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Unearthing nature's medicines

PUBLISHED: 12:10 23 November 2010 | UPDATED: 18:12 20 February 2013

Unearthing nature's medicines

Unearthing nature's medicines

Harvesting plant roots to make herbal medicine is a messy process but a worthwhile one, says our herb expert Ed Berger

Harvesting plant roots to make herbal medicine is a messy process but a worthwhile one, says our herb expert Ed Berger

As the days draw in and the ground becomes soft and moist, the herbalists thoughts go to the medicinal roots which are now ready to be harvested. Every plant part has its hour, when active chemical constituents reach their peak. Autumn is the time for medicinal roots, once the aerial parts (leaves and stems) have died back and the plants energy has descended into the roots in readiness for next years plant growth.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, roots have more nourishing and tonic properties than leaves and flowers. This is supported by their chemistry because roots contain many complex carbohydrates needed to fuel the plant into growth next season, think of sweet carrots and parsnips packed with sugars.

Dandelion (Taraxicum officinalis)
Named after the French dents de lion or lions teeth from the jagged leaf edge, dandelion root is sweet and bitter in taste. It supports digestion by stimulating the production of digestive juices and maintains healthy liver function and detoxification. Dandelion produces a single tap root, tapering 6-10 inches into the soil.

Marshmallow (Althea officinalis)
Sweet in taste and slimy in texture, marshmallow root contains mucilage which soothes and heals inflamed membranes in the digestive system, helping in acid reflux and ulcers. It also encourages the production of mucus in dry irritating coughs. The Latin name Althea comes from the Greek word altho, meaning to cure and as its common name suggests, marshmallow juice was the main ingredient in the original marshmallow sweets. These were produced by chemists by blending the slimy juice with sugar and egg white to make an effective and tasty cough sweet. Marshmallow produces a mass of long white tapering roots up to two feet long.

Elecampane (Inula helenium)
The greatest of the lung tonics, elecampane is bitter, sweet and spicy. It opens up the airways, encourages expectoration of catarrh and is excellent for asthma, chronic bronchitis and coughs. Taken as a warm decoction it immediately opens up a tight chest. Elecampane roots are giants, they can be as thick and long as your arm, and so one root will keep an army breathing freely all winter!

Nettle (Urtica dioica)
Beneath those stinging leaves, nettles long fibrous root system spreads horizontally below the ground surface, making them easy to pull from the ground when you yank the nettle stems wearing thick gloves. Nettle roots are used by herbalists for treating prostate enlargement.

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
From the Latin Valere meaning to be well, valerian root is an powerful sleep remedy. The dense mat of thin fibrous roots has a powerful aroma when unearthed. But beware any cats that come too close as the smell makes them playful and lethargic drunk even! Take as an infusion before bed for a deep restful sleep.

How to harvest roots
Loosen the soil around the roots using a fork, carefully lift the root ball from the ground and hose off as much soil as possible. Back inside, break off individual roots, immerse them in a sink full of cold water and remove any traces of dirt using your hands or a soft cloth. Give the roots a final rinse and lay them on a clean tea towel to dry for 24 hours.
Next, cut up the root into inch long pieces, then cut these lengthways and place them on greaseproof paper in a warm dry place ideally an airing cupboard for one to two weeks. Once fully dry, store the roots in labelled paper bags or jars out of direct sunlight.

How to prepare roots
Because dried roots are hard and fibrous they need to be prepared by decoction this means they need to be cooked by simmering them in water in a covered pot for 10-15 minutes to release the active chemicals. Strain your brew before drinking. The usual dose is one heaped teaspoon per cup of water, with 2-3 cups taken daily.

Propagating next years harvest
Root harvesting is a perfect opportunity for plant propagation, as most root balls can easily be split into several pieces, any of which can be replanted to produce more plants next season and an ever increasing medicine harvest.

Gathering and preparing medicinal roots was an important part of our forefathers seasonal ritual, when plants were the only medicines available. This is a time consuming and muddy process, but also hugely absorbing and rewarding on a winters afternoon. Go on, get your hands dirty!

Ed Berger has been practising herbal medicine for 12 years and lives near Woodbridge. He is also course director of herbal medicine for the College of Naturopathic Medicine and is a keen plantsman, growing many medicinal herbs in his woodland garden. To discuss any aspect of herbal medicine, herb garden design or to arrange a consultation please contact on 07931 797148 or


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