spices pre-powdered...just make sure they're fresh- a strong aroma indicates this). This makes a fabulous mulling spice blend for cider too!

dandelion root chopped.jpg

To make your own Roasted Dandelion Root: This is also often referred to as “Dandelion Coffee” but that’s kind of misleading because, well, it's just not coffee. Kind of like carob vs chocolate, they’re both just they’re own thing! It does contain the nice, satisfying somewhat bitter flavor of coffee though which can make it a nice swap for someone trying to ditch caffeine or just have a non-caffeinated alternative from time to time. So, first-off, I just want to say that you can buy Dandelion already roasted online, from one of our wonderful local herb shops (see my Resources page for a directory). Look for the dandelion labelled “roasted dandelion root.” You can also buy the regular dried root, and pan-roast it in a cast iron pan until it starts to become aromatic. Make sure you remove it from the heat while it is still toasted, but not burnt- it just takes a few minutes. Or, you can be an herbal superstar, and harvest and make your own! I won’t lie- it’s a time-consuming process, and the yield is pretty low for time spent and amount of plant material it takes...but it's still a super-fun endeavor for a kitchen medicine enthusiast! Chop the fresh roots as small as you can, then spread evenly on a baking sheet and roast at 350 degrees for 1/2 hr, checking and stirring often to prevent burning on the edges.  Then remove from the oven and grind it in a coffee grinder until it's pretty fine. Then spread it out on the baking pan and roast again at 350 for 2-3 minutes to makes sure all moisture is baked-off. Then you're done!

Enjoy!


Hungry for more herbal learning? In addition to our in-person classes, we also offer online learning through our Patreon Community! Membership starts at just $5/month and there are offerings like monthly online classes, monthly herbal study groups, and more. Join by June 15th to get my herbal ebook “For the Love of Nettles” as an added bonus and thank you! It’s also just a great way to say “thanks” if you enjoy the blog!


Spring Greens Frittata

Frittata fillings from left to right: Young Nettles tops, Dandelion leaves, Chives, Spring Garlic

Frittata fillings from left to right: Young Nettles tops, Dandelion leaves, Chives, Spring Garlic

Spring is all about the greens. It's absolutely true that many nutrient-dense wild greens are available all throughout the growing season, but for me the spring is when they especially shine.  After I've spent the winter relying heavily on our winter farm share that's rich in tubers and roots, I can't wait to get outside and connect with the spring earth and fill my harvest basket with some liver-loving, chlorophyll-rich greens!

This recipe was born of necessity.  We were away for part of my daughter's spring vacation, and arrived home at dinner time with hungry kids and an empty fridge.  A trip to the chicken coop yielded over a dozen eggs, so frittata instantly came to mind. It's delicious, easy, versatile, and nutritious.  But what to fill it with?

Now, you don't have to ask me twice to forage for my dinner....although our fridge was bereft of greens, I knew our yard and gardens would be bursting with them! Our small farm is comprised of sprawling gardens, meadow (we rarely mow in order to support pollinator plants for our honeybees and also to promote medicinals and wild edibles), lots of forest edges, and a red maple swamp.  A quick foray yielded:

  • Nettles (Urtica dioica)- For food, I use the top 4-6 inches of young plants, stem and leaves. As it gets larger (reaching a foot or taller) I use the top 3-4 inches (Lvs and stems) and older leaves. Harvest with care! Cooking destroys the sting, and blending it fresh does as well
  • Dandelion Leaves (Taraxacum officinalis)- These can be harvested spring, summer, and fall. Their flavor gets more bitter as the warmer months come on, but gets more mild again in the cool nights of the fall
Spring Garlic- an excellent alternative to Ramps!

Spring Garlic- an excellent alternative to Ramps!


  • Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)- One of my favorite, and in my opinion, under-appreciated early spring culinary herb.  It sprouts long before 90% of my garden
  • Spring Garlic (Allium sativum)- Spring Garlic is garlic that was planted in the fall and wasn't harvested when it was "supposed" to be. Let me explain. Garlic is traditionally planted in the fall, to be harvested the following summer.  But if you don't harvest it, it will die down back to it's bulb in the fall and gloriously sprout the following spring! Each bulb sprouts, so they're kind of like garlic scallions, and they sprout long before most plants in your garden have even begun thinking about waking-up!

 

Although these didn't go into my frittata that day, here are some other lovely edible/medicinal additions (these are just a few, be creative and use your favorites!):
         -Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)- Leaves, young tops, flowering and/or budding tops
         -Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica)- young shoots
         -Oxeye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)- Leaves
         -Evening Primrose (Oneothera biennsis)- Leaves

If there's one thing you will notice is NOT on this list, it's Ramps aka Wild Leeks (Allium triccocum).   This is the latest darling of the foodie world and it's not being harvested correctly. Current harvest practices kill the plant and it's a slow-growing woodland medicinal. United Plant Savers has written an article about this and added it to their "To-Watch" list. Please spread the the word and do your part as a medicinal plant conservationist! Spring Garlic and Garlic Mustard are great alternatives.  

And now, the recipe!


SPRING GREENS FRITTATA

8 eggs
1/2 c milk of choice (I used coconut)
2 cups spring/wild greens (choices are numerous- I used roughly equal parts nettles, dandelion greens, chives, garlic leaves and second year bulbs)
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
Ghee

To make: Sauté the greens for 3-4 min (add extra garlic if desired), then set aside. In a bowl mix eggs (lightly) and then add the milk. Add the greens to the egg/milk mix. Put a cast iron deep dish skillet on the stove and warm 2 tbsp ghee in it, then add the egg/greens mix and cook on medium for 5-7 min until it sets. Then put it in the oven at 350 to cook an additional 15-18 min. Enjoy!