Preserving Spring with Herbal Vinegars

The plants are here! Fi.Na.Ly. This past winter was long and brutal (never again, Montana. Never again.) but we have made it through to the other side and I for one, am pretty damn grateful. I grew up in New England and am no stranger to snow, but Montana is on another level.  I'm not exaggerating when I say that I didn't see a speck of grass from December to March. There were days when I felt as though I was losing my mind from being housebound for so long, but I somehow got ahold of myself and managed to make it to spring. 

In May, I made my way back to New England to pick up my car, teach some workshops and visit with friends and family. In my opinion, there are two good seasons in Maine: early Summer and Fall. Spring seems to be just an idea here as it often snows through April then will suddenly turn to hot and sticky Summer weather. June however, is the  exception. With all its rain and temperamental sunshine, "Junuary" is a very real thing and I love it. This type of weather permits me to be outdoors as long as I please while enjoying the lush greenery that is abundant this time of year. 

One thing that I've been lusting over recently is stinging nettle (urtica dioica).  I haven't had much success harvesting fresh ones in a few years but my friend, Ben was kind enough to let me in on the secret nettle patch behind his house in southern Maine this week. "Nettle is like a beast with a heart of gold," says the Rodale Herb Book, and is often considered something to be avoided due to its wicked sting. However, it should be noted that the sting can also do us some good! The practice of hitting the skin with fresh nettles is called urtication,  and is considered helpful for treating arthritis, inflammation and joint pain. I also just read an article about urtication as a sexual fetish which is brand new, very fascinating news to me. 

Stinging nettle is an incredibly nourishing plant that is a fantastic source of iron and provides relief from seasonal allergies. My former herb school teacher, David Hoffman once said, "when in doubt, use nettles". This is an herb that has a multitude of uses and is often recommended during pregnancy. It's also one of my favorite plants to cook with (nettle pesto anyone??) because of its rich, creamy flavor. The sting will leave the plant once it's boiled or held in vinegar, so there's no need to fret over that. Also, wear leather gloves and long pants (do you have leather pants? Good, wear those) when you're harvesting to avoid the sting.

One way to preserve nettles and other nutritious plants, is to steep them in vinegar. Not only does this keep the plants intact through the colder seasons, but you'll also get a rich herbal vinegar to put on salads, meats, soups or your body. Herbal vinegars have a long history of use with digestion, cold & flu relief, hair care, skin toners and foot soaks. Some people exclusively use vinegars in place of shampoo and by adding plants to your vinegars, you'll gain all those beautiful nutrients which can help ease dandruff, encourage hair growth and make your hair shine (see hair formula below).

When I'm making an herbal vinegar, or really any medicine, I typically don't have an exact formula. This is often called a "folk method" of medicine making as it's based on what you feel is right for that formula. It's part intuition and part common sense, in my opinion, and not as daunting as you may think. With the following recipes, I don't give exact measurements so I invite you to feel it out and see what works best for you. Fill the jar to the rim with your chosen herb (preferably fresh), then completely cover with the vinegar of your choice.  Also, keep in mind that you can snack on these plants once they have been steeping for a few weeks! I like to add some fresh mushrooms or carrots to my concoctions for later consumption. 


Ingredients 

Fresh nettles
1 handful fresh cleavers
2 cups apple cider vinegar

Fresh nettles
6-8 slices reishi
2 cups apple cider vinegar

Put on gloves and cut up nettle leaves into a pint size jar, lightly pushing the leaves down every so often. Chop up cleavers - or reishi - and add to the jar. Cover with apple cider vinegar and cap tightly. Shake daily. Infuse for 1-6 weeks depending on taste preference. Keep herbs in vinegar or strain out with a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth. Store in a cool, dark spot. 

Vinegars will sometimes rust metal caps, so place a sheet of wax paper or cloth between the lid and the jar. Or use plastic lids. 

Other herb combinations

  • Rose petals, oranges, cinnamon sticks, champagne vinegar
  • Dill, sweet onions, garlic, white wine vinegar
  • Tarragon, rosemary, thyme, red wine vinegar

For hair care:
Fresh rosemary
Rose petals
Nettles
Calendula
Apple cider vinegar

Also try adding berries, stone fruits and seeds.