Forage for wild spring herbs to kick off the growing season! Learn how to identify and harvest chickweed, dandelion, stinging nettle, violets, and common yard daisy to use for food and medicine!
I am a trained herbalist with a degree in Complementary and Alternative Medicine, I am not, however, a doctor. Posts in this blog are for informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice. Before using any herbs, check for appropriate dosage, drug interactions, and contraindications. Information contained herein is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prescribe. Please consult your primary care physician regarding your specific health concerns.
Foraging for Wild Spring Herbs
I grow weary of the dull grey late winter days of the Pacific Northwest. This particular season has been punctuated by late winter snows and low temperatures. EVERYTHING seems late to arrive — the daffodils have yet to lift their sunny faces to the sky and the flowering plums buds are still tightly bound. I am yearning to gather my favorite wild spring herbs and feel warm sunshine once again. I try to respect and appreciate the seasons for their own magic and purpose, but the seemingly unrelenting grey days of late winter and early spring in the PNW are just hard to shake off.
But if I let my gaze steady and I concentrate on being still in nature, the wide world of botanical wonders starts to reveal itself. From the tiny star like flowers of chickweed to the tight clumps of newly emerging stinging nettle — wild spring herbs are starting to announce themselves — at first with a whisper, as with the shy violets, and then with the bold proclamation of sunny dandelions. Even the common yard daisy is undeterred by late winter snows and ever present rains.
As you slip on your rain boots to forage for you favorite wild spring herbs, be sure to keep a few things in mind. Be sure to gather your herbs from areas that are free from pesticide and herbicide exposure and potential contamination. Dress according to weather conditions, carrying the appropriate gear, and be ready to process your herbs for storage or immediate use upon returning home with your bounty. Before using these or any other medicinal and edible wild spring herb, double check your identification and review any contraindications and/or drug interactions before ingesting or using these plant medicinally.
Five Wild Spring Herbs
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale):
The ubiquitous lawn pest, too often maligned garden weed, dandelion is one of my favorite spring herbs to forage for when the days start growing longer. From the tip of its long tap root to the ends of its bright yellow petals – every inch of the dandelion is edible and medicinal! Tender spring greens are slightly bitter and can be added to a salad, pesto, and can even sauteed with garlic or transformed into delicious egg noodles. Dandelion flowers are also abundant in a nutrient called lutein, making this edible flower excellent for the eyes, and it can be crafted into a delicious dandelion mead.
Dandelions are a much honored addition to the herbalist’s apothecary. Used to address conditions ranging from PMS, to irritable bowl, to elevated blood glucose – dandelion offers support for a broad spectrum of complaints. Dandelion draws down heat and boosts the natural detoxifying processes in the body (having particular affinity for the kidneys and liver), and supports elimination with its diuretic action. Another profound benefit of dandelion is on the digestive system — its inherent bitterness promotes the secretion of bile and digestive juices, encouraging thorough and effective digestion. My favorite way to utilize this enjoy this benefit is with dandelion, orange and ginger digestive bitters (recipe covered in my new book, The Backyard Herbal Apothecary).
How to Identify & Harvest Dandelion
- Habitat: often found in rich, well drained soil in full sun; frequently found in lawns.
- Description: leaves are deeply serrated, hairless and form a basal rosette; flower heads are composed of approximate 200 yellow ray florets, maturing to a spherical puff of downy seeds; hollow stem exudes a milky sap.
- Best time to harvest: greens are best harvested in spring; flowers can be picked spring through summers as they arise; roots are best dug in early fall.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica species): Your first accidental encounter with the stinging barbs of nettle is sure to leave am impression. Let’s refer to this herb the wake-up call of spring. While the stem and leaf undersides of this woodland botanical boast formidable defenses, the nutrition and medicinal benefits of nettle cannot be oversold. Nettle is force to be reckoned with among wild spring herbs! I love to use nettle in place of cooked spinach in virtually any recipe calling for such, as well as this lemon-y nettle soup and this forest-y herbal blend.
Stinging nettle is brimming with vital, restorative minerals and vitamins that contribute to health and wellness – making it an ideal herb for those needing to replenish a tired, overworked body and mind. Nettle offers fascinating phyto-nutrients that help to modulate the immune response, making an excellent herb for those that suffer from seasonal allergies and as well as folks that are coping with elevated histamine levels associated with adrenal fatigue. Even the stinging barbs of this botanical have been used by cultures around the world to speed blood flow and release stagnation from achy and arthritic joints!
