Book Review: Wild Roots

| June/July 1996

• Wild Roots: A Forager’s Guide to the Edible and Medicinal Roots, Tubers, Corms, and Rhizomes of North America
• Doug Elliott
• Healing Arts Press, One Park
• St., Rochester, VT 05767,
• 1995. Paperbound, 128 pages
• $14.95. ISBN 0-89281-538-8.

Storyteller, herbalist, basket maker, artist, and wild-edibles expert Doug Elliott has brought all of his talents together in Wild Roots: A Forager’s Guide to the Edible and Medicinal Roots, Tubers, Corms, and Rhizomes of North America. The book is a reprint of Roots—An Underground Forager’s Guide, published in 1976 by Chatham Press and a classic from the early years of the modern herbal renaissance. It is ­gratifying to see it back in print despite a lack of updating, as ­evidenced by the dated bibliography. The book stands on its original merits and retains its charm and usefulness.

Elliott clearly loves his roots; he finds them, draws them, chews them, dissects them. He defines the differences among roots, rhizomes, corms, and tubers, yet it’s on their similarity of function that he focuses. His approach is quite anthropomorphic: roots are digestive tracts and brains, scavengers in pursuit of the health and well-being of their assigned plant, ­becoming both the pantries and guardians for their specific ­organisms.

As luck would have it, many roots benefit human health, and Elliott has eased the task of locating and identifying them. He divides rootdom into three primary areas of study: twenty-eight shade-loving plants, twenty-three sun-worshipping plants, and nine water-rooted aquatics. His experience in the woods and marshes from New England to West Virginia, digging a little deeper than the average gardener or amateur botanist, has produced a good foundation of information about a broad range of common herbs such as ginseng, garlic, and echinacea as well as lesser-known plants such as Solomon’s-seal and false Solomon’s-seal.

While we root around, it is ever so much more fun to know what we’re looking for, why we’re looking for it, and how we’re going to get it out of the ground. Wild Roots explains what these rugged, tentacled anchors look like, where they hide, different ways to cook and enjoy them, and what effect they may have on our skin, lungs, blood, or liver. Elliott takes us to the garden shed to point out the proper tool for digging out each root so that we’re not caught with a pocketknife when we need a trowel or a spade when we need a posthole digger.

Included with scholarly and practical insights are fascinating anecdotes, such as that of Therese Newmann of Kon­ners­reuth, Germany, who supposedly lived nearly forty years without eating, subsisting merely on directly absorbed energy, light. In other words, this book is not just another “underground” publication.

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