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  • Dr Nate Petley

Harvesting Fall Roots In Maine

The transition from autumn to winter is upon us with colder temperatures, frosts, fallen leaves, and longer nights. While that could be a hard pill to swallow, herbalists are still busy in the garden doing what they do best – harvest and prepare food and herbal medicine from their backyard gardens. The killing frost of fall is the green light for herbalists to grab their trowels and collecting baskets. The trick is to wait long enough for the plants to die back but to dig them before the ground freezes solid. Below is a short list of common and useful backyard herbs that are ideally harvested throughout the fall season. As always, please refer to an herb-knowledgeable health practitioner before using new plants to learn about their primary and secondary actions along with any herb-drug or herb-herb interactions. Burdock (Arctium lappa) and yellow dock (Rumex crispus) roots can be dried and brewed into a very bitter tea or made into a tincture to be used at mealtimes during the winter for optimal digestive health. How bitter are they, you ask? I prefer the concentrated tincture of them so I don’t have to drink an entire cup at meals. When digging these two biennials, be to look for first year growth (if it has a flower stalk, the root is spent and no longer useful).

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and chicory (Cichorium intybus) roots can be roasted and made into a delicious and earthy beverage. A teaspoon per cup makes for a reasonable tea, but a tablespoon per cup makes for a robust coffee-like brew that is naturally free of caffeine. When roasted, they are not as bitter as they might be if simply dried, but they still make an ideal after-dinner digestive aid. Throw in a pinch of nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, or fennel for a little extra flavor.

Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia, E. purpurea) is a potent immune-stimulating root that is best harvested from plants that have aged three years. The roots can be used fresh or dried as a decoction or as a tincture. I blend it in formulas for the cold and flu (tastes great with elderberry syrup), mouthwashes, and topical liniments for bug bites. Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana syn. Cochlearia armoracia) is a tenacious but worthy plant to have in your garden if you have the space. The roots are best used fresh (be sure to use gloves when handling it and keep the fumes away from the eyes!). I use a powerful blender to create a mash that is preserved with vinegar and salt to become the condiment commonly called prepared horseradish. I make a fresh batch every year and I’m already looking forward to paring it with a large helping of Maine baked beans this winter. Horseradish is also the key ingredient for fire cider, a potent and famed vinegar extraction that can vary in ingredients based on the herbalist’s unique style but traditionally includes garlic, onions, and jalapeno peppers (I like adding cayenne peppers for an extra spicy kick). While it is intended to be used at the onset of a cold or flu or whenever the sinuses need a good clearing, it also makes a great base for a spicy yet flavorful salad dressing.

Although not following along the theme of fall roots, acorns (from oak trees, Quercus spp.) can be collected in the fall, leached of their tannins, dried, powdered, and used in various baked goods as a gluten-free, protein-rich flour. I collect them every year and replace some of the flour used for pancakes and muffins. It is important to leach out all the tannins or else the final product will be unpleasantly bitter.

For more information on preparing these herbs, recipes, and ideas for other herbal projects, visit


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