Eating for Spring … Transition & Rejuvenation

“The three months of spring are the time of renewal:  the old and stale dissipates, heaven and earth come to life, and everything blossoms …

… Rest at night and get up early, stride freely through the courtyard, let your hair down and indulge in the leisurely feeling of a morning stroll; this is how you should raise your spirits in spring.”  — from the poet and medical scholar, Gao Lin, 1575 — translated by Dr. Heiner Fruehauf

I wish I could write those beautiful lines on a prescription pad and hand it to my patients! Here in Portland it is definitely springtime, but March has lived up to its “in like a lion” reputation.  The classical Chinese medical texts refer to the big cold of winter, which gradually gives way to the smaller cold, and on into the gathering warmth of springtime.  That transition is what’s been happening outside my window these days.  It’s raining, windy, cold, sunny, then rainy again … all in a single day.  According to my astrologer friends, the solar eclipse we had this past week was a big one — almost like a portal that brought us to an entirely new place.  You can read about it over at The Lore of the Garden  Eclipse or no, this time of year is definitely a time of change — we all can feel it although we might spend most of our time cooped up indoors — and even if there’s still snow on the ground where you live.  The light is shifting; the earth is ripe with excitement.

Roaming about in all the spring weather, I meet new plants every day and then return to visit them … this is one of my favorite trees in the whole city!

Age old rituals of renewal and rebirth abound in springtime because that’s what’s going on in the natural world around us.  Somewhere in our ancestral cellular memory — if we take a minute to tune in — we also feel called to renew ourselves through eating for spring. Even in a world where supermarkets provide every imaginable kind of food at any time of the year, our bodies still contain these ancient rhythms.  It seems like all the new patients I see these days are eager to make changes in their diets.  They inspire me so much … you know who you are out there — keep up the good work; I’m so proud of you!!

Stay close to anything that makes you feel happy to be alive — Hafez

Paying attention to these seasonal rhythms and eating in accordance with them is an important part of maintaining robust health according to Chinese medicine.  Often, in our “more is better” culture, the impulse to do a bit of spring cleaning in our bodies seems to end up in aggressive detoxes and cleanses, involving expensive supplements, powders and rigid rules, which certainly can have their place but may not be necessary or practical for everyone.  The extreme changes of spring weather can also create an environment in which chronic diseases can flare or new diagnoses emerge.  It’s important in the spring to gently nourish and support while cleansing.

Oh, the wind and the rain … your grandma probably would have said this is not the time to go running around in a tank top, and according to classical Chinese physicians she would have been right.  Better to take things off slowly in layers so you don’t get sick…

The approach to spring renewal in Chinese medicine and most traditional folk medicines is gentle but contains a profound wisdom born of simplicity.  People ate what they had during springtime!  They naturally ate seasonally because they depended on what grew nearby, and that provided appropriate rejuvenation.  In many places this meant finishing up the dwindling stores of root vegetables, squashes and dried beans that had carried everyone through the winter — and then adding the precious wild greens sprouting up outside!  Imagine how exciting those first greens would be if you’d been eating nothing but, say, potatoes, dried meat and pinto beans for months on end!  But what does seasonal eating mean if we’re living in the modern world and shopping mostly in a supermarket?

This is a theme I’d like to explore … I’ll begin this week simply with a recipe from my friend and colleague, Daniel Silver, LAc.  An acupuncturist who specializes in the Japanese style, Daniel shares my deep interest in food as medicine, and we’ll be hearing more of his insights as time goes on here at the kitchen table.  To start with he offered this easy recipe for a delightful soup for this transitional time.  It beautifully bridges the cooler and warmer weather — a grounding soup with bright, fresh greens.

Look at these beauties!  Nettles are a plant that helps heal the Earth’s scarred places.  Ours too.  Big thanks to Mario Tarasco for the photo!

