I woke up the morning before last and it felt like autumn. Sure, it’s still quite warm during the day here in Durango, but something about the light and the cool morning air signaled the imminent arrival of the colder months here at higher elevations.
When gathering plant medicine, time of year is sometimes important to the quality of the medicine, with fall and spring being the most common time for root digging. Why do folks gather roots at certain times of the year? It’s often related to the chemistry of the root during a particular season, or to other aspects of the plant’s lifecycle. For instance, a biennial plant (they usually live 2 years), dies off after blooming the second year. The plant is sending all of its stored energy from the root up into the flowers for a last hurrah, so the root medicine will be weak if harvested then. The root may even be disintegrating by the time the plant’s in full bloom.
Many herbalists like to harvest seasonally because the energy of the medicine is different depending on time of year. For instance, one collects roots in the spring when they want to capture the rising, flowing and uplifting energy of this time of year. After winter dormancy, the sap in the roots is starting to flow back up into the plant as the plant starts a new season of growth. It’s not hard to imagine that this may be a better preparation for someone who is feeling down, stuck, or sluggish, whether emotionally or physically.
The fall is a different kind of energy. It’s about drawing down and grounding in preparation for the winter. The sap of the plant is sinking down into the roots, into the earth to prepare for overwintering, when, in fact, the roots aren’t dormant. They’re working to prepare the plant for emergence in the spring, just like the introspective work that is good for us to do this time of year is good for preparing us for the next year. Fall is when we plant the seeds for spring. Fall root medicine is good for those with frenetic lives—those feeling scattered or extended in too many directions—who need to slow down and do some more inward directed work.
With fall rapidly approaching, let’s get into those to look for that are common to many places.
I love this plant. Sure, it’s a weed, but mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is beautiful and supremely useful—for the environment as well…it breaks up hard-packed dirt, which lets other plants get a foothold (roothold?) and lets the rain penetrate better rather than just running off. You may have heard this plant called “toilet paper of the woods,” but I don’t recommend trying it unless you want a bunch of prickly little hairs in your nether parts.
- Find the biggest basal rosettes of leaves…these will have the biggest roots. As soon as you dig the root, immediately cut it from the aerial parts. It can be chopped and dried for tea or tinctured. The nearly white-colored root produces a very dark brown extract.
- The root is used for respiratory tract issues, similar to the leaf.
- It’s also handy for urinary incontinence, toning the trigone muscle of the bladder. I had a client on mullein root for her back, only to hear back that she no longer dribbled urine upon sneezing.
- My favorite use? Spine-related stuff. This plant is the main reason that I don’t have a pinched femoral or sciatic nerve every other week. It’s traditionally used for alignment issues from the neck down to the base of the spine, and if it works for you, it really works.
A Eurasian native, like mullein, burdock (Arctium lappa) has also made itself at home here in southwest Colorado and, indeed, all over much of North America. The name arctium means bear, in reference to the appearance of the burrs, which you will be quite familiar with if you’ve ever brushed against burdock that’s gone to seed.
- As with mullein root, find the largest rosette of leaves to find the largest roots. The root can be chopped and dried for tea or for use in soups or stews. It can be used fresh in salads and for stir-fry. Or, it can be tinctured.
- The root is nutritious and is great shredded in salads, imparting an earthy flavor. It also works chopped up in soups and stews. It contains protein, calcium, potassium, and phosphorus along with folate. Burdock root also contains the “prebiotic” inulin, which has beneficial effects on the gut microbiome.
- Burdock is traditionally used for detoxification, with effects on the liver, lymphatic system, and urinary system in terms of metabolism and waste elimination. This activity, in turn, may help with conditions made worse by poor metabolic function or waste accumulation: Rheumatic conditions, skin outbreaks, and hormonal imbalances, for example.
- Burdock root is also a digestive bitter tonic, improving production of digestive fluids and enzymes, resulting in better nutrient availability from our food and easier bowel movements.
Yellow dock (Rumex crispus) is another common and fantastic weed. Just make sure where you are harvesting it is a clean area, as yellow dock readily accumulates heavy metals from the soil. The “yellow” part of its common name is due to the yellowish color of the root. Dock generally refers to weedy plants with broad leaves (e.g., yellow dock, red dock, burdock).
- Yellow dock root should be dried before use to prevent intestinal griping from raw root preparations. Once dried, the root blends well with fennel seed as a digestive tea. To tincture the dried root, be sure to add vegetable glycerin (10% final concentration) to the vodka, brandy, or whatever alcohol you are using.
- Yellow dock is one of my favorite digestive bitters for women. The root contains iron, but also improves iron absorption from food and is traditionally used for anemia—making it great for the half of the population that bleeds monthly.
- Yellow dock is one of those medicines that seemingly does contradictory things. In one case, it may help with constipation due either to poor digestion or to a lack of bowel tonicity. In another, it may help with loose stools or diarrhea due to poor digestion, stress, and other causes.
- Like burdock, yellow dock is an “alterative” herb helping with healthy metabolism and waste elimination. This aspect of yellow dock makes it useful for skin issues, particularly acne and red rashes that, from a traditional standpoint, point to excessive heat in the liver.
Beautiful chicory (Cichorium intybus): the blue flowers practically glow as the twilight sets in. Chicory is common along trails, on field edges, and along roadsides. Make sure if you’re harvesting your own to get it from a clean area (i.e., not from along a road).
- Be warned: the plant often grows in hard soils. Digging after a good rain will make life easier. This is a plant where it’s fine to harvest it in bloom. Unlike biennials like burdock and yellow dock, chicory is perennial and is not about to kick the bucket after blooming. In fact, chicory blooms from midsummer into fall, so it most likely will be in flower when you harvest it. The flowers have also been used medicinally, or you could just stick them in a vase.
- Chicory blends well with burdock root as a digestive bitter tonic and liver-supporting herb. And, like burdock, chicory contains inulin for gut health.
- Roasted chicory root has, for a long time, been used as a coffee substitute. Roasting the root brings out a sweeter flavor.
- Chicory also helps support healthy blood sugar regulation.
All of these plants have deep tap roots that take patience to harvest. Patiently digging medicinal roots, though, is not a bad way to spend an autumn afternoon!