Nutritive Herbs

In this article I want to explore perhaps the most important way of working with herbs.  For many people when they think of herbal medicine they are thinking of a direct action that will have a specific effect on the body- relaxing, stimulating, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, immunostimulating, etc.  But while these all have their place, one of the most important “actions” of herbs is to simply nourish us.  When we take in plants and fungi that are nutritively dense, we help create a terrain in the body that makes it harder for disease arise.  This is the basics of most dietary advice- eat nutrient dense food filled with vitamins, minerals, flavonoids and anti-oxidants that will help strengthen and nourish the body.

Consider the difference of a diet filled with sugary snacks, soda pop, crackers, pizza, fast food and processed foods without veggies or fruits.  Intuitively we know how this feels in the body.  We start to get more run down, anxious and low. For many people eating this SAD diet (Standard American Diet) over time, serious health problems develop.  These include metabolic issues, immunological disorders, increased colds, flus and serious chronic illnesses.

In the herbal world there are many plants that are nutritional powerhouses that can help strengthen and fortify us.  For many of these plants, its key that we take them in their whole form, often consumed in tea, meal and broth form where all the nutrients are extracted in larger amounts.  Tinctures and capsules generally just won’t carry big enough doses of these nutritive herbs to make an impact.  So what are some of these nutritionally dense herbs?  Lets take a look at a few of them.

Nutritional Leaf

Nettles  (Urtica dioica), Red Clover    (Trifolium pratense), Oat straw   (Avena sativa), Raspberry Leaf (Rubus idaeus)


Shitake   (Lentinula enodes), Maitake   (Grifola frondosa), Chantrelles (Cantharellus), Porcini (Boletus edulis)


Burdock    (Arctium kappa), Dandelion   (Taraxacum officinale), Chicory   (Cichorium intybus), Yellow Dock   (Rumex crispus)


Blueberries (Vaccinium), Salal berries (Gaultheria shallon), Blackberries (Rubus sp), Elderberries (Sambucus cerulea, nigra) , Goji berries (Lycium)


Kelp (Laminaria), Dulse (Palmaria sp), Sea lettuce (Ulva), other

Salad greens

Chickweed   (Stellaria media), Candy flower  (Claytonia sibirica), Violets   (Viola sp), Miner’s lettuce  (Claytonia perfoliata)


Now all these herbs have a number of amazing medicinal uses as well but for many of us, its key to bring them into our diet simply for their nutritional profile.  So often we reach for a vitamin or multivitamin pill to try and fill the gap for the nutritional deficiencies that we have from a modern diet.  But for most people, we should be instead reaching for more nutrient dense foods that are more digestible and assimilable.  For many folks, and especially those with digestive difficulties, its very hard to absorb nutrients from a hard compacted synthetic pill- and far easier to absorb nutrients when they come in a medium such as tea or broth that the tummy really likes.

There are many ways that I like to introduce these herbs into my diet.  Many of them (a lot of medicinal mushrooms, berries and salad like greens) can be consumed by cooking them into meals or eating them raw.  One of the best things about nutritional powerhouse herbs like this is that a number of them can be consumed every day as part of one’s diet for prolonged periods of time.  Though they occasionally have side effects that I will mention, most of them are quite benign and rarely are a cause for worry when consuming them.





Nettle Pesto

This is a lovely dish to make after gathering nettles.  Filled with vitamins ad especially rich in calcium and iron, nettle pesto is a great way to bring this herb into your life in a way that is delicious and nutritious.

2 cups blanched nettle leaves

1 cup olive oil

1 cup roasted almonds

1 tsp salt (and more to taste)

1 tbsp lemon juice

4 garlic cloves

Bring a pot of water to a boil, then turn the water off.   Add about 25-30 nettle tops and allow to soak for two minutes.  (This removes the stinging quality to the nettles).  Then strain and pat dry. Cut the stalks away from the leaves and discard the stalks.   Add nettle leaves and all other ingredients to a blender.  Pulse until pesto texture is smooth.



Bone Broth with burdock, kelp seaweeds, medicinal mushrooms

My favorite way to incorporate nutritious (and other) herbs into daily life is via bone broth.  There are numerous articles extolling the virtues of bone broth so I won’t write another treatise on it here.  But I will add that I believe bone broth can be great augmented with the addition of some key herbs.

