It’s interesting how in herbal medicine we sometimes refer to the part of the plant we use medicinally when naming it. Here, I am writing about the herb we call red root, which is the root of the plant called many common names such as Snow Bush and New Jersey Tea. The Latin name is Ceanothus, in the Rhamnaceae (Buckthorn) family, and there are a few species that are most commonly used and known. Ceanothus americanus is native to the Eastern part of North America, and it garnered the common name New Jersey tea because of the use of the leaves as a substitute for the tea plant when there was a tea shortage in the early day of the colonies in the U.S. The species that grows in the Cascade and Rocky mountains in the Western U.S. is Ceanothus velutinus, often referred to as Snow Bush due to its abundant white flowers. There is also a species in the Southwestern U.S., Ceanothus gregii.
I hike a lot in the summer and see the hardy snow bush regularly lining the trail and on open sunny slopes, with it’s glossy and slightly sticky mature leaves, and clusters of white flower buds in the summer. The one time I went to harvest was with a local wildcrafter and herbal wizard we call Skeeter, and it was on the eastern slopes of the North Cascade Mountains. The roots close to the surface of the soil or just above (the above-ground stem) are what are harvested, and they are very sturdy and thick, with a dark almost crimson color. It took a lot of digging and sawing to get a few long, thick segments from the gnarled bush and rocky ground. There is a way to harvest that is sustainable to the bush itself, allowing it to keep growing. Because it’s a very woody root, it has to be processed quickly. We took it back to camp, cleaned the roots, and scraped off the root bark with paring knives, and chopped up the rest of the root with pruners. Another thing I remember is the aromatic wintergreen scent the fresh root exuded.
What medicinal properties does red root possess? I primarily use it as a “lymphogogue,” as one of its primary properties is helping to decongest the lymph nodes and lymphatic system, supporting the health of the spleen, and therefore helping the body to detoxify and clear excess fluid from between the cells, and carry away pathogens. The spleen is a vital part of the lymphatic and immune systems, protecting the body by removing worn red blood cells and other toxins from the bloodstream helping to fight infection. I like to put red root in formulas for swollen lymph nodes and to support healing from a variety of infections such as sinusitis, general detoxification, such as our Detox Drops to aid in the support of the liver and colon as well, and in formulas for the immune system, such as our Cold & Flu Away Drops.
It is also thought that red root has some antimicrobial actions and it is astringent in nature, helping to tighten and tone tissues it comes in contact with, including the blood vessels and mucous membrane. It is known as an expectorant, helping to thin and move mucus out of the lungs. Red root is also useful for helping to increase platelet production, a property I learned about from the esteemed herbalist Donnie Yance, who works primarily with cancer patients.
The root can be simmered to make a tea, but most commonly we use the tincture, as it is a concentrated and effecient way to get the benefits of this plant medicine. It can be taken at a dose of 15-30 drops up to 3 times per day, or in a formula.