For a well-stocked cabinet of winter herbal remedies, take time during fall to harvest and preserve medicinal roots, such as elecampane, marshmallow, and burdock.
Fermented garlic cloves work well as medicine or a tasty treat.
When it’s time to put away our tools, slow down, and prepare for a long winter’s rest, many of us need the physical reminder that autumnal temperatures bring. Between work, errands, school activities, and more, it can be all too easy to continue operating at full steam during the change of seasons, but that’s the time of year when our bodies need to restore themselves.
Mirroring our own turn inward, perennials and biennials return their energy to their roots in the fall. This is why many of winter’s herbal remedies are made from medicinal roots. As we approach the year’s end for harvesting food and medicinal plants, this is the ideal time to turn to preservation. Many of us preserve food, but it’s just as beneficial to stock our medicine chest with homegrown items — many medicinal plants can be “put up” in the same way as vegetables. We’re merely freezing, canning, and drying a complement to our winter food supply.
Some wild roots, such as sunchoke, can even be dug in winter as long as the ground hasn’t frozen too hard. If you wish to harvest roots throughout winter, before the snow falls, it’s important to walk the land to locate and mark them for a later harvest. Mother Nature doesn’t plant in rows like we do, so I use a brightly colored row marker labeled with the plant name. If you try this, make sure your marker is tall enough to show above a snowfall.
1. Garlic (Allium sativum): The benefits of garlic are many, but it’s an important antimicrobial to have on hand. It’s one of our modern day panaceas, with many potential medicinal applications, including reducing cholesterol, slowing down atherosclerosis, strengthening the immune system, and fighting cancer. It’s wise to consume garlic regularly as a way to maintain general wellness, especially as winter illnesses make the rounds. In addition to the therapeutic benefits of garlic, it’s also a great treatment to help kick out viruses at the onset, either by consuming large amounts in raw form as food, or by making your own capsules or tinctures. The constituent allicin is responsible for the antimicrobial aspect and must be used freshly crushed. Some research has found that the DNA protective effects of garlic are protected from heat if the garlic is chopped or crushed and then allowed to stand for 10 minutes before cooking. If you’re using garlic for circulatory or reproductive health, there are no time-frame limitations for usage. Garlic is easy to grow almost anywhere in the country. Dig bulbs when there are just five green leaves remaining on the stalk.
Notes on preservation: Clean the husk from the clove, and you can pickle the clove in honey, or vinegar. Garlic can also be infused into oil or made into a tincture. Dried cloves can be stored as is or powdered for later use.
Uses: You can use a garlic-infused oil for ear or topical infections. I always prefer to eat medicinal herbs as food for preventive purposes: Along with using fresh garlic in sauces, dressings and marinades, you might also try pickled garlic as a condiment.
Note: Garlic acts as a blood thinner, so don’t take garlic medicinally if you’re using similar medications, such as warfarin.
2. Parsley (Petroselinum crispum): Although its leaves are more well-known, parsley root is used therapeutically for its medicinal value: It’s rich in vitamins and minerals, and it acts as a diuretic to help the body regulate water content through our kidneys. Because of this, parsley can be useful for treating gout and arthritis.
Notes on preservation: Harvest parsley root after a couple of light frosts if you wish to fully develop its flavor, which is somewhere between carrot and celery, with a parsley note. You may choose to dry the root for medicinal teas throughout the winter or tincture them, but I like to keep the focus on food. Clean up the white, carrot-like roots, and slice them into small, bite-sized pieces. Blanch and then flash-freeze them on cookie sheets so they don’t clump in your freezer bag.
Uses: You can ramp up the nutritional value of your dishes by adding the roots — fresh, dried, or frozen — to soups, sautés, or stir-fries, or use them to make tea.