You can make this soup with any greens, but it’s particularly delightful made with nettles, a wild spring plant packed with nutrients, including a lot of calcium and iron.  This makes it an especially good herb for women.  You may have encountered it as a kid, when you got stung by the tiny hairs on the stems.  Fortunately, the sting goes away with a quick blanch of the leaves in water.  Nettles can be found in many parts of the US in spots that have been disturbed — vacant lots, edges of fields, roadsides …  But Daniel rightly reminded me to be careful about where I’m picking wild edibles.  Sadly, these plants will pull industrial poisons out of the ground as well as nutrients.  So, not a great idea to pick your nettles near a landfill or old factory even if they look beautiful. If you do locate some nettles, remember to wear gloves to pick them.  Another great spring edible is the ramp (wild leek), which would also be lovely in this recipe.  I went on annual ramp binges when I lived in Connecticut — they appeared in every tiny patch of woods available before anything else green emerged.  Here in Portland there are also cultivated greens like kale and chard that have over-wintered and are starting to look lively again along the sidewalks and in community gardens.  Let’s hear it for people planting food in the city!

Violets on the street!  (I’ve always believed fairies eat violets.  Toss any organic edible flowers on top of the green soup for your little one … apple or elderberry blossoms, rose petals, lavender … Fairy soup always tastes better …)

If you can’t find greens outdoors where you live, don’t despair!  Farmers’ markets are starting to have early greens in some places.  Or just buy whatever you can at the store.  Can you get a bag of frozen spinach?  Terrific!  Just get the green in … your body will thank you for it.

*To prepare nettles:  Bring water to boil in a large pot with a dash of salt.  With gloves on, add nettles to the pot — they only need to be in there for a minute or two.  Remove the pot from heat, drain, and rinse nettles in cold water.  They should be fine to handle now.  If they have any dirt or debris on them, it’s easy to just fill up the sink with water and plunge them in.  Remove any stalks that aren’t tender.  Now you can add them to anything …

Okay, so in case anyone was confused (like me) … these (above) are turnips …
… And these are rutabagas.  Both are part of the Brassica family (related to broccoli and cabbage) and the rutabaga may be a hybrid of a turnip and a cabbage.  Wow!  Who knew?  You can use either in this soup.  Look for smaller ones like these, which are much more tender.

Here is Daniel’s recipe for the perfect soup for this season … with a nod goodbye toward the cold and a hopeful view of things ahead — not too heavy and not too light … just right!


  • 1-2 parsnips
  • 1 turnip or rutabaga
  • 2 potatoes
  • 1 leek
  • several cloves garlic
  • Greens — as much as you want!  About 12 oz., fresh, at least, for this amount of soup — nettles if you can find them!  Or: spinach, arugala, kale, collards — asparagus or broccoli will work too.
  • vegetable or chicken broth (or just water)
  • bay leaf
  • olive oil
  • fresh or dried herbs — I especially like dill or a mix of rosemary & thyme
  • salt & pepper
Chinese medicine identifies five energies or Elements in the body that remain balanced in a healthy state — Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal & Water.  In the spring, the growth energy of Wood is abundant, and it is important to nourish the Earth with mildly sweet flavors so that exuberant Wood does not overcome it.  Turnips and parsnips do this perfectly!

Wash leek thoroughly and dice.  Peel and roughly chop garlic.  Saute in a heavy bottomed pot over medium heat in a splash of olive oil until just a little brown. Meanwhile, chop the rest of your vegetables into chunks — it’s all going in the blender in the end so don’t worry about perfection here.  (If your potato is not organic, please peel it.  The pesticides used on potatoes are particularly toxic.  Otherwise, leave peel on.)  Plop everything into the pot.  Add enough broth or water to cover.  Add bay leaf and any dried herbs you’re using.  Cover the pot, and bring it all just to a boil, then turn heat down, and simmer until the veggies are just tender.  Turn off the heat, and add coarsely chopped greens and any fresh herbs you want to add.  Stir everything in, cover the pot, and let it stand for five minutes.  The greens will be cooked enough just by the hot liquid — unless you’re using tougher ones like asparagus; then you’ll need to simmer a few more minutes.  Finally, it all needs to be blended.  Daniel suggests a handheld immersion blender, which allows you do do everything right in the pot.  This is most definitely the way to go, and a good kitchen gadget to have.  If you don’t have one, you can scoop the soup into a regular blender, and puree in batches.  (Remove bay leaf first.) Be careful though — many blenders leak hot liquids out the bottom or spray them out the top so probably best to let things cool down first.  Taste for seasoning, and enjoy!  Happy spring, my dears 🙂

Here’s to the GREEN … mmmmm.




One Comment Add yours

  1. Mmmmm mmm fairy soup, right up my alley. Thanks for talking a bit about Nettles. They are a great plant with many benefits. What a beautiful post.


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