The grackles have arrived. I seem to forget, each year, how early they come, well before the green herbs or tree buds come out to show their delicate spring beauty. In my neighborhood, the grackles come in a large flock along with almost as many cowbirds, and their combined calls fill up my yard with the first sounds of spring. I particularly love the liquid songs of the male cowbirds as they seek their mates, but the soft, rusty-spring cry of the grackles is familiar enough to be beloved too.
When I heard them this morning, I couldn’t resist running out to the garden to see if there was anything coming up in the herb beds. I found a few new leaves on the French Sorrel, a few old leaves on the Sage, and a smattering of Purple Dead Nettle and Chickweed around the edges of the sleeping annual beds. I had hoped for more, but it’s early yet, and there’s still time for a snowstorm or two before spring really takes over. Soon enough the paths between the vegetable beds will be overflowing with Violets and Dandelions, the Comfrey and Nettles will be growing fast, and the wet, warming soil will welcome hunting robins.
This transitional time, as the quiet Water energy of winter turns to the upward-rising Wood energy of spring, is a magical energetic time. This feels like the real New Year to me, as I’m eagerly watching each green leaf unfurl, waiting for the herb plants to get big enough that I can harvest a little for the teapot. The first things to come up—Chickweed, Violets, Comfrey—are soothing and nourishing, a reminder to be kind to myself in this time of transition. As it is the New Year, I’m thinking about things I’d like to let go of, like worry, and going too fast. Sweet Violets can ease worry and tension, they soothe and comfort and cheer. I love the blue Violets and the Viola tricolor, also called HeartsEase or Johnny Jump-ups, with the splash of gold on their petals.
These first, early plants all have the neutral taste of the Water element, mild and nourishing. In a few weeks the Wood element plants will show themselves, with their sour, bitter, and astringent tastes. Burdock and Dandelion are among the early spring foods, traditionally used to clear the body of winter excess and stagnation. The Wood element relates to the Liver and Gallbladder in Chinese Medicine, and the plants with strong Wood energy encourage cleansing and toning of those organs. I must admit that this time of year is the only time I truly enjoy the bitter taste of Dandelion greens, because this is the time my body needs that bitterness to cleanse and start fresh.
I must make special mention of a beloved herb and early spring food: Stinging Nettles. The first tender leaves of this extraordinary plant are a delightful vegetable, full of vitamins and minerals that nourish and replenish the whole body, but especially the skin and other eliminative organs. Although the books will tell you that Nettles are primarily astringent, making them a Wood/Liver tonic, I find them to be more complex than that. They certainly are toning to the Liver, but they also strongly affect the Kidneys and Urinary Bladder, both Water organs. And if you handle fresh Nettles, you know why they’re called Stinging! That sharp, acidic bite can burn, and Nettles have some Fire energy to them even when that acid has been cooked off. Strong Nettle tea can normalize appetite and encourage healthy elimination, making it a wonderful fresh tea for occasional fasting.
As you can see, I’m super excited about the garden, and I’m sure I’ll keep wandering around looking for all the Spring changes. Have a look around your own yard or garden, a nearby park, or come visit Smile’s garden and see what you can find peeking out, ready for the New Year!