Roots represent both the most difficult category to harvest, and the most rewarding, as the yield is usually high.
The gardener’s generic terms of roots and crowns are employed throughout. Botanically we should more often be talking about rhizomes, tubers, stolons etc, but as these lend little to understanding harvesting processes, they have been ignored.
To minimise the need to clean soil off roots, choose a dry day, ideally 3-4 days after rain, when the soil is neither moist and sticky nor hard and dry. Taking roots successfully from clay soil can prove near-impossible unless under cultivation, where generous amounts of compost can be incorporated under and around the plant(s) to aid subsequent lifting. Whatever the case, fork carefully round each plant and ease it up in a patient and methodical fashion, otherwise most of the smaller roots will be left stuck in the soil.
Once lifted, large root balls need to be divided before further cleaning (the traditional tool for doing this is a hand axe). Crumble and pick off large chunks of soil by hand, at the same time removing any rotted or damaged roots, and any aerial growth that remains attached. If the soil is sufficiently friable it can then simply be hosed off on the lawn. Otherwise trim the roots into manageable sections and wash them in a bowl of tepid water, scrubbing as little as possible. Do this one piece at a time – most roots immersed in warm water will both leach their constituents and absorb water at an alarming rate. Drain briefly – a little remaining surface moisture should not delay tincturing. In particular, whatever cleaning method is used, don’t be over-fastidious. A little earth will do no harm during maceration and will be filtered out when the tincture is pressed, or any fine particles can be decanted off after standing for an hour or two.
Harvesting the roots of perennial herbs doesn’t necessarily mean sudden death for the plant. By sparing the crown with two or three young roots still attached and replanting, the herb will live to see another day.
Most roots come from herbaceous herbs, i.e. perennials the aerial growth of which dies back and withers in the autumn – after which the roots are ready to harvest. They do continue gaining bulk underground during the winter, and recommendations are often found to harvest in early spring just before new top growth begins. However, there are pitfalls to this approach. If the wilted top growth disappears, as is often the case, it may be hard to find the roots or to lift them accurately, particularly in the wild. Also, in a typically wet British winter, roots and particularly crowns may rot to some extent.
Some roots belong to herbs that are also used for aerial parts, causing an anxiety that taking one part will be to the detriment of the other. In point of fact pruning off top growth usually stimulates root growth, (everybody wins!), the only proviso being that any plant expected to work so hard for its living should be particularly well nourished.
All roots can be comminuted satisfactorily in a garden shredder (ideally one of the ‘quiet’ cog drive models), although it may be necessary first to reduce the roots to small enough sections with a hand axe or secateurs. Alternatively, use secateurs, a large kitchen knife or a cleaver to chop the roots. Soft roots can often be sliced diagonally into thin slivers, tougher ones may have to be whittled into coarse shavings. Roots are always dense enough to achieve a 1:3 tincture, and some will need no further preparation to go for something stronger. In some cases you may have to finish by blitzing in a food processor to achieve 1:2 or stronger.
Angelica root, Angelica archangelica – 1:2 45%, 14 days
Angelica is strictly speaking a short-lived perennial – to all intents and purposes treated as a biennial. Seeds must be sown as soon as ripened in July/August, and the root is harvested in the autumn of the following year before the top growth dies back significantly. The roots are usually surprisingly large for such a short growing season, especially in rich soil, and are soft and fleshy, therefore easy to comminute by any of the recommended methods.
The semi-ripe seeds are occasionally used, as are the leaves, with slightly different indications to the root. The basal stems are the source of Candied Angelica for which many recipes for home preparation can be found. All parts of the Wild Angelica, A. sylvestris can be used, with its own list of indications. The Chinese Angelica, A. sinensis, (Dong quai) has not been grown successfully in the UK.
Bistort root, Polygonum bistorta – 1:2 25%, 3-6 weeks
This delightful herb with pink ‘poker’ flowers from spring to autumn is an easy and rapidly spreading subject, happy in most soils but preferring a damp patch. The roots are lifted any time after flowering finishes in autumn through to late winter. As the plant is so prolific it’s easiest to leave a proportion behind to grow on for the next year. Remove the stems, but the brown ‘ruffs’ attached to the roots can be incorporated. It’s easiest to chop or slice the roots coarsely and give a long maceration.
