When the wind carries a warning of cooler weather and leaves scurry across the path, herbalists
dig up roots. Putting on rubber boots with wool socks, down filled vests and knitted hat,
herbalists, who have been waiting patiently for leaves to die back as the frost creeps higher and
thickens with each morning, take out their shovels for the final harvests of the year – the
medicine buried beneath the earth.
Gathering flowers for medicine in the spring and early summer is a delight. A herbalist’s basket
carries the scent of tender violets and rose petals. The sweetness hidden in the red clover’s
clusters of purple petals is carefully tended to on drying racks. Elders flowers’ quiet delicacy is
infused into cordials and meadowsweet flowers are tinctured to tame bitters. St John’s Worts
flowers, mingling with olive oil and the warmth of the sun on the back deck, make medicine red
as blood. Early summer is a busy time for herbalists. From morning to night, plants and their
medicine need to be tended to.
By the time the trees are bare, herbalists are ready to settle next to a fire with a big fat book and
begin to dream about next spring. But first there are the roots to dig.
This year the first roots I dug were dandelion. I prefer fall dandelion roots over the roots I dig in
the spring. Dandelion’s fall roots carry summer’s sweetness. The plants have made and stored
sugars in their fat tap roots to prepare for winter. By spring, when Dandelion’s first jagged green
leaves appear, the roots have become bitter with winter’s cold.
Digging burdock’s root requires patience and a steady hand. One cannot be in a hurry when
unearthing Burdock’s roots. Burdock’s roots penetrate deep into the earth. One I gently dug get
and tugged a meter long burdock root from its bed of soil. During the mid summer, when
burdock’s leaves grow to be the size of elephant ears, I decide which plants I will return to in the
fall to gather roots. Only the first year’s roots make good medicine. By the time the burdock’s
second year burrs are tangled in my dog’s coat or clinging to the edge of my scarf, the roots
have rotted and their medicine is gone. Like dandelion’s roots, burdock’s roots are sweeter in
Comfrey, which if you do not dig its roots every fall, will march across your garden, putting down
roots in any space it can find. Comfrey’s roots come out of the ground covered in a thin black
skin. RinsIng comfrey roots with the garden hose, the black skin peels away exposing fleshy
roots white as bone. Comfrey heals bones. Inside I chop the white roots until they are the size of
the nail on my baby finger. Then I spread out the roots on the drying rack. Once they are dry, I
cook them in oil to help heal bones that break from falls on ice or tumbles while snow boarding.
This fall I found a Comfrey plant hiding amongst the Elecampane. Elecampane like Comfrey
grows leaves the size of elephant ears. Elecampanes roots are long and thin and branching.
They are similar to Comfrey’s but carry a pungent, sharp scent that remind people of cough
medicine. After gathering and chopping Elecampane’s roots, I gently heat them in honey. After a
day on the stove, the honey is strained and bottled and put in the fridge ready for winter’s first
Digging roots was special for me this year. It was the first year I was able to dig the roots of a
medicinal plant called Baikal Skullcap. Three years ago I started a small patch of Baikal
Skullcap plants from seed in my medicine garden. The first year they struggled and looked tired
and weedy. The second year the plants became bushy and offered up deep purple flowers.
When the flowers turned to seeds, I collected them and spread them about in another area of
the garden that gave them a bigger space to grow in. This year, after their third summer, I dug
out the original plants. They were twisty roots, like snakes, and golden in colour. Inside they
were bright yellow/orange. I tinctured them up right way. I prefer my medicine made with fresh
plants. It is stronger. I felt proud of myself as I shook the bottle of tincture and asked the roots to
put their medicine into the liquid. I tended to the plants for three years to make Baikal Skullcap’s
medicine. It was a good reminder that sometimes the best medicine needs time.
I have one more set of roots to dig up and then I can put my shovel away in the garden shed for
the winter. The last roots to be unearthed are Black Cohosh’s. Black Cohosh is another plant I
have been tending to for three years. Like Baikal Skullcap, Black Cohosh’s medicine needs
time. Before I dig Black Cohosh’s roots, I will collect the plant’s seeds. Some I will cast about in
the maple forest near my home and let nature decide whether not to awaken the seeds in the
spring. Some I will cast about in my garden, and wait and see if they rise to meet the sun in the
spring. Others I put in a small bag and keep in the freezer over the winter to plant in pots in the
spring. These I will fuss over making sure they have the right amount of heat and sun to make
And so the season will be complete one more year. The roots becoming medicine and the