Before the days of refrigerators, freezers, and canning, colonists must have grown more than a bit tired of bread and salted meat over the winter months. We can hazard that the lack of fresh vegetables during that season left them nutritionally deprived as well.

So they probably were apt to enthusiastically welcome the first wild greens to appear in the spring, no matter how tasty—or not—those greens happened to be. Or how edible! Plants such as marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) and poke weed (Phytolacca americana) actually are toxic, but supposedly were rendered less harmful by being boiled in several changes of water. Our ancestors also would brew teas from highly scented trees or shrubs such as sassafras (Sassafras albidum) and spice bush (Lindera benzoin), while declaiming, “In the spring of the year when the blood is thick, there is nothing so fine as a sassafras stick.”

Sass from Sassafras

Sassafras albidumI have never risked consuming marsh marigold or poke myself, since there are safer greens available year-round these days. (With all the incidences of E coli in such greens now, “safer” may be a relative term!) In what might be called "defiance of the science," we do still drink sassafras tea every spring despite its safrole having been found to cause liver cancer in lab rats.

But the scientists conducting those experiments probably didn’t take into account that people who consume sassafras as a spring tonic do so for only a few days each year. In fact, Dad occasionally boils the cleaned roots in maple sap, if he harvests them early enough to do so. Fortunately, it still is legal for him to gather sassafras himself, for which all his past experience comes in handy since it is dug before any identifying leaves appear. Because that generally involves yanking up a sapling, I was grateful that a considerate relative provided us with some roots this year. The tea brewed from them tastes like hot root beer.

As for the dangers, my father has consumed sassafras tea in spring all of his life and now is 90 years old—which may or may not prove anything! You’ll want to keep in mind, though, that the roots’ reputation for thinning the blood apparently is valid. A minor farming accident caused a cut on Dad’s scalp at about the time that he was drinking that tea this year, and I had some difficulty in stanching the bleeding. So I would guess that people already on blood thinning medications or those with liver problems should avoid this particular tea.

Tonic Weeds

After the landscape begins to green up, Dad begins to hint that it is about time we had a “mess” of dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) greens too. Granted, they are somewhat bitter, but also highly nutritious and readily available in our less than immaculate lawn and flower beds. Since the most tender ones are the tastiest, it generally is a good idea to gather those greens while they still are young.

I try to grab them while we still have leftover colored eggs from Easter, since--after being blanched and/or sautéed--dandelions often are served with chopped hard-boiled eggs and vinegar. We sometimes eat the fresh blooms too, breaded and fried. Keep in mind, though, that dandelion may have you running to the bathroom since it is diuretic, i. e., the herbal equivalent of a water pill!

Nettles (Urtica dioica) also should be harvested young because they turn gritty as they grow. You will, of course, want to wear gloves to “pick” those, to prevent their stinging you in retaliation. Boiling the plants gets rid of that sting. I don’t recall us ever eating nettle greens, but a younger me occasionally used their tea as a rinse to make my frizzy hair glossy.

Nasturtium officinale (watercress)

Although not usually fond of spicy foods, Dad also looks forward to the peppery taste of watercress (Nasturtium officinale) each spring, and we kids used to look forward to visiting old spring houses in search of it. The shock of that bracingly cold spring water probably was as invigorating as the cress itself.

Speaking of spicy, one of my sisters favors the pungent wild onion called ramps (Allium tricocum), which still is so popular that it is becoming increasingly hard to find. Apparently tonic herbs require a bit of zing to them to get our systems revved up from semi-dormant to firing on all cylinders!

Photos: The sassafras photo is by Toxicodendron from the Dave's Garden PlantFiles. The dandelion and watercress photos are my own.