Codonopsis    1/2 ounce

Astragalus      1/2 ounce

Rosemary       1 tablespoon chopped

Sage   1 tablespoon chopped

Burdock Root 1 tablespoon chopped

Seaweed 2 teaspoons powdered mix of dulse, kelp and nori

Nettles 1/2 cup

Shitake 6-10 med size

Reishi 1/2 ounce

Codonopsis and astragalus are known as adaptogens that improve overall resiliency, improve ability to manage stress and these two act as prebiotics to improve gut microbiome.   Astragalus is also known for its immune boosting properties. Rosemary and sage are aromatic herbs that help move, disperse and improve flow of “qi”.  They act as carminatives to improve gut motility and dispel gas and bloating as well.   The next three (burdock root, seaweeds and nettles) are deeply nutrient dense and they will help bring easily assimilable vitamins and minerals to the body.  Seaweeds should be avoided for those with thyroid issues as some of them contain high levels of iodine.  Kelp/kombu has some of the highest proportions of iodine.  Burdock also is bitter and will help with improving digestive enzymes and secretions.  Further burdock contains prebiotic such as inulin that help strengthen the gut microbiome.  Shitake and reishi are both immune stimulating, cancer fighting and will help stabilize blood sugar while also adding bitter principles that aid digestive function.

To make this, please add the bones from one medium sized chicken to a large pot and fill with water to cover.  (About 4 quarts). Then add two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar and add in the herbs.  Bring to a boil and then simmer at a low heat for 12-24 hours.  Strain out broth and freeze, label and place in freezer.  Use as stock for soups or simply bring them out to drink a 1/2 to one cup a day with salt to taste.


Root Coffee   


Not only is this recipe wonderful as a nutritive tonic, it is also filled with prebiotic rich herbs that will strengthen the gut microbiome as well as containing bitter principles that will improve hepatic and digestive function.

1/4 cup  roasted dandelion root

1/4 cup roasted burdock root

1/4 cup roasted chicory root

1/4 cup  cacao powder (optional- does contain caffeine)

1/2 teaspoon licorice root

1 teaspoon powdered cinnamon

Take roots and spread on a sheet and roast in the oven at 300 degrees for 30 minutes.  Remove and powder everything in a coffee grinder including the cacao beans.  Add the cinnamon in to mix thoroughly.  Take powder and place in a labeled jar and store in a cool dry place.  Take 2 tablespoons of powder to one pint of boiling hot water.   Allow to steep for 10 minutes and then strain and drink.  Add milk if desired.


Elderberry Syrup 


Many people are fans of elderberry syrup for its  immuno-protective properties and ability to ward off cold and the the flu, but berries in general are amazing storehouses of flavonoids and antioxidants.  These flavonoids are rich in anthocyanins, flavonoids that act as antioxidants, antiviral agents, cardiac tonics and immunostimulants.   Elderberry is also of course rich in vitamins and minerals including potassium, calcium, and phosphorus. I like to make my elderberry syrup with a few other herbs  in the recipe below.

1 cup dried elderberries to 4 cups water or 2 cups fresh elderberries to 4 cups water

1 cup honey

1 tablespoon grated ginger

5 cloves

1 cinnamon stick

Add herbs and berries to a pot of water.  Bring to a boil and then simmer for 15-20 minutes.  Strain and allow to cool until the liquid is warm but not hot.  Add honey and stir until thoroughly mixed.  Place in container, label and refrigerate. Take 1-2 tablespoons a day.


Nettle/Red Clover/Oatstraw infusion


This is an amazingly nutritious beverage filled with vitamins and minerals that can be drunk regularly for most people.  Mix even parts of red clover, oat straw and nettles in a large container for storage.  Take a full cup of the blend and add it to a quart mason jar in the evening time.  Add hot water to fill the jar.  Allow to infuse overnight. In the morning, strain and drink throughout the day.  Caution- avoid use if on blood thinning meds.


Blackberry Mead


One of the best ways to make a nutritional tonic is to return to the ancient art of fermenting and making low alcoholic beverages that we can drink as tonics in small amounts.  Mead is a low alcohol percentage drink that is made by fermenting honey.  The directions are fairly simple but making a good mead can be hard to do.  I like to make a blackberry mead (really a melomel) in the summer time because blackberries are powerhouses of nutrients, flavonoids and anti-oxidants.  Fermented foods are also amazingly helpful for feeding the gut microbiome to improve particular bacterial strains like lactobacillus that are correlated with improved mental health.  Here is a good recipe:

15 pounds of blackberries

12 pounds of honey (about a gallon)

5 gallons of water

2 tbsp lemon juice

Heat up 5 gallons of water on the stove in a pot and boil for 10 minutes.  Then allow to cool

and then add the honey and 2 tbsp of lemon juice and stir in slowly until completely dissolved.