3. Elecampane (Inula helenium): Elecampane is most useful for respiratory ailments. During the summer, this plant sends up large tobacco-like leaves and beautiful yellow flowers. Underground, its system of roots bears a resemblance to the network of bronchioles in a human lung. Elecampane root is an expectorant. The phytochemicals it contains help our bodies expel congestion from our lungs.
Notes on preservation: Dig the root, wash it thoroughly, and then slice into 1⁄4-inch pieces. Dry it outdoors on a screen covered with cheesecloth to prevent bugs from bothering it, or use a dehydrator. You can also turn the dried slices into a tincture by covering them with pure vodka for four to six weeks, then straining the slices from the liquid.
Uses: I like to use elecampane as a decocted tea or tincture, taken when a cold sets in.
4. Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis): Marshmallow leaves and roots have been used around the world for their emollient action. Marshmallow root tea can help soften and soothe internal membranes, making it useful to soothe sore throats or irritated bronchial passages. Dried marshmallow root can be used in teas to soothe a sore throat; it’s approved for treating inflammation in the stomach, mouth, and throat by the German scientific advisory board, Commission E. It’s also traditionally used to soothe an upset stomach and to ward off urinary tract infections.
Notes on preservation: You may slice and dry the roots for later use. You may also choose to immediately make them into a syrup or tincture. To make an easy syrup, start by making an herbal tea. Marshmallow tea is best made with warm but not boiling water; cover the root with warm water, then refrigerate in a lidded jar for several hours or overnight. Next, reduce the marshmallow tea over low heat until it’s shrunk to half its volume. Add a sweetener of your choice and a drop or two of alcohol for preservation, if you like. Store in a dark, cool place for up to 2 months.
Uses: The dried root may be used to make homemade marshmallows, a favorite recipe of mine for the holidays. Many homemade marshmallow recipes don’t include actual marshmallow root, but Wellness Mama offers one at WellnessMama.com. You can also decoct the dried root to drink as tea or use the slices as a topical compress or poultice for skin ailments. The syrup is helpful for stubborn coughs, and the tincture may be helpful for chronic issues of the bowel, bladder, or lungs.
5. Sunchoke (Helianthus tuberosus): The tubers of sunchoke (also known as Jerusalem artichoke) are high in inulin, a prebiotic substance which could improve colon health and sugar and lipid metabolism. Prebiotics stimulate the growth of good gut bacteria, improving digestion and offering a cascade of benefits throughout the body as a result. This root remains available to us very late in the season. As long as the ground is not frozen, I like to dig it as a fresh vegetable for the winter table.
Notes on Preservation: I slice and blanch sunchoke roots before freezing them. Alternatively, you can steam and purée the roots and freeze the mash. You can also dry the roots and use the powder as a prebiotic.
Uses: Sunchoke roots are delicious in any recipe where you typically use potato. They’re also wonderfully tasty when pickled.
6. Burdock Root (Arctium lappa): Burdock is rich in vitamins and minerals, including phosphorus and calcium. You may find it in your supermarket as “gobo root.” Traditionally, burdock root tea has been used as a diuretic. It’s thought to be especially helpful for easing liver complaints and other digestive disorders. Eating burdock or drinking burdock root tea may also help clear skin problems, such as psoriasis and eczema.
Notes on preservation: Chop burdock root and dry it out of direct sunlight or in a dehydrator until completely dry. Then store it in a dark, cool place. Alternatively, you can blanch the slices and then freeze them on a tray before transferring to a freezer container. You may also make a tincture using the fresh root (cover the root slices with vodka for four to six weeks, then strain). The fresh roots can also be pickled or stored in the root cellar in the same conditions as carrots.
Uses: As a preventive and overall health aid, decoct a tea from the dried roots. Bring roots and water just to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, covered, for at least 10 minutes before straining. Another use is to add dried or frozen root slices to soups, stews, and vegetable stir-fries.
Dawn Combs is an ethnobotanist, author, and herbalist who runs Mockingbird Meadows Farm in Marysville, Ohio and who directs its Eclectic Herbal Institute.
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