Imagine six months of winter with nothing to eat but salted meat, moldy root cellar vegetables and grains. As spring approached, these stores were often riddled with fungus or pantry bugs, or supplies ran out altogether. Inevitably the first unsavory signs of scurvy from lack of vitamin C caused anemia, weakness and swollen gums. In the children, dark days led to deficiencies of vitamin D or calcium, causing rickets, a painful softening of the bones. Add to this the digestive impact of parasites from contaminated foods, and it’s no surprise that spring found everyone in a rundown condition. This is why the age-old spring tonic is a vitamin-rich remedy that helped alleviate these symptoms as early as natural spring growth allowed.
The word tonic is strictly defined as “an invigorating, refreshing or restorative agent.” It can be made in the form of a tea, a cooked dish or fresh plants in salads. The easiest way to prepare them was to pour boiling water over a freshly dug plant, allow it to steep into an infusion, then strain and bottle. In colonial times, it was thought to help winter-sluggish blood to thin and start flowing again just as sap was rising in the trees to stimulate new leaves. This is not what makes tonics so effective, however.
The key is that all tonics are packed with vitamins derived from the earliest spring greens. The most common ingredient in all of them is dandelions, the first weeds to pop up in the cold days of early spring. Leaves and the thick tap root contain high concentrations of vitamins A, D, C and K, plus iron, silicon, magnesium, zinc, manganese and potassium. The C and D together alleviated the symptoms of both scurvy and rickets just days after ingestion.
Even though they are ubiquitous from coast to coast, common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is not a North American native. This Eurasian plant arrived with the colonists, who encouraged the spring food source to naturalize here. It is the easiest weed to identify, bearing the bright yellow blossoms and signature ball of fluffy seed beloved by children. Dandelions are found in lawns, flowerbeds, sidewalk cracks and open space. However, in early spring you must identify plants by their leaf shape and growth habit alone to find them amidst the early grasses.
The younger a dandelion leaf, the sweeter it is. In early spring they are tender and may be used like arugula in fresh salads or cooked dishes, or lightly wilted in olive oil. Snip only the youngest leaves so older ones remain to support the root typically harvested in the fall. Be cautious to avoid gathering dandelion contaminated by lawn care chemicals or herbicides. Thoroughly wash all parts prior to consumption. Those that spring up in your organic garden soil are the safest, and most convenient for early healthy tonics.
Europeans often weeded out grasses to leave more room for dandelions, which have saved whole villages from starvation during difficult times. Roots harvested in fall are roasted and dried into powder as coffee substitute. In France the first dandelions are dug, then the early roots and leaves blanched and eaten with bread and butter. Germans eat their wilted dandelions with black bread. In French it’s called “pissenlit” (“piss the bed”) to remind kids not to eat too much of this natural diuretic that occasionally caused bed-wetting. This points to another important characteristic that helps spring tonics with dandelion leach out toxins accumulated in the body over winter.
For anyone who wants to expand their knowledge of edible plants, dandelions in spring are perfect starters. Learn to identify them by leaves to make sure you spot the early growth. If they are invasive where you live, help the environment by harvesting as many as you can to lessen future competition with native grasses and wildflowers.
Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.