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Bitter tonics for Spring

Stress causes success, duress causes durability. Our ability to chew on bitters and yet survive shows our G-dly inner spark.
— Rabbi Moshe Tzuriel

Yesterday, I wrote about dandelion tonic, a liver cleanser that our wise grandmothers often made for their families, as it was believed to help purify the blood in the Springtime.

The idea of Spring tonics is a very old, well respected one in herbal medicine. After the long Winter months, when people were sustained by whatever they could scavenge, cure or preserve, with little or no fresh vegetables or meat available, the sluggishness of body and spirit was understood to need a “spring cleaning.”

According to herbalist Cheryl Hoard, the definition of tonic is: “A substance which gives a feeling of well-being to the body, stimulates nutrition and permanently increases systemic tone, energy, vigor, and strength, improves bodily performance, strengthens or invigorates organs or the entire organism.”

Many herbs are designated as tonics, some of which, like dandelion, are in the category of blood and liver purifiers. It is the bitter herbs that are often used to aid the liver and the digestive system. In the late 1800’s Mrs. Antonette Matteson authored what is now considered a rare American herbal “The Occult Family Physician and Botanic Guide to Health.”

She believed in the “remedies from the vegetable world” and also was “convinced of the existence of intelligent spirit.” Calling herself a trance and healing medium fit right into the style and atmosphere of her era. Mrs. Matteson described a tonic as that which increases the tone of the muscular fiber and consists of plant bitters. Tonics by her definition act by influencing the digestive system and hence, the whole system. She claimed the use of a bitter principle is absolutely essential to health and found in the majority of plants in the vegetable kingdom. She pointed out that animals feed on these type of plants and if their food is restricted to a diet of insufficient “bitter principles,” they soon become weak and die.

It is no accident that one of the most important parts of the Jewish Pesach ceremony (Passover) is the eating of bitter herbs. All ancient peoples knew that bitter foods were vital to health, even though, by definition, unpleasant. In a culture that now almost completely shuns bitter tastes, and instead emphasizes sweets, we can see an epidemic lack of balance and healthfulness. Is it a coincidence?

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  • March 24, 2007, 3:43 pm Kelpie Oaks

    Chickweed! I forgot all about chickweed until our herbalist here on the farm reminded me of it (she does every spring), as I was complaining about my never-ending chest congestion. Chickweed is growing right now, and is a great “spring cleaning” herb. It’s probably growing in your yard, in a shady spot. Hmmmm… hard to describe a plant with just words. I’ll try to find a link with a picture.
    love to you!

  • March 25, 2007, 9:03 am Beth Owl's Daughter

    Oh! Yes, chickweed is a good one, Kelpie! Thanks! I will be sure to write about it tomorrow! So glad to see you visiting and sharing here!

    Thank you *so* much!

  • March 27, 2007, 9:42 am Beth Owl's Daughter

    Oops, I never did write about chickweed, did I? I also was going to write about a couple of others.. Maybe I can tie it all together at some point!