(updated Spring 2019)
For this month's plant profile, I decided to do a general overview of Ceanothus or the 'Redroots.' Ceanothus is the genus of a group of plants in the Rhamnaceae or Buckthorn plant family. Several species in this genus go by the common name, Red Root. Many species in this genus are used medicinally. I'm not going to go in depth into every species that we could encounter in North America because there are SO many Ceanothus’ and many are endemic to really specific regions. I will mention a few of them to paint a bigger picture of this group of plants. I will be focusing on a couple species in this genus commonly used medicinally and of which I'm most familiar. The species that is used and preferred by herbalists varies according to location. In addition to reviewing three species that I have made medicine with, observed, and have been learning from, I will mention varieties that folks use in other areas, too.
I include a pretty extensive Work Cited at the bottom of this post with the intention that the many resources out there that mention the medicine and ecology of Red Root can be grouped together and used for cross reference. Of course, there are more resources out there. The best guide is using senses in the field and gaining personal relationships with the plants themselves. Asking questions, watching what grows where, at what elevation, on what soil. Learning the story of a place, ecologically and socially. Using the medicine and understanding how it feels in the body. I personally can't feel like I really know the medicine of a plant until I have watched it and engaged it in person.
Unfortunately, I don't have really amazing pictures of each Ceanothus species in my stockpile of fancy photos, so the photo log here will be incomplete or not as elegant until I get those photos in the future to update this piece. (a few new photos added Spring 2019)
I also welcome additional information on this big genus, if you have any. Personal experiences, more extensive knowledge on the plant chemistry of Ceanothus medicine, its relationship to fire, or ethnobotany of the plant(s) would be greatly appreciated.
Ceanothus is found all over North America, but is most abundant in California. Many species are endemic to California only. There are several species that reach down into the Southwest (C. fendleri, C. greggii), the western Rockies (C. velutinus), up into British Colombia (C. sanguineus, C. cuneatus) across the Great Plains (C. americanus, C. herbaceus) and in the East (C. americanus). C. americanus is the main single species found on the East coast of North America sometimes intermingling with the prairie species (C. herbaceus) as you get towards the upper midwest.
Ceanothus as a genus can be predominantly defined by a few things. Firstly, Ceanothus generally inhabits highly disturbed or fire-ridden areas, with poor and rocky soils. Sometimes Ceanothus fills in the gaps under conifer forests, where other things aren't ready to grow. It is a genus commonly found inhabiting the Chaparral plant community in the California foothills also growing with plants like Chamise Adenostoma fasciculatum (Rosaceae), Scrub Oak Quercus dumosa (Fagaceae), and Manzanita Arctostaphylos spp. (Ericaceae) among many more. Its seeds are fire-adapted, able to rest for hundreds of years in the soil waiting for the next fire to come through. The rootstock can also survive fire and sprout back in some species. Ceanothus is meant to come in after fire, regenerate the soil through it's nitrogen fixing capabilities (via a fungus, different from the Legume family nitrogen-fixing process), provide needed food and habitat for animals, stabilize and build soil, and then die off as larger bushes and trees take over the land in the next succession. In some instances, like with the Chaparral ecological community, a soil is too poor or just not suited for a full forest and this shrubby plant community remains.
Ceanothus can also be defined by its distinctive leaves and flowers. Most species in this genus have three main veins that run from the leaf base to the leaf margins, almost but not quite running parallel like monocot Lily family plants do. Their flowers vary in cluster structure, but all have five spoon-like petals and tend to be showy and have varying degrees of aromatic tendencies (smelling sometimes rose sweet, sometimes like what some call ‘semen’). Most species have white flowers, others have purple'/blue (Ceanothus thyrsiflorus, Blue Blossom, found more on the coast of California, for example) and pinkish colored flowers. Some Ceanothus' have thorns (like Whitethorn, C. cordulatus), hence the Latin root of the word "Ceanothus." The three main species I will focus on in this write up don't have thorns generally. Many Ceanothus species can hybridize with one another, or take different forms depending on the soil, or have different colored flowers depending on the elevations. Herbalists like Michael Moore claim that the medicine is the strongest in Ceanothus species that have to work harder to fix nitrogen in tough, poor soils.