One of the surprises to those used to working with the dried root of Bistort is that tincturing the fresh root yields (along with the tannins for which it’s prized) one of the most mucilaginous tinctures you’re ever likely to encounter.
Burdock root, Arctium lappa – 1:2 25%, 14 days
Yields of Burdock root are often disappointing, and beg the question – how can they nourish and support such a statuesque plant? They should certainly be unearthed carefully to get all that is going, in late summer of the first year. Being such a common subject in the wild it’s seldom worth cultivating – but if you are wild harvesting do make sure you find young plants. In either case, be careful of the burs for which the plant is named – they are tenacious enough to ruin a woolly jumper! The roots and crown are tough but will go through a garden shredder, or can be reduced to thin slivers with careful use of sharp secateurs.
Occasionally the fresh leaves or the seeds of Burdock are used, with similar indications but in much milder form. The Lesser Burdock, A. minus is a much rarer find but can safely be substituted.
Cranesbill, American, Geranium maculatum – 1:3 25%, 3-6 weeks
The American Cranesbill is not too difficult to grow in the UK but is prone to mildew in damp summers, and will need sharp drainage to weather a wet winter. The tannins are at their peak just before flowering, but in deference to this pretty herb gathering is best left to early autumn in the second year onwards. Success in replanting the crown is variable – it may be best to raise from seed and treat this as a biennial, taking the whole crown and root on harvesting. They are a tough subject so consider sectioning them coarsely with secateurs and opting for long maceration.
The common Meadow Cranesbill, G. pratense appears not to have been used, although a rarer indigenous species, G. dissectum has. Herb Robert, G. robertianum has similar properties, thankfully using the whole herb as it is a diminutive subject.
Dandelion root, Taraxacum officinale – 1:2 25%, 14 days
Dandelion roots are typically ‘wild harvested’ (which often means taking roots from the garden lawn or borders where they appear as ‘weeds’). However, this is time consuming and you may eventually opt to devote a patch of garden bed to Dandelions so that they can be forked up en masse. They can be taken at any time but are at their best in late summer (also giving the opportunity to harvest the valuable leaves earlier in the year, which will in turn encourage root growth). They are soft and easy to comminute to a fine mulch.
Dandelion root is often preferred as a 1:1 extract, achieved by re-macerating a 1:2 tincture. If the fresh root is a limited resource, a compromise is to use the fresh tincture to macerate bought-in dried root, deriving both biochemical and energetic potency.
Dock, Yellow, Rumex crispus – 1:3 25%, 2-4 weeks
The Yellow (or sometimes Curled) Dock is so ubiquitous (grassland, field margins and waste ground) that cultivation is unlikely to be necessary. The roots should ideally be dug up from August to October. They can be quite tough, but rough slicing with secateurs will suffice if you opt for long maceration.
The young leaves of early spring are occasionally used, traditionally with Dandelion leaves as a ‘Spring Cure’. Other indigenous varieties of Dock can be used but are far less common and are usually considered inferior.
Echinacea root, Echinacea spp. - 1:3 45%, 2-3 weeks
Echinacea root, raised from seed, is usually harvested in the autumn of the second year. (In theory, 3 year old plants may be both bulkier and more potent, but it’s a long wait, and there are often a proportion of roots that have rotted which have to be picked out painstakingly). Harvest as soon as the top growth has died back fully in late autumn. If you have settled down to raising Echinacea from your own seed and treating it as a biennial, use the whole crown as well as the roots. This will prove quite tough to comminute – either pass through a garden shredder or chop finely with a cleaver. One can choose to spare the crowns with a few small roots attached and replant them – the yield will be lower but it may make sense if you are relying on bought-in plants.
You might want to go to the trouble of capturing more of Echinacea’s nutritive polsaccharides by making a combined macerated & decocted extract, (see the ‘Tinctures & Fluid Extracts’ file).
The whole aerial herb is sometimes collected in advance of the root, but this is not recommended. The semi-ripe seed heads, harvested in early autumn, are a much more useful resource, as detailed in the ‘Seeds’ section. Echinacea angustifolia is always quoted as the ‘best’ Echinacea, but this relates to the dried root – as often observed, it makes little or no difference when comparing the fresh root of closely related medicinal species. E. angustifolia is slow-growing and often fails in the British climate, whereas Echinacea purpurea is relatively robust and trouble-free, provided it’s well fed and watered. A small list of other Echinacea species and a growing range of cultivars are now available and popular as garden specimens – provisionally they are all therapeutically viable.
