Laura Dean Bennett
Contributing Writer

Now that spring is here, it’s time to clear your body and mind and prepare for the active, warm days of summer. 

Tonics have, for many generations, been an ancient rite of spring here in the mountains.

But the people of Appalachia aren’t the only ones who’ve used tonics. Cultures all over the world have used cleansing and rejuvenating tonics for centuries, especially in the spring. 

By definition, a tonic is an infusion of herbs that invigorates or strengthens the body. Tonics can often act as a stimulant, bringing us a boost of energy. 

Throughout history, and even today, herbs and herbal spring tonics have been used to cleanse the system after a long winter’s diet of preserved foods with little or no fresh fruits or vegetables. 

The common “tonic water” we now use mainly as a drink mixer is a vestige of earlier times when bitter herbal tonics were widely used.
By the 1500s, Europeans had learned of the medicinal effect of cinchona bark (Cinchona officinalis) which contains quinine, a substance that is extremely effective against malaria – and, more to the point these days, leg cramps.

It was the British in colonial India who added gin to the bitter-tasting quinine tonic to make that essential medicinal drink more palatable. 

These days, tonic water still contains quinine for flavor, but in amounts that are too small to be truly effective medicinally – but quinine is available in over-the-counter tablets.

Tonics offer our bodies large concentrations of much needed vitamins and minerals, promote the digestive process, improve circulation and increase the supply of oxygen to the tissues.

Tonics tended to be simple concoctions made from readily available spring plants, which we can still use today. 

Many different spring tonics were used by the early North American settlers. 

The knowledge of some of these tonics came with the English and European settlers and some were learned from the Native Americans. 

One of the favorite spring tonic treats for the Iroquois and other tribes of the northern United States was the sweet sap of the sugar maple tree (Acer saccharum), which was considered to be a sacred gift of the Creator. 

And anyone who loves maple syrup would surely agree. 

Considered an important spring ritual, the sap was drunk fresh as a tonic every day that it ran from the trees. 

The following is a much abbreviated list of some common tonic herbs: 

Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) is a nutritive tonic for the musculoskeletal system.

Burdock (Arctium iappa) seeds and roots were used by folk doctors as a blood purifier and tonic. Poultices of the crushed leaves were also used to treat poison ivy and insect bites.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is a liver tonic and digestive. More on the dandelion to follow.

Devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) is a liver tonic.

Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea or E. angustifolia) is an immune system tonic.

Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is used to relieve stress. 

Licorice Root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is considered to be one of the best tonic herbs because it provides nutrients necessary to almost every body system.

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) acts as a good general tonic.

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)- a springtime tea has long been brewed from its roots to purify the blood and treat skin diseases and rheumatism.

Perhaps the most popular spring tonic herb in my family, maybe because it grew “like a weed” in our yard, was the humble dandelion. My mom swore by dandelions, so I’d be sent out to cut dandelions for tea and for salads. I could never cut too many. Daddy even used the greens to make dandelion wine.

If dandelion leaves are picked while still young and tender in early spring, they make a tasty, if slightly bitter addition to salads. They can be cooked like spinach or dried and made into a refreshing tea. 

Dandelion is a diuretic and liver stimulant, restoring the system after months of a more sedentary lifestyle during winter weather. Many of our ancestors swore by the eating of spring dandelion greens – certain that they helped keep folks healthy and strong.

Dandelion’s Latin name is “Taraxacum officinale,” which means the “Official Remedy for Disorders.” It is so well respected, in fact, that it appears in the U.S. National Formulatory and in the Pharmacopeias of Hungary, Poland, Switzerland and the Soviet Union. It is one of the most often used herbs in the Chinese herbal medicine chest.

Dandelion greens and roots contain detoxifiers that purge toxins associated with constipation, joint inflammation, gout, acne, fluid retention and urinary tract disorders. Dandelion root tea is a great liver stimulant and has even been used to treat alcoholism. Dandelion stimulates bile flow and aids in fat digestion. 

Just one cup of raw dandelion greens has 54 percent of your daily recommended intake of Vitamin A and 188 percent of your Vitamin K. 

Dandelion greens also contain high concentrations of Vitamins D, C and B, iron, silicon, magnesium, zinc, manganese and are one of the richest sources of potassium to be found anywhere. 

There are many ways to use dandelions as a tea or tonic. But here is a recipe I found in Martha Stewart’s Living Magazine that is quite palatable.

Dandelion Tonic

2 teaspoons dried raw dandelion root 
1 teaspoon dried burdock root 
2 teaspoons dried sarsaparilla root 
1 teaspoon cinnamon chips 
1/2 teaspoon dried ginger root pieces 
1/8 teaspoon dried orange peel 
Honey or stevia leaf (optional)

Add herbs to 1 quart cold water and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer 15 – 20 minutes. Strain; add honey or stevia to taste. Drink 2 to 4 cups daily.

New studies have shown that eating dandelions regularly may lower your serum cholesterol by as much as half.

The leaves and flowers can be eaten raw in tossed salads, though they are on the bitter side. The raw leaves are very alkaline and purify and build the blood, cleanse and regenerate cells. Roots can also be gathered in the fall, when they have grown bigger, and cooked as you would potatoes.

Here’s just one of probably thousands of good recipes for cooking dandelion greens. Serve with a cup of sassafras tea for a healthful spring meal.

Dandelion Greens and Sausage 

To serve 4, you need:
a big bowl or basket for gathering
a sharp knife or scissors
a spray-free yard or field (with no pets) where dandelions grow
the leaves of 8-10 big spring dandelion plants, washed and trimmed
3-4 rounded Tbsp. virgin coconut oil 
1-2 big onions (we love caramelized onion with this to add sweetness)
your choice of sausage (a sweet sausage works best)
4-12 potatoes, depending on size, roasted or steamed in a separate pan
sea salt, black pepper, or garlic to taste

Balsamic or organic apple cider vinegar, to taste, drizzled over greens, optional amount for more people. The leaves wilt like spinach or chard, cooking down quite a lot. Best to gather more than you think you’ll need.

Dandelions greens are quite tender and sweeter at this time of year. Gather up the whole plant in your hand and cut it off at about two inches above the ground, or pull it out of the ground entirely, if you want the roots to make tea.

Wash with castile soap or veggie wash, rinsing several times to remove any soap residue, bad leaves and dirty grit.

In a big stainless or cast iron skillet, melt the coconut oil and cut in onion. Sauté until the onions are tender and get browned edges. Cook the sausage in a separate pan and roast the potatoes. Once the meat is browned, add it to the skillet and cook until the flavors blend. Then toss in the greens and cook until the greens are blanched. Serve hot with roasted or steamed potatoes.

If still a bit bitter, you may add a pinch of sugar to the dandelions.

If you prefer to drink your dandelions, make a dandelion tincture: Clean and cook the greens and roots in a little water. Strain away the debris and mix the liquid with a little something sweet (sugar, honey, maple syrup) to make it more palatable. Drink a quarter cupful once a day during spring or whenever you need a pick-me-up.

Use dandelion greens with caution if you have gallbladder disease. Never use dandelion if you have an obstructed bile duct or ulcers. 
Always consult with your doctor before eating or drinking any herbal remedy.

Now, grab your gathering basket and go get those greens!