Fall is often the preferred and easiest season for harvesting perennial roots. The time after the first frost and before the first snow is an ideal time where I live. The plants slowly become dormant, putting their energy downwards into their roots ready to hibernate for the winter. However, there are some roots that we can gather in the early spring that also contain valuable medicine. The optimal time for most plants being when the ground has thawed and soft enough to dig and before any aerial growth has occurred. Read on to hear about 3 of my favourite roots to gather in the early spring!
Nothing makes me think of early spring more than eating fresh dandelion greens and as I gather the bitter leaves for eating I also dig for the roots. I don’t cultivate dandelion but it grows prolifically in my garden beds. Harvesting the long taproot is part of my spring cleaning and weeding in my garden. Although extremely widespread and recognizable, dandelion is so often misidentified. Get a field guide and before you dig make sure you are 100% on your identification. Here is a good ID site with comparisons to one of its most common look-alike Cat’s Ear. After digging the roots (note that you will need to gather roots from a lot of plants for a decent size harvest!), I spray them down with a hose outside and then soak in a bowl before a final rinse. To process I chop the roots into around 1/2 inch chunks and lay them on a screen to dry.
As well as being a renowned liver and blood tonic, dandelion root contains a prebiotic substance called Inulin which provides nourishment to our intestinal bacteria. The inulin levels in the roots are generally higher in the fall harvested roots than the spring roots however, as roasting the roots makes the inulin no longer effective, spring roots are perfect for roasting! Once the root has dried I roast them on a cookie sheet in the oven (325f for 20-30 minutes), the aroma of the roasting roots is delicious and almost chocolatey. The roasted root is perfect (in my opinion) in a decoction with roasted chicory root, reishi and a smidge of honey.
Such a generous beauty, comfrey never fails to give a bountiful leaf harvest all summer. Springtime however, is an excellent time to dig up the also bountiful roots. I rotationally harvest the roots from 3 plants and dig gently around the plant when there is minimal aerial growth. I divide the root crown in half, taking the majority of one half to process for medicine and a small amount to propagate and replanting the other half. Bear in mind that comfrey will take from just the smallest amount of root and can take over easily. However it benefits the whole garden in many ways for example by attracting pollinators and as a herbal fertilizer. After cleaning I chop the root into small pieces and lay on a screen to dry in a dark room. Once dried I infuse in olive oil in a double boiler along with dried comfrey leaves for topical use in salves.
The roots are more mucilaginous than the leaves and used mostly as a topical vulnerary. The root is also higher in allantoin which is one of the constituents in comfrey that promotes tissue growth and cell regeneration. There is some debate on whether allantoin extracts effectively into oil but based on personal experience, the root and leaf oil extract is an potent vulnerary. Note that due to comfrey containing harmful pyrrolizidine alkaloids and should not be taken internally due to potentially fatally damaging effects on the liver.
Known mostly for its leaves’ use as a tonic respiratory herb, mullein root is also valuable medicine. It is a biennial so you can harvest it in the spring of its second year before it shoots up its flowering stalk. Mullein grows abundantly in disturbed ground so if you are wildcrafting the roots be sure you are harvesting from a clean area free from possible pollutants and be 100% sure on your identification. After spraying and scrubbing the root I like to tincture it fresh in Everclear at a 1:2 ratio. Mullein root is used as a tonic bladder remedy, strengthening the bladder and helping to prevent infection. It is also used for treating the skeletal system, supporting the healing of broken bones and inflamed joints. See Jim McDonald’s article for more on this.
If you are wildcrafting your roots this spring, remember the Gathering Guidelines:
- Be 100% on your id; many plants can be misidentified, especially when they are first emerging in the spring
- Be aware of the land you are gathering from; steer clear of power lines, railway tracks and roadsides. Consider where possible pesticide run off might come from.
- Think about sustainability. Is the plant abundant enough for you to harvest without damaging the population? Check out the United Plant Savers At Risk List
- Finally, give thanks and gratitude to the earth.