Today’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Xanthorhiza simplicissima, otherwise known as Yellowroot. If there were a medicinal plant hall of fame, yellowroot would be in it. It has served countless generations of natives and settlers all over the Eastern Woodlands since time immemorial. Ask anyone from rural Appalachia who’s much over the age of seventy and they’ll more than likely have stories of foraging through the woods and gathering yellowroot with their parents or grandparents. My grandmother (age 89) remembers using it regularly all through her childhood and still recommends it for some illnesses. (“It’ll cure what ails ya”)
Native to the eastern U.S., yellowroot is relatively common in damp, shady areas, usually near water. It loves creek and river banks. It grows as a small, woody shrub that can reach up to 3’ tall. It is very often much smaller, such as the example in the photo. Like any other plant, its size is generally determined by how much sunlight and water it receives. If you’ve ever hiked the Jack’s River Trail in the Cohutta Wilderness, you’ve seen some of the healthiest, bushiest patches of yellowroot around growing on the banks of that river. The leaf clusters are usually between 4” and 7” long, each one branching into several toothed leaflets. However, its most distinguishing characteristic is the bright yellow color of its root stems, hence the name. In fact, in addition to being a vital medicinal plant, the Cherokee used yellowroot extract as a dye for a myriad of purposes – including their war paint.
Yellowroot has no deadly mimics, however, we will offer two caveats. One is that yellowroot is a heavy feeder and tends to absorb large concentrations of whatever is present in the soil it’s growing in. Normally this is fine, but in contaminated areas, it has led to poisoning by arsenic and other heavy metals. Always make sure you’re harvesting your yellowroot from a clean area. Secondly, it should be avoided by pregnant women unless you’re looking to give birth. It is a uterine stimulant, and can cause premature labor.
Yellowroot is not considered an edible – it’s medicine, and it tastes like it. Although it has a wide array of medicinal uses, three stand out above the rest – as a tea or decoction to maintain kidney and liver health, as a tincture to treat any sort of cold, bronchitis, flu, or other respiratory infection, and as a treatment for intestinal parasites. It has powerful anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, antimicrobial, and hepatic properties.
As a tea, it helps stimulate kidney and liver function, and can even help heal damaged tissue in those areas. Traditionally, it was even used to treat jaundice and hepatitis. As a kidney stimulant, it was used to help flush one’s system of toxins… basically the original detox tea. If you remember human anatomy from high school, you remember what the kidneys and the liver do – they’re the body’s filters. They both help extract waste products from the body in order to make it function more efficiently. By taking substances that stimulate the function of these organs, you’re helping the overall health of your entire body. This is why traditionally, a spoonful or swallow of yellowroot tea was consumed daily to ensure general good health. Taken in large quantities, it has even been used to treat poisoning.
Secondly, it is an excellent remedy for colds and upper respiratory infections. The roots can be chewed raw and the juice swallowed to treat mouth sores and sore throats. However, a tincture made with yellowroot is much more effective. My grandmother still remembers the recipe she and her siblings were forced to take as kids any time they were sick: Start with high-proof moonshine. Mix in yellowroot extract, local honey, and peppermint oil. Heat it up hot, and take two tablespoons. It feels like swallowing fire, but it’ll clear a sore throat and cough right up. For many people in rural America, “cold medicine” automatically meant “yellowroot.”
The third major use is as a parasite fighter. It is proven to kill intestinal parasites such as roundworm, pinworm, and other helminths. It also kills protozoa such as the infamous cryptosporidium.
The reason yellowroot works as a treatment for bacterial infections and parasites is the presence of the compound berberine, molecules of which have been isolated and synthesized into some of the world’s most powerful antibiotics. Some berberine-sourced antibiotics are even starting to be used in the treatment of MRSA, or methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus.
Yellowroot has grown in popularity in recent decades after the revelation that yellowroot tea may or may not help you pass a drug test. The theory is that since it stimulates kidney and liver function, it helps process residual THC through your body faster, and can supposedly flush your system clean enough to pass a urine test in 48 hours. There are numerous opinions on this subject, and we will neither confirm nor deny its effectiveness. As we’ve stated before, here at SARCRAFT, we don’t publicly advocate the use of illegal substances, or ways of covering up their use. That would be illegal. This is strictly for educational purposes. We will say though, if you’re hypothetically going to use yellowroot tea for this purpose, drink a lot of it. Be prepared to vomit frequently. Drink a lot of water along with it and abstain from food – it’ll help it work faster. This advice is true for any use of yellowroot as a crash detox – whether it’s for trying to pass a drug test, or treat a case of chemical poisoning.
What you choose to use yellowroot for is entirely up to you. That’s none of our business. Regardless, this is one of the most valuable native medicinal herbs to know, and deserves a place in your notebook and your apothecary… no matter what you do with it.