I will note that Spring and Fall are both times to harvest roots. The roots will differ slightly in chemical composition, and Fall may yield larger ones. But it is important to remember that both are valid times to gather.
While digging and processing roots is hard work, it is well worth the effort. With this article I hope to inspire you to get out and harvest a few. I’ll describe why I believe root medicines are important, and point out three that grow in your own backyard.
When I apply a plant medicine, I take into account many factors. A few things may be the taste and energetics of the plant, the effect it has on a tissue, and the symptoms and system it finds resonance with. But I also consider a bit of the meaning the part used holds to me.
Structurally, the root of the plant serves to draw nutrients up from the soil giving the plant the energy it needs to grow. It holds the plant to its place in the ground, and is integral to the plants survival in its changing environment, for it is the only part that is protected from the elements.
While most other parts of the plant die back to grow a new, or become seeds for proliferation in the future, the root lives on. It remembers everything the plant has weathered and uses that information to make the plant stronger.
To us, roots are a nutrient dense food which historically helped feed generations of people. They assist digestive function, and assist absorption of nutrients. Just as roots draw nutrients up from the soil for the plant, they help our bodies remember how to draw nutrients up to be utilized by the our cells.
Roots also aid the catabolic process of breaking down waste and seeing it leave the body properly by stimulating organs of elimination. And when our organ systems have become deficient, root medicines help strengthen, stimulate and inspire them to remember function and vitality.
Spiritually, just as the root holds the plant to its place, increasing its chance for survival, root medicines root us to ourselves and our healing process. Root medicines are our walking sticks. They support and walk with us on our journey as we grow stronger, for they remind us that while we have no control over the natural conditions of life, just as the plant cannot avoid winter, we can be strong and persevere.
The 3 roots featured are all common plants you probably have in your backyard. They all have different effects on the body, and serve a multitude of purposes. While each of these plants has leaves, flowers and seeds that are also used medicinally, I will focus mainly on uses of the root.
Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale): Taste of root: bitter, sweet, salty; Energetics: cooling liver and digestive tonic and stimulant, diuretic, anti-inflammatory, nutritive, hypotensive
Taraxacum officinale was a medicine of Ancient Greece. According to Maude Grieve, Taraxacum comes from the Greek taraxos meaning ‘disorder’ or ‘I have excited’, and akos, meaning ‘remedy’ or ‘pain’- ‘disorder remedy’ or ‘I have excited pain’.
The common name dandelion is inspired by the shape of the leaves. They are thought to reflect a lions tooth and jaw. The Latin translation Dens leonis being ‘lions tooth’.
While Taraxacum officinale was a Greek medicinal, it was transported and naturalized here from Asia and Europe. They say that when the settlers first came to America there were no dandelions. But by the mid-1600’s they were everywhere.
Native Americans were quick to find a use for the plants. The roots were taken to strengthen many organs and for a multitude of symptoms. They found dandelion roots had an affinity for the digestive tract, and took decoctions of the root for stomach pains, as a laxative, and for heart burn. The root was used for general nutrition during times of drought by the Cree, and by other tribes for anemia.
There are other general uses as well. It was considered blood strengthening and a nervine tonic, A tea of the flowers and root were drunk for lower back pain, liver spots and skin rashes, and puffy eyes with dark circles.
Today the dandelion root is one of the most popular herbal therapies. It is widely recommended for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, edema, digestive weakness, and PMS.
It is an excellent cooling bitter that stimulates a heated and stagnant stomach to produce hydrochloric acid, thereby assisting the beginning digestive process. The roots also inspire the liver to release bile, improving metabolism of fats and proteins. And as with burdock root, dandelion root is high in fructoligosacharides, or FOS, which is food for good bacteria in the gut.
It is important to recognize that dandelion roots diuretic action is present without the same potassium leaching effects of diuretic drugs. It is specifically indicated for high blood pressure with edema that responds well to diuretics for this reason.
Dosage: 1 tsp. of the dried root per 8 oz water. It must be simmered for 30 min. Tincture: 5-30 drops 2-4 times daily.
Stinging Nettle root (Urtica dioica): Taste: bland to slightly salty, slightly acrid; Energetics: anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, astringent, diuretic, haemostatic, tonic
Urtica dioica, or stinging nettle, is native to a host of countries and continents, from Europe, to Asia, South Africa to Australia and North America. It’s name is derived from the Latin urere, ‘to burn’. And yes, that is because of the burn received by the stinging hairs. Dioica translates as ‘two houses’ because plants of the same stand are found to have either male or female flowers.
Interestingly, nettle leaf tea dried and drunk is anti-histamine and anti-inflammatory, indicated for burning on urination, allergies affecting the respiratory tract. But the leaves will have to be addressed in another article.
Years ago I formulated with nettle root solely in cases of men with benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). As time passed, I became interested in what value the root had historically. For while the effects of nettle are accredited to the sting, leaf and seed, I thought surely the root should have more value as a medicine as well.
And so I searched through old eclectic texts, and the ethnobotanical uses researched and compiled by the late herbalist Michael Moore, and found some very interesting uses for the root.
