Making root medicine can be a labor of love. It can be hard work, especially when you are digging roots that are large such as yellow dock, or poke. Once you unearth that vessel of potent medicine, your efforts have been rewarded. But, back up, when is the best time to harvest? And how do we harvest?
When to Harvest
Technically, medicinal roots can be harvested any time of year. However, there is one particular time that I personally harvest my medicinal roots, late fall. The reasoning behind a late fall harvest is because it is believed that once the air turns cold and the threat of frost is near, the plant stops growing stems and leaves and sends down its energy and ultimately, its medicine to the roots in order to have a reserve for its winter survival. It makes sense that this would be the optimal time to harvest the roots of most plants for medicine.
More often than not, you will see many plants turn brown and “die-back” for winter, especially if you experience a frost. If it doesn’t freeze in your area, you may have to follow the cycle of a plant and watch its behavior with your climate for some time, taking notes along the way for future reference. A year should be sufficient. I know it sounds extreme, but taking the time to study your chosen plant will also help you develop a deep relationship with the plant, that alone is healing.
If you don’t have the time to study the plant for a few seasons, it would be best to consult with a botanist or experienced herbalist to ensure proper identification and best harvesting practices.
How to Harvest
Some roots such as dandelion can have a taproot of up to (or even over) 2 feet. To utilize the entire root, you may need to invest in a root digger tool, or a Hori Hori, which may help you harvest the whole taproot. Also a shovel may be needed to loosen the dirt around the plant to allow for easier removal.
One important thing to note is that when you harvest the root, you are killing the plant. More often than not, it will not return the following year. However, with some plants, such as Solomon’s Seal (an at-risk plant) you may be able to carefully take part of the root and have the plant continue to grow. There are a few great videos on YouTube, which show how to properly do this. I would recommend watching a couple of those before you attempt digging Solomon’s Seal.
Once you have harvested your roots, you will need to clean them really well with water and a vegetable brush. A little bit of dirt in your tincture or tea won’t harm you, but it may not be pleasing or appetizing.
If you are not going to be using the root right away, you will have to dry it for later use. This can easily be done in a dehydrator set to 95 to 100 F. It is best to chop or slice roots in to small pieces before dehydrating because breaking up whole roots can be virtually impossible once dry. After your roots have been properly dried you can then store them in a cool dry place in a mason jar, or other air-tight container until you are ready to use.