Spring Cleaning with Herbs: Bitter Herbal Tonics Herald the Ancient Rite of Spring

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Cleansing tonics are an ancient rite of spring that reflects the season’s central theme of self-renewal. By definition, a tonic is an infusion of herbs that invigorates or strengthens the system. In addition, tonics often act as stimulants and alternatives as well. Taken either hot or cold, tonics restore tone, purify the blood, and act as nutritive builders.

Throughout history, and even as late as the 20th century, herbs and herbal spring tonics have been used by North Americans and Europeans to cleanse the system after a long winter of eating preserved meats with little or no fresh fruits or vegetables. The six-week fasting and abstinence period of Lent, apart from its spiritual significance, had a practical effect of helping the body prepare for the shock of astringent spring greens.

The common ‘tonic water’ we now use mainly as a mixer for alcohol is a vestige of earlier times when bitter herbal tonics were widely used. By the 1500s, Europeans had learned of cinchona bark (Cinchona officinalis) which contains quinine, a substance that is extremely effective against malaria. It was the British living in colonial India who began to add gin to the bitter-tasting quinine tonic to make that essential medicinal drink more palatable. Most modern brands of tonic water still contain quinine for flavour but in amounts that are too small to be effective medicinally.

Tonic herbs support the body’s systems in maintaining health. Depending on what herbs are used, they can support the whole body or specific systems or organs. They are able to do this because they contain opposing groups of constituents that can lower (or raise), stimulate (or depress), increase (or decrease) individual biological processes. Tonics increase the tone of body tissues, imparting strength and vitality by promoting the digestive process, improving blood circulation, and increasing the supply of oxygen to the tissues.

Tonic herbs are safe to use daily except during pregnancy.

The following is a list of tonic herbs:
Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) is a nutritive tonic for the musculoskeletal system.
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) promotes tissue regeneration, and is a heart tonic as well as a powerful immune system stimulator for virtually every phase of immune system activity.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is a liver tonic and digestive.
Devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) is a liver tonic.
Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea or E. angustifolia) is an immune system tonic.
Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is an adaptogen used to relieve stress.
Licorice Root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is considered to be one of the best tonic herbs because it provides nutrients to almost all body systems.
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) acts as a general tonic.

A Favourite Spring Tonic of Indigenous Peoples

The Iroquois and other tribes of Canada and the northern United States considered the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) to be a special gift of the Creator. Maple sap was obtained by cutting a vertical slit in the tree about two inches deep and a foot long just below eye level on the trunk of the tree. A flat stick was then driven into the lower end of the slash. With the warm days and freezing nights of early spring, the alternating expanding and contracting wood in the trunk drove the sap through the drainage hole over the stick into a birch bark trough.

Considered to be an important spring ritual, the sap was drunk fresh as a spring tonic every day that it ran in the trees. It is a clear, thin liquid with a high sugar content easily obtained. Native Indians added heated stones to the raw sap until it boiled and the water evaporated leaving the thickened maple syrup. An easier method (and probably the one most often used) of ‘evaporating’ the water was to let the sap freeze overnight and simply chip away the ice from the sugar/syrup the following day.

Maple Syrup Festivals in Ontario

Interested in visiting a sugar bush and learning more about traditional maple syrup? There are a number of maple syrup festivals in and around the Greater Toronto Area that continue into early April:

Maple Sugar Festival & Pancake House
Brooks Farms (Mount Albert) – until April 6
www.brooksfarms.com • (905) 473-3246

Elmira Maple Syrup Festival
Elmira – April 6 only
www.elmiramaplesyrup.com • (519) 669-6000

Sugarbush Maple Syrup Festival (two locations)
Kortright Centre for Conservation (Woodbridge) and Bruce’s Mill Conservation Area (Stouffville) – both until April 7
www.maplesyrupfest.com • (416) 667-6295

Maple Towne at Mountsberg
Mountsberg Conservation Area (near Campbellville) – until April 7
www.conservationhalton.ca • (905) 854-2276

Maple Syrup Festival
Horton Tree Farms Bush Festival (Stouffville) – until April 7
www.hortontreefarms.com 1-800-420-7385

19th Annual Holstein Maplefest, Love’s Sugar Bush
near Holstein, Ont. (between Brampton & Owen Sound) – April 13 and 14 only
www.holsteinmaplefest.com • (519) 334-3490

Pat Crocker cleanses in the spring and again in the fall. She is a Culinary Herbalist, Home Economist, and healthy food writer. Photographer, lecturer, and author of several award-winning books, including Juicing & Smoothies for Dummies, Preserving, Everyday Flexitarian (with co-author Nettie Cronish), The Yogurt Bible, The Vegan Cook’s Bible, The Vegetarian Cook’s Bible, The Juicing Bible, and The Smoothies Bible, which are available at bookstores throughout Canada and the United States. Visit Pat at www.patcrocker.com and enjoy her blog at www.foodwedsherbs.blogspot.com

Parsley is a very good tonic and diuretic herb but it should be avoided during pregnancy and in cases of kidney inflammation.


  • 1 spear broccoli
  • ½ cucumber
  • ½ green bell pepper
  • 2 sprigs fresh parsley

1) Using a juicer, process broccoli, cucumber, parsley, and pepper. Whisk and pour into a glass.

