With the approaching Autumn, I begin to think about making “root medicine”. The flurry of summer activity is beginning to wind down, the kids are back to school and I start thinking about the coming seasons. I’m pulling “in” a bit and so are the plants. If you stop to think about a plant’s life it becomes evident that this is the perfect time of year to harvest roots. After the rush of putting on stem and leaf in the Spring – think lettuce, spinach, & asparagus -and fruit and/or seeds in the summer, when we collect those gifts, a plant begins to pull its energy back into the Earth in preparation for the coming winter, concentrating nutrients and phytochemicals in the roots. It is the perfect time to collect plant roots to make into medicinal concoctions.
The first thing to concern yourself when collecting any wild plants for food or medicine is that you have absolutely correctly identified the plant you’re going to use. There are many good field guides for this purpose. After that, one must decide how to preserve the harvest. The roots can simply be dried for future use in teas or may be made into an alcohol extract. This is my favorite way to preserve medicinal roots. Frankly I don’t weigh the roots and measure the alcohol. I simply wash my roots, cut them up well in a food processor if the roots are soft enough, put them in a glass container and pour some 60 proof vodka or brandy over that. (Roughly about 4 ounces of herb to 8 -10 ounces of alcohol). Leave it for about 4 weeks. Strain if you want to – but it’s not necessary. This mixture will last a VERY long time. You should use it well before it goes bad.
In our area of the Black Hills there is an abundance of plants whose roots we can gather and make into medicine. Echinacea is probably the most well known and is sold all over the world, but there are others as well: burdock, yellow dock, dandelion, licorice, oregon grape, low mallow and false solomon seal. When collecting any plants it is also important to be aware of the legality of your actions. In some public areas gathering plants is considered poaching. On private property it goes without saying that one needs permission. Also it is considered unethical (if not illegal) to gather rare or endangered species or to over-gather in a single place. Instead, think of the future (yours and the plants) and gather with gratitude and prayer, if that works for you. You might consider leaving a gift of some type, as many indigenous cultures do. Ask a blessing on your work, bury some seeds to help the plant proliferate. Make gathering a sacred act.