by Jessa Fisher and Phyllis Hogan
Bugs Bunny would love our April plant- it's almost like a carrot, but with four times the carotene! We are talking here about the nutritious and lