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Digging roots.

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The practical side of things.

So herb books say that you should dig roots in the fall.
And of course, the roots of biennials should be dug in their first fall. Which usually is their second one, as most of them sprout in autumn... it'd be better to say "dig biennial roots after their first summer".

Anyway, digging roots in fall is, well, uncomfortable.

Here's how it goes:

"Right, I've picked the last greens and flowers (Chelone and Pycnanthemum, and things), time to start digging roots. Oh, the soil is all wet -- I'll start tomorrow."

"Oh, it's raining. I'll dig tomorrow."

"Look at that thermometer! Brrrr, it's cold outside, I'll dig tomorrow."

"Gosh, cold and windy outside, I'll dig next week."

Next week:
"Oh, it's raining. I'll dig tomorrow."

"Brrr, it's cold outside, I'll dig tomorrow."

"Cold and windy, I'll dig next week."

And so on, until the first snow, at which point you'll say:
"Darn, I didn't get to dig all my roots, here's hoping it'll melt away again before winter really hits."

And, after the first melt:
"Oh, the soil is all wet, I'll dig tomorrow."

"Look at the thermometer, brrrr!"

Tomorrow, there's snow again, so you sigh and order your roots from someplace or other.
And wait for spring.

In spring, it goes like this:

"Ooooh, the sun is out, no greens at all yet, no flowers to be seen, and I'm itching to get me some herbs, I'll go dig some roots."

See, when you dig roots you have to put your hands, gloves or no gloves, into cold dirt. That's very much less than fun when it's cold and wet outside.
In spring, after a few months of cold cold winter, putting your hands into dirt doesn't sound at all bad. After all, it's the very first herb-picking thing you can do in the new year.

Nevermind that it's probably colder when you actually do dig (in spring) than it was back in fall when you didn't dig (as it was too cold, then): it feels warmer. Because there's been a long winter with snow and ice in between.

So, digging roots in fall? Usually doesn't happen, except for a few easy ones like Polygonatums, which grow in a moss covering, not in real dirt. (And my patch on the shore of the Baltic Sea has been scrubbed away by ice this winter! Waaa!)

Digging roots in spring is perfectly OK.

As is digging them in early summer, when the flowerstalk shows its very first flowers, which helps you ID the plant.

I'll even dig roots in high summer - perennials like yellow dock (various Rumex species) give a nice harvest whenever the ground is soft enough to dig. They might not be as plump as they'd be in fall, or as sweet (if you're talking dandelion or elecampane), but they're perfectly good herbal medicine.


Okay then, if all that is true, why DO the herby and natural medicine books say to dig the roots in the fall? I've managed to dig them up in the fall (mostly echinacea roots and jerusalem artichokes), but isn't a root a root, no matter what time of year you decide you can stand to dig them up?

They are plumper and sweeter in fall. Also, if you dig the root in fall, the plant has had time to mature its seeds, for the year. Other than that, tradition, I expect.

Some herbs, like dandelion for example, make different medicine in the spring and the fall. Fall dandelion is nutritive and soothing (sweeter, like Henriette said) and spring dandelion is bitter and stimulating. I harvest and use both. For some roots, I expect the difference is not as dramatic. Taste and compare to find out.