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Market Medicinals: Locally Available Spring Tonic Foods

Madison’s Farmers market arrived with spring. The community flocked to greet vendors whose freshly grown food and plants reflected a new and warmer day. Though my trip to the market on the second Sat. of its opening was far from warm, the colorful flowers looked healthy and happy, the herbaceous plants smelled heavenly, and the food was vibrant and fresh as ever.

Spring is a time when our bodies need foods that are rich in color instead of taste, foods that inspire us to become more expansive and move. The farmers market is a place to find fare that supports us in this seasonal change.Read more…

Eating With the Seasons

Each season presents us with different and unique nutritional needs. These needs can be met by eating foods locally grown that are available seasonally. When we eat with the seasons, we align our body with the rhythms of nature, thus building a strong foundation for healing, and a more balanced internal self.

Spring is a time for cleansing, supporting the liver and gallbladder, and building nutritionally with foods high in minerals. During this time of cleansing, it is also appropriate to support the kidneys, another organ of elimination. In order to accomplish this task, we must use our pallet differently. We should eat fewer foods that are rich in flavor, and add more foods that are sour, pungent and bitter. Spring greens are notorious for being bitter and pungent. They encourage our liver and gallbladder to wake up, and throw off the sludge that has built up from the seemingly endless winter. Some greens, like dandelion greens and nettle leaf, re-mineralize the body, and support kidney function. Their diuretic effect aids the elimination of the toxins that build up in the body via the kidneys. By cleansing and supporting with seasonal foods, we feel revitalized and more emotionally and physically balanced.

Market Medicinals

On my trip to the market, my goal was to find items that were locally available, that help our bodies’ transition from winter to spring, and rebalance our internal as well as external energy. These foods may be unique to some. They are considered weeds, odd roots and culinary herbs. But they help the body achieve the spring goals mentioned above.


Urtica dioica, stinging nettles, is hardly considered a food by many. For landowners it is a pernicious weed that is difficult to control. And I know many a hiker who has unknowingly brushed up against it and suffered from a burning rash and stinging sensation. In the field of herbal medicine, the seeds, leaves, and roots are highly acclaimed.

The leaves are what you will find at the Madison Farmers Market. They are considered to have a slightly bitter taste, and to be very nutritious. Stinging nettle leaf is high in calcium, magnesium, potassium, boron, carotenoids and iron. It is easy to use nettle leaf. Throw some fresh leaves into a soup, or add them to a stir-fry. As a side note, refrain from eating raw nettles. They can be quite irritating to the gastrointestinal tract.

We herbalists dry the leaves and use them as nutritional teas. The tea builds blood, and is food for the kidney. Nettle leaf is a diuretic, but unlike most diuretics, does not leach minerals from the body. The diuretic effects aid elimination of toxins through the urinary tract. Nettle leaf is also high in the flavonoid quercetin. Quercetin has been found to have anti-inflammatory and anti-histamine effects. Studies have shown that taking dried nettle leaf supplements or drinking nettle leaf tea gives effective symptom relief to those suffering from seasonal nasal allergies with watery eyes. For an even more potent combination, add eyebright to the tea, and a few drops of horseradish tincture.


Horseradish has a hot temperament, but it is considered bitter and pungent. As a source for nutrition, it is high in B vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals. To reap the nutritional and medicinal benefits of horseradish, you need to purchase or harvest the fresh root and make your own sauce. It is much better then any product you would buy from a store. I chop about 1 pound of horseradish root, put it into the food processor with a cup of yogurt, the juice of 1 lemon, and about 2 tablespoons of honey. Process, and put into a jar in the fridge.

Medicinally, horseradish in small amounts benefits the gastrointestinal tract, the respiratory tract, and the sinuses. It protects the gut from harmful bacteria, especially in relation to rotten food. The Europeans served horseradish with meat that was on the verge of going bad. Horseradish supports the lungs as an expectorant, bronchodilator, and antispasmodic, indicated for those with damp cold coughs. Horseradish dries excess phlegm, and is quite useful for sinus congestion, and postnasal drip. It is also considered an immune stimulant, and increases white blood cell production.
Sunchokes, aka Jerusalem Artichokes

Sunchokes or Jerusalem artichokes are native to North America, and are a highly nutritious kin to the sunflower. They were cultivated as food by the Native Americans. Maude Grieves describes their texture as sooty, and I quite agree. They are similar to potatoes, and can be substituted for them in recipes. Sunchokes have a low glycemic index, and are high in inulin, also known as fructo-oligerosaccharides, or FOS for short. Inulin passes into the large intestines to become food for good bacteria, thus supporting the proliferation of healthy bowel flora. Inulin also increases nutrient absorption. Consuming large quantities of foods with inulin can cause gas and bloating. It is therefore wise to incorporate foods of this nature slowly and in small quantities into your diet.

Burdock root

Burdock is a biennial native to Northern Asia and Europe. It has easily found a natural home in America. Burdock root has a musky, bitter and pungent flavor. It is high in iron, as well as most other vitamins and minerals. As with sunchokes, it contains inulin or FOS. While burdock root cools the liver, it has a warming effect on the body. It is an alterative, stimulating the function of the lymphatic/immune system, kidney, and liver. Burdock acts as a bitter digestive tonic, stimulating bile production and acting as a mild detoxifying agent to the liver. It is also indicated for conditions of lymphatic swelling. Burdock builds blood and strengthens the body. One of my favorite preparations of burdock root is to cut the root into coin shaped discs and sauté them in olive oil with a little seaweed. Cooking burdock root in soups with ginger is also an excellent way to rebuild the body after a winter wrought with illness.


There is much one could say about loveage, Ligusticum levisticum or Levisticum officinale. It is a lovely English garden plant that has worked its way into North American gardener’s hearts and homes. I began using loveage after reading about it in Maude Grieves Herbal many years ago. Loveage is in the Umbelliferae family, the same family as celery. The leaves and stems have a flavor that resembles celery with a little added pungency. Loveage is high in minerals. The stems and leaves make an excellent addition to soups, thrown into salads, and compliment to fish dishes. As a medicinal, the roots and seeds of loveage are considered energetic stimulants to the digestive and urinary tract. Their properties are carminative, aiding gas and bloating in the stomach and intestines, and diuretic in action. Some believe the seeds to be a stronger medicine then the root. The leaves have been found very effective as a tea for respiratory afflictions. I have enjoyed a cup of loveage root and leaf tea when suffering from a head cold from time to time.

Of the vendors that sell at the early market, I found sunchokes, burdock root, horseradish and (soon to come) nettle leaves at Harmony Valley Farm. Blue Skies Farm sells culinary herbs in bunches, including loveage, and will soon have edible flowers available. It would be nice to recognize more vendors, and include more spring foods, but there is not the space. Be inspired to seek out unusual market foods, ask questions about nutritional information and for advice on preparation. If you would like to explore more in depth the concept of seasonal eating for healing, I highly recommend Healing with Whole Foods, by Paul Pitchford.

When we begin our process of eating with the seasons, it takes at least a year to accomplish the goal of internal balance. While it may not solve all of our health problems immediately, we begin to truly change our internal terrain. With each passing season, this new terrain supports health and healing on a deeper level. Springtime, with its renewed energy and healthy market choices, is an excellent time to begin this process.


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