All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost, the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost…J.R.R Tolkien
Deep roots: a symbol of durability, resiliency and unfaltering character, grounded and strong. Prune a flower, trim a leaf branch, harvest berries or fruits, strip the bark, but leave a plant’s roots intact and there may be damage or stress but it survives, regrows or regenerates. Pulling the roots with no trace left behind guarantees the plant’s demise. Ask any gardener. To weed effectively one must pull from the bottom to get out the roots.
Autumn in the herbalism realm signifies harvesting roots. A plant’s energy retreats from above ground to below so root nourishment will be strong.
The Other Side of the Ground
The fairest thing in nature, a flower, still has its roots in earth and manure…D.H. Lawrence
Living above ground in sunlight, breathing air and moving freely, I wonder what happens underground.
Does a root only know darkness or does sunlight penetrate the thickness of soil? Is it seeking something, forcing it to reach out, grow more? How does it stay securely planted? What evils lurk and how does it deal with stress? A root’s life not visible to our eye seems mysterious yet solid. In the dark, dense dirt, roots grow downward feeding on rich nutrients. Our personal roots also reside deep, behind closed doors that which others cannot see. We show the leaves, flowers and branches, not what happens inside.
For plants, parallels exist between above and below ground parts. The counterpart of the stem is the underground rhizome. Roots grow from the rhizome, as do leaves from the stem. While the stem extends vertically, the rhizome stretches horizontally underground, anchoring the root system to provide a plant’s secure base. Young roots have hairs that absorb water and nutrients from soil just as leaves provide food energy converted by chlorophyll from sunlight and water. Aging roots become carbohydrate storage chests to help the plant survive in times of stress and scarcity, preparing like bears in winter. In contrast, the short-lived flower exists to attract pollinators for fertilization and reproduction, assuring continued life in a different way. Humans differ little from plants in our parallels and contrasts.
Botanical function of roots
Read nature; nature is a friend to truth…Edward Young, 18th century English Poet
Any plant surviving via a system that moves water and minerals through its body has roots. Moss does not have roots. Roots are not dependent on sunshine like leaves and flowers. In spring and fall the root energy of the plant is strongest, nourishment richest. Roots reach their largest size in October and November when the nutrients from leaves and stems withdraw for winter storage. No coincidence these root vegetables decorate the table of autumn foods.
While roots anchor plants in the ground, draw nutrients out of soil for nourishment and store minerals, trace minerals and water for times of need; there invaluable contribution of phytochemicals assure a plant’s survival. Research on phytonutrients reveals that people, being similar to plants, also need these compounds in comparable ways. The phytochemical list is long but fascinating: alkaloids (anti-inflammatory, antibacterial), phenolics (structural integrity, antibacterial), coumarins (antispasmodic, analgesic), monoterpenes and triterpenes (antioxidant, immunoprotective), polysaccharides (immunoprotective), flavones and isoflavones (anti-inflammatory, antioxidants) and nutrients.
All things must come to the soul from its roots, from where it is planted…Saint Teresa of Avila
The function of roots as part of herbalism is vast. Their healing touches all organ functions, all parts of the body, all ailments, all emotions. From ginseng’s restoration to turmeric’s anti-inflammation protection to ginger’s warmth and stomach calming to the nourishment of dandelion and the calming of kava, roots are worth their heavier plant weight in treasure.
Earliest herbal research employed observation, watching animals using plants. Perhaps this is the origin of root identification, safety and toxicity recognition. Five thousand years ago during the Chinese Han Dynasty, a legendary emperor Shen Nung, the Divine Farmer is credited with discovering Chinese herbal medicine. His story tells that to determine the effect of medicinal plants, he ate them himself and eventually died after ingesting a toxic plant. There is something to be said for an herbalist who develops knowledge not just from books but also from actual use. Obviously Shen Nung’s method proved dangerous, however, the kitchen is a perfect safe testing laboratory. In the kitchen experimenting with the roots of herbal medicine uncovers their abilities, alchemical properties and best ways to extract their nourishment.
A solid root substance calls for strong preparation like decoctions or alcohol extractions. Root energetics, whether as a vegetable or medicine, suit well in times when strength and nourishment are needed in colder and darker months of winter, fall or spring. Emotionally they provide humans the same anchor offered a plant when in soil, they ground and strengthen our inner core. There are numerous phrases or sayings about getting back to our roots or grounding in our roots to have the ability to fly. Our roots are past history, origin and culture that connect us in a world where taking risks and having courage to face change is often required.
In my search for deeper professional direction, herbalism appeared as a branch on my own nutritionist tree, an addition to my tool belt as my current tools were not functioning properly. I had no idea herbal medicine would grow to be my anchor, nor the immensity of its reach. Always a city dweller, never a gardener, and immersed in the clinical science of nutrition, I thought of herbs as the powders or dried leaves in spice jars or the occasional fresh parsley purchase from the supermarket. It embarrasses me that I gave no importance to roots beyond knowing the nutritional benefits of root vegetables.
Now in admiration of plants, I bow to the strength and importance of roots. Baking with roots offers endless botanical medicine possibility. Open the kitchen medicine cabinet to explore cultural cuisine, our own or others, while adding endurance, richness, strength and mystique from herbal roots.
- Jerusalem artichoke
- Dang Gui
- Solomon’s seal
- Wild Yam
- Yellow Dock
Soule, D. How to Move Like a Gardener, Planting and Preparing Medicines from Plants. Under the Willow Press, Avena Botanicals, Rockport Maine; 2013.