Root Medicine: An Herbalist’s Guide to Digging Roots

Burdock Roots

Fall is harvest time, not only for winter storage crops like beets and carrots, but for all those beautiful medicinal plants we have been watching flower and grow for many months now. The herb harvest provides a sense of the changing seasons and a chance to prepare our home apothecary for the year to come. It’s a special experience to watch the full growing cycle of a plant and then harvest and use for your own wellbeing.

Autumn is the time of year when plants’ energies are focused back into the roots.  

They are no longer producing leaves and flowers. Thus, it is this time of year (late September and early October) when the roots’ medicinal qualities are most potent. For roots like Dandelion and Burdock, the inulin is highest at this time of year. It’s good to try and harvest before the first hard frost, once the ground gets hard, it becomes difficult to dig, and the inulin depolymerizes due to the frost.

Urban Moonshine Digging Dandelion Roots

Harvesting practices and techniques:

  • Before harvesting- make sure you are 100% confident that the plant you are about to harvest is what you think it is. If you question at all, it's a good idea to find a local herbalist or botanist that can confirm for you.
  • It’s always good to reflect on how much you will need; this could depend on your use of it—is it just for yourself, family, or are you producing it at a small scale? It’s a beautiful tradition to get into making medicine you will use, so one year’s worth is usually a good place to start. Another perk of doing it on a yearly basis is that you get to spend time with the plants every fall.
  • Consider the age of the plant. Most roots should be harvested within second year. When they get older, they become more fibrous and woody, meaning that a lot of the strong qualities of the root are harder to extract. Younger roots are traditionally more medicinally potent in and easier to work with.
  • Think about where you are digging and harvesting: do you have permission? And most importantly, is it far enough away from roadsides and trails? Give yourself enough space so that there is no chance any toxic chemicals, dog urine or human waste could affect the plants.
  • To dig the roots, use a specialized digger (Hori Hori or Dandelion Digger) or a garden fork. You’ll want to be careful not to break the roots as some of them have large taproots that go very deep. Use the tools to help loosen the soil around the roots, and get your hands deep into the earth. You won’t have much success pulling them from the top. If you harvest correctly, most roots will pop up after you loosen the soil around them. Try starting about 8 inches away from the plant base as some roots grow outward as well.
  • Once you have harvested, make sure to thoroughly clean and dry the roots. Best practice is to process right away after harvesting, either tincture the roots fresh or chop them into small pieces and use a dehydrator or an oven at low temp (start at 120F, then reduce to 100F after a few hours) to dry them completely. It's important to note that if you aren’t careful in your drying methods, roots can easily mold in the storage process, and therefore are unusual.

Some of the species we seek out this time of year are also key ingredients in our products. All of these thrive beautifully in Vermont and are ever abundant in our fields, woodland paths, and backyards!

Our favorite roots:

Dandelion: Taraxacum officinale

Dandelion Root
This common weed is found throughout the northern hemisphere, and almost everyone knows this plant! This is the queen of rebel weeds—dandelion grows in any cracked pavement or sidewalk it can find, and it's seeds are spread easily for reproduction. Unfortunately, it gets a bad rap when people try to have a perfect lawn, and so many dandelions are sprayed and killed.
  • Make sure you are ALWAYS harvesting plants that are clean and unsprayed. Dandelion is one of the most sprayed weeds out there!
  • The first and second-year roots are the best.
  • Leaves, root, and flower can all be used!
Burdock: Arctium lappa  

Burdock Flower

  • First-year roots are preferable—the first-year burdock will not have a seed stalk.
  • This plant’s taproot can easily be a foot or two long! Make sure you work the soil around this plant before pulling it out.
  • If you wait until after the first frost this root will often become sweeter (this is the exception to what we said earlier!)
  • In early spring these roots can also be dug, and they are a delicious edible just as is!
Yellow Dock: Rumex crispus   

Yellow dock leaves

  • Younger and tender roots will be better for harvesting; 1-2 years.
  • These roots are often about a foot long, and are a similar size to dandelion roots.
  • Underneath the brown earthy outer bark of the yellow dock is a strikingly bright yellow root—hence the name yellow dock.  
 Echinacea:  Echinacea purpurea  

Echinacea Flower

  • Harvest older plants (3-4 years), as the constituents are stronger.
  • These roots are often thin and come in more of a root ball, so make sure to give yourself plenty of space to dig them up so as to get the whole root.
  • Flowers, leaves, unopened buds and root can all be used and harvested! 
Elecampane: Inula helenium  

Elecampane Flowers

  • Harvest it at the end of the second year as to prevent getting very woody and thick roots.
  • This plant has a large taproot that can be a foot long, so use those tools!
  • Easy to grow, potent medicinal and the bees love the flower in late summer / early fall!

 (Updated, October 2018)

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