Stock your pantry with these essential medicinal herbs for winter health, like burdock root for digestion or marshmallow root for sore throat.
Fall has come, and with it the time for us to put away our tools, slow down and prepare for a long winter’s rest. Many of us need this physical reminder. Between work, errands, school activities and more, it can be all too easy to attempt to continue operating at full steam during this change of seasons, but this is the time of year when our bodies need to restore themselves.
Mirroring our own turn inward, perennials and biennials return their energy to their roots in the fall. This is why many winter medicines are made from plant roots. As we approach the year’s end for harvesting food and medicinal plants, this is the ideal time to turn to preservation. Many of us preserve food, but it’s just as beneficial to stock our medicine chest with homegrown items–many medicinal plants can be “put up” in the same way as vegetables. We are merely freezing, canning, and drying a complement to our winter food supply.
Some wild roots, such as sunchoke, can be dug even in winter as long as the ground hasn’t frozen too hard. If you wish to harvest roots throughout winter, before the snow falls, it’s important to walk the land to locate and mark them for a later harvest. Mother Nature doesn’t plant in rows like we do, so I use a brightly colored row marker labeled with the plant name. If you try this, make sure your marker is tall enough to show above a snowfall.
6 Medicinal Herbs for Winter Health to Gather Now
1. Garlic (Allium sativum)
Garlic is an important antimicrobial to have on hand. It’s one of our modern day panaceas, with possible medicinal uses ranging from reducing cholesterol and slowing down atherosclerosis to strengthening the immune system and fighting cancer. It’s wise to consume garlic regularly as a way to maintain general wellness, especially as winter illnesses make the rounds. Garlic is also a great treatment to help kick out viruses at the onset, either by consuming large amounts in raw form as food or by making your own capsules or tinctures. The constituent allicin is responsible for the antimicrobial aspect and must be used freshly crushed.
Some research has found that the DNA protective effects of garlic are less damaged by heat if the garlic is chopped or crushed then allowed to stand for 10 minutes before cooking. If you’re using garlic for circulatory or reproductive health, there are no usage time frame limitations. Garlic is easy to grow almost anywhere in the country. Dig bulbs when there are just five green leaves remaining on the stalk.
Notes on preservation: Clean the husk from the clove and you can pickle the clove in oil, honey or vinegar. Garlic can also be infused into oil or made into a tincture. Dried cloves can be stored as is or powdered for later use.
Uses: You can use a garlic-infused oil for ear or topical infections. I always prefer to eat medicinal herbs as food for preventive purposes: Along with using fresh garlic in sauces, dressings and marinades, you might also try pickled garlic as a condiment.
Note: Garlic acts as a blood thinner, so do not take if using similar medications such as warfarin.
2. Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
Although its leaves are more well-known, parsley root is used therapeutically for its medicinal value: It’s rich in vitamins and minerals, and it acts as a diuretic to help the body regulate water content through our kidneys. Because of this, parsley can be useful for treating gout and arthritis.
Notes on preservation: Harvest this root after a couple of light frosts if you’d like its flavor–somewhere between carrot and celery, with a parsley note–to develop fully. You may choose to dry the root for medicinal teas throughout the winter or tincture them, but I like to keep the focus on food. Clean up the white, carrot-like roots and slice them into 1/4-inch pieces. Blanch and then flash freeze them on cookie sheets so they don’t clump in your freezer bag.
Uses: You can ramp up the nutritional value of your dishes by adding the roots–fresh, dried or frozen–to soups, sautés or stir-fries, or use them to make tea.
3. Elecampane (Inula helenium)
Elecampane is most useful for respiratory ailments. During the summer, this plant sends up large tobacco-like leaves and beautiful yellow flowers. Underground, its system of roots bears a resemblance to the network of bronchioles in a human lung. Elecampane root is known as an expectorant. The phytochemicals it contains help our bodies expel congestion from our lungs.
Notes on preservation: Dig the root, wash it thoroughly and then slice into 1/4-inch pieces. Dry it outdoors on a screen covered with cheesecloth to prevent bugs from bothering it, or use a dehydrator. You can also turn the dried slices into a tincture by covering them with pure vodka for four to six weeks, then strain.
Uses: I like to use elecampane as a decocted tea or tincture taken when a cold sets in.
4. Burdock Root (Arctium lappa)
Burdock is rich in vitamins and minerals, including phosphorus and calcium. You may find it in your supermarket as “gobo root.” Traditionally, burdock has been used as a diuretic, clearing the bloodstream of toxins. It’s thought to be especially helpful for easing liver complaints and other digestive disorders. Eating or drinking a tea of burdock root may also help clear skin problems such as psoriasis and eczema.
Notes on preservation: Chop burdock root and dry it out of direct sunlight or in a dehydrator until completely dry. Then store it in a dark, cool place. Alternatively, you can blanch the slices, then freeze them on a tray before transferring to a freezer container. You may also make a tincture using the fresh root (cover the root slices with vodka for four to six weeks, then strain). The fresh roots can also be pickled or stored in the root cellar in the same conditions as carrots.
Uses: As a preventive and overall health aid, decoct a tea from the dried roots. (Bring roots and water just to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered, for at least 10 minutes before straining.) Another traditional use is to add dried or frozen root slices to soups, stews and winter vegetable stir-fries.
5. Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)
Marshmallow leaves and roots have been used around the world for their emollient action. Marshmallow can help soften and soothe internal membranes, making it useful to soothe sore throats or irritated bronchial passages. Dried marshmallow root can be used in teas to soothe a sore throat; it’s approved by the German Commission E for treating inflammation in the stomach, mouth and throat. It’s also traditionally used to soothe an upset stomach and help ward off urinary tract infections.
Notes on preservation: You may dig the roots and slice and dry them for later use. You may also choose to immediately make them into a syrup or tincture. To make an easy syrup, start by making an herbal tea–marshmallow tea is best made with warm but not boiling water; cover the root with warm water, then refrigerate in a lidded jar for several hours or overnight. Next, reduce the marshmallow tea over low heat until it’s shrunk to half its volume. Add a sweetener of your choice and a drop or two of alcohol for preservation, if you like. Store in a dark, cool place for up to two months.
Uses: The dried root may be used to make homemade marshmallows, a favorite recipe of mine for the holidays. Many homemade marshmallow recipes you will find don’t include actual marshmallow root. However, you can decoct the dried root to drink as tea or use the slices as a topical compress or poultice for skin ailments. The syrup is helpful for stubborn coughs and the tincture may be helpful for chronic issues of the bowel, bladder or lungs.
6. Sunchoke (Helianthus tuberosus)
The tubers of sunchoke (also known as Jerusalem artichoke) are high in inulin, a substance that may have anti-diabetic actions in the body. More importantly, this compound is a prebiotic. Prebiotics stimulate the growth of good gut bacteria, improving digestion and offering a cascade of benefits throughout the body as a result. This root remains available to us very late in the season. As long as the ground is not frozen, I like to dig it as a fresh vegetable for the winter table.
Notes on Preservation: You can dig the roots, slice and blanch, then freeze them. Alternatively, steam and purée the roots and freeze the mashed roots. You can also dry the root and use the powder as a prebiotic.
Uses: These roots are delicious in any recipe where you typically use potato. You can also pickle the root.
Dawn Combs is an ethnobotanist, author and herbalist who runs the farm Mockingbird Meadows and is director of its Eclectic Herbal Institute.