Fall is the Time to Harvest Roots to Make Home Remedies

By Conrad Richter

Fall is my favourite season. Our forests will soon be colourized, a brilliant last flash of colour before bedding down for the grey winter. This is the time to collect herbs with medicinal roots, like ginseng, valerian (German: baldrian), and comfrey (beinwell). Research at the University of Quebec has shown that medicinal roots reach their largest size and highest potency in October and November, well after the above ground parts have died down with the killing frosts. Like their colourful arboreal cousins, herbs are programmed to withdraw nutrients from the leaves and stems and store them in the roots for winter.

Ginseng is so synonymous with China that few know that it is native to Canada. In fact, ginseng was the first plant-based export from North American – collected by the Six Nations Indians and exported to China on ships by the Jesuits. Four centuries of collection have virtually wiped out our wild stands; but in cultivation it is now the largest herb crop in Canada – nearing $100 million in annual sales. While claims of ginseng’s medicinal value have been slow to gain to acceptance in Canada, converts are quick to tell you that one billion Chinese cannot be wrong, and with the rise of the Chinese economy and purchasing power the demand for Canadian ginseng is climbing.

Ginseng can be grown in most any shaded garden: its modest demands are 70% shade and a well-drained, rich soil. Otherwise, it is fairly simple to grow – the stratified seeds are planted in the fall where they will germinate next spring, and three or four years later the roots are ready for harvest, Resembling a pale carrot, the root can be chewed raw, preserved in syrup, or dried.

What can ginseng do? Research is proving many of the old claims once dismissed by in the West. For example, research at McMaster University has shown that ginseng can enlarge blood vessels and increase blood flow. For men suffering from impotence caused by clogged arteries to the penis, ginseng can help. As my mother once put it, with twinkle in her eye, ginseng makes you feel better, and if you feel better, everything works better.

Valerian is well known among Germans. In Germany, baldrian tinctures are widely available in apothekes for their mild sedative value. Easy-to-grow, the hardy perennial will grow in full or part sun, sending up sprays of white flowers a meter high in summer. Unlike chemically-based sedatives, valerian roots are not addictive and are not known to have serious side-effects. Valerian does not know you out; rather, it calms the system enough to induce good sleep. It can be taken as a tea but the flavour an odour is off-putting (except to cats, strangely enough.) They best way to prepare it is to make an alcoholic tincture which will keep for years.

Comfrey is a marvelous healing herb. Beinwell can promote fast healing in damaged tissues and bones, and we have many confirming reports from our customers. Unfortunately, it has been the victim of a medical witch-hunt and Canada now prohibits the sale of comfrey remedies. The decision to ban comfrey was based on a few laboratory studies that showed animals fed diets very high in comfrey suffered liver damage. A few isolated human case studies seemed to suggest the same, although in each case, comfrey was consumed in absurdly high amounts. In the 1960s and 1970s it had become fashionable to eat comfrey leaves or drink the root tea regularly because the plant is high in vitamin B12 and protein.

In fact, comfrey has been used safely for at least 1000 years, but it was never taken as a nutritional supplement. It was used as a poultice or ointment to treat ulcers, skin diseases, strained ligaments, and broken bones. Internal use was confined to short term treatments for problems like bleeding ulcers. The roots and leaves contain a soothing mucilage and an interesting compound called allantoin. Allantoin is a cell-proliferant that promotes cell division necessary for rapid healing. It is a natural human hormone found in pregnant women, presumably to promote rapid growth of the fetus.

Comfrey is a deep-rooted perennial, easy to grow and very hardy. It will survive in most gardens in Canada in full sun or part shade, but before planting be sure of where you want it to grow because it can be hard to remove. It is easy to use: just macerating a few fresh roots and applying as a poultice to wounded tissues will work wonders. To preserve comfrey for later use, roots can be sliced and dried, or a convenient ointment can be made from fresh macerated roots, petroleum jelly and beeswax.

Originally published in German in Kanada Kurier, Oct. 5, 1995.

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