And More Roots!

October 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

I love this season. The leaves are changing, it’s getting crisp outside, the rains are on their way,  the plants are dying back and it’s almost time to hibernate. It’s root season! Here’s a brief overview of roots you can dig in the Willamette Valley for medicine* (also a few from the Gorge and east side of Mt Hood):

Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata)

This plant is a lovely combination of beautiful yellow sunshine and bitter, earthy resins. On the surface, it’s a bright cluster of yellow flowers and broad, arrow-like leaves (hence the latin name), but as soon as you start to dig the root, you’ll see that there’s much more to this plant. It often grows at higher altitudes and in rocky soil, difficult on the shovel, and the long, resinous root grows deep deep deep. It’s quite a process, but fully worth it. The stalks on the plant are edible and delicious, and the root medicine is best known as an expectorant. The spring and fall root can be tinctured or steeped in honey, a method of preparation I hope to try this year.

Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa)

I was gifted a tincture of this plant for the first time this year and am really excited to try it and report back. I was introduced to this plant as a child by my best friends’ mom who told me that the little people love it. I am curious to learn more about plants that are “pain killers” because I have been told over and over again not to treat the symptoms, and pain is a symptom, yet we definitely have a set of herbs that are used to help with pain. So what’s their proper function? I’ll report back once I figure it out. According to Michael Moore’s online materia medica, bleeding heart can be indicated as an analgesic when there is sharp, acute pain that’s difficult to bear. The root is used, but be sure of your identification. The leaves look fairly similar to those of Herb Robert, which I’ve see growing alongside it, and Herb Robert root won’t do the trick.

Burdock (Arctium lappa)

This plant is widely known and widely used as a food and medicine. Jim MacDonald uses the root often and describes it as a truly nourishing, often slow-acting tonic. He has an article about it on his most excellent website here. It is a bitter, acting on the gastro-intestinal tract, a blood-purifier acting on the liver, and aromatic, it is normalizing to the sebaceous glands, improves overall metabolic function, and aids the kidneys and lymphatics by allowing them to not be overburdened in the act waste removal. Like nettle, burdock can probably be considered a food plant. It assists a wide range of physiological processes, far too many to even touch here, but is ultimately gentle and nourishing, a perfect bitter, sweet, oily root to keep you warm in the winter. I like roasting it with my potatoes.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

The lowly dandelion, like burdock, is fairly well known and has many many uses. It is a gentle diuretic, a bitter promoting bile flow, a mild laxative, and a tonic full of wonderful minerals. Everyone says it’s a good coffee substitute, which I don’t really agree with because it doesn’t taste like coffee, but if you drink the roasted root for it’s own sake with a little bit of cream it’s delicious. You should probably harvest in the fall, though the flowers are constantly blooming and going to seed during the warmer months, so earlier may be fine. Just be careful where you harvest, as this plant thrives in questionable soil.

Devil’s Club (Opplopanax horridum)

This was traditionally warrior’s medicine.  Deborah Frances, a Portland naturopath and Lakota herbalist gives a case history of it’s use in anxiety and panic attacks. It is definitely enboldening as a plant ally, providing strength in the face of trials. Medicinally, it is known as the northwest version of ginseng, though this is only partially accurate. It is in the ginseng family and is (arguably) an adaptogen as well as slightly bitter aromatic. It has also been used to treat diabetes. In order to harvest this plant mindfully, avoid digging the actual roots, but rather harvest the rhizomes that grow between plants, leaving the roots connecting to the ground intact.

False Solomon’s Seal (Smilacena recemosa)

This wonderful member of the lily family is related to the eastern True Solomon’s Seal. My teachers Scott Kloos and Matthew Wood have taken to calling it Dragon Root, which is nice because if I was a plant I wouldn’t like to be called “false”. This plant has been used as a cough remedy, but I use it mainly for musculoskeletal issues and joint problems, as it seems to work on the interstitial fluids and lubricate dry and atrophic conditions.

Licorice Fern (Polypodium glycerrhiza)

This little plant is tasty and nice to chew while harvesting other things. I have used it as tea but have no experience with it medicinally, though various ethnobotanical texts allude to it’s use by several groups on the west coast for coughs and colds as well as cases of worms, as a laxative, and as an appetite stimulant .  I’d really like to learn more about it.

Oregon Grape (Mahonia nervosa/Berberis nervosa)

Our state flower! Oregon grape is a powerful bitter and antibacterial. Eugene herbalist Howie Brownstein of the Columbine’s School of Botanical Studies has worked with this herb extensively. He recommends it for everything from abscessed teeth, otitis media, staph, strep, and (it seems) pretty much any upper respiratory or skin ailment of bacterial origin. It is a delicious bitter, great to take with meals, and absolutely abundant in this region. The part used is the root bark harvested in the fall.

Red Root (Ceanothus velutinus)

There are many different species on Ceanothus, all apparently medicinal. The variety I’ve worked with is Ceanothus velutinus, which I like because you don’t have to actually dig the root to get the medicine. By breaking a branch off at it’s base, you can scrape the bark off and achieve the beautiful red-colored tincture that root preparations yield. So, I guess this isn’t actually a root  and I’m cheating, but that’s okay. It is extremely astringent and specific for the lymphatic system and spleen. Matthew Wood in The Book of Herbal Wisdom talks about its uses as a spleen remedy in a metaphorical sense for folks caught in a funk or trapped in their own cycles of negative thought.