So! The main identifying characteristics of Ceanothus species to remember:
five-petaled flowers, usually spoon-like (white, blue, purple or pink)
three-lobed seed capsules, or worn remnants thereof
often a shiny upper surface of the leaf
one to three parallel leaf veins
Even if you do not know what species you have, you can look for these characteristics to draw clues about whether you are encountering a Ceanothus species.
There are close to 60 different species in North America, 30 to 40 of those central to California alone. A good handful of them can be used as medicine. Michael Moore mentions in three of his medicinal plant books (cited at the bottom), at least nine different species he would use for medicine. Some species are low growing varieties, some grow big and bushy. Some are softer and have more semi-herbaceous tendencies (C. americanus), some are woody and tough (C. velutinus). Ceanothus is called "Red Root" because the root bark and sometimes the root wood and stem are dark red when cut into. Michael Moore states that the deepness of the red color, and therefore the strength of the medicine, is a reflection of an area's soil conditions. It's medicine in tincture and tea forms is also a shade of red/brown.
Rhamnaceae / Buckthorn plant family
Ceanothus is in the Rhamnaceae plant family. Plants are grouped into families because of their genetic similarity. Ceanothus as a genus is grouped together within that family because of the even more similar characteristics of the plants, with the capability of some hybridization. The Rhamnaceae or Buckthorn family has some common characteristics that can cue you into it as a family. As I mentioned before with the Ceanothus genus having five petaled flowers, the Buckthorn family also usually has five petals, sometimes four. The leaves are opposite or alternate, but more often with Ceanothus I see alternate leaf arrangements.
In the west, a plant that folks tuned in would recognize in this family is Coffeeberry, or Cascara Sagrada. The bark contains anthroquinone glycosides and is a pretty strong laxative found in some herbalists' materia medica, not to be used lightly and often. There are species in the Sierras of California like Sierra Coffeeberry (Rhamnus rubra) that I see regularly on my Yuba River hikes that differ from the coastal versions (Rhamnus californica) I've seen in Sonoma, Marin, Mendocino counties and beyond. The species most commonly found in commerce would be the Rhamnus purshiana species sold as Cascara Sagrada. FYI, this plant is on the United Plant Saver's 'To Watch' list.
There's some volatility found in this plant family, hence the medicine of Cascara Sagrada. Many Ceanothus species' flowers contain saponins, and some claim other parts of the plant do too: a constituent which will foam up like soap and emulsify oils. Other plants like California's Soap Plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum) not in the Buckthorn family contain this compound, as well.
Three Ceanothus species, an overview:
Below is a short survey of three species of Ceanothus I have made medicine with or have been watching more closely over the past few years. I mention a few common names associated with each species. But, many of these common names are also associated with other species of Ceanothus. New Jersey Tea is generally used to describe C. americanus, or C. herbaceus (as mentioned by Samuel Thayer in 'Nature's Garden') and less used when describing the Ceanothus' of the West coast, though the species C. sanguineus is sometimes called 'Oregon Tea'. When I make a leaf tea of C. velutinus, which is found on the West coast and the interior Rockies, I called it New Jersey Tea, not Red Root. I think the leaves of C. velutinus taste amazing as a wild tea, though Samuel Thayer begs to differ in his book Nature's Garden (cited below), who claims it is unpalatable. Wild Lilac or California Lilac is used to describe a few species of Ceanothus on the West coast (like C. thursifloris). ‘Soapbush’ is also a common name used to describe some species of Ceanothus because of the presence of saponins in the flowers. With all this said, common names are confusing. It's best to identify the species, or the potential for hybridization in a species and learn to identify it that way. But, there is something to be said about not always knowing exactly which species you are looking at because in the end nature doesn't really fit into our botany boxes neatly. You can start by learning the plant family characteristics of the Buckthorn family, as well as the specific characteristics of Ceanothus genus plants. Then you might be able to say in the field: that's probably a Ceanothus because of these reasons, and being able to ask questions like: was there a fire here in the last 20 years? Or, what kind of soil is this? Or, what elevation am I at, and what else is growing here?
