Spring Tonics: The Best Cleansing Herbs—and Recipes—to Welcome the New Season

BY Jennifer McGruther TIMEMarch 22, 2023 PRINT

There’s a natural rhythm to seasonal eating. After a winter stuffed on heavy stews, brothy soups, and hearty root vegetables, spring feels lighter. If you head to the farmers market, you’ll find that the last of the winter squash, onions, plump cabbage heads, and knobby celery roots have disappeared, making way for delicate, green things.

Spring is a time of new growth. Before the globalization of the food supply, refrigeration, and modern food preservation techniques, you would rely on local, seasonal foods. Summer brought light and abundance, autumn was a time to harvest, and winter’s darkness and bleak landscape provided a time for rest that allowed you to enjoy everything you had preserved during more abundant times. By the time spring arrived, your stores would be empty, and the cycle would begin again. Traditionally, springtime meant lean times and sparse eating.

Just as you might clear away the winter’s cobwebs and spring clean your home, spring also offers a chance to reset your approach to food. In European folk medicine, spring was the time to focus on cleansing herbs that supported your body’s detoxification systems, such as the kidneys and liver. It was a time to take advantage of all the vibrant, fresh green herbs and turn them into nourishing herbal infusions, potent herbal vinegar, and bitter tinctures.

Stinging nettle, one of the earliest wild greens to appear in the spring, is also among the most nutritious herbs of the season. (Melica/Shutterstock)

Stinging Nettle

Among the first wild herbs to appear in springtime is stinging nettle. It sprouts up in alleyways, on forest floors, and near creeks. With a pleasant taste similar to that of spinach, it’s perfect for culinary applications such as nettle soup and herbal vinegar. It’s also among the most nutritious spring herbs, chock full of beta carotene, vitamins B6 and K, and minerals such as iron, magnesium, calcium, and phosphorus.

In addition to using the herb as a nutritive tonic, thanks to its heavy dose of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, herbalists use the herb to support the heart, kidneys, and adrenals. Nettle infusions (think of it as a more potent version of herbal tea) are a popular remedy during allergy season for their anti-inflammatory effects.

True to their name, stinging nettles pack a wicked sting that can leave you with tiny welts. So wear long sleeves and protective gloves when foraging for nettles or when handling them. If you don’t gather them yourself, you might find them at your local farmers market or in a natural grocer during spring. Dried nettles are easier to find and won’t sting you. You can find them in most herb shops and online through specialty shops such as Mountain Rose Herbs and Starwest Botanicals.

The entire dandelion plant is edible, from the root to the flower, and can be used in anything from salad to tea.(nada54/Shutterstock)


Dandelions are another nutritious springtime herb. The entire plant is edible, from the root to the flower, but dandelion greens are particularly nutritious. Like most greens, they’re rich in vitamin K and beta carotene, but they’re also an excellent source of vitamin C and minerals. Like stinging nettle, dandelion greens are a nutritive herb, and they’re also traditionally used to support the body’s detoxification system.

If you plan to harvest them yourself, make sure to pick from clean areas away from busy roads and in places that haven’t been sprayed with fertilizers or pesticides. Dandelions are delicious in salads, but they taste potently bitter. The bitter compounds in the leaves increase when the plant flowers, so harvest them young in early spring before buds appear. You can also purchase fresh dandelion greens in well-stocked grocery stores, and dried dandelion leaves are available in most herb shops.

Mint, a prolific and easy-to-grow plant, has long been used to ease indigestion and other stomach issues. (nada54/Shutterstock)


Mint arrives in late spring. It’s a prolific plant that can easily take over your garden if you’re not careful. There are more than 600 varieties of the plant, and it’s popular in cooking all throughout the world. Like other springtime herbs, mint is a good source of various vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, but it’s also rich in volatile oils, which give the plant its characteristic fragrance.

Herbalists traditionally use mint to ease indigestion and other stomach issues. The ever-popular after-dinner mint is a vestige of this tradition. Mint tea is popular, too. Consider tossing mint into springtime salads or making a mint-infused vinegar.

