Monday, 8 October 2012

Autumn Root Harvest

Next weekend I shall be running a roots workshop at the Sanctuary to dig up Himalayan pokeweed, nettle, dandelion, elecampane, solomon’s seal and ashwagandha roots. I may send someone off to search for a first year burdock root, but I’m not entirely hopeful.

I would never have thought three years have passed since I last wrote about working with roots. It seems such a natural thing to do and I still feel you don’t know the entirety of a plant until you have worked with its roots as well as its aerial parts. Even yarrow roots have medicinal properties when I’ve always considered the parts above ground to be the most useful.

It has to be said that some roots are more difficult to work with. US herbalists talk of taking their axes and other heavy equipment to dig up plants such as Oregon Grape root (which apparently must be worked before it dries out otherwise you will destroy whatever grinder you are trying to use!). I’ve also seen pictures of poke root which seem to wind at least three times the length of the person holding it.

Pokeweed (Phytolacca Americana) is one of the indigenous east coast North American plants about which people argue.  The seeds are poisonous so the whole plant is often listed that way. The ripe seeds are used to dye the most beautiful purple colour and the root is tinctured and used in drop doses to help move the lymphatic system or anything which needs “poking”.

I’ve been fascinated by the plant for several years. It was one of the first herbs I bought but it soon disappeared from my parents’ garden. Last autumn we saw it growing wild in the Native American village at Plimouth Plantation and marvelled at the subtle colours it produced on headdresses and matting.

I ordered some pokeweed seeds from Poyntzfield Herb nursery last year but what came was Himalayan poke, (Phytolacca acinosa). According to the literature they are medicinally interchangeable, being used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for various ailments and in Japan as a diuretic. The roots of the Himalayan poke appear to be nowhere near as thick and long as the p.americana, but it may be the growing conditions are not exactly what they would be used to in a tropical climate!

The seeds germinated well last spring and the majority were planted at the Sanctuary. I thought I’d lost them all as there was no sign of any plants when Jo and I dug over the new bed in March. Much later in the year I noticed several plants coming up amongst the prolific strawberries and they have continued to thrive during the year. We shall discover what size the roots have got to next weekend.

I have three plants which overwintered in the summer house last year but only one has survived the horrendous summer producing the most beautiful dark purple flower stalk. Debs Cook is growing American pokeweed in her greenhouse, so we are talking about trading seeds next spring.

Nettle root tincture is a staple in my medicinal arsenal. Many herbalists in the UK prefer it for prostate health and management to the more publicised saw palmetto. The latter can only be found in North America and the tincture is one of the casualties from the European debacle which means you can’t buy it any more. I have made my own from dried seeds purchased from Baldwins, but I’ve always made Chris’s tonic with a mixture of both herbs. I’ve also made some willowherb tincture from weeds in the garden this year, so shall be adding that to his daily dose.

Back in the spring, I talked about making a dandelion bed. I think the plants in the Sanctuary heard me. I have never seen such strong and energetic specimens as those which have grown this year. I am excited to see what their roots are like and am looking forward to tincturing, drying them and making Jim MacDonald’s dandelion bitter. It is always a surprising favourite when people taste it for the first time. (Surprising as in, “Goodness, that doesn’t taste as bad as I was expecting!”)

I love elecampane root. It is so spicy and makes a really delicious infused honey. I usually slice the root into thin segments after washing thoroughly and then put half into runny honey and dry the other half. You can then make the dried root into a useful child’s cough syrup when the need arises. We made one at a workshop last winter using thyme and marshmallow leaves. You could also add some dried Echinacea seed heads if you want to add an immune stimulating effect.

General syrup recipe from Non Shaw and Christopher Hedley's Herbal Remedies
1 l (2 pints) water
40 g (1 1/2 oz) dried herb or 100g (4oz) fresh chopped herb (I’d use equal amounts of elecampane root, thyme and marshmallow leaves)
450 g (1 lb) sugar
Put herb in water, bring to a boil, let simmer 20-30 minutes, strain.
Clean out pan, pour liquid back into it, let sit on minimum heat until you only have 2 dl (7 fl.oz) left. Add sugar, simmer until sugar has dissolved, pour into jars, label. (This takes time. 1 fluid ounce evaporates about every hour.) If making a syrup with more liquid, the general rule of thumb is add 1lb sugar or honey to every 1pint of liquid.

Solomon’s seal root is going to be infused in strong rum this year to see what difference it makes extracting in a higher alcohol content.

The Ashwagandha plants have struggled with this year’s weather. Most of the tiny plants have disappeared, probably succumbing to an invasion of slugs, but there are still some large plants which have flourished next to the calendula patch. They will be harvested for both roots and leaves, the latter being used to make a double infused oil.

The roots are normally ground into a powder once they are dried, but I have kept all mine whole. During a tonic workshop, we experimented with a rose/ashwagandha milk by doing a cold water overnight extraction first before heating the roots in milk with rose petals.

The cold maceration produced a really viscous liquid and this was added to the pint of milk along with the roots and a handful of dried apothecary’s rose petals. The mixture was then brought to the boil and simmered gently for 15-30 minutes before straining and drinking. It produced a flavourful nourishing drink which everyone enjoyed.

I’m looking forward to the weekend when we can celebrate another harvest with a wide variety of herbs.


Jo-Ann said...

I'm looking forward to the weekend too - I've made dock and dandelion root tinctures, as they grow freely on my allotment but thats it - time for more experimentation!

Charlie Farrow said...

One of the best reasons to attend the Springfield Sanctuary workshops is to be able to dig for so many roots. I only have a tiny garden and mainly forage in the wild along the Kennet and Avon Canal.

The law as it stands means that I can't dig for roots, "Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, which covers Britain, it is illegal to uproot any wild plant without permission from the landowner or occupier. Uproot is defined as to dig up or otherwise remove the plant from the land on which it is growing, whether or not it actually has roots".

Custom in the form of common law gives the right to wild-gather the 'four Fs', fruit, foliage, fungi and flowers for personal use and not for resale.