Some useful resources for learning herbal medicine with plant families as a guide: the book Botany in a Day by Thomas Elpel (cited below), Marc William's Botany Everyday project or the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine's course on Foraging, which includes a botany module.
Redroot / New Jersey Tea / mountain sweet
I remember noticing Red Root when it was not in flower while walking down the road from an herbal teacher's house in western North Carolina. I spotted it with its distinct shiny leaves & particular leaf venation, popping out amongst the crowd of green. That same year, I also remember having guests stay at Dancing Springs Farm where I lived at the time. It was fall and we were all getting sick and exchanging the cold that came through our little village. One of the guests, an herbalist from Vermont, brought her immune formula that included Red Root, likely this eastern version Ceanothus americanus that I had seen on the side of the road. She dispensed the medicine to our stagnant sick corral. I remember the first taste of this uniquely flavored plant while sitting at our outdoor kitchen feeling miserable. We all started taking it and were able to get well and get back to our fall activities at the time: final garden harvests, pots of simmering Reishi tea, Black Walnut processing, hot wood stove fires, & Sweet Potato parties. I was intrigued by the flavor. It's hard to describe the flavor of this deep red colored medicine; slightly candied cough syrup, strong spicy resins, a hint of birchy mint, and ever so slightly astringent pucker. And really, each species varies widely, and even within a species- the time of year of harvest will affect the flavor.
C. americanus used to spread out in the vast midwestern prairies. It was and is an important pollinator and exists in much smaller stands now as a result of large scale agricultural operations. It is a woody shrub with upper parts that are deciduous, differing from some other Ceanothus species that tend towards being more woody. The leaves are pubescent and soft, unlike some other species of Ceanothus that tend to be thick, tough and waxy-leafed. It generally has white flowers like other species of Ceanothus.
I keep hearing that this species' leaves was used as a black tea substitute in the Revolutionary War. I'd be curious to look into the historical documents that record the harvesting, trading, and selling of this plant's leaves during that time. There are other plants that were supposedly used for a black tea substitute during that time such as Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria), which grows in the south.
It's popular to use species or cultivars of Ceanothus in native plant gardens in California, given its beauty and ecological significance in the area. I have seen it used somewhat in the east in gardens, and I'm not familiar enough with it's use in ornamental and native plant gardens in the midwest and Canada, but I think it would make a good addition to a garden if folks are thinking of planting. I don't remember seeing this in the Goldenseal Sanctuary's prairie gardens in southeast Ohio when I interned there, but it might be there.
I haven't seen this plant in commerce very much even though it is an important medicine. Most of what I have seen in commerce when I do see it, is extracts or dried material using this species.
I would imagine if the plant becomes hugely popular, some measure of awareness would need to be given to sustainable harvesting practices because this plant's populations are way less than they were historically due to the destruction of prairie ecosystems and the suppression of fire.
This would be a great pollinator and permaculture plant to include in a garden!
Tobaccobrush / Snowbrush / Snowbush
I remember the distinct smell of the Ceanothus velutinus as I hiked up a mountain in the Grand Tetons in Wyoming a few years ago. And again this summer while hiking in the Wallowas of eastern Oregon. The hillsides leading up to the high alpine lakes per our destination in both instances was covered in the scrubby plants. I would grab the sticky leaves and rub them on my face, imparting the smell and dispersing the subtle resins on my skin. My friend Kat of Gather and Give Botanicals first told me about C. velutinus when I visited her in California, trying to decide if it was pronounced vel-you-TI-nus or vel-LUTE-tin-us. I'm still not sure. I have harvested handfuls of the leaves in my travels through the West when it made sense to make 'New Jersey Tea,' a light and refreshing medicinal drink.
Over the past few years I have ventured into areas of the high Sierras of California and explored the terrain. As you get higher in elevation, the likelihood of seeing similar looking Manzanita species (Arctostaphylos manzanita, Ericaceae) intermingling with C. velutinus sometimes called Tobaccobrush or Snowbrush increases. This is the case in many instances where it is found.
