Digging roots, filling the pantry with herbs of life

The odd yellow leaf has appeared on the poplars. The fan has been turned off in the bedroom and an quilt has been tossed on the bed. In the woods, the rose hips are a lovely blushing pink. It is almost time to harvest roots.

The odd yellow leaf has appeared on the poplars. The fan has been turned off in the bedroom and an quilt has been tossed on the bed. In the woods, the rose hips are a lovely blushing pink. It is almost time to harvest roots.

After the plant’s seed has been scattered by the wind, been a crow’s or chickadee’s mid-morning snack or tumbled to the ground, herbalists get out their digging sticks to root out the medicine hidden in the soil.

I love digging up roots. Just as flowers come in so many shapes and such wide ranging scents, so do roots.

Yellow doc (rumex crispus) has a thick, stubborn tap root that plows deeper than I can dig into the earth. Snap doc’s fresh root open and yellow sap oozes out. Hence its name yellow doc. Doc’s scent is reminiscent of baby poo. I think of its scent as its signature. Yellow doc is very helpful in reorganizing the unorganized bowels of irritable bowel syndrome.

Valerian (valarianna officinalis) is another matter. It has a twisted tangle of thin rhizomes. One would expect a sturdy, earthy root from such a vigorous plant. Valerian’s scent is either loved or strongly disliked. My friend Sabrina tells me it is similar to licorice; I think it has a closer resemblance to cat urine. Despite its powerful aroma, it does wonders for those who have cramping tension below the navel, or for the heart that needs little extra calm.

I plan to pull some wandering rose roots from the garden this year. Usually I leave them. But this summer, a Cherokee herbalist told me a story about his mother’s rose root. She carried a tough, black rose root in her purse wrapped in cotton. Her mother had given her the root. Whenever the family went camping, his mother unwrapped the root and made tea with it. Apparently, she made tea with the same rose root for many years.

This past weekend, we went canoeing. Back at the campsite, to our amazement, we had forgotten to pack tea. In my family, we drink a lot of tea. The problem of no tea was solved by picking a few rose leaves. I have, however, resolved to carry a rose root with me for moment like those from here on in.

I plan to excavate one of my elecampane (inulin helenium) plants. This will be a challenge. Elecampane root is large and fleshy. The mighty main root sends branches thick as my wrist burrowing deep into the earth. Elecampane has a firm grip on the soil. Like valerian, elecampane root is strongly aromatic. The chemistry that creates the root’s pungent scent and taste is the same chemistry that herbalists have used for thousands of years to relieve deep-seated winter coughs and flus.

Elecampane root chemistry also carries another useful medicine called inulin. Inulin is found in many roots, including dandelion (taraxacum officinalis). Inulin is the plant’s pantry. All the combined sunshine and rain of summer is stored as inulin in elecampane’s root as a complex sugar. Next spring, when elecampane awakens in the warming soil, it will feed on the stored inulin as it pushes its green tips up through the earth.

Herbalists offer plants high in inulin to help the body’s muscles absorb glucose from the blood stream. This lowers blood sugar levels for those struggling with type two diabetes.

I also hope to make some medicine with enormous lovage (levisticum official) that threatens to take over one corner of the garden. I have never dug the lovage root before, so I am looking forward to uncovering its character.

Lovage’s root, like valerian and elecampane, is aromatic and spicy. In a formula, lovage can aid elecampane in relieving deep wet coughs. But I am hoping to use it to moderate migraine headache pain. Taking a teaspoon of lovage tincture at the very first signs of the headache can dampen the severity of the head pain and relieve queasiness in the stomach.

It requires patience unearthing roots. One gently pushes the soil aside, going deeper and deeper, careful not to bruise the roots. It will take several days to do this work. Little else will be accomplished. But when finished, I will have good, strong earth medicine ready to be used.

Herbs for Life is written by Abrah Arneson, a local clinical herbalist. It is intended for information purposes only. Readers with a specific medical problem should consult a doctor. For more information, visit www.abraherbalist.ca. Arneson can be reached at abrah@shaw.ca.

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