Root Medicine

The rich green of the summer forest has died away here, replaced with a riot of color; bright gold, sun-orange, scarlet leaves drifting on the surface of the lake.

I think this season, when the air is thin and cool, when everything feels transitional and liminal, is a good time to become more grounded. What a year this has been. What a time we are living in. We need stronger roots than ever to keep us standing firm and upright in the face of everything we've been through and everything before us.

To our human eyes, a root is just...a root. An afterthought, unseen, growing down in the dirt.

But the truth is the root is the life source of the plant. It twists and turns and branches and finds a way to tap into a web of invisible mycorrhizae and microorganisms in the soil, transferring nutrients and communications, attaching the plant to the vast neural network of the land. It's a system of interdependence, giving and taking, survival and common good. 

Maybe we can learn something from the forest. We, like the plants and trees, are only as strong as the network around us. So maybe it's worth taking some time this season to check in with our community. As much as modern western culture likes to tell us different, we humans have only made it this far because we helped each other. Sticking together is the only way we grow and survive, especially in the cold winter, especially in the hard times.

Another part of root-tending is letting go of things that aren't doing you any good. Maybe even causing you harm.

What weight can you stop carrying? What can you clear away, so that you can walk into the winter feeling light and ready to settle in and enjoy the long nights?

There's a belief among old folk healers that what we don't fix in the autumn will manifest itself more powerfully in the spring. In my experience, this is true. So take some time now to get the stuff that's bothering you straightened out - physically and spiritually. This is the truest form of 'self-care', and we all deserve it.

In addition to tending our own roots, this is a season to harvest those growing outside in the forests and fields. The energy of the plants sinks down at this time of year, settling in the roots, stored up for winter. This is when the medicine in them is the most potent.

There are a lot of roots to harvest for medicine (um, understatement), but I'll just focus on the ones I personally harvest and work with at this time of the year.

But first, let's talk about harvesting roots for a minute, because it can get tricky. With some plants, it can be a serious endeavor (I'm looking at you, six-foot deep burdock roots). So here's how to do it:

1) Make sure you have a solid ID. I know I'm a broken record with this, but seriously. Be 110% sure you have the right plant.

2) Gently clear away the duff layer (surface leaves and debris) around the plant.

3) With a sharp spade or shovel (I use a hori hori), dig down around the base of the plant and rock the soil back and forth to loosen it, then slowly lever up and down, being careful not to slice the root. 

This part could take a while, depending on how deep the roots is. Get your hands in the dirt and feel around. You may be able to pry it out easily, or you may have to dig a little deeper and continue loosening a bit more.

4) Shake off the dirt. It's useful to have a little brush to get some of the dirt off with, but I typically just use my hands.

5) Seal up the hole and cover with the duff you moved. If the plant you dug up has seeds, plant them in the ground. This is a way to give thanks to the plant and to try and replace what you took. You can also leave a little piece of root, as many plants can regenerate from just a small bit left behind.

6) Clean the roots a bit more when you get home. A rinse under cold water is enough to get rid of most of the mud and dirt.

7) Chop up the roots when fresh. This will help them dry faster, and also...cutting up dried, toughened roots can be, well, how can I say this politely...difficult.

8) Unless you're tincturing the fresh roots, allow them to fully dry on a screen before storing them in airtight jars in a cool, dark place. (I have a post about tincturing and one about drying and storing herbs, if you want to check that out.)

Ok! So now that we've got that covered, let's talk about some of the roots I work with and their medicine.


Barberry (Berberis vulgaris)

Barberry is considered a noxious invasive in the US. When left to its own devices, it grows into a sprawling, thorny shrub that produces red berries. The tiny leaves and berries are edible, although not exactly satisfying or super tasty (the leaves do have a lemony zip that I like, though). The real magic of this plant is in its bright yellow roots, which contain antimicrobial, antifungal berberine (this is what produces that beautiful golden color). Barberry root also contains a compound called 5'-MHC that makes it harder for bacteria to develop a resistance to antibiotics. 