Elecampane root, Inula helenium - 1:2 45%, 14 days
Elecampane root is harvested from the second year onwards in mid-autumn when the top growth has died back – but don’t delay, as the crowns have a tendency to rot thereafter. The roots can be enormous. You have a choice between harvesting the roots and replanting the crown with a couple of young roots attached, or if there is a surplus of plants, the crown can be taken as well. The roots are soft and can be shredded, cut into thin slices and/or food processed. The crown is surprisingly tough and may need dividing with a hand axe before further comminution is possible.
Like Echinacea, Elecampane root contains complex polysaccharides (that are trophorestorative to the immune system) which will not fully yield to alcoholic maceration. You may prefer to go to the trouble of producing a combined macerated & decocted extract, (see the ‘Tinctures & Fluid Extracts’ file). It is also popular as a syrup, and can also be candied or used to make a variety of confections.
Ginger root, Zingiber officinalis – 1:3 60%, 2-3 weeks
Ginger can just about survive under cover in the UK but will not achieve any significant root growth. However, it’s included here as fresh ginger is readily available in supermarkets and ethnic greengrocers. The best comes from the Caribbean, and should have alongside good pungency a lemony taste, lending an antimicrobial quality barely present in the dried root. The roots don’t need to be peeled, but can be quite fibrous, so may need several stages of comminution to achieve a fine mulch (the traditional method is to grate it).
Grated fresh ginger is also commonly used in hot foot- or hand-baths for its warming, analgesic and decongesting properties, which will ‘travel’ as far as the hips and shoulders respectively.
Golden Seal root, Hydrastis canadensis – 1:5 60%, 3-4 weeks
Golden Seal can be grown in the UK! It certainly isn’t easy, but well worth the effort as it’s both incredibly valuable therapeutically and an endangered species. It’s infuriatingly habitat-specific, coming from dense deciduous woodland floors on the East Coast of North America. Much experimentation has shown that this environment can be imitated by raising a bed (at least 0.5m) of mixed rich compost and well-rotted leaf mould and framing it with 70% shade netting. Start with bought-in plantlets spaced at about 20cms. Harvesting can commence in early autumn two years later. The best method is to very gently unearth about half of the roots of each individual plant, leaving the plant with the rest of its roots undisturbed. In the following autumn, take roots from the opposite side, and so on. From time to time you may find roots that have set stem buds, which can be reserved for propagation. Golden Seal roots are fibrous but thin, and can simply be secateured into small sections.
This is a prime example of where it’s worth re-macerating the spent marc, reserving the resulting weak tincture to use as the menstruum a year later.
Gravel root, Eupatorium purpurea – 1:3 45%, 14 days
Gravel root, aka Queen of the Meadow or Sweet Joe Pie Weed, is a perennial native to the USA but easily grown in the UK. It should be harvested from two years onwards in early autumn as soon as flowering is finished. Part the roots from the crown (which is too much trouble to use) with a sharp knife. The roots are fibrous but slender and fairly easy to comminute a little at a time. Replant the crown with a few roots and about a 20cms of the stem attached.
Horseradish root, Armoracia rusticana – 1:3 45%, 2-3 weeks
Two words of warning: once you have Horseradish in the garden, you will never get rid of it, and it will spread: and handle everything to do with horseradish from garden to tincture at arms-length, for fear of temporary loss of both breath and vision. In all it’s a fairly unlovable plant, but valued as the UK’s only indigenous source of powerful pungency.
Assuming propagation from plantlets or root offsets in the spring, the taproots can be unearthed in Winter from the first year onwards. Don’t worry about re-planting, any fragment of root left behind (and you will leave some behind!) will grow on again. Wear gloves throughout. Comminution is best achieved in a garden shredder, (or in a food processor after slicing), in both cases standing well back. If you have to perform any preparation by hand, do it under water (the horseradish, that is, not yourself).
Horseradish is sometimes prepared as a syrup or in honey, (sometimes with a little vinegar added). Horseradish used to be subject to an extraordinary range of pharmaceutical and household preparations for divers purposes. It can also be used topically as a rubefacient, but the risk of causing blistering is only for the brave.
