By Bridget Molloy, MAT, Certified Herbalist
On September 23rd we entered the Fall Equinox, the second time of year when there is an equal amount of dark hours and daylight hours. As we move into this new season, we are shifting into days filled with more darkness than light. I like to think of fall as a time when, psychologically, we start to go within ourselves and reflect on what our body needs. One of my past herbalism teachers called it "spiraling inwards" which I just love. We look at how and where we want our next season to go. It’s a time to evaluate, reflect, and foster deep thought. And physically we are transitioning from our vibrant, outdoor time to more time indoors, getting cozy, and tending to our body.
Because fall is the time of harvest for many foods, it’s only natural that we begin to focus on nourishing our bodies with hearty foods like potatoes, squash, and corn. The winter brings cold and harsh conditions in many parts of the world. It’s important for us to build up our bodies in preparation, and this also means immune boosting foods that feed our blood and nourish our bodies. Eating within the season is something we think of when we find particular foods in the grocery store during certain times of the year. When we begin exploring the rhythm of nature aligning with our biology we realize that as the season changes, so do the needs of our body.
To the herbalist and wild crafter, fall conjures up images of berries ready to be picked, roots to be dug up, and teas to be made! It’s a special time whether you are venturing into the woods to seek harvest, or walking out your back door into your own garden. Fall is the time to notice when the leaves of plants are dying back, as this signifies that the plant is sending more energy into the roots now, which is an excellent time to harvest root vegetables and herbs. My grandfather, a potato farmer, taught me this, and later my herbal teachers when I first learned about herbal root harvesting. Let's explore some of my favorite herbs for Fall.
Three Plants and Herbs to Collect in the Fall
Arctium, more commonly known as burdock root, is found worldwide, and while you can harvest it in the spring as well, it makes a nice complement to other herbs harvested in the fall. In the summer, the leaves of the burdock plant are so big that the majority of the plant’s energy and nutrients are in the leaves. In the fall, look for the birds landing in and around the plant; that means it's dying and thus the right time to harvest the roots.
Digging up burdock root can take a while, but it’s worth the effort. I tend to think it tastes like carrot or parsnip and has an earthy flavor overall. Don't peel the skin! It's good for you. Burdock is considered an alterative. Alterative herbs are those that help to clean the blood and lymph of toxins and give support to the liver. Common build up of toxins in the blood may include alcohol, regular long-term medications, and unhealthy foods.
There are several ways to enjoy burdock. My favorite way is to roast it and eat it like you would a carrot. You can also chop it up, dry it, and put it in tea. It’s particularly good when added to chai tea, just mix it with cinnamon, cardamom, peppercorn and ginger. Or it’s great as a detox tea with dandelion root, or blended with licorice or chamomile tea. With something like burdock that doesn’t really taste great on its own, you can look to complement it with other herbs and still enjoy the unique benefits of the chosen plant. For instance, burdock can be mixed with other fall herbs such as hawthorn berries . . .
Hawthorn Berries and Leaves
Hawthorn berries come from the hawthorn tree, and their color is bright red–blood red in fact. This is noteworthy because like many things in nature, their color can indicate how they can be helpful to our body. Hawthorn berries have been shown to help cardiac function, regulate blood pressure, and increase circulation.
The leaves of the hawthorn tree are perfect for a fall herbal tea and now is the time to harvest them! The dried, hardened berries can also be used in tea, as well as in a fresh whiskey tincture, or as a circulatory tonic. Additionally, hawthorn pairs well with warming herbs, which I will discuss in a moment.
September & early October is the time for elderberries! They can be used as herbal medicine for the coming winter and cold and flu season. You only want to use the dried berries of the plant; the leaves are toxic. A great way to incorporate elderberries is as a syrup. This little berry has been shown in various studies to be effective on eleven strains of the flu! I make an ImmuniTea (available seasonally) and Elderberry Syrup that contains elderberries that are great for immune system support. We also carry an Elderberry Syrup Kit in our store for those local to Littleton, Colorado!
Did you know elderberries are considered a 'shadow' herb? A shadow herb is one that works with the darker sides of ourselves. Meaning–depression, self-loathing or low self esteem, but also negative habits, reactions, and other attributes that you may not like or accept about yourself. How can you learn to love those darker parts of yourself and work with yourself in new ways? As I talked about before, fall is a good time to reflect on things like this, and a herb like elderberry can guide you in this reflection.
I want to touch on warming herbs for our bodies because they can be so helpful in the fall and winter. Warming herbs are those that help to increase your circulation; which is great for people with cold hands and feet, and also just comforting during cold weather. Picture a hot mug of chai tea or apple cider–that is what to think of when understanding warming herbs. Warming herbs include cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, and cloves.
Rocky Mountain Herbs in Season
Here in the Rockies, there are three plants/herbs that are starting to come out and are ready for harvesting: osha, juniper berries, and rose hips. Be on the lookout for these as you explore and you will be able to add to your fall equinox herb collection. Take precaution with harvesting osha, it's an at-risk plant designated by United Plant Savers an organization that focuses on medicinal plant conservation, and you may only take 10% of the plant population. In some cases, that means there is not enough to harvest so you will need to leave it be.
Lastly, when you are wild crafting, ensure you are doing it where herbicides are not sprayed, and check with your local jurisdiction or land management agency for the area you are crafting within to understand what is permissible for collection.
Happy Equinox and may you get to experience these herbs throughout the Fall!