Sweet As A Mountain Lilac
The Blood Medicine of Redroot
Botanical Name: Ceanothus spp.
Botanical Family: Rhamnaceae (Buckthorn)
Common Names: Redroot, Redshank, Buckbrush, Mountain Lilac, Desert Buckthorn, New Jersey Tea
Taste & Impression: Sweet, Aromatic (some species), Astringent
Energetics: Neutral-Warm, Dry
Vital Actions: Lymphatic Alterative, Astringent, Expectorant, Relaxant, Nervine
Used As: Anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antispasmodic
Indications: Fibrocystic breast disease, mastitis, lymphadenitis, tonsillitis, mononucleosis, splenitis, hepatitis, bronchitis, asthma, sinusitis
Tissue State Indication: Laxity
Parts Used: The red to pink roots. Some herbalists also use the bark of the upper plant but the taste is very different and I haven’t done enough experimenting to vouch for identical qualities in the root and the bark.
Collecting: I usually collect the root in early Spring before flowering or late in the year after the first frost. In the Southwest, Ceanothus tends to grow in rocky, dry areas that are extremely difficult to dig roots from during the dry seasons. I recommend a rock bar and a lot of patience, or alternatively, walking along arroyos and washes looking for plants with roots already partially exposed due to erosion and likely to be taken out by a flood in the near future anyway.
Saw or cut the trunk and upper plant off, then process the root immediately or in the very near future. Once they start to dry out, they’re almost impossible to process without some sort of heavy machinery. When fresh, use strong, sharp loppers and pruners to chop and chip into smaller pieces. Be careful when grinding if you wish to percolate the dried root, as it is very hard and rather famous for destroying normal grinders.
Preparations: Cold infusion, decoction, fresh plant tincture (1:2 95%), dry plant tincture (1:5 50%)
Dosage: I find small to moderate doses of this herb to be most effective and appropriate, larger doses can emphasize the astringent qualities and create digestive problems. I also prefer this plant in formula, rather than as a simple for the most part. Tincture dosage for an average sized adult is usually 15-30 drops TID for chronic conditions. Michael Moore recommended a much higher dose, often measuring the tincture dosage by the teaspoon.
“Red Root is one of our great unsung plant medicines.” – Michael Moore
Redroot is a remarkable remedy with its spicy scented and crimson colored roots that tangle deep into rocky ground. More easily seen, its showy and fragrant flowers range in color from bright white to cream to pinks and purples have given the plant many of its common names that are variations on Mountain Lilac and Desert Lilac.
While I sometimes use the C. americanus most likely to be found in commerce, I usually choose to work with our local C. greggii, which is plentiful in the arroyos and rocky mountainsides of my home in southwest New Mexico. This species has small and softly pubescent opposite leaves and blooms in early spring, covering the foothills and middle elevation mountains of the Gila with their sweet smelling white sprays of abundant yet tiny white blossoms.
My local Ceanothus roots have a spicy wintergreen scent to them and are usually scarlet to crimson in color and even the inner pith is likely to be pink to red. In conversation with other herbalists, especially those who wildcraft in a wide array of bioregions, I have heard that not all Ceanothus species are notably aromatic but consensus seems to be that they all seem to work similarly regardless of scent. It is my observation that more aromatic species of Redroot seem to have somewhat stronger relaxant nervine, anti-spasmodic and lymphatic properties.
This common and widespread plant is perhaps best known as a powerful lymphatic in modern American herbal medicine. Michael Moore speaks specifically to Redroot’s impact on the blood and lymph:
“As a tonic, you need to understand that Red Root, particularly the tincture, helps to diminish the tendency for red blood cells to clump together in blood that is either high in fat chylomicrons (after a heavy meal, as an example) or with elevated inflammatory compounds (from allergic, sensitizing or other immunologic responses), a condition called rouleau. Another way to describe it is having sticky or viscous blood, with adhering constituents and diminished surface tension or charge. Red Root kicks up the charge, helps blood cells and inner vessel linings repel each other better, the blood, while not changing chemistry, changes its osmolality and flows better. This aids the transport across capillary walls of diffuse substances and the non-protein fractions of blood that becomes interstitial fluid and lymph.”
I tend to prefer Ceanothus in formula when addressing lymphatic stagnation or symptoms of hypoimmunity and find that it is less likely to cause feelings of “toxicity” with hangover like symptoms and possible hepatic pain from rapid stimulation of lymphatic circulation when combined with other herbs specific to the situation. Note that Redroot differs from many of our most frequently used alteratives in being neutral to warming in thermal energetics and sweet in taste in contrast to the more common cold and bitter herbs such as Dandelion, Cleavers and Oregon Grape Root. This difference can be used to great advantage when matched to people with cold, chronic conditions and lax tissues where an alterative is needed.
I see Ceanothus as best suited to clearing up lingering afflictions that have gone chronic, particularly those affecting the immune and hepatic systems, manifesting as swollen glands, slow healing wounds and other hypoimmune indications, chronic hepatitis, mononucleosis and bronchitis with cold signs. Used inappropriately during acute inflammation or aggravation, Redroot can be ineffective or, worse, cause aggravation of the existing condition. Its strong (more or less depending on species) astringency can also have a suppressive effect on glandular swellings which, if treated in this manner, will reappear and potentially worsen when the herbal treatment is stopped.
However, when used where there are signs of coldness and laxity in the tissues, accompanied by symptoms of chronic swelling, digestive malabsorption, long-term infections, lymphatic tenderness or swelling, Redroot can be an excellent and widely applicable remedy.
Look for a pale tongue, subjective feelings of fatigue, heaviness and coldness in conjunction with a tendency to catch every cold or flu that comes around with slow recovery time and that feeling that they’re always about to get sick. Often digestion will be sluggish and the person will have some level of “bad skin” manifesting as acne outbreaks or even just a flat, vaguely yellowed complexion. Other symptoms include ongoing dull, achy headaches (especially after eating a fatty meal), hemorrhoids and varicose veins. It’s not uncommon to see some variation of this pattern in people with chronic viral hepatitis (or those recovering from acute hepatitis), Lyme disease (particularly with Bartonella co-infection), lupus and other autoimmune conditions as well as mononucleosis.
Where the above pattern is present, Redroot can be effective in reducing inflammation and clearing boggy tissues in any number of situations, from old bronchitis to drippy sinusitis to hepatitis with portal congestion and all sorts of nagging pelvic pain with sensations of heaviness, dragging and swelling. Ceanothus is a supporting/tonic herb and generally works in a slow, supportive manner when use appropriately. What is important here, as with most other herbs, is the overall tissue state rather than the disease name or even the specific organ system. Looking at the constitution and tissue state and working from there with inevitably result in better results and an easier match between person and plant.
Redroot is also an effective astringent and many of its most well known traditional uses are directly related to this action, including reducing blood flow in cases of uterine hemorrhage and nosebleeds. I have seen Ceanothus be very useful with the bleeding, pain, tenderness and swelling of ovarian cysts and its mild antispasmodic action can be useful here as well. It does not necessarily address the underlying issues but can serve as a constitutional tonic as well as helping to lessen uncomfortable symptoms while foundational causes are being addressed.
Considerations: Caution should be used when used alongside anti-coagulants. Otherwise, used according to indications for cold, chronic conditions rather than hot, acute conditions, Redroot is a safe and well tolerated herb that can be used over a long period of time.
References & Resources:
7Song – Personal correspondence and conversation
Bergner, Paul – Conversation
Mercier, Debbie – Redroot Profile
Moore, Michael – Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West
Wood, Matthew – The Earthwise Herbal vol. 2