Liquorice root, Glycyrrhiza glabra – 1:3 25%, 3-4 weeks
It often surprises people that, far from being a tropical exotic, Liquorice grows well in the UK and once formed a major industry, particularly in the Pontefract area. It will grow in most soils, but prefers a light, fertile and very deep soil (e.g. reclaimed marshland) – at it’s full potential the roots reach a depth of 2.5m or more. If you’re lucky enough to enjoy such a growing environment, help from some gravediggers might come in handy to lift all of the roots out. For the rest of us, the handsome Liquorice can still be grown on any reasonably light soil – the roots are not strong enough to penetrate subsoil and will instead spread laterally to some extent.
The roots should not be harvested until the third or fourth year, and should be painstakingly unearthed so the whole can be lifted bodily in autumn during mid die-back. Some root material remaining attached to stem can be replanted. We are not making Liquorice Allsorts so there is no need to decorticate it (remove the root bark). Liquorice root is pliable but exceptionally fibrous so may elude all but the sharpest blades. However, the action of a garden shredder or food processor will easily open the fibres enough for maceration anyway.
Liquorice is a major resource in most continents of the globe, reflecting a plethora of usable species – including the G. uralensis much used in Oriental medicine, with similar indications. This and most others can be raised in the UK, but may prove troublesome and give disappointing yields.
Lovage root, Ligusticum levisticum – 1:2 45%, 14 days
Lovage is harvested from the second year onwards in late autumn after the top growth has died back. The crown can be incorporated (provided it has not become too tough with age) or replanted with a couple of small roots attached. The whole is easy to slice by hand, or can be shredded or food-processed as you prefer.
The semi-ripe seeds can be tinctured as a carminative. The leaves are sometimes used but are best reserved for kitchen use as an outstanding addition to soups & stews. The stems can be candied in the same fashion as Angelica. The natives, Scots Lovage, L. scoticum, and Alexanders, Smyrnium olustratum, both have similar uses. Lovages are an important and diverse family growing all over the world, many with traditional medicinal uses. Some can be cultivated in the UK but, often coming from mountain habitats, are intolerant of waterlogging and are very slow-growing.
Marshmallow root, Althaea officinalis – 1:3 25%, 14 days
Marshmallow is a denizen of (you’ve guessed it!) marshes, but is a tough subject, viable on surprisingly dry terrain. The roots can be harvested at any time but ideally in mid-autumn before any significant die-back. They are large and fleshy, so don’t bother with the crown, which can be replanted with a couple of small roots attached. They are spongy but quite fibrous, so sharp blades are required for comminution. A fine mulch can be achieved making a 1:2 tincture possible, but because of the high mucilage content increase the alcohol strength to 30%.
Both the flowers and leaves of Marshmallow (detailed in the relevant sections) can be harvested earlier in the year without detriment to the roots.
Nettle root, Urtica dioica - 1:2 45%, 2-3 weeks
Nettle root is ideally unearthed in mid-Autumn, but as Nettles so often find themselves harvested in the process of clearing patches of wasteland, they can be lifted at the same time that the aerial herb is harvested (e.g. during flowering in early Summer). This of course is the Stinging Nettle – you’ll find out the hard way if you’re not only gloved but also have arms, legs and chest(s) fully covered. The roots are long, tough and tangled, often intertwined with the roots of other annual and perennial ‘weeds’. Having separated them, they need painstaking comminution in stages to aim for a 1:2 result, which is recommended as the remedy has a relatively weak action.
The fiercer but rarer annual, Urtica urens can be used – the aerial herb is usually considered superior but it’s not known if the same is true of the roots. (See also under Nettle herb).
Parsley root, Petroselinum crispum – 1:3 25%, 14 days
Use a flat leaved Italian Parsley variety for this, raised from seed under cover in early spring and planted out in May. Harvest just as the top growth starts to die back in early autumn, or earlier if there is any sign of Carrot root fly about, which Parsley is prone to. The roots are soft and easy to comminute.
There’s no problem in using the leaves for culinary use over the summer – it’s likely to help the roots bulk up. Alternatively, it’s common practice to tincture the leaves during mid-summer and to use this to macerate the roots later in the year.
Pokeroot, Phytolacca americana – 1:3 45%, 2-3 weeks
This huge perennial with its alien-looking purple stems and berries can easily be raised in the UK from seeds or root offsets. The roots are harvested after the top growth has died back in the autumn of the second year onwards. (You may wish to cut the plant back by a third prior to this to avoid prolific self-seeding). Don’t bother with the extremely tough crown, which can be replanted with a small root or two attached. The roots can be large but fairly easy to snap or secateur into sections for further comminution.