Because of their pleasant taste, smoothies are the perfect drinks for delivering the cleansing properties of spring tonic herbs. In this recipe, you make a tea first using Tonic Blend (recipe for blend and how to make tea follows), and then use the chilled tea as the liquid base for this cleansing drink.


  • 2/3 cup steeped Tonic Blend tea (see recipe in same food feature)
  • 1 cup chopped kale or spinach
  • ½ cup broccoli florets
  • ½ cup green grapes
  • 4 sprigs parsley

1) In a blender, combine tea, kale, broccoli, grapes, and parsley. Secure lid and blend (from low to high if using a variable speed blender) until smooth. Drink immediately.

This tea feeds the cells of the body and boosts the immune system. It can be used every day by the young and old alike. Make it up in a larger quantity and store in a jar with a lid for up to 2 days in the refrigerator. Add a cup or more to soups and stews, and use in smoothies or in place of other liquids in cooking. This tonic may be used by cancer patients before, during, and after treatment.


  • 1 part chopped dried astragalus root (purchase from Chinese Medicine practitioners or health food stores)
  • 1 part dried parsley leaves
  • 1 part dried alfalfa, aerial parts

1) Blend and store herbs in a labelled airtight tin or dark-coloured jar in a dark, cool, dry cupboard.

2) Crush a heaping teaspoon of the herb blend to a fine powder for every cup of tonic you plan to make. Then measure one cup of pure water for every cup of blend into a pot and bring to boil. (So two cups of tonic has two teaspoons of herb + two cups of water.) Place the herb powder into a warmed ceramic teapot, and add one extra teaspoon of herb powder “for the pot”. Pour the boiled water into the teapot on top of herbs. Cover the pot and put a cork in the spout. Steep for about 5 minutes and strain into cups.

Young people experiencing puberty require extra iron to help them cope with the rapid changes in their bodies. This tonic has a pleasant taste, is quite refreshing, and may be kept in the refrigerator for thirsty teens. Stinging nettle and burdock grow abundantly in wild areas, or you can use dried leaves and roots, which are available from health food stores. Growing sweet cicely is easy, and its sweet anise flavour is delicious in tonics and teas. (Makes: 2-3 servings)


  • 6 fresh peppermint sprigs
  • 4 fresh stinging nettle tops (4 – 6” each)
  • 1 fresh yellow dock root
  • 1 small fresh burdock leaf, chopped
  • ½ cup chopped fresh sweet cicely
  • 3 cups boiling water

1) In a non-reactive (ceramic or glass) teapot or heat-proof jar, combine herbs and pour freshly boiled water over them. Steep, covered, for at least 12 hours (the longer steeping time is necessary to extract the minerals from the herbs). Strain and drink ½ cup twice daily.

2) Store tonic in a clean jar with a lid in the refrigerator, up to 3 days.

If the fresh ingredients for this blend are not in season, you can pick up the dried herbs from herb shops or health food stores.


  • 1 part dried German chamomile flowers
  • 1 part dried lemon balm leaves
  • 1 part dried linden flowers
  • 1 part dried St. John’s Wort flowers (omit if using prescription drugs)

1) Blend and store herbs in a labelled airtight tin or dark-coloured jar in a dark, cool, dry cupboard.

2) To make tea, crush a small amount of blend to a fine powder, then measure 1 tsp powder per cup. Place the powder in a warmed ceramic teapot, add one additional teaspoon of the powder ‘for the pot’ and pour boiling water over the herbs. Cover the pot and put a cork in the spout. Steep for about 5 minutes then strain into cups.


  • 2 parts dried German chamomile flowers
  • 2 parts dried lemon balm leaves
  • 1 part dried skullcap leaves
  • 1 part dried oat straw

1) Blend and store herbs in a labelled airtight tin or dark-coloured jar in a dark, cool, dry cupboard.

2) To make tea, crush a small amount of blend to a fine powder, then measure 1 tsp powder per cup. Place in a warmed ceramic teapot, add one additional tsp powder ‘for the pot’ and pour boiling water over the herbs. Cover the pot and put a cork in the spout. Steep for about 5 minutes and strain into cups.

If available, use maple sap fresh every day. It is possible to store it in the refrigerator but not more than 2 days as it is prone to bacteria before being ‘boiled off.’ Use 2 Tbsp maple syrup if fresh maple sap is not available. This makes a nice spring ‘celebration’ toast. (Makes: 2-3 servings)

For more information on Kiki Maple Sweet Water, a locally made product derived from the sap of the maple tree, visit: https://vitalitymagazine.com/article/healthy-product-news1/ Available at health food stores across Ontario.


  • 3 cups filtered water
  • One 2-inch piece fresh ginseng root, chopped
  • One 2-inch piece fresh dandelion root, chopped
  • One 2-inch piece fresh burdock root, chopped
  • 2 tsp chopped fresh parsley leaves
  • 2 tsp chopped fresh stinging nettle tops (or 1 tsp of dried stinging nettle tops)
  • ¼ cup maple sap or Kiki Maple Sweet Water (or 2 Tbsp maple syrup)

1) In a medium non-reactive saucepan (not aluminum or steel), pour water over ginseng, dandelion, and burdock. Cover and bring to a boil over medium heat. Turn off heat and steep, covered, for 5 minutes.

2) Stir in parsley and nettle. Steep, covered, for another 10 minutes. Strain into a clean jar, stir in maple sap. Use immediately or cover tightly and keep in refrigerator for up to 2 days.

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