Monday, 28 September 2015

Garbling the echinacea, and why you should try your hand at it too.

I have read so many different takes on harvesting and using this plant. Use 5 yr. old plants, only. Use Purpurea only, or Augustfolia only. Yes, you can use other cultivars; no you can't. Yes you can use the leaves and flowers or even the seeds; no you can't. Use the rhizomes only; use the little roots; don't use the little roots .. damn it, if I was waiting for consensus I would never use this plant. You know what I think when I see so many opinions? Go with your gut. So here's how I garbled my echinacea plants today; how you do yours is entirely up to you.

I used a big gardening fork to lift them, (always the best way to dig roots) leaving the stalks on as I did so. You see, in my garden, nothing ever grows alone. The sunchokes were encroaching (a story for another day), there was grass, there were mallows .. so the roots I lifted with the fork were not necessarily all echinacea. Once I lifted the plants, I had to know which was which. Leaving the plants whole made that a lot easier.

Once I got all the obviously-not-echinacea out of the tangled mass, I had to find a way to find the not-so-obviously not-echinacea, and that's when I started using my tongue. Yes, my tongue. If you've ever tasted good echinacea root tincture, you'll know it has a distinct taste and then there's that tingle.

Don't know it? Before you dig your plants, go buy some echinacea root tincture. Make sure it says it has at least some percentage of "root", not just "herb" on the fine print of the label. When reading the label on a commercial tincture bottle, you need to know the lingo. "Herb", in the lingo, means the above ground parts.

Once you know the taste and tingle of the root you never forget it, so there I was, in the garden, sitting on the ground, wiping most of the dirt off roots onto my poor jeans, snapping, sniffing, and licking. You want to make medicine? You can't be afraid of dirt!

Now, I don't actually know whether my plants are purpurea or augustfolia. I know they're echinacea and they taste plenty tangy - that's good enough for me. I had some rhizomes but not many, and they didn't look all that great. Hollowed out here and there, woody. Hmm. Mostly it was thinner, hairy roots and they looked very much alive, a good sign. I shook them and smacked them on the ground to get more of the dirt off, then still leaving the roots on the plants, I put them in a bucket of water to soak for half an hour.

It's a messy job, best done outside, but it's very pleasant. I brought out a bowl, a small knife, a pair of scissors, and a cutting board. I just swished each plant in the bucket, cut off the bottom section, and went through the roots carefully. I snipped off and discarded any that looked unhealthy. When I came to a rhizome I cut it open and cut off the questionable bits.  I kept tasting as I went, and if something looked good yet didn't have the tingle, I discarded it.

Then it was simply a matter of cutting them all up as small as I could, putting them in a jar (I got most of a quart jar's worth!) pouring enough vodka in there to cover it all, labelling it and I was done. The roots were not squeaky clean, of course, but I'm actually happy when my root tinctures have a little soil in there. It adds value, I think.

Echinacea is such a common garden plant these days that almost everyone can get their hands on some root to make their own tincture. If your garden isn't on drugs (ie pesticides, herbicides or MiracleGro) there's no reason not to use your own plants - and every reason to use them. I don't know about your neck of the woods, but in ours it's getting more difficult to find root tincture all the time, and more expensive, too.

This is a plant medicine almost everyone uses, so if you try your hand here you will easily be able to tell whether you've done it "correctly" or not - by the taste, remember? Best of all, you know exactly what the ingredients are. Big Herb keeps throwing in "extras" like goldenseal .. and if I was in the mood for a rant, I'd go there on goldenseal, believe me. But that would involve a serious digression from our topic and a few choice words for a certain pharmacist gut-guru who should be drawn and quartered for her inappropriate advice .. no, no, I must not go there ..!

If you want to add in some leaves or flowers, have at 'er. I didn't this time only because the leaves were a bit ragged and the flowers were done - in years past I've made it with flowers. It was okay, but weak. I like root better.

You see, that old saw of "herbal medicine is the peoples' medicine" is true. Good old echinacea may be pretty much gone from the wild but it is everywhere in gardens, right under our noses. It's not a scary weed like dandelion, no stings like nettle and no rumours about possible liver damage like comfrey, either. Safe, familiar and readily available.

Why not go for it?

Oh, I almost forgot! For how I use my echinacea, which includes a little bit of "woo" and even a small rant, have a look-see at this older post .

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