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?