By Stephanie Burgess (Tephyr) tephyr(at)taconic.net
Can you believe fall is here? As I write this, (October) we are just past the peak for the foliage season, The Garden is looking pretty bare and the woodstove is cranking away... A busy time in the garden though, as we tuck everyone in for the coming freeze. This is the time for root harvesting. The only thing that is hard is the actual digging, and that depends on the plant and its root depth.
The first light frosts is the signal for plants to start storing up their energies and properties into their roots to help them survive the long winter months. And so, it is the signal for us to go out and start digging. Ideally we are looking at the waning lunar phase. This is the time the lunar energy is pushing inward/downwards. And dig early in the morning, or if possible in the night, as the chilly night air tells the plant to send its energies and properties downward into the roots. Even this time of year we can have warm days, when the energies rise into the upper parts of the plant.
Now you have to decide which plant roots you want. This of course depends on what you have available and what your needs are. In The Garden we have a choice of Yellow Dock, Echinacea purpurea, Burdock, Dandelion, Plantain, Comfrey, Joe Pye Plant, Boneset.... to name a few that are not only our favorites but are readily available.
You'll need a good shovel and something to put the roots in. A paper bag or box are my choices. Dig the roots if possible leaving some root and replanting it so that the plant can hopefully survive. Also, if in good shape, try and find a use for the upper portions, nothing should be wasted. Decorative or even compost is better than nothing . If the plants have seed attached, plant them to help the cycle continue.
Brush off as much dirt as you can. Put some leaves or grass in the bottom of your container, place the roots in and cover them with more leaves or grass. You want to keep them out of direct sunlight, as this effects their energy. as well as damp until you process them. Don't forget to thank the plant...
Take them home and carefully wash as much dirt off as you can. Running water and a vegetable brush I find essential for this. Outside with a hose is best, as I have found out the hard way you can clog your drains. Make sure they are completely dry, for if you are going to use them in oil making, wet plant matter can cause rancidity. And if you are going to dry them for use later, if they are too damp you could get mold. What you do now depends on how you want to use them:
If you want to dry your roots, I have found that chopping them works better than leaving them whole. I once replanted Orrisroot in the spring, as it never died despite hanging up near the wood stove all winter. (anything that vigorous and tenacious deserved a second chance). Chop them into small chunk or tiny pieces, depending on your need. (I have found a salad shooter works great for the really tough roots) Lay them flat, not touching each other in flat trays, or baskets. I find those plastic mesh plant trays you get at the nursery work well. Find a cool, dry, dark place for them to dry.
When they are totally dry: they will feel dry, but be spongy to the touch. You don't want them rock hard. Put them in jars, label them and place them in a cool, dry cupboard somewhere until you need them. A paper towel or napkin with dried milk powder folded and place in the bottom of the jar will help to absorb any extra moisture (replace every few months). Paper or burlap bags are great for keeping roots in; place the bags in a box or keep in a cupboard to keep safe.
The fresh root can be made into oil or tincture or used in decoctions and infusions immediately.
When making an infusion or decoction with roots or barks, one simmers the herbs for anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour, depending on the strength you want. Strain and drink for an infusion or strain and simmer until 1/2 the volume is left for a decoction. To use roots and bark in combination with tender leaves and flowers; which you don't want to boil; pour the strained hot root infusion or the hot root decoction over the leaves and flowers and steep five to fifteen minutes depending on the strength desired. Strain and drink. Check with a Healthcare Practitioner who is versed in herbal remedies or a good Herbal for dosages for the individual herbs you are using.
A few last word of advice and a personal request: Before you dig in the wild make sure the plant you are about to harvest is not on any endangered lists in your area (call your local Extension Service) and even if it is not endangered make sure it grows in abundance in your area. I never harvest from a stand of less than two dozen plants and then I only take, at the most three plants, if I have the need. What we harvest today we won't have tomorrow, when our need may be greater.
And last: Make sure you are absolutely sure the plant you are about to harvest is the plant you think it is! If in doubt: even a little, don't harvest!!
This article was first published in Alternative Nature Online