Autumn has arrived and that means Winter is just around the bend. Everywhere around us the world is changing, preparing for the cold. Bears are getting fat for hibernation, Squirrels are hoarding acorns, and the trees if you haven’t noticed are putting on a show of greens, oranges, reds and browns. And though we might not often think about it many herbs are also getting ready for the coming cold, stealing their energy from above to be stored in their roots below. This storing of energy, vitamins, nutrients and such make it the perfect time to dig them up and make some medicine!
And as you can guess the conundrum with harvesting roots in the fall is the lack of aerial parts to identify, or sometimes what is left looks quite different from the plant that was growing in the summer. This is when knowing your plants during every season comes in handy. A great book to help in this area is Lauren Browns book “Weeds in Winter”. Some plants such as Pleurisy root (Asclepias tuberosa) need to be found in summer and marked with a GPS or flag so after they die back they can be found. Others leave a hint of themselves behind, Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa) for example leaves a 4-6 foot tall candelabra sticking up high into the air, marking where it grows, while Burdock (Arctium lappa) often leaves dried and withered leaves,stalks and burrs. The other important thing to know is what the root your looking for actually looks like, digging up the wrong root can have terrible consequences. Its always useful to have someone knowledgeable about plants with you when harvesting roots. But in lieu of that I recommend Doug Elliotts book “Wild Roots” for a reference guide. His book is full of beautiful and detailed illustrations, descriptions and little stories about all kinds of roots and herbs.
There are many types of roots, some are taproots that go straight down for a ways such as Burdock, some are just clumps of jumbled roots beneath the soil or deep in the soil, while others are spindly and thread like. Some of the roots you can dig with a hand or a hand shovel. The taproots and other deep roots require a full sized shovel or soil knife to dig them up. The goal when digging out roots is to get the whole root and to disturb the plants around it as little as possible. Often I cut off a portion of root with a root bud (The pointy piece of root sticking upwards) to replant in the hole I dug. Always remember to fill the hole in and leave it as if you were never there. Always use your judgement when wild crafting, as not to over harvest or wipe out a stand of plants.
Once you get yourroots and are sure they are the right ones,its a matter of what you wanted them for that will determine the next step. Many people harvest root cuttings to cultivate herbal plants in their gardens or local forests. Plants tend to grow far easier from root cuttings versus seeds. If this is the case keep theroots dirty and moist, then find a suitable location for that plant and put it back in the earth with the pointy root bud facing up. Ifyour using the roots for medicine then take them home and clean the,m up with water and a toothbrush being sure to remove all the dirt and debris as well as roots from other plants that may have gotten mixed in. Next take your clippers and cut them up into small pieces, do this as soon as possible because most roots will start to harden and dry making them near impossible to cut. The next step depends on what roots you harvested, some roots make good teas while others are used for tinctures.RichoCechs book “Making Plant Medicine” is a great reference for determining what you’d like to do. Some are dried for teas and others are used fresh for tinctures. If using roots for a tea make a decoction rather than the typical infusion, bring water to a boil, add roots, cover and turn to a simmer for 20-20 minutes. If your roots are for tinctures they are most often used fresh, and made with varying proofs of alcohol. “Making Plant Medicine” has many recipes for a variety of herbs.
This only scratches the surface of roots, if your looking for more information on them I highly recommend Doug Elliotts book “Wild Roots” . It can be bought from his website here
Also Richo Cechs book “Making Plant Medicine” can be bought here
Or check your local Library!