Crush the freshly picked blackberries by mashing them in a big bowl.  Pitch the blackberries in a large 5 gallon sanitized “fermenter” bucket.  Add the warm water and honey mix.  Make sure the water is no more than about 80 degrees F and then pitch in 4 teaspoons of yeast nutrient and 1 packet of champagne yeast.  After 12 hours stir the yeast.  Place a lid with an air lock on the top.    Continue to stir whole mix twice a day with a sterilized spoon.  Fermentation should continue for about 5 days and then transfer the liquid to a  5 gallon carboy with an air lock.  Continue to watch fermenting process until bubbles stop appearing.  Rerack into another carboy and allow to sit for 3-6 months.  Then siphon into container and add additional honey to taste.  Siphon into bottles and cap, label and store.


Iron Syrup


This is a great tonic syrup with a number of iron rich herbs.

1/3 cup nettle leaf

1/3 cup tablespoons yellow dock root

1/3 cup dandelion root

1 tablespoon powdered kelp (avoid with thyroid issues)

1 teaspoon ginger

1/2 cup honey

1/2 cup molasses

Add herbs to a pot and add 1 quart of water.   Bring to a boil and allow to simmer for 20 minutes and then let sit and infuse for 8 hours.   Then strain.  You’ll really need to press the liquid out.  You should have a little less than a pint of extract at that point.  Stir in the honey and molasses until completely dissolved.  Store in mason jar, label and refrigerate.  Take 2 tablespoons a day to use all up in a month.


Seaweed snacks 


You can now find seaweed snacks at your local natural foods store.  Al seaweeds have really different nutritional profiles and especially different levels of iodine that should be noted.  If one has a thyroid condition I would likely avoid consuming all seaweeds, but nori and dulse have some of the smallest amounts of iodine while kelp/kombu has some of the most.  One can also make one’s own by harvesting dulse, drying them and then baking the dulse with oil and salt for a few minutes in the oven at 325.   Eventually I will write my seaweed article but until then do a lot of research before harvesting your own seaweeds.


Spring Salad  


In the Spring time a bevy of wild spring greens becomes available to us.  From maple catkins to miner’s lettuce to chickweed, candyflower, violets and dandelion leaves, we can gather these deeply nutritious herbs and add them to our salads for their nutritional density but also for that hint of bitter that helps improve our hepatic and digestive function.   Often many of these herbs are growing in your backyard but please be sure that no one has sprayed pesticides and that you carefully identify the herbs before eating them.



This article written by Jon Keyes, Licensed Professional Counselor and  herbalist.  For more articles like this, please go to  You can also find me at the Facebook group Herbs for Mental Health.







Further Reading

Bioavailablility of elderberry anthocyanins.   Tilbury, Cao, Prior and Blumberg

Elderberry flavonoids bind to and prevent H1N1 infection in vitro.   Roschek, Fink, McMichael and Alberte

Elderberry   HerbalGram- Madeleine Mumcuoglu, Daniel Safirman, and Mina Ferne

Berries: emerging impact on cardiovascular health   Basu, Rhone and Lyons

Black Elderberry for Heart Health and as Immuno-stimulant

HOW TO BUILD A NUTRITIVE TEA– Heather Saba, The Herbal Academy

Nutrient Dense Herbs  Christa Sinadinos

Blackberry Mead: One Gallon Recipe GrowForageCook Ferment

Urtica spp.: Ordinary Plants with Extraordinary Properties   Kregiel, Pawlikowska and Antolak


Seaweed as Food and Medicine   Katja Swift

Medicinal Uses of Seaweed   Ryan Drum


The Nutritional and Medicinal Value of Seaweeds Used in Chinese Medicine Subhuti Dharmananda

Rumex and serum iron  Paul Bergner

Creating a Local Materia Medica with Yellow Dock   Jane Metzler, Herbal Academy

Burdock Benefits  Rosalee de la Foret

Dandelion Root Coffee Recipe   Robin Harford

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