Today I am going to take you on an adventure through the woods, foraging for spring herbs. Springtime is the best time to gather herbs like violet, dandelion, nettle, chickweed and cleavers.
I live near a rich stretch of woods, with a beautiful creek that winds through the trees. God has filled these woods with food and medicine. In the spring I gather nettles, violet, horsetail, morel mushrooms, and so much more. Summer is when I gather elderberries, mulberries and black raspberries. And in the autumn I gather goldenrod.
Foraging is an old world traditional skill that has largely been lost. But it is one that we can and must reclaim. If you are desiring to be more resourceful, independent from the government and mass food system, and wanting to live more traditionally, then foraging is a skill that I recommend prioritizing.
It fills me with joy to be able to identify and use the abundant food and medicine God has placed around me. Not only that, but foraging is a skill that could be life saving.
Tips For Foraging Spring Herbs
- You need to be 100% certain that you know what you are harvesting. So if you do not have foraging experience I recommend finding a local expert that can teach you about the plants in your region. YouTube can also be helpful.
- Bring a field guide with you. Then you can confirm what you are harvesting. And you can look up new plants that you find. I like the Petersen Field Guides, but find the one for your specific region.
- Be aware of your environment and ask yourself these questions: Who owns this land and am I allowed to forage here? Have any chemicals been sprayed here? Could a dog have peed on these plants?
- Avoid harvesting in ditches and roadsides, as well as directly beside pathways.
Below I am going to discuss five common herbs that I like to forage in the spring. And I am also going to be sharing a few of my favorite spring herbal recipes. For more information on foraging for and using these herbs watch my Foraging Spring Herbs video:
Foraging Spring Herbs: Five Herbs to Forage This Spring
Stinging nettle is in the Urticaceae family. The species that I have growing in my yard and local woodlands is Urtica dioica. Stinging nettle plants grow 2-5 ft. tall and have opposite, toothed leaves. There are tiny hairs on the plant that inject formic acid into the skin, which is actually the same acid as a bee sting. I suggest wearing gloves while you harvest nettles, unless you don’t mind the sting – I don’t!
I love stinging nettle for its nutritive properties. It is rich in vitamins and minerals, particularly iron, calcium and magnesium. In fact, it is thought to provide the best source of easy to digest iron in plant form. Stinging nettle supports the health of the kidneys, liver, urinary tract, adrenals and metabolism.
I eat the young leaves of stinging nettle as a “potherb“, which means cooked into foods. Cooking the nettles neutralizes their sting. I add the young leaves in place of spinach in many recipes. For example in “nettle spanakopita“. Once the leaves are too tough and hairy to eat I use them to make herbal remedies. Most often I infuse the fresh chopped leaves in raw apple cider vinegar. You can learn more about how to make an herbal vinegar in my post and video here.
Violet is in the Violaceae family. The species that I have growing near me is Viola sororia. Violet leaves are heart shaped and grow low to the ground. Violet flowers are irregular with five petals.
Young spring violet leaves are nutrient rich and are especially high in vitamin C. I find them delicious and eat them like lettuce. I also make violet leaf teas and infusions. To do this I steep the fresh or dried leaves in boiling water for as little as 15 minutes, or as long as 12 hours.
Violet flowers have traditionally been used to make a natural cough syrup and to support the immune system during infection with colds and flus. I like to infuse fresh violet flowers into raw local honey.
One of my favorite ways to use violets is to make violet flower lemonade. Watch my video to learn how to make this at home!
Chickweed is in the Caryophyllaceae family. The species that I have here is Stellaria media. Chickweed grows in mats low to the ground. It has opposite, tear drop shaped leaves. And it has tiny white flowers which have five deeply cleft petals (so it looks like 10 petals).
Chickweed is another nutritive herb. It is rich in calcium, potassium, magnesium and other vitamins and minerals. I like to add some chopped chickweed to spring salads. My chickens also love to eat chickweed!
The main way that I use chickweed is in tincture (and liniment) form. Chickweed is known as “the great dissolver“. And that it truly is. One of the things that has plagued me for decades in one form or another is cysts. But my cysts have been no match for the dissolving power of chickweed! When I worked as a clinical herbalist I also learned of chickweed’s effectiveness at dissolving fatty lumps like lipomas. I make chickweed tincture by infusing the fresh plant in alcohol (like vodka) for at least two weeks. To make a liniment I infuse chickweed in rubbing alcohol. I use the tincture internally and the liniment externally.
You can learn more about making tinctures in my post and video here.
Cleavers is in the Rubiaceae family. The species that grows near me is Gallium aparine. Cleavers has creeping stems that grow up to 3 ft long. The leaves are simple, narrow and grow in whorls of six to eight. The whole plant is covered in tiny hooked hairs which make it cling to everything it touches!
A common name of Cleavers is goose grass, and my goose loves to eat chopped cleavers!
Here is something I find fascinating – historically cleavers was used as mattress filling, which is where another common name “lady’s bedstraw” comes from. Apparently the tiny hooks help to give loft and also help keep bugs out of the mattress.
Cleavers is an alterative herb that supports the function of the liver, kidneys, skin and lungs. It is also a lymophagogue, which means it stimulates lymph flow.
My herbalism teacher Trilby taught me how to make a spring cleansing drink using cleavers. And I have been making it every spring since. It is very simple to make. I just blend the fresh plant with unsweetened pineapple juice, then strain. I drink this cleavers-pineapple juice a handful of times during early spring to promote lymph flow.
Dandelion is in the Asteraceae family. The most common species is Taraxacum officinale. And that is what I have here. Dandelion leaves are deeply toothed with the lobes pointing back towards the crown. There is a single yellow blossom on each stem, and the stem emits a milky sap when cut.
I love dandelion for many reasons. Each part of the plant is edible and medicinal, from the root to the leaf to the flower. Dandelion supports digestion and promotes liver and kidney health. And of course, like the others I am discussing today it is rich in vitamins and minerals.
I harvest the roots in the fall, but the leaves and flowers I harvest in the spring. I eat the leaves as a potherb similarly to nettles. The flowers I like to infuse in raw local honey. Also I like to infuse the leaves and the flowers together in raw apple cider vinegar. The roots I dry to use in teas, or roast to use as a coffee-like drink.
Do you enjoy foraging spring herbs? What are some of your favorite things to forage? And what do you like to make with your foraged goods? Please let me know below in the comments, I would love to hear about your foraging adventures!
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*Disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor. I do not intend to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any disease or illness. All information I share is purely educational. It is not meant to replace medical advice.