The Tonics of Fall


by Mary Ellen Graybill

When leaves rebel and stalk the ground with swirls of red and gold, it is time to wake up from the summer doldrums, and get the digestive flow going again.

“We are coming out of summer, we are kind of depleted and we often need to prepare our bodies just like in the spring,” said Elisabeth “Eli” Weaver, the co-founder of the Lancaster Farmacy where we participated in an “Herbal Infusion” course at a five acre organic farm on Gypsy Hill Road from May to October 2016. At the last class, upstairs in the drying room of an old, rustic barn, we gathered around Eli. Casey Spacht, the director and founder of Lancaster Farm Fresh Coop, and Eli’s partner added his wisdom of foraging for wild plants to the discussion, and later taught us effortlessly how to make “smudge sticks” out of the fresh  herbs, sage, lavender and others piled on the floor of the old barn.  These two pioneering organic farmers taught us all summer about planting and harvesting herbs and how to make herbal medicine. Now we had the last class with Eli and Casey on how to make a fall tonic and why it’s good for you.

“We often need to prepare our bodies,” said Eli, “and the great thing about fall is that it’s wonderful to make root tonics, but you can also use other herbs like dandelion and nettle.”

What is a tonic?

“It’s always something that is nurturing and enlivening,” said Eli, quoting herbalist David Hoffman. There are many herbs that support the functions of the systems of the body. But in fall, certain ones work better than others and often are readily available in your own backyard.  An easily made root concoction can be a remedy that helps to bring the life force back into the body, awakening the healing response, invigorating and strengthening.

“Milky oats is an example of a tonic herb because it’s a staple herb that you can use over a long period of time,” said Eli as she prepared to demonstrate how to make a decoction in an hour in our own kitchens at home.

“They (milky oats) really help with the invigoration that is happening,” she said.

Eli’s list of ideal herbs for fall included cleavers, burdock, nettles, dandelion, chickweed, sassafras, violet, red clover and plaintain.”: (You have to wait for spring to pick the violets or red clover, also effective tonic herbs.) These herbs are nutritive, diuretic (increase the flow removing toxins with the urine) and aid with discharge of toxins through the skin.

Different parts of the herbal plants have different effects, too. “Dandelion leaf is more of a diuretic than the root,” said Eli. “And the root is more nutritive. Asparagus is a diuretic as is elder flower.”

“The other great thing about tonics is that they stimulate so many different parts of our systems, digestive, lymphatic and urinary. So, you’re really getting all of the toxins out of your body through these different systems.” This is similar to the  teachings from Ayurveda (“science of life”) from India about removing toxins.

How to make an herbal decoction? 

Eli taught creativity and flexibility. We can use equal parts of herbs  at the start, but that ratio can be changed for taste, or effect. “I prefer to do handfuls vs. weighing my herbs, to make tea blends,” said Eli. “It’s best to start with equal parts and then you can taste off that, like is the sage overpowering the holy basil? Then you can adjust.”

“For a tonic, you can chop up the roots and visualize the amounts. For example, you might use a cup of dandelion roots and a cup of burdock roots,” she said. . These are the herbs for fall concoction: Dandelion leaf and roots, burdock root, nettles and chickweed (red clover and violet, while effective in the fall, are not found wild except in spring.)

You take 1 part herbs to 3 or 4 parts water, bring to a boil, and then simmer to 1/2 the amount. Then add a preservative like molasses (for iron and taste, too) in the ratio of 1 cup molasses to 2 cups of decoction.

“A small batch can be made in an hour,” said Eli. As an experienced herbalist and founder of the first Community Supported Medicine Share for the Lancaster area, she has a lot of experience preparing tonics for sale on her on line store at

As our class disperses and  we go back to a consumer’s life, we will have a renewed appreciation of what it takes to make an herbal tonic for fall. So when the leaves rebel and stalk the ground in swirls of red and gold, remember it’s time to get the toxins out of your system, too.

The End.

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