After a long winter of lethargy and heavy meals, your body may start to crave the energizing foods of spring: fresh, leafy greens. What make greens great are their plentiful nutrients, contained in a form readily available to the body.

Dark, bitter greens, including dandelion, arugula, nettles, chickweed, and watercress, offer the most health benefits, especially for digestive function. "[They] stimulate taste buds sensitive to bitter compounds," explains Keegan Sheridan, ND, of Beverly Hills, California. "In response, salivation [and] gastric acid secretion increase, and pancreatic enzymes are primed to respond when food enters the small intestine, helping to maximize food breakdown and speed waste elimination." Grab a bunch of these lively leaves to put a little spring in your step.

Green power
Dandelion greens are experiencing a resurgence in popularity, thanks to savvy chefs who recognize the nutritional value and snappy taste of these traditional lawn enemies. Rich in vitamins A and C as well as iron and calcium, dandelion greens rank ahead of broccoli and spinach in overall nutrition. Plus, dandelion leaves are a natural diuretic, increasing urine production by promoting the excretion of salts and water from the kidneys, says Ellen Cutler, MD, a holistic nutritionist in Mill Valley, California.

How to use them: Try some in a salad with red onions, tomatoes, and garbanzo beans, or layer in a sandwich with pancetta.

Arugula, commonly added to salads and pasta, also boasts significant vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and fiber. A member of the mustard family, tangy arugula contains naturally occurring compounds called isothiocyanates, powerful anticarcinogens especially effective in fighting cancers of the lung and esophagus (Drug Metabolism Reviews, 2000, vol. 32, nos. 3-4). You'll find loose-leaf and bunches of arugula in produce sections in the spring, as well as prepackaged in bags and shells nearly year-round.

How to use it: Try arugula puréed into pesto or nestled between cheese and tomatoes on a homemade pizza.

Nettles, a wild, earthy green, supply the body with protein and dense amounts of minerals, including iron, silica, and potassium. Sheridan recommends the plant for pregnant and lactating women because it provides nutrients needed for healthy fetal development and breast-milk production. Intake of iron, for example, correlates with a healthy birth weight for babies and adequate milk supply in mothers. "The mineral content of nettles supplies a basic energy source that helps support the nervous system and provides energy in times of fatigue and stress—which is precisely the case for new moms," Sheridan says.

How to use them: Pull on your rubber gloves when handling; they aren't called stinging nettles for nothing. A little cooking will deactivate the sting, however, so try the leaves in a frittata or sautéed with garlic and olive oil.

Better bitters
To tame the bite of any pungent green, such as watercress (above), sauté leaves with onions and garlic in a bit of olive oil and sprinkle the finished product with lemon juice, says Lisa Licavoli, RD, CCN, owner of Concepts in Nutrition in Newport Beach, California.

—G.R.

Chickweed, a cosmopolitan green, supposedly grows anywhere in the world and is best known for its medicinal uses. A 2004 study described some of chickweed's calming effects on tissues when applied topically (Journal of Natural Products, 2004, vol. 67, no. 9); its drying and cooling properties heal everything from puffy eyes to cuts and burns. "Chickweed is an excellent edible green, high in protein, fiber, and vitamin A, though it's primarily known to botanists as a topical application because of its anti-inflammatory properties," says Sheridan.

How to use it: It's great topped with fresh fish and horseradish, or tossed into an apple and raisin salad.

Watercress, a delicate bitter green that grows partially submerged in creeks and streambeds, contains abundant beta-carotene, which converts to vitamin A in the body. Just 1 cup of raw chopped watercress contains 959 mcg of vitamin A (precursor beta-carotene), more than 100 percent of the recommended daily intake. Like arugula, watercress is a cruciferous vegetable rich in cancer-protective isothiocyanates, Cutler says.

How to use it: Try puréeing in a vinaigrette or mixing into a warm pasta sauce of shallots, reduced chicken broth, and a touch of cream.

An acquired taste
If you've never ventured beyond romaine lettuce in the produce aisle, your taste buds might not be ready for a heaping plate of bitters. Ease into the experience with a mild green like watercress, with its subtle peppery bite, or by adding just a few potent greens to a lettuce salad. As your palate adjusts, you'll find yourself craving their robust flavors.