How to Identify & Harvest Stinging Nettle
- Habitat: often found in the dappled shade of open woodland, near waterways in moderately rich soils.
- Description: serrated or toothed leaves are somewhat heart shaped, deeply veined and covered with stinging barbs on the underside; leaves are arranged oppositely.
- Best time to harvest: greens are best foraged in early spring; harvest topmost sets of leaves for the most tender leaves; seeds can be harvested mid-summer.
Common Yard Daisy (Bellis perennis)
Dotting the lawns of many schools and home gardens, the common yard daisy is a pleasant harbinger of spring. This earliest of wild spring herbs offers an edible flower and a host of medicinal benefits. Use the tiny flowers of the common yard daisy in salads and desserts to bring a sense of the seasons ahead to your plate.
The diminutive yard daisy is no shrinking violet when it comes to medicinal uses. For hundreds of years this wild spring herbs was known as woundwort, and it was used on the battlefield for packing open wounds. These days, I like to refer to it as the “poor-man’s arnica” for its exceptional ability to soothe sprains and strain of muscle, tendon and ligament, as well as its ability mitigate the severity of bruising from blunt trauma. All totaled, the common yard daisy makes an exceptional first aid herb.
How to Identify & Harvest Common Yard Daisy
- Habitat: often found in lawns where there is ample moisture or shade from prolonged sun exposure.
- Description: small oval, irregularly toothed leaves form a basal rosette; small daisy-like flowers exhibit white petals, sometimes blushed with pink, surrounding a central yellow capitula.
- Best time to harvest: harvest the flowers as they appears from late winter through early summer.
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
For many years I tended a large garden plot that I cultivated for my CSA members. Each spring this nearly 2/3rds of an acre space was an awash with chickweed. I used chickweed for every possible dish from salads to pesto. I even know folks that enjoy chickweed juiced! Chickweed’s bland, spinach like flavor harmonizes well with bolder foods and herbs.
Chickweed is another wild spring herb that demonstrates that good things do indeed comes in small packages. The tender, almost succulent spring leaves are packed with nutrition and medicinal phyto-nutrients. Chickweed is a gentle expectorant, perfect for loosening winter phlegm left over from seasonal viruses, while it also reinvigorates the kidneys as a soothing diuretic. Traditional folk use even looks to chickweed for dissolving fatty deposits (particularly those of fatty cysts, but also bodily and visceral fat), as as well breaking up fibrous tissues such as those sometimes found in the breast and uterus. Chickweed is quite cooling energetically and can help draw down heat and inflammation found in the body.
How to Identify & Harvest Chickweed
- Habitat: often found in previously cultivated garden areas with moderately rich soils.
- Description: leaves are fleshing, ovoid and arranged opposite on a creeping, hairy stem; flowers appear to have 10 petals, but are, in fact, composed of 5 deeply divided petals.
- Best time to harvest: harvest the leaves, stems and flowers in late winter and early spring.
Violet (Viola species)
The season of wild spring herbs feels like it has finally arrived with appearance of lovely violets. From fragrant, wild Viola odorata to the nursery staple pansies, violets usher in color and promise of sunnier days. Violet flowers are exceptionally edible and can be used in a variety of goodies such as this jelly and these lollipops — or even crystallized for confectionery garnish using the instruction in this post!
Violets are a chief lymphatic tonic for the body. This cooling and nutritive wild spring herb is a soothing medicinal for dry hot conditions such as sore throats and swollen and congested lymph nodes. Violet is also extremely helpful for ulcerations of the mouth and esophagus. For concerns of breast health, violet reigns supreme for softening fibrous tissue and hardened lymph nodes. If these attributes were not enough to leave you waxing poetic about the qualities of violet, these tender little flowers and leaves offer pain relieving and calming action.
How to Identify & Harvest Violets
- Habitat: violets prefer dappled shade and woodland edges; will not tolerate extreme heat or sun exposure.
- Description: heart to kidney bean shaped leaves with scalloped margins vary in arrangement somewhat by species, most often observed as alternate or basal rosettes; flowers are often found in shades of blue-purple and white, although striped and yellow varieties are observed.
- Best time to harvest: harvest the leaves and flowers in early spring.
Now that you have yourself a little primer on foraging for wild spring herbs, go forth and discover the botanical wonders this season offers. If you want to learn more about these and 45 other common botanicals, their uses, identification, and herbal remedies, please take a look at my new book The Backyard Herbal Apothecary!