Valerian (Valeriana sitchensis)

Lovely, stinky valerian. This plant is is so graceful and delicate in the springtime with its delicate white flowers. It’s a really popular sedative at the moment, but I tend to think it’s a bit overdone. Not that it wont help some folks sleep, but there are different types of insomnia and some of them are aggravated by valerian. Michael Moore has a great description of it’s different potential affects in his book Plants of the Pacific Northwest. Based on how I felt as I harvested the fresh root, it’s extremely calming and grounding. Personally, I can take the fresh root tincture in smaller doses for anxiety, nervous tension, and sometimes cramping and muscle spasms, but larger doses are aggravating. Honestly, this plant doesn’t really help me sleep, but that’s just me.

Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum)

So delicious and beautiful! That’s all I really know about it.

Yellow Pond Lily (Nuphar polysepalum)

Portland naturopath Deborah Francis introduced me to this plant at a class I took with her about pelvic congestion. I am just getting to know it and am attending a meditation group where we will be working with it for about 6 weeks, so hopefully I will have more to say about it soon. There’s a good monograph on the plant available online in Paul Bergner’s Medical Herbalism Journal. Needless to say, it works on the waters of the body, especially the pelvic bowl. It’s interesting in its action because it’s cooling and both astringent and mucilaginous.

Other medicinal roots in the Oregon area include yellow dock, western peony, sweet root, baneberry, california spikenard, california bayberry, and spreading dogbane.

In terms of edible roots, folks in this region ate species of Lomatium called “Biscuit Root” (Lomatium cous) as well as Wapato (Sagittaria latifolia) and Camas (Camassia quamash), among others.

*I chose not to include members of the carrot family, though I adore them. Osha/kishwoof was one of the first plants I ever met and has a special place with me. This region has a lot of wonderful carrot family members, from Queen Anne’s Lace to Poison Hemlock, but I’m still learning to use and identify this wonderful and potentially dangerous group of plants, so I’m saving them for another time. Here are some common names of local carrot family members for further research: Lomatium, Ligusticum, Queen Anne’s Lace, Angelica, Osha, Cow Parsnip, and Bare-stem Desert Parsley.


Roots Roots Roots

October 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

The rain let up just enough on Monday for a trip up to Mt Hood. Visiting a spot that we discovered last fall, my friends and I were delighted to find the devil’s club berrying and the shrimp mushrooms popping up all over the place. We harvested the biggest root portion I’ve seen, taller than I am, still managing to leave the big grandpa devil’s club plant in tact and firm in the soil.

I was also pleased to find that it was a great spot for cedar root. For the first time, the trees were sparse enough for a few of the roots to go straight and shallow for many feet away from the tree. There were even a few where the root-harvesting left the undergrowth largely undisturbed.I’m pretty sure I accidentally harvested a few hemlock roots in the process, but they seem to be working as well as the cedar, so we’ll see how it all turns out.

I’m looking forward to making some devil’s club oil from the roots we gathered. I’ve been learning a lot about its power in supporting survivors of sexual trauma and in other cases of pelvic congestion. Perhaps some lower back and pelvic work with the help of devil’s club oil could be beneficial…

Poke Berry (Phytolacca americana)

October 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

My palms and fingers are currently a bright shade of magenta. I’ve been waiting for the last month, eyeing immature poke plants in anticipation, and decided that this weekend is finally the time to harvest.

Poke is a beautiful plant that apparently grows all over in the southeast, and is fairly prolific in the Portland area. Some texts tell me that it’s poisonous, some that it’s just a low-dose medicine, but folks in the south boil the leaves and eat them in salad, so it seems to be a matter of perspective and preparation.

I have used the root as an extremely stimulating lymphatic. My lymphatic system has run pretty slow and damp since I had mono back in highschool; ever since then I’ve had strep almost yearly and been prone to viral infections settling into the glands around my throat. The medicines that have really helped me warm things up and get them flowing, especially as the seasons change and my body is trying to adapt, include calendula, cleavers, red root, and poke root. While I’m on it, plants specifically beneficial when facing streptococcus bacteria include thyme, myrrh, and usnea, especially if they can come into direct contact with the affected area. This would mean gargling and slowly sipping tea or tincture when dealing with strep in the throat very frequently.

Aaaaaanyway, poke root is low dose. Matthew Wood recommends using about a dropperfull of poke root for every ounce of formula. But be careful! It’s really really stimulating and can be emetic in material doses. It’s also best to tincture the root fresh because it gets harsher as it dries.

So the root is really great and I’ve been using it a lot already this year as I feel the cold creeping in, but today I harvested the berries. There’s a really sweet documentary called Tommie Bass: A Life in the Ridge and Valley Country (you can watch it at with a great clip of Tommie talking about poke berries as a cleansing medicine. He says you only eat a few at a time. I don’t think they taste very good fresh, but they are really good dried. Almost too good, considering you shouldn’t eat too many.

Some other  indications for poke medicinally: cold, rheumatic pain due to build up in the joints and tissues, septic conditions, lymphatic stagnation (this is first and foremost a glandular remedy),  lumps in the breast associated with the lymph nodes, hormonal changes, purple features (purple on the tongue, rashes and eczema, etc), and a mental state of apathy, indifference, and disregard for surroundings.

Aside from being wonderful medicines,  poke berries are a great dye plant, and that’s why I’ve been so excited to harvest them this season. Right now I have a batch of weavers in a dyebath of poke and they are a beautiful magenta. The great thing about poke is that all you need for a mordant is vinegar. Pre-soak your material in warm vinegar and water (1/4c vinegar for every 4oz water) for about an hour. Heat fresh, mashed poke berries (20:1 in weight to the material being dyed) in enough water to cover them as well as your material, plus 1/2c vinegar per gallon. You’ve got to keep it on low heat for about an hour (some folks strain out the berries at this point, but I’m not very picky), then you can add your premordanted material and keep it on low heat for another two hours or overnight.  Strain, rinse, dry. Regardless of the vinegar, your material will come out a really beautiful redish-pink, but the vinegar helps keep it light-fast. Ta-da!

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