Healing is subjective. What each person needs cannot be dictated by some predetermined formula applied to all. It is dictated by the nature of the person in need of healing. This process involves asking questions. And as a practitioner, I ask many questions. But we must personally turn our energy inward to listen to what our bodies are telling us, and look at the pattern of unrest.
Fall gives us the time and space to do that. Fall is also one of the best times to harvest root medicine. As in a past article, I question the role of the plant’s root and what it brings to us. It is more than what holds the plant to the ground. It nourishes the plant and holds a place for it to survive in all seasons. It is the core of strength for the plant. Depending on the root, it can bring a core of strength to us as well, reminding us that we are strong, and have the energy and strength to persevere through hard times while helping us rebalance our bodies. The job of turning our attention inward can be difficult, and a long road for those who embark. Root medicine becomes our walking stick on the journey.Read more…
Red Root’s Journey As a Healer
One plant has caught my attention throughout my career in this field. It is red root, Ceanothus americanus. Ceanothus is indigenous to America, and grows mostly in the west, but in parts of the mid-west and northeast as well. Ceanothus thrives in sandy soil, or open areas with an abundance of light. It is a small to medium-sized shrub that grows to be about 2-4 ft. high with white clusters of flowers. Its leaves taste like black tea, which is how it came to be called New Jersey tea around the time of the American Revolution, and was used during the civil war as a tea substitute. While the leaves were employed medicinally for a bit, they are less effective and weaker than the root, and used primarily for afflictions of the respiratory tract. The root, known as red root for its deep red body, is the part we use for medicine in modern times.
Red root as a medicinal plant is powerful, yet underutilized. It can be found in the 1898 edition of King’s American Dispensatory with good representation, but many other Eclectic texts on herbal medicine display little or no notice of it. It wasn’t considered powerful or useful until the mid 1900’s. It seems to me the plant was misrepresented partly due to a lack of therapeutic evidence. The lack could come as a result of the part of the plant being used -mostly the leaves – which were not near as powerful as the root and very different in action. Another factor may also be that the importance of a certain organ system’s major role in function and disease, namely the spleen/lymphatic system, went unrecognized in Western medicine for so long.
Brief Function of the Spleen
The myth of the spleen as an unimportant organ is still perpetuated in many Western medical circles. There is a much different perspective in alternative health. We view the spleen as the body’s largest lymph node. It is through the spleen and lymphatic system that we address how well our immune system functions, how waste descends and is removed from the body, and how nutrients are sent up into the body to build blood, nourish cells and muscles.
The deficiency of the spleen results in edema, anemia, dampness in the stomach and swollen lymph nodes. There is decreased immune function, loss of appetite and decreased digestive function. That is just the beginning; there are a host of other issues that manifest as chronic or acute problems when spleenic deficiency begins.
Native American Uses of Red Root
We learned many uses of red root from the Native Americans. The Cherokee used the root as a digestive aid. The Chippewa used the root for constipation and bloating, pulmonary troubles and shortness of breath. The Iroquois made a decoction of the leaves, which are said to be more astringent than the root, for diarrhea, and the root for the blood and colds. Many tribes also found that it was helpful as a wash for wound healing, probably due to its astringent properties, and for healing the sores of venereal disease.
Modern Day Uses of Red Root
Today, we look at how red root functions in the body. Red root stimulates lymph and interstitial fluid circulation. It acts as an anti-inflammatory to the spleen and lymph nodes, prevents blood that is high in fat from clumping, and smoothes stomach and intestinal function. The blood transports better, because inflammation across the surface of the lymph nodes is decreased, and bioavailability of nutrients to the cells is increased. We see cases of malabsorption improve dramatically with the introduction of red root. It is a plant that clears excess secretion, and tightens tissue, influencing function to improve. When this occurs, blood is built, improving anemic conditions, cells and muscles receive their proper nutrients, and appetite and immunity improve.
There are many ways to apply red root to dysfunction in the body. In my practice, I recognize that the spleen plays a major role in digestive function, and when digestive disorders are present on a disease or syndrome level, deficiency of the spleen is a contributing factor. Spleen deficiency appears in Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Irritable Bowel Disease (Chron’s and Colitis), where there is impaired uptake of nutrients and an imbalance between wet and dry in the gut, and they respond very well to red root as a long-term tonic at moderately low doses.
The astringent qualities that dry up damp conditions aid conditions where lymphatic congestion is a problem. Mastitis, mononucleosis, tonsillitis and strep infections all find relief from red root. It reduces lymphatic swelling, and sooths sore throats. I often combine red root with other lymphatics, as well as herbs specific to the illness.
Chronic conditions that affect lymphatic function respond well to red root. They are leukemia, Hodgkin’s disease, rheumatism, AIDS and various types of anemias. Please consult someone clinically trained in herbal medicine and experienced in working with these conditions before embarking on your herb journey if you have a positive diagnosis for these diseases.
Because red root has a grand effect on overactive mucosa, it is an excellent expectorant. This is one area where the leaves are a successful treatment. I have found use for them in respiratory illnesses, such as bronchitis, both acute and chronic, and sore throats. I don’t employ the leaves alone, but often combine them with the root of the plant.
Herbs that support lymphatic function do so in many different ways. While I hear many speak of lymphatic herbs as being blood cleansers, we must remember that organs – not plants – clean blood. Plants stimulate and support the process, retraining the body in a function that was forgotten. In the case of disease, where blood is weak, herbs support recuperative function, and when the spleen and lymphatic system have been disabled, it is important to support those functions to increase healing potential.
Where wild fire once burned, red root thrives. It sprouts from rootstock after the tops are burned, and is usually the first to reappear after the fire. Ironically, the Native Americans used the root as firewood when timber was scarce. We see in the body that red root balances wet with dry. It clears the channels of dampness, and decreases inflammation, and increases function, allowing the body to transform food into energy and build blood. It becomes our body’s walking stick, helping it to move again and grow strong once more. From here, we can truly begin to heal.