It is a common and abundant species in the West. This species' leaves are thick, a larger oval shape than some other species (though comparable in size to C. americanus) and are sticky to the touch. The bottom side of the leaves are a lighter green color. As far as I've seen, the leaves are not pubescent, and have slightly serrated leaf margins. It has white flowers, hence the sometimes used common name 'Snowbush.' This species grows in thick mass bushes, making it hard to move through if you're trying to, or to harvest if you are taking on that feat. The branches can trail along the ground covered in dirt and spring up all around. It seems tough AF. It doesn't have thorns.
C. velutinus, as I mentioned in my experiences hiking, likes to grow on dry hillsides up to 9,000 feet. It has a pretty big range from British Colombia to Colorado, the Cascade in the Pacific Northwest to northern California and the Sierra Nevadas.
It is my favorite species to use as medicine, mainly because you can smell the medicine just getting near it. I hear about other herbalist's preferring this species for medicine too, but I would be curious to know if quantitatively it is the 'best' to use.
As I mentioned before, Samuel Thayer doesn't like the leaves of this species for tea, but I do. It is a lighter version of the deep medicine of Red Root. It's nice to drink after a long day of hiking through groves of it, grabbing a couple sticky leaves here and there and sitting by the campfire brewing up cups.
Deerbrush / Wild Lilac / Tickbrush / Soapbush
This species of Ceanothus is quite different than the C. velutinus in the way it carries itself. It seems more delicate, wiry and grows taller. It has softer smaller alternative leaves that are not aromatic like C. velutinus. It can grow in shady and wetter areas, unlike other species of Ceanothus. It is deciduous, or almost so- I see it cling to sometimes just a couple leaves through the winter in California, before the new spring leaves come along. This year, spring is early due to drought and warm weather in California and I am already seeing new young bright green leaves. It has white flowers but can sometimes have blue or pink/purple flowers depending on the elevation. It is easy to miss during the year until it starts to flower and dominates the hillsides in showy color. I've been told by a botanist friend in the Sierras that it is sometimes called Tickseed for how it attracts ticks to it. Weirdly enough, the next day when I approached and barely touched the plant, I found to ticks on me? Coincidence? Maybe.
I have never made tea from the leaves and don't feel immediately drawn to, but that doesn't mean you can't. I have tinctured the aerial parts of the plant (not the flowers), even though they didn't smell medicinal in the way that the root does, or the way that C. velutinus' leaves do but the medicine turned out fairly similar in strength. When I went on a plant walk with John Slatterly last year, he said that he makes medicine from the aerial parts as well as the root bark, and tries to make medicine with this plant in different locations to get a good profile of medicine given that it seems to vary according to location.
Other notable Ceanothus species
Ceanothus cuneatus - Common name: Buckbrush. It is mentioned by the School of Evolutionary Herbalism in their youtube video on Red Root (in Oregon) cited at the bottom of the article and is mentioned in Michael Moore's writings on Red Root. It has fragrant flowers, small leaves, wild and jutting branches. I have never used it medicinally, but I have seen it growing abundantly in fields, on rocky slopes or on land that is recovering from fire in California. If I remember correctly, this is the species that when it is in full flower across the hillsides, it smells like semen. The bees love it.
Ceanothus greggi - Common name: Desert Ceanothus. Kiva Rose, and Michael Cottingham, both herbalists located in the Southwest, use this species the most according to their blog write-ups, both cited at the bottom of the article. I don't have any experience with this species. It is mainly found in desert ecologies of the Southwest and into California.
Ceanothus fendleri - Common name: Buckbrush, Deerbriar. Michael Moore mentions using this species in his writings as well as Michael Cottingham in his. It is found in the Southwest and Rockies. I have no experience using it.
Medicine of Red Root
Red Root is most known for it's use as a powerful lymphagogue. While it is not an immune stimulant, it can help the way the lymph deals with immune response in the body. It's slight astringency makes it toning to the lymph and soft tissues, improving overall movement of stuck fluids. This action can he helpful in a number of instances: from reducing acute or overall inflammation, reducing the occurrence of varicose veins associated with poor movement, reducing swelling for folks who are prone to tonsillitis or hemorrhoids, breaking up benign cysts, and helping folks who have poor nutrient assimilation. The gray-dull tired looking skin that can come with poor lymph flow can be brightened and lifted when using this herb, and I can attest to this fact because I tend towards that dullness in the winter and spring, especially if I am not getting enough exercise, drinking enough water or getting outside enough. Michael Moore humorously explains in his books a few different ways that he has observed Red Root helping the body deal with poor blood charge after a fatty meal, and the inflammatory response that can occur in the body thereafter. I see in books and hear often that it is good for 'boggy tissues' but I'd like to better understand how that really looks from a physiological perspective. If boggy means stuck or slow moving because of sickness or lack of physical movement in the body, or because of the nature of someone's general constitution then that makes sense. But, I'm trying to wrap my head around how boggy can be associated with poor nutrient assimilation, given that that means that things tend to move too fast, too fluidly, before the body can take up what it needs. Maybe the way that Red Root increases the efficiency of movement through and out inadvertently increases the capacity of the body to take in nutrients. My understanding of the heart of this medicine is ongoing.
I don't have a regular clinical practice, so I can't rely on the evidence that clinical herbalists have using herbs over time with different people in different scenarios. But, I do have personal experience with the herb helping to reduce a painful breast cyst. The past few years I have had swollen lymph node that seems to become more painful during my menstrual cycle, and were tender to the touch. While my health insurance situation is complicated, I couldn't get an affordable breast exam in California at the time because my health insurance was out of a state across the country that would not cover that simple procedure far away, and ultimately when I came back to that state, it still didn't even cover the procedures needed to make sure I didn't have something more serious on my hands. It had been stressing me out, and I was already stressed from other things in my life and not getting enough exercise so not knowing what to do about this made it worse. I started taking Red Root in the winter after six months of this lymph node being painful and swollen but not gaining in size, and took it regularly until the spring when I could get more fresh leaf and root medicine made. I took high doses, mostly of the root bark tincture, though different herbalists have different ideas about proper dosage. I used this in combination with Poke root (Phytolacca americana) oil and Castor (Ricinus communis) oil externally on the area with vigorous sometimes painful rubbing and scraping using wooden comb like tools, to the point of bringing stuck blood to the surface of the skin.
I have used it in a formula for sore throats with Yerba Mansa (Anemopsis californica) in a spray bottle to catch the back of the throat during the day.
Michael Cottingham talks about his use of Red Root for the treatment of Lyme disease, as an adjunct to other herbal therapies. It's efficiency in moving out stuck fluid works well for Lyme's sneaky tendency to hide in the crevices of the body, pretending to be fully gone but actually isn't.
It contains methyl salicylates like that of Black Birch (betulinic acid too), Meadowsweet and Wintergreen, hence the source of that distinct scent. Some species seem to have stronger methyl salicylates, and tend to concentrate in the roots of Ceanothus.
I would additionally consult the citations I have listed at the bottom of the article for detailed descriptions of Red Root medicine and clinical experiences by Kiva Rose, Michael Cottingham, Michael Moore and others.
Harvesting Red Root
Harvesting Red Root can go a few ways. The main medicinal part used is the root bark, though as I have mentioned throughout this article, folks have used all parts of the plant minus the flowers for medicine. The wood beyond the root bark can be medicinal in some instances, especially if it retains that medicinal red color, as well as the aerial twigs and leaves of the plant. The bark's outer protective layer is generally removed but I have kept it because I think it is medicinal too. Plus, getting all of that root bark off after you just dealt with removing the tough root from the soil will inevitable cause you to lose some of the good medicine of the root bark.
I would prepare yourself for major digging, having a couple larger digging forks, pickaxes, pruners and shovels on hand to get around the roots and plenty of time to deal with the tough soil that Red Root usually grows in. If you're harvesting C. velutinus, prepare yourself to be buried in wild branches and a maze of tough tangled bushes.
Have time right after to immediately process the medicine because once it is dried it is incredibly hard to process and loses its potency.
You can start by finding the base of a limb that comes out of the ground and following its trail underground as far as you can go to uncover the long root. Cut the branch off, save the leaves and part of the branch because it could have good medicine too. You only need to follow a couple of these roots and should do it on a few different plants if you're going to harvest a substantial amount. Most species you want to harvest this medicine from are widely abundant with a few exceptions and harvesting small amounts dispersed throughout a grove or using aerial parts is helpful for mindful harvesting.
In January 2019, I went on a Ceanothus harvest expedition with my friends Qwalen and Ellen for mead-making and tincture- folks who harvest on the mountaintops in Trinity County, California. I’m not sure the species we harvested, and neither do they- and from looking at plant lists of Trinity county, it is likely a species not even mentioned in this article. Winter in California is like Spring in other places to an extent, the rains start in the fall and move until late Spring. The ground often does not freeze depending on where you are, even when it snows. I do know that Qwalen and Ellen have lived in this area for over 10 years and harvest this plant every year. Qwalen knew a spot that had recent roadwork in the national forest after a fire five years ago, and knew the soil would be loose in some areas. We were able to pick-axe tons of small plants and collect enough medicine for mead making and medicine making. Any root left in the ground, which is not hard to do, will make a new plant. It was easier than harvesting C. velutinus, and the medicine tastes AMAZING. We covered the openings in the soil back up with the snow/soil mix we were working on. This small disturbance may even INCREASE Ceanothus populations in this spot.
You'll want to wash the roots really good as to get as much dirt out of the crevices as possible. Having some kind of car washing brush, or stiff bristled vegetable brush is really helpful for this task. Have a good knife for stripping the bark and a (not shredding particulates) tarp or blanket for catching all the bits.
For the small rooted species I harvested with Qwalen and Ellen, we used a hammer on a cutting board to loosen the root bark from the woody core, and were able to peel it off easily after harvest.
It's best to harvest roots during root centric times like fall or early spring when the medicine is most concentrated. Depending on the elevation though, spring could move into summer for harvesting the root bark of this plant. Or in the case of harvesting with Qwalen and Ellen, early Spring was actually early February up in the snow. They even noted that if they waited until say April, that the medicine didn’t feel as strong to them.
The root bark is sold dried and shredded but I think using it in tincture form, or the leaves in tea form is the best way to go.
The mead of the mystery species we harvested was very flavorful and had that birch hint and red color.
Clarke, Charlotte Bringle. Edible and Useful Plants of California. University of California Press. Berkeley: 2005.
Cottingham, Michael. "RED ROOT - Ceanothus spp. The #2 most important plant in my clinical practice!" Blog post. 2 Dec 2017. Web. 18 Jan 2018.
Elpel, Thomas J. Botany in a Day. The Patterns Method of Plant Identification. HOPS press. Pony, Montana: 2013. 6th Edition.
Foster, Steven and Hobbs, Christopher. Peterson's Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York: 2002.
Funk, Alicia & Kaufman, Karin. Living Wild: Gardening, Cooking and Healing with Native Plants of California. Flicker Press. Nevada City, CA: 2013.
Laws, John Muir. The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada. Heyday Press. Berkeley: 2007.
Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West. Museum of New Mexico Press. Santa Fe: 2003.
Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Museum of New Mexico Press. Santa Fe: 1993.
Moore Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West. Santa Fe: 1989. (Frank Cook's copy)
Petrides, George A. & Olivia. Peterson's Field Guides: Western Trees. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York: 1998.
Rose, Kiva. Redroot: Blood Medicine Blog post. 12 April 2011. Web. 13 Jan 2018. http://kivasenchantments.com/ceanothus.html
School of Evolutionary Herbalism. "Alchemical Herb Profile: Red Root (Ceanothus cuneatus)." Online video clip. YouTube, 5 Dec 2015. Web. 3 Jan 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-ftuCb-HLU
Stuart, John D. and Sawyer, John O. Trees and Shrubs of California. The University of California Press. Berkeley: 2001.
Thayer, Samuel. Nature's Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting and Preparing Edible Wild Plants. Forager's Harvest [Press]. Birchwood, Wisconsin: 2010.
Tilford, Gregory L. Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West. Mountain Press Publishing Company. Missoula: 1997.
United States Forest Service. Index of Species Information. "Ceanothus americanus". Online article. 1993.
Info from conversations / herb walks: John Slatterly, Juliet Blankespoor, Marc Williams, Martin Thompson, Erin Fahey, Daniel Nicholson.