It is not until you start working with roots that a sense of completion comes over you. Every root you dig or touch represents a life lost, a life offered. This plant will never grow again because you hold the means of its living in your hands.
It is a humbling experience which will, perhaps, enable you to wonder about the complexity of the living plant. How it anchors itself to the soil. How it lives for part of the year in darkness and solitude. How it knows when to grow forth into the light once again.
What is a root? In many plants the root is defined as the organ which grows beneath the soil, but some plants, such a mangrove trees, have roots growing up into the air or above water. These are called aerating roots, while roots which grow above the ground are known as aerial roots. The parts of a root are the xylem, the epidermis, the cortex, the root cap, the root hair, the phloem, and the cambium
The function of a root is to gather water from the soil and the minerals and nutrients it requires to flourish. These are drawn upwards from tiny root hairs to the rootlets or secondary roots into the main root system and from there into the plant stem where they are distributed via the xylem and phloem networks to where they are needed in the aerial parts – leaves, flowers, seeds etc.
Roots also anchor the body of the plant in the ground. A root system will often spread as wide as the plant canopy or beyond. They may also serve as the main reproductive part of the plant, sending up new shoots at every node. Herbs which have these extensive root systems are those like mint, nettle and bramble. They are adept at covering large masses of ground if left unchecked.
The roots of most vascular plant enter into symbiosis with certain fungi to form mycorrhizas, and a large range of other organisms including bacteria also closely associate with roots. Two plants which are grown specifically for this symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing bacteria are runner beans and red clover. The large root nodules produce materials which enrich the soil.
A seed’s first root is called a radicle. It responds to gravity, growing downwards. This has caused substantial problems in trying to get seeds to germinate in space where there is no gravity, but has been overcome by increasing the light above the seed and reducing the amount below. There have been no problems growing seedlings in space which have been germinated on Earth.
A true root system is comprised of a primary root with secondary or lateral roots. Many root systems are diffuse with no primary root. Examples of herbs with these root systems are valerian, mullein, dyers woodruff and goldenseal.
Some plants have roots which emerge from the stem rather than from the primary root. Ivy, clover, strawberry and willow have adventitious roots, where roots originate from the stem, branches, leaves, or old woody roots.
Aerating roots of the mangroves have large breathing pores on their surfaces above the water to enable the exchange of gases, which would not be possible below.
Ivy also has completely aerial roots which held to anchor or prop the plant around the object it growing against.
Dandelion has a single, large primary root known as a tap root. It also has contractile roots which pull it further into the ground. The tap root stores sugars during the winter which enables the plant to survive. This is why roots pulled in spring or summer are more bitter than those pulled in autumn or during the winter.
Dandelion roots are fascinating and help to show the many different species which may grow in one locality. The roots I normally harvest in January from the field next to my parent’s bungalow have a hollow centre. Seemingly large roots are often the smaller roots of several plants which have twisted together over the growing season to form spirals. Roots dug from my main herb bed have single, large, solid tap roots with a very different consistency.
Burdock and comfrey also have deep tap roots which are difficult to harvest, especially when grown in rocky soil. Burdock root is very clever and instead of growing straight down, tends to veer off in a completely new direction after three to four inches. Roots like this are sometimes best harvested with a strong “digging stick” rather than a gardening fork.
Roots can be modified to store nutrients or act as an asexual means of reproduction. Potatoes are examples of stem tubers, while sweet potatoes are examples of root tubers or rhizomes.
Other examples of herbal root rhizomes are solomons seal, elecampane and angelica. All three have a very pungent scent ranging from delicate to profound, which is echoed when they are chewed. Solomons seal has a definite growing tip which can be broken off and left to remain in the soil if you wish to harvest the roots as ethically as possible. It is an American woodland plant and the tubers were eaten by the indigenous people and early settlers as a trail food
I have been growing Solomons seal for nearly ten years now. It was one of the first plants I bought to grow in my herb garden after hearing the wonderful success both Matthew Wood and Jim Macdonald were having with spinal issues using the root extract.
This autumn I took the plunge and harvested eight roots, leaving a strong patch of around twenty further plants to grow for the coming season. I had hoped to leave the growing parts in the ground, but the lateral roots were so firmly wrapped around each other, it was impossible to separate the plants. It took a good half hour of concentrated hosing with a water pipe to remove all the soil, stones and debris (including an ancient, twisted nail!) to reveal the pristine white tubers.
There were so many secondary roots, I cut these away from the tubers and made a double infused oil with them. It is rich and delicately scented. I have combined it with fresh horsechestnut oil into a salve for restoring vein strength and soothing a weak and inflamed shoulder.
Matthew Wood cautions against making a solomons seal root tincture with vodka. He believes that unless you use a high concentration alcohol, there will be a large amount of sweet substance precipitated into the tincture. The only high percentage alcohol we have in the house is a very special, single malt. There was no way Chris was going to donate it to my herbal medicines, so I made a vodka tincture as normal. Luckily, when I decanted it over a month later, there was no precipitate.
I began to take the tincture mixed with yarrow and plantain and I’m sure it has helped my weak shoulder. The pain is virtually gone, even when I lie on it. Any residual pain I’ve been feeling I’m putting down to falling outside Snow Hill station yesterday morning – I really should learn to negotiate the cracks in the paving stones better!
Everyone seems to find a root they enjoy chewing. Jim Macdonald loves calamus root. (I have planted several corms, but never got a plant to grow!). Henriette Kress loves elecampane root. I tried my first elecampane root this year, deciding to sacrifice one of my older plants as it died back at the beginning of October. The root was very scented to my palate, not as bad as angelica, but not something I would choose to spend a large amount of time with.
I sliced half the root for drying and tinctured the other half. Interestingly, the tincture did produce a white precipitate, but I will have to wait for someone to produce a phlem-filled cough before I can try it!
Angelica plants like me. Perhaps I shouldn’t say that, but they do grow prolifically in both my gardens. The first time I tried chewing the root, which was a second year plant in the last throes of life. It was disgusting, like chewing a bottle of scent! The second time I tried it, the plant was only a year old and although the scent taste was still strong, it wasn’t quite so unpalatable.
Angelica root is recommended for excruciating fibroid pains and as a nourishing tonic for menopausal women. Gail Faith Edwards suggested the best way to take angelica root is to infuse it in honey. Maddie washed the roots and poured the honey over them during the September workshop and it has been sitting on my windowsill in the sunshine since then. Recently I decanted it and tasted the honey. It’s an interesting flavour and one which should enhance a herbal tea, so I look forward to using it.
I love roots. Their strength and concentrated essence are so different from the aerial parts. They offer us a wonderful gift to use.