Barberry root is an effective bitter, increasing bile production and supporting the liver and gallbladder. Because of this effect, it's often referred to as a 'blood purifier'. 

I like to use barberry root as a substitute for goldenseal, which is very popular for bacterial infection...and therefore has been over harvested to the point of near extinction. Barberry, on the other hand... Well, you don't need to feel bad about harvesting it.

Digging up barberry roots can get, *ahem*, thorny, so I suggest grabbing a pair of gloves before you head out.

The roots can be dried and decocted, but I like to tincture them fresh, as I sometimes use the tincture topically for wound care.  

Note: the berberine in the roots will stain everything yellow, so keep that in mind!


Blackberry (Rubus sp.)

We're all familiar with the delicious fruit of the blackberry, but the roots hold a really useful medicine; they are cooling and astringent.

Astringents work by tightening up lax, leaky tissues and giving them back their tone. Blackberry root has a special affinity for the gut, and is therefore used as a remedy for diarrhea.

Because the best way to treat this particular ailment is to drink a decoction, I like to chop blackberry roots up and store them in case they're needed. You can make a tincture too - that might be useful in situations where you aren't able to make a decoction, or when you don't have enough blackberry around to harvest very much.

Side note: the leaves make a delicious tea, so save some when you're out harvesting the roots!


Burdock (Arctium lappa)

Tugging on a burdock plant will get you approximately nowhere. The roots are incredibly strong, and digging them up takes effort. There is a lesson to be learned from burdock about staying firmly rooted. 

The roots of burdock should be harvested during the first year (it's a biennial), when it forms a basal rosette of big leaves. During its second year, the plant uses all its energy to produce a tall stalk, flowers and seed, leaving little for the root; it's often tough and gnarly by this point.

Medicinally, burdock root is bitter, cooling and clearing. It's often used to help clear up skin conditions that are caused by a deeper problem, such as congestion in the liver. Many herbalists use it as a specific for eczema and psoriasis, as it seems to help the body get moisture levels in the skin back into balance and solve the problem at its roots (no pun intended, I swear...). 

Honestly, I feel it helps to bring the entire body into balance by supporting the liver and lymphatic system. I've used it in formulas for hormonal imbalance, sluggish digestion, overly dry skin, and for a general sense of stuffiness, heat and malaise.

Burdock root can be a bit oily, so if you're not using it fresh, keep an eye on it as it dries (I find the key is chopping it up pretty small). It may even be a good idea, if you live in a very humid environment, to use your oven or dehydrator to get some of the drying done.

The roots can be tinctured fresh, or dried and made into a decoction. It's also eaten as a root vegetable - cook it like a carrot. When I can find a lot of it, I'll typically roast it with a few other vegetables for dinner.


Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum commutatum)

When you brush aside the duff and the thin top layer of soil around a solomon's seal plant, you'll reveal the bone-white, jointed root (technically rhizome) snaking along behind it. A major clue to how this plant is used is its appearance - it looks like a spine, or like finger joints. Solomon's seal is demulcent and helps to lubricate stiff, tight, dry tendons, joints, and fascia.

When taken in even small doses, this plant seems to increase the amount of synovial fluid around joints, easing pain, friction and inflammation. The mechanism for how this works in the body is yet unknown, but many herbalists will swear by its effectiveness.

Because this plant isn't as prevalent in many areas, it's important to harvest it carefully and in a way that allows the plant to keep on living and growing. Thankfully, this is pretty easy to do.

Solomon's seal roots grow just beneath the surface layer of dirt - just brush stuff away around the plant and you'll be able to locate a long chain of nodes branching off the main plant. Instead of pulling up the whole plant, count a few nodes away from the plant, slice cleanly with your knife, and pull up the remaining section of root that's no longer attached to the plant.

I don't dry solomon's seal, but instead tincture it fresh. Because there's never a whole lot of this plant around, tincturing a small amount makes more sense than drying a lot of it. 


Stay rooted friends, and happy digging!

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