Updated: Dec 4, 2022
Yes, here in the Pacific Northwest there are roots and rhizomes that we can gather in the winter and of course most of these plants directly relate to the systems in our bodies that are most compromised during the winter months. Locally sourced food and medicine contain local antibodies that fight against local antigens like bacteria, viruses, and diseases and remove them from the body. Gathering our winter roots and rhizomes can bring healing and relief to our immune and respiratory systems and help prevent those winter coughs, flus and colds. This blog is going to help you learn the basics to know When, How, and What roots and rhizomes to ethically gather in the winter.
First and foremost be aware of the at-risk and endangered wild roots in your area to help protect them. It’s best to only wild craft and gather what you will use and only 10% of the particular plant in that area and also if you know whether the plant already has or can reproduce because these are all the most important aspects of ethical gathering. Knowing where and when to gather is super important in the mission to restore and conserve our sacred gathering sites. We must fully understand the ecology and how each plant works with each other to best live with the land in full reciprocity. If we take a root before it had the chance to create potency or reproduce we are ending that plant’s life cycle or we are not gathering strong medicine, but if we understand the life cycle of the plant we can gather at the right time in it’s cycle ensuring peak potency and conservation.
Endangered plants currently listed in Western Washington include:
Collinsia sparsiflora var. bruceae
Chylismia scapoidea ssp. scapoidea
Collinsia sparsiflora var. sparsiflora
Chylismia scapoidea ssp. brachycarpa
Coeloglossum viride var. virescens
Minuartia nuttallii var. fragilis
Sabulina nuttallii var. fragilis
Orobanche californica ssp. grayana
Trillium albidum ssp. parviflorum
Many roots and rhizomes can be gathered year round in the Pacific Northwest mostly because there are habitats where the ground never freezes. To determine what time certain roots can be gathered around your home you will need to find out if the plant is an annual, biannual or perennial. Annual roots and rhizomes can be gathered at any time during the growing cycle before the seed is produced. Biennial roots and rhizomes can be gathered in the fall of the first year’s growth or in the spring of the second year’s growth, and finally the perennial roots and rhizomes can be gathered during spring, fall and winter. Being in the Pacific Northwest we can find habitats that are not frozen and gather some perennials like dandelions and coltsfoot root almost all year round and some biennials in super late fall and early winter like burdock root. Be aware of the life cycle to make sure to not gather after it starts putting energy into its aerial parts.
Knowing what tools to use and when to use them is super helpful especially when gathering roots and rhizomes. An integral part about getting to know your plants is finding out what tools work best for each of them. I have spent so many moments trying to retrieve a broken off dandelion root because I tried to pull before I had loosened all the dirt around it. Our most precious tool is our bodies and our hands and they can get us pretty far but for efficiency garden tools have been invented to ease the work a little. Digging up and gathering below the soil takes the most energy and patience and by using the right tool you’re ensuring less broken roots. I start digging up roots and rhizomes by loosening the soil all around it with a needle nose spade or a hori hori, then I carefully lift them up with a long garden fork, needle nose spade or with my hands if possible. If I’m gathering licorice fern from a tree I gently pull the moss and debris back and carefully break off chunks of the rhizomes with my hands and then try to patch the space back up the best I can with the moss I pulled back. It’s really helpful to find an area to gather where the dirt is evenly moist. The best soil is not too wet and not too dry. Basically your looking for the Goldilocks of soil.
Once my material is out of the ground I trim off all the aerial parts with scissors or hand snips leaving about ¼ of an inch above the root crown. The root crown is located at the tip of the root where the foliage grows out from the soil. After trimming you will want to separate the roots and rhizomes from the crown and gently shake off most of the soil then continue cleaning with a spray hose or faucet making sure to get all the soil washed off. It is very important that you make sure to clean all the dirt off to prevent bacteria contamination.
Always Process your roots and rhizomes right away. If you are not able to immediately process your roots then you can store in a cool cellar or refrigerator for no more than a few days before they start to lose potency. With some types of roots you will want to leave whole and cut or grind after you have dried them and other roots like coltsfoot root and dandelion become extremely hard and you will want to cut them into small pieces before drying. Lay your roots out on a flat screen in a dry ventilated space for two to three weeks. Make sure the roots are completely dry before storing them to prevent mold contamination. Now that we briefly went over the basics of WHEN and HOW to gather roots, we can take a look at the chart below to learn WHAT pacific northwest roots and rhizomes I gather in the winter.
Here are some statements and studies supporting the medicinal efficacy of Dandelion, Coltsfoot root & Licorice fern rhizomes.
A 2015 study from Canada reported that dandelion extracts are able to block harmful ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation when applied to the skin, protecting it from sun damage while lowering the risk of skin cancer.
A 2016 review of studies from Aarhus University in Denmark suggested that dandelion extract also stimulates pancreatic cells to produce insulin, better controlling blood sugar and avoiding hyperglycemia.
Coastal Native American tribes soak coltsfoot root in hot water and drink the tea for tuberculosis, chest troubles, sore throat, stomach ulcers and chewed the root for tuberculosis. The raw or boiled root is used as a cough medicine by the Quileute tribe. They also mash the root and soak it as a wash for swellings and sore eyes. The Skagit warm the leaves and lay them on parts afflicted with rheumatism. The root decoction was used against asthma or rheumatism.
Many coastal native tribes use licorice rhizomes to relieve colds and coughs but the Alutiiq people are known to use the fern fronds to relieve severe arthritis and to treat broken bones and sprains. Some people soak the leaves in hot water in the steam bath and place them on the afflicted area, either directly or in a cloth. Other people dice the leaves, simmer them in a small amount of water, and then mix the water and leaves with rubbing alcohol before applying directly or with a cloth.
MacKinnon, A., Pojar, J. (1994). Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Ministry of Forests and Lone Pine Publishing. MacKinnon, A., Pojar, J. & Coupe, R. (1992). Plants of Northern British Columbia. Edmonton: Lone Pine Publishing. Uvic Community Mapping Collaboratory. (2017). Website .http://www.mapping.uvic.ca/section/licorice-fern. Alutiiq Museum and Archeological Repository. (2019) Website. https://alutiiqmuseum.org/medicinal-plants/licorice-fern. Erna Gunther. Ethnobotany of Western Washington: The knowledge and use of Indigenous Plants by Native Americans. (1945). Revised edition. (1973). University of Washington Publications in Anthropology. Washington State Department of Natural resources. Frans, Hilary S. Commissioner of Public Lands. (2019). Website. https://www.dnr.wa.gov/NHPlists. The Daily Garden. (2016). Website. https://www.thedailygarden.us/garden-word-of-the-day/rhizomes.