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Roots

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.

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