WHY CELEBRATE THE AUTUMN EQUINOX?
When the bounty of the harvest has come in, the leaves begin changing colors, and cool, brisk days replace the dead heat of summer, autumn is upon us! This time of the year marks the autumn equinox, when both day and night are equally long. For herbalists around the world, the fall equinox marks an important transition between summer and fall, a time to reap what has been sown. This is a time for harvesting summer’s abundance, planting new seeds for the spring, for contemplating new ideas, and for medicine-making.
Plant-based cleansing rituals during the autumn equinox help to address the energetic transformation of the season. In Native American tradition, smudging with sage, juniper, cedar, and sweet grass is thought to clear the air of negativity, bring vision, attract the spirit of ancestors, and guide us into the new season.
Herbalists like to harvest medicinal plants and create herbal medicines in conjunction with the lunar calendar, when the medicinal power of the plant is at its peak. The new moon is best for harvesting roots and leaves, and the full moon, September’s Harvest Moon, is best for leaves, flowers and seeds. When the timing aligns the harvest with the equinox, it can produce some amazing herbal medicine! This is a good time to start making herbal recipes like fire cider, a sweet vinegar mixture traditionally used to support our immune systems during the colder months.
THE AUTUMN EQUINOX: ROOTS:
According to the Herbal Academy, “fall is all about root medicine. As plants ready themselves for winter, many of them draw their energy down into the roots to wait out a season of cold and rest. Burdock, dandelion, butterfly weed, angelica, and licorice are just a few of the herbs we cherish for their medicine underground. With roots at their peak strength, ready to keep the plants vital and healthy until spring, now is the best time to harvest underground allies.
No matter what season it is, it seems like there is always something new going on in the herbal scene. An exotic herb with promising new research, a new trend in self-care, or an up and coming herbalist that shows us fresh viewpoints and opinions that shape the future of herbalism widen our herbal horizons. But the timeless rhythm of drawing down and inwards, of setting aside nourishment until spring, never varies for the fall gardens and the wild plants around us. Perhaps fall is an ideal time for us, as herbalists, to return to our roots and herbal traditions.”
When harvesting roots:
• Harvest from clean land away from roadsides.
• Keep the plant’s whole life cycle in mind before harvesting.
• When harvesting roots from a plant that has seeds, plant them.
• Check the endangered plant list before foraging.
• Do not harvest roots from plants on the list.
• Purchase endangered roots from a sustainable grower.
• Clean roots in the sink using a vegetable brush.
• Dry roots by slicing into thin slices and drying below 95 degrees.
• Store roots in a cool, dry place out of direct light.
Barberry (Berberis vulgaris): harvest after the leaves die back in the fall. Barberry has many thorns, and can be a tough plant to cut, so make sure the loppers are sharp. Once the plant is free from the earth, the bright yellow color of the root is visible. The berberine content of the plant gives it this yellow color. Carefully cut all the above ground branches away to harvest. Cut the root apart to make cleaning easier and then clean in the coldest water possible. Berberine is water soluble so it will wash away if cleaned in warm water. Once the root is clean, slice or peel into long strips, dry, and store in a dark place for up to a year.
Barberry root is a potent antibiotic, astringent, and anti-fungal. When taken for infections, it controls the overgrowth of candida, and functions as a bactericide. This is a real advantage over conventional antibiotics. It also controls infectious diarrhea and increases the production of the digestive enzymes. Use barberry as a tea for bladder, kidney or urinary tract infections. Chop the roots into lengths that fit into a jar, cover them with at least 80 proof spirits, and let set for 30 days. Shake the jar daily, strain, and bottle as a tincture. Barberry tincture is used in folk medicine for gastrointestinal ailments, respiratory infections, and as a lymphatic.
Burdock (Arctium lappa): a biennial, the root is harvested in the fall at the end of its first year or growth. In its second year of growth, burdock uses the energy reserves in its root to send up a tall flower spike. By the fall of its second year, burdock is putting out sticky burr seed packets, and the plant is dried out and dies back completely.