Mint tea is an easy herbal remedy for indigestion. (Fortyforks/Shutterstock)

You can grow your own mint easily, but it’s also widely available at farmers markets and in the fresh herb section of most grocery stores. You can purchase dried mint as a tea or in bulk in herb shops and online.

Stinging nettle, dandelion, and mint are excellent herbs to incorporate into your spring menus. Highly nutritive, delicious, and cleansing, they offer a link to old-world remedies and delicious, seasonally inspired foods.

More Spring Herbs to Look Out For

Tarragon is traditionally used to soothe digestion. (SaGa Studio/Shutterstock)


Sweet with an anise-like flavor, it’s an excellent partner to chicken, fish, potatoes, and cream. It’s traditionally used to soothe digestion.

A popular garnish, parsley supports kidney function.(MarcoFood/Shutterstock)


Its mild flavor makes it an excellent partner to most foods. Chop it up and add it to salads or soups, or blend it with olive oil and garlic for a pesto. It’s traditionally used to support the kidneys.


With a mild oniony flavor, fresh chives can add interest to cream-based sauces and are delicious with eggs. Chive vinegar is particularly delicious on salads.

Rich in vitamin C, watercress is an excellent addition to salads and sandwiches thanks to its peppery bite. (SOMMAI/Shutterstock)


This tender-leafed plant has a peppery bite. It’s rich in vitamin C and is an excellent addition to salads and sandwiches.

With dandelion greens, watercress, parsley, chives, and chervil, this herb salad is chock full of nutrients. (Jennifer McGruther)

Spring Herb Salad

This simple spring herb salad features dandelion greens, peppery watercress, parsley, and chives touched with a garlicky vinaigrette. Serve it with grilled chicken or salmon or with a springtime soup.

Serves about 4

For the Salad

  • 2 cups torn dandelion greens
  • 2 cups watercress leaves
  • 1/2 cup parsley leaves
  • 1/4 cup snipped chives
  • 1/4 cup chopped chervil

For the Vinaigrette

  • 3 medium cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Toss all the greens into a large salad bowl.

In a separate bowl, whisk the garlic, salt, mustard, olive oil, and vinegar together until well-mixed and lightly emulsified. Dress the salad and serve immediately.

Nettle infusions are refreshing and beneficial for systemic wellness. (Jennifer McGruther)

Nettle Infusion

Nettle infusion offers a tea-like flavor with vegetal green notes. And it makes a particularly good tonic to help support adrenal health and systemic wellness while also helping you get through allergy season.

  • 8 cups filtered water
  • 2 ounces stinging nettle leaf, dried, cut, and sifted

Bring the water to a boil.

Toss nettles into a mason jar and then fill it with boiling water. Allow the herbs to steep in water for between 4 and 12 hours, then strain them from the infusion using a fine-mesh sieve or tea strainer.

Drink right away, or store the strained infusion in the fridge for up to 3 days.

Deeply fragrant with a minty zip, mint vinegar is delicious drizzled over fresh watermelon or used in simple salads. (Jennifer McGruther)

Mint Vinegar

Deeply fragrant, this mint vinegar is easy to make. It has a pleasant, minty zip and is delicious drizzled over fresh watermelon or used in simple salads. Mint partners well with white wine vinegar, but you can also use apple cider vinegar if you prefer.

Makes about 1 cup

  • 3/4 cup finely chopped fresh mint
  • 1 cup white wine vinegar

Place the herbs in a clean, pint-sized glass jar, and then cover with vinegar. Seal the jar tightly with a plastic or other nonreactive lid.

Set the jar in a cupboard or on the counter, away from direct light and heat, for about 1 month. Shake the jar daily to agitate the herbs. After a month, strain the vinegar and discard the mint.

Store the strained vinegar in a glass jar at room temperature, and use it within a year.

Jennifer McGruther, NTP, is a nutritional therapy practitioner, herbalist, and the author of three cookbooks, including “Vibrant Botanicals.” She’s also the creator of, a website that celebrates traditional foodways, herbal remedies, and fermentation. She teaches workshops on natural foods and herbalism, and currently lives in the Pacific Northwest.
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