Native Americans found great value in the root of nettle. It was considered a diuretic, much like the leaves, and was used for urinary complaints. Decoctions were drunk as well as applied externally to relieve swollen, sore arthritic legs, joints and ankles. It was also drunk and externally applied in cases of protrusions such as hemorrhoids, swollen skin tissue and hives. It was used for dysentery, excessive bleeding, and as a general blood tonic for exhaustion. The Native Americans also took the root for asthma. There is even reference to the nettle root being used for infection of the lower respiratory tract, such as pneumonia and bronchitis.
I have found nettle root useful in cases of cancer when the client is undergoing treatment, either chemotherapy or radiation. It is a nutritive, slightly warming and stimulating diuretic and anti-inflammatory in the kidney and intestinal tract. I like that it doesn’t over stimulate or irritate, an effect the leaves sometimes have.
David Winston references the root as being effective for prostate inflammation by inhibiting the conversion of cholesterol into hormones in the prostate, thus being an excellent treatment for benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). As mentioned above, I have used it for such, combined with Saw Palmetto and other herbs specific per person with success.
One use for nettle root that I have yet to explore is its application as an anti-viral. While Michael Moore speaks to its weakness in this arena, he does point out that some claim success using it internally to treat herpes. Maude Grieve says that it is specific for chicken pox, a virus in the same family. I’m not sure of the efficacy here, but it will make an interesting experiment.
Yellow dock root (Rumex crispus): Taste: acrid, warming bitter, slightly sour and earthy; Energetics: alterative, astringent, laxative, drying, anti-diarrheal, anti-inflammatory
Rumex crispus is native to Europe and western Asia. It stands out with its lance-shaped leaves and nicely crisped curly edges. This is reflected in the Latin name of the plant. Rumex, translates as ‘lanced’, and crispus as ‘curly’.
Tribes employed the root much as we do today. They used the mashed fresh root pulp topically for rheumatic pains, swelling and sores. The Iroquois also applied this mash to hemorrhoids, and as a poultice in yellow fever. Decoctions of the root were taken internally for constipation, and to inspire the body to cleanse the blood. Their specific indications for use were jaundice, chronic skin afflictions, intestinal colds and pain, and kidney trouble. While the root was an emetic, the seeds for taken for diarrhea.
The Navajo considered yellow dock to be life medicine, and deemed it a panacea, or a cure for what ails you. Yellow dock’s healing power is characteristic of the direction of the east, a direction that supports life, light and growth. And the Navajo used the whole plant as an emetic before ceremony to clear and cleanse the system in order to prepare the body for healing and spiritual ritual.
I have found yellow dock root to be an indispensible plant medicine in my practice. It supports life as a digestive tonic, acting specifically on the liver, and gall bladder to inspire function, and balance. It assists protein and fat digestion, assimilation of B12, A and E, and is indicated for poor iron absorption. It relieves constipation, inflammation in the colon, and jaundice when these symptoms are in direct relation to assimilation and digestive issues. In small doses it can I have also used it to relieve diarrhea, for it is considered astringent as well.
Skin conditions are synonymous with digestive and lymphatic function. If digestive function becomes depleted, the lymphatic system misaligns as well. The blood and extra cellular fluid cannot be cleaned properly, thus leading to acne or chronic skin disease, such as eczema and psoriasis.
I have used yellow dock root as a supportive therapy when combined with other plants to help maintain the integrity of the liver, improve function and bring elevated enzyme levels back down to normal when the liver is swollen and leaking. Cases that have found success with yellow dock root were hepatitis, drug and alcohol abuse, autoimmune conditions and clients undergoing cancer treatments.
In these cases, yellow docks ability tone the intestinal tract and liver, increase nutrient absorption and improve the livers ability to breakdown toxins and properly eliminate them was extremely supportive therapy.
Root medicines are fairly easy to make. If you are going to tincture the fresh root, I recommend using 1 part plant to 2 parts pure grain alcohol or organic grape alcohol. Clean, chop as small as you can, and weigh the root-yes, always weigh, so that your medicine will have measurable action. The therapy is sometimes lost if the dilution of medicine is unknown. Put your chopped root into a mason jar and pour the alcohol over it. Store this in a cool dry place, and shake it every day. After 8 weeks press out the tincture.
Be sure to label your medicines, include the date, place harvested, plant and part used and what dilution your tincture is. For example, if you used 1 part plant to two parts alcohol, your tincture is a 1:2.
It is important to note that while most roots are processed as a 1:2 and can be tinctured fresh, there are some exceptions. For further study on specific roots and how to tincture them, please refer to Richo Cech’s book, Making Plant Medicines.
Making tea with roots requires drying. And to make a root tea, one needs to use 1-2 tablespoons of dried root per 8 oz. of water. Bring the water and root to a low boil together, turn the heat down to simmer, and let go for 30 minutes before turning off and straining. Your tea is ready to drink.
It’s true that I find herbal medicines and the plants they come from fascinating, and root medicines are no exception. They come in many tastes and shapes and serve many purposes, from the sweet and pungent licorice root, which is a potent anti-viral, anti-inflammatory and adrenal adaptogen, to the maze like root of the native black cohosh.
I hope this fall, everyone will get out and take this time to learn about a root and put it to good use. I believe it’s what the plants want.