Burdock contains a prebiotic called inulin, a fiber which nourishes the gut microbiome and may improve digestion. The mildly bitter nature of burdock helps stimulate digestive secretions and may aid in appetite improvement and nutrient assimilation. As a gentle alterative, burdock is tonifying to the body as a whole. It is often used for detox support, as it encourages lymph flow and the removal of waste from the body. Burdock is especially useful for dry conditions where body tissues are in need of cleansing, moistening, and nourishment. It helps detoxify and normalize metabolic function and may calm external skin issues such as eczema, dandruff, and psoriasis.
Burdock is often included in tea blends and tinctures intended for liver and digestive support, but all parts may be consumed as a food. It can be added to salads, smoothies, sautéed as a vegetable, roasted and added to soups, stews, and stir-fries, and the seeds may also be eaten.
Calamus (Acorus calamus): also known as “sweet flag”, the best time to harvest calamus rhizomes is in autumn before the first frost. Calamus likes to grow in very wet conditions, like ditches or the shallow parts of streams. In order to get to the rhizomes, dig down at least a foot under the plant. Remove the leaves and wash the roots. The rhizomes are about 0.75 inches in diameter and covered in smaller little rootlets that can be removed. Don’t peel the rhizomes! Most of the oils are found near the surface. Calamus rhizomes are best stored sliced and dried.
Calamus is used for its effects on the digestive system and the lungs. It eliminates phlegm, clears congestion, and calms the mind. Traditional uses include amnesia, heart palpitations, insomnia, tinnitus, chronic bronchitis, and bronchial asthma. The root oil is strong and fragrant, and it tastes warm, bitter, pungent and aromatic.
Gentian (Gentiana lutea): roots should not be disturbed for at least three years after being transplanted. After that period, they can be carefully dug out in the fall. The main gentian roots can reach up to three feet in length. They are hollow and about the thickness of a finger, as well as reddish-brown on the outside and yellow on the inside.
Gentian is a bitter herb used to treat liver damage, loss of appetite, diarrhea, gas, bloating, heartburn, nausea, migraines, sinus infections, menstrual pains, chronic fatigue, jaundice, gout, hepatitis, and candida. Gentian’s compounds ease inflammation and benefit the cardiovascular, respiratory and digestive systems. These anti-inflammatory compounds modulate pain pathways in the brain to decrease discomfort. They also help reduce antibodies and autoimmune reactions that can lead to joint pain, fatigue and weakness.
Nettle (Urtica dioica): gloves are a good idea when harvesting nettle root, as casual contact with any above ground part of the plant can cause a dermatological incident that is painful and persistent. Be cautious when harvesting nettle root, as the process will kill this valuable plant. Make sure there are plenty of other specimens nearby and the nearby population is not overharvested. Remove the leaves before digging up the roots. Dig outside the foliage area and under the plant at least a foot to get the roots without damaging them. Once harvested. thoroughly clean in fresh water. Change the water several times and use a vegetable brush to help remove all the grime. Chop the roots into small pieces. The smaller the size, the better all the juices and benefits from the roots can be used.
Nettle is packed full of vitamins and minerals. It is an excellent source of vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B5, C, D, E, K, calcium, chromium, cobalt, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, and selenium. It also contains an abundance of chlorophyll, which is responsible for much of its color and high mineral content. The high iron content of nettle makes it useful in building the blood. It also helps maintain balanced blood sugar levels, aids the body in nutrient and protein assimilation, neutralizes acid, and aids in waste elimination.
Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium): the roots are the trickiest of the medicine to harvest, but they contain the most berberine of the plant. Dig up the plant in the fall. This means killing the plant, so don’t collect the roots unless other options aren’t available. Clean the roots thoroughly. While they are still fresh, use a metal scouring sponge and a paring knife to remove the outer bark. The bright orange inner bark holds the medicine. Use the paring knife to shave off the inner bark for processing.
Oregon Grape is a strong and fairly specific herbal medicine that does two things really well. It fights infection and it has an affinity for the liver. Oregon Grape Root works to decrease bacterial resistance to antibiotics. Herbalists use it to treat eye infections, vaginal infections, wounds on the skin, mouth infections, inflammatory bowel conditions such as infectious diarrhea and parasitic infections in the upper digestive tract, urinary tract infections, and sore throats.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis): harvest plants that are at least two years old,
on warm fall day, after the first frost. The parts used include the root and the rhizomes. Dig plants that are at least two years old, and be careful not to damage the roots. The stronger the smell, the stronger the constituents of the plant, and by damaging the roots, the aromatics may be compromised. To get more root production, deadhead the flowers during the summer. When cleaning the roots, take care not to rub, scrub, or scrape them to avoid damage.
Valerian makes a great garden plant. It helps nearby plants by stimulating phosphorus and earthworm activity. A decoction made from the roots and sprayed on the ground will attract earthworms. The mineral-filled leaves can be added to compost, too.
When most people think of valerian, the first thing they often think of is sleep. Valerian is an excellent choice for falling asleep, a good night’s sleep, and for waking without the usual grogginess of other sleep aids. It is one of the best and gentlest ways to find sleep when used properly.
But it has also described as a nervine, hypnotic, antispasmodic, emmenagogue, nervous system tonic, sedative, stomachic, expectorant, mild anodyne, and a smooth muscle relaxant.
Yellow Dock Root: (Rumex crispus): has the “crisp” leaves with curly edges. In fall their tall greenish flower stalks turn a reddish brown and so flag our attention. First year plants don’t make flower stalks. If in doubt, dig it, as a little bit of a dig will reveal its yellow-orange roots to confirm its identification. Yellow dock roots are at least 8 to 12 inches long and ½ inch thick.
The roots are quite bitter, and are used as a laxative, alterative, and a mild liver tonic. Yellow Dock is a hepatic herb that clears toxins, moves stagnation, promotes bowel cleansing and bile flow, reduces inflammation, and inhibits the growth of E. coli and staph. Yellow dock helps to free up iron stored in the liver and makes it more available to the rest of the body. It is used in the treatment of acne, anemia, appetite loss, arsenic poisoning, arthritis, boils, constipation, dermatitis, eczema, glandular tumors, indigestion, jaundice, leprosy, liver congestion, lumbago, lymph node enlargement, and rheumatism. As a tea, yellow dock aids in the digestion of fatty foods. Topically, it can be used as a poultice or salve to soothe stings from nettle plants, treat athlete's foot, boils, eczema, hives, itchy skin, ringworm, scabies, skin infection, swellings, ulcers, and wounds. It can be prepared as a tooth powder to treat gingivitis or a gargle to treat laryngitis. It also can be made into a douche or bolus to treat vaginitis.
Autumn Decoction Recipe: by Herbal Academy: Decoctions are simmered teas that are perfect for extracting the properties of hard roots, dried berries, barks, and seeds. They are much stronger in flavor than herbal infusions and also more concentrated. This recipe is a simple base formula for wellness during cooler fall days and nights. This formula is nutritive, and the immune system can function properly when we are able to keep our nutritional intake up. Along with the nutritive properties of dandelion and burdock, the ingredients are supportive to the body’s natural detoxification systems, specifically the liver. Hawthorn berry supports the nervous system, has nutritive properties, and has a slightly moistening effect. This is a drying formula and keeping up water intake is important. Ginger is warming, anti-inflammatory, and digestive. If you are feeling a cold coming on, increase the amount of ginger in the formula, take a hot bath, and let yourself sweat. As the body temperature increases, it supports battling of the cold.
Ingredients: Dandelion Root (Taraxacum officinale), Ginger Rhizome (Zingiber officinale), Hawthorn Berry (Crataegus spp.), and Burdock Root (Arctium lappa). For an extra treat, add a bit of coconut milk and cinnamon for a rooty, yet creamy, beverage. Feel free to experiment with different amounts of each herb depending on wellness needs and taste preferences. This can also act as a base formula in which to add other immune supporting herbs during cold and flu season. Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia), Elecampane (Inula helenium), or Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) roots are all good additions. Local, raw honey is also soothing for coughs, colds, and flu.
Directions: Use one teaspoon to one tablespoon of herbs per cup of cold water. Add the herbs and cold water to a pot. Place the pot on the stove and bring up to a gentle boil. Put a lid on the pan and lightly simmer for twenty to forty minutes. Once the decoction is finished simmering, more delicate leafy herbs or flowers that cannot stand up to the lengthy simmer time, can be added into the hot water. Remove from the heat and let the decoction cool to drinking temperature. Finish up by straining out the herbs. These same herbs can be used to brew up a new batch of decoction a couple of times as long as the decoction is still strong after brewing. Refrigerate leftovers and use within 48 hours.