Monday, 8 November 2021

Digging for winter health

“What can I forage now?” someone asked recently.

My response was all about roots. This time of year, dandelions tubers swell from seasonal photosynthesis, summer sweetness locked within their fibres. First year burdock, mullein and angelica can be harvested for drying or tincturing. It’s too late if you gather the remains of plants which have already flowered, the roots have sent up all their “goodness/virtue” into flowers and seeds.

Seeds can be gathered as long as they are black and ripe. Mullein seeds are tiny. It’s best to put the whole flowering stalk inside a paper bag and shake vigorously if you want to keep them or maybe spread them on the ground to encourage another harvest in two years’ time.

Burdock seeds are an investment. The seed pods are guarded by sharp thorns. They are best approached with heavy gloves and when you’ve gathered enough, find a sheltered place out of the wind, a sharp stick or chopstick to poke inside the large pod and a bowl to pour the seeds into. The seeds are both nutritional and medicinal. They are best ground daily if you’re intending to eat them or used whole  in a decoction which can be divided in three parts and drunk during the day.

Burdock, like nettles, is a blood cleanser. It can be used for eczema, psoriasis, gout, liver and kidney support etc. The root is the only part not bitter, but it is diuretic. If you chew a piece of root, be prepared to find a toilet within twenty minutes. The root is also helpful in exciting a lethargic appetite, especially one dulled by a long-lasting virus. Chop the clean root into small pieces, possibly inside a muslin bag and cook it as part of a stock, soup or stew. Remove before serving.

My next planned harvest will be nettle roots. I don’t gather the golden goodness very often, but searching the larder shelves this week for another bottle of tincture to add to my husband’s daily tonic proved fruitless, so this month I shall be attacking several clumps with a garden fork. The roots are stunning. I would never have guessed their colour. It glows in autumn sunlight, providing another aspect to nettle’s cornucopia.

I learned from a former apprentice about nettle root as a powder providing extra nutritional oomph to a diet. I’ve always used it to support the prostate gland. There have been studies undertaken which show that nettle root can keep the prostate stable for many years. It seems a useful ally for all men, especially those in middle age.

Prostate cancer is as widespread as lung and breast, so every man and women who care for them need to be alert for any danger signals and seek medical advice as soon as possible.

My other root harvests are from my garden rather than the field or hedgerow. Elecampane flowers are long gone, their long stalks brown and brittle, the huge green leaves mere husks of their former green profusion. I removed all the aerial parts yesterday to fill my green bin but their roots are safe for the moment. I still have large amounts of infused honey and tincture from last year and I suspect, if I search, there will be another full jar of dried root slices to add to cough elixirs or syrups.

The honey can be given to children over two years as a prophylactic to prevent constant winter coughing. The root smells and tastes of commercial scent but it is one of the most effective cough remedy. Like mullein leaf, it drags up debris from the depths, resolving deep rooted lung infections.

Although the frost whispered on the fringes of the lawn last week, there has been nothing to prompt me to dig up the ashwagandha roots. I’m still holding on to a vain hope there may be ripe cherries in the future but I’m not holding my breath.

Roots mean hard work scrubbing with lots of water changes. I never powder them until the time that powder is needed. Powders go off quicker than anything else but properly dried and sliced roots will last for more than two years if stored in a dark place.

Although I grow marshmallow, I don’t harvest the root. The leaves are sufficient for my needs and I value my plants. The downy stems are almost bare now so I may cut them down before the solstice, rather than afterwards.

There is one root I buy. Astralagus (astralagus membranaceous) has been on my list of immune-enhancing herbs for a very long time but I’ve only been working with it for the past five or so years. It’s a native of Mongolia and China and has been used in Chinese Traditional Medicine for centuries. I’ve never seen a plant growing so I guess it may be on my list to try one of these years.

The commercial packs are full of tiny discs with an earthy smell which is not endearing but the taste doesn’t adversely affect anything to which it is added. The roots are well known immune enhancers, antiviral and antibacterial. They can be used prophylactically against colds and upper respiratory infections.

For the past few winters, I have been adding a tablespoon of it to all my stocks, soups and stews along with homemade green powder to bring our immune systems to the maximum efficiency. Along with other herbal roots, astralagus roots need to be removed before serving as they don’t break down and can’t be chewed as part of the meal. I usually place them inside a large muslin teabag which is easy take out of the liquid.

My friend, Lynne Tynan Cashmore gave me a recipe for immune-enhancing tea which is very pleasant.

1tsp dried haws

1tsp dried hips

1-2tsps dried astralagus root

Infuse for 15-20 minutes then drink.

Lynne recommends drinking a mugful of tea every day during the winter to ward off the lurgies. If you were using fresh hips and haws then you would need 1 tablespoons of each, so it is probably more efficient to dry them before use as tea, depending on how much you have been able to forage and store.