Be aware that all parts of the aerial herb, including the berries, are poisonous, causing regular fatalities in Poke’s native USA. Poke poisoning is even possible from cutaneous absorption if handling the roots too much, so it’s recommended to wear gloves throughout.
Rhubarb root, Rheum rhaphonticum – 1:3 25%, 4-6 weeks
The Garden Rhubarb can be happily used to yield the stems so prized for culinary use during early summer, remembering always to remove any flowering stems, and to leave at least a third of the top growth to die back later. Rhubarb is a greedy plant and needs a rich and well-manured soil. In mid-autumn of the third year it can be carefully unearthed and up to three-quarters of the fleshy roots trimmed off – leave the rest attached to the crown and replant. (You may also wish at this stage to divide the crown to propagate, or to keep existing plants in bounds). Mature plants can be harvested in this fashion every two years thereafter. Comminution of the soft roots is easy – a 1:2 tincture is possible from a fine mulch.
Garden Rhubarb was brought here from the Orient as a medicine centuries before either the stems came to be used as a culinary delight or the cheaper (and in truth inferior) Turkey Rhubarb, Rheum palmatum came to replace it for medicinal use.
There is ongoing confusion regarding the precise botanical origins of Garden Rhubarb, which may be either R. rhaphonticum or R. officinale, or a hybrid of the two. Either way, you are likely to be growing one of a variety of cultivars developed since Victorian times, any of which will provide the combination of gentle laxative and astringent for which Rhubarb roots in general are prized. Growing Turkey rhubarb is possible in the UK but is problematical and there hardly seems any point.
Roseroot, Rhodiola rosea – 1:3 45%, 3-4 weeks
Another valuable remedy assumed to be exotic, but actually an exceptionally hardy if slow-growing indigenous perennial, to be found on cliff faces and mountain screes. An obvious candidate for the rockery but grows very well (in fact slightly faster) in an ordinary garden bed provided there is good winter drainage. From seed or plantlet, the roots can be harvested in late summer from the second year onwards. Take about half of the roots and replant the rest (if you’re good at this sort of thing, you could increase the yield by splitting the crown, incorporating one half of this as well). Both roots & crown are easy to comminute.
Teasel root, Dipsacus fullonum – 1:3 25%, 14 days
Being a biennial, the roots of the common Teasel are harvested in late summer of the second year before dieback starts. Roots and crown are taken, which are usually both fairly easy to comminute.
Dipsacus sativus is a more vigorous and statuesque relative, the burs of which were used in the textile industry: the roots seem to have the same virtues as the wild Teasel. In either case, the extraordinary seed heads on their strong stems can be collected and dried for indoor ornamentation at the same time that the roots are unearthed.
Valerian root, Valeriana officinalis – 1:2 45%, 14 days
Valerian root is best grown from seed raised under cover early in spring and transplanted in May to good moist, fertile soil. It appreciates watering, feeding and/or a little mulching, (Valerian’s preferred natural habitat is the margins of ditches and streams). This pampering achieved, it can be harvested any time between autumn dieback and early spring before new top-growth gets under way. The advantage of effectively treating Valerian as an annual is that it will not have flowered – flowering both inhibits root growth and there is as tendency for the roots attached to the flowering stem to die, which will prove difficult to pick out on subsequent harvesting. If you do go for older plants, any flower stems should be lopped off (twice a week during high summer!) to limit these problems. You may also opt to have a mature plant or two strategically placed to enjoy the magnificent aroma of the flowers and from which to collect seeds (or self-seeded plantlets) later in the year.
Valerian usually forms a dense root ball that needs to be carefully eased out of the ground and quartered with a hand axe or similar, thence teasing out separate root clusters which can be cleaned by picking off any clumps of soil and hosed down on the lawn. A little further comminution (garden shredder, chopping board and/or food processor) will be required to achieve a 1:2 or 1:3 tincture.
Valeriana officinalis can assume a variety of different growth habits, making identification confusing, whilst there are a number of other indigenous species and a plethora of viable foreign ones, mostly with similar medicinal properties – including the much-used Indian V. wallichi. However V. officinalis is readily available, easy in cultivation and cannot be surpassed therapeutically.