Western Herbs for Chinese Herbalists: Red Root

Ceanothus fendleri, a species of Red Root

Ceanothus fendleri, a species of Red Root

Red Root

These common shrubs in the Ceanothus genus illustrate beautifully how seemingly obscure principles from traditional medicine actually reflect deep truths.  Consider the Chinese Medicine conception of the Spleen: an organ critical to “transformation and transportation” that also plays a key role in fluid metabolism and in controlling the blood (“holding it in the vessels”).  (For much more on the Spleen, check out this article.) These may seem like a grab-bag of disparate functions, but Red Root shows how they’re related and leads us towards efficient treatments.  First, the organ affinity: this herb has been used since the mid 19th Century for swollen spleen and “splenic disorders” in general, including those associated with malaria and intermittent fever (Matthew Wood, The Book of Herbal Wisdom, 193).  It is aromatic, bitter, slightly warm, and astringent in nature, so it should help support the dampness-prone Spleen in a similar way to Atractylodes (Bai/Cang Zhu). These two herbs represent one method of treating the Spleen, through the use bitter-aromatic tastes to lighten the load of the Spleen’s characteristic Tai Yin damp earth.  The other method involves tonifying Spleen Qi with herbs like Ginseng (Ren Shen) and Astragalus (Huang Qi), but such sweet tonics represent a kind of re-building method that those with a damp or literally swollen Spleen are not ready for.  In fact, Red Root is widely used not so much for digestion but for the related Spleen function of transportation.  According to Matthew Wood it “helps the fluids move better throughout the body” and is widely known in Western Herbalism as a prime lymphatic remedy.  (The lymph may be associated with the Lung, Triple Warmer and Spleen organ networks).

Perhaps more than any single Chinese spleen herb, Red Root gets directly at the Spleen’s relationship to the blood.  The doctrine of signatures and basic taste dynamics point us in this direction, too: the tincture is intensely red and the taste is markedly astringent.  Indeed, Ceanothus is indicated in cases of heavy bleeding.

Michael Moore, the late “grand-daddy of Southwest herbalism,” took a particular interest in Red Root and went so far as to do some homegrown research on the plant.  He concludes that “much of its value comes from its effect on the integrity of blood proteins.  It helps increase the quality of blood charge, thereby increasing the repelling charge of the capillary cells. With improved charges, there is improved transport of blood fluid out into the interstitial colloids and more efficient uptake of lymph, as well as return of fluid back into the blood exiting the capillaries into the veins” (Moore, Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, 216-217).

Matthew Wood’s constitutional or mental-emotional picture for Red Root takes us further and deepens the resonances.  As explained in his excellent Book of Herbal Wisdom, he considers the herb specific for “melancholy” which he equates with “artistic funk.”  Melancholy, he notes, is Greek for black bile, the humor associated with the spleen.  In ancient Greek medicine, black bile-dominant or melancholic types are cold and dry.  The Greek element (not to be confused with Chinese phase element) here is Earth; anyway, in both systems, Earth and the Spleen are associated with rumination and worry and just the sort of melancholic temperament that is prone to them.  For people who fit this set of associations–Earth, melancholia, swollen spleen, rumination–to a T, consider the remedy in small material doses or low homeopathic potencies.

Red Root richly deserves to be explored by both Western Herbalists and Western practitioners of Chinese Medicine for its Spleen affinity, with special reference to formulas that target the Spleen’s relationship to the blood.  Spleen qi deficient-type heavy menstrual bleeding with cold signs, for instance? Try Red Root with Bayberry Bark as a starting point.

What are some of your favorite Red Root combinations or other uses of this plant?



3 thoughts on “Western Herbs for Chinese Herbalists: Red Root

  1. Hi Jonathan,
    I like to connect the word melancholy (greek “melan”= dark/black and “chol” = bile) with the word “lugubrious” meaning dismal, gloomy, and unrelieved. Plus it is an amazingly slushy word to equate with the Chinese Spleen. I don’t think of Red Root so much of as a plant to be used daily but when it is indicated, I think it is able to turn the spirit and bring relief to someone who has been suffering or challenged by some issue for a while. In that sense, I think of more chronic issues or acute issues manifesting from long term poor health and affecting more sensitive vital organ functions such as the pancreas or Western liver and spleen.
    Herbalist David Winston (who has taught me these indications) says that it is indicated especially for acute pancreatitis for both alcohol induced (70% of cases) or non-alcohol induced types and also suggests Standardized Milk Thistle along with that. People with pancreatitis often look ill, with a fever, nausea, or vomiting. This is because the enzymes in the pancreas are actually eating it, instead of food, and caused bleeding, swelling, and destruction to the pancreas function.
    Red Root is also useful for issues with the enlarged liver with pain, such as hepatomegaly you could also use those herbs above with Chionanthus (Fringe Tree). Where there is pain in the Spleen or splenomegaly caused by mononucleosis, hemolytic anemia, or Cytomegalovirus (CMV). For this condition Winston also suggests to use it with Scute Root (Scutellaria baicalensis), Figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), or Bear’s Foot (Polymnia uvedalia). Think “lugubrious” and you’ll never forget the type of people that could find some relief with Red Root – slow, tired, in pain, signs of congestion, not able to digest foods well, sluggish, and gloomy about life because their body is in a gloomy state.
    Winston also notes a specific indication for “chronic lymphatic congestion, especially in people with pasty skin, elevated triglycerides, and a tendency towards headaches and fatigue.”
    You’re right, it is an herb worth exploring! I also remember Red Root for its strong anti bacterial quality for stomach issues like diarrhea. Red Root is drying and clearing. People lugging themselves around lugubriously may benefit from this blood and lymph stagnation clearing herb.
    Take Care and thanks for the post!

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