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Dig Up Roots This Winter

by Hannah Schiller, guest writer, The Herb Word

Cough Syrup Recipe


1 quart water

1-2 cups of fresh herbs (Elecampane, Wild cherry bark, Marshmallow, Sage, etc.)

1 tbsp fresh ginger (you can add cinnamon or cayenne for a little more heat)

¼ cup lemon juice

1 cup honey

1. Pour the water into a medium saucepan and add the herbs.

2. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer.

3. Simmer until the volume is reduced by about half.

4. Pour through a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth to remove herbs (compost the herbs!).

5. While liquid is still warm (not boiling) mix with lemon juice and honey and stir well.

6. Add ½ cup of brandy to preserve!

7. Store in airtight container in the fridge for up to 2 months.

I really miss the flowers in the herb garden right now. Everything is brown and grey and dry, easily mistaken as dead and never coming back. But there’s action below the ground—roots are there still, pumping with life and force, ready to give way to new growth any day now, and we’ll have flowers again. But until the equinox, it’s still root time down here in the herb cabin, my favourite time of all. Digging roots, though it might sound easy, is one of the hardest tasks for an herbalist. Sometimes the roots you need are so deep you have to dig three feet to fully extract them in one piece, a rare feat in the cold dense clay of the south. And then there’s the dirt all tangled up in their spindly legs, which takes hours to clean off, carefully, with a toothbrush. Here in the garden we grow many plants that, though beautiful bloomers, are intended to be dug for their medicinal roots—Echinacea, Marshmallow, Valerian, Elecampane—and we dig even more that grow on their own, no help from us—Burdock, Chicory, Dandelion, Yellowdock. The roots have a kind of subtle medicine, difficult to extract from their thick stiff bodies, but a strong one. Each one has its unique properties and uses, its importance in the day-to-day use of herbal medicine, but one root that has recently been calling to me is Elecampane, a gorgeous, tall, wide and leathery-leaved, yellow-flowered beauty that blooms for a short time in late June and July. The plant’s roots are quite ordinary looking, as they all tend to be, but when chopped straight through it’s a creamy white ringed with tan, like the core of a small tree. The root is then chopped and tinctured, dried for tea, or decocted for a syrup. It’s a great one to think about right now, especially for me because I’ve been struggling with wheezey breathing and a lasting cough that I can’t seem to kick. Elecampane, or Inula helenium, is the number one lung herb, in my opinion, acting as both a tonic, to strengthen the lungs and the breath even before any symptoms have arrived, and an activator, to assist in eliminating them when they do. But the plant has long been used, described in classical myths and legends: Some say the plant got its name Helenium from Helena, wife of Menelaus, who carried a large amount of it away with her when Paris stole her and took her Phrygia, her hands full of the plant. Another legend states that Elecampane sprang from her tears and that Helen first used it against venomous bites. The root has been used throughout history, made into sauces, candied to make sweets, or turned into a cordial—a sweet alcoholic beverage made from brandy, honey, herbs, and fruits that must infuse for a full moon cycle. But the herb’s uses are many—the root is an expectorant, helping you cough up excess mucous from the lungs; an alterative, or blood cleanser; a diuretic, assisting in cleansing the bowels and urinary system, which is why many claim it is the perfect herb to use in the case of intestinal worms or giardia. For me it has worked best as either a tincture—a highly potent alcohol extract—or in a cough syrup, combined with a variety of immune-system, lung-specific herbs such as yarrow leaves, slippery elm, marshmallow root, ginger, and elderberries. For those who come down each year with bronchitis or whooping cough or just a cold that sits heavy and damp in the lungs, elecampane is the herb for you. Taking it regularly weeks before the illness is predicted to descend can do wonders for the weak-lunged while taking it throughout the first stages of a cold can lessen the harshness of the cough.

On Wednesday February 27th from 4 to 5:30 p.m. the Herb Crew will be having a root digging work shift open to anyone who wants to play in the dirt and learn about our precious underground medicines. We will dig some roots, clean them, and talk about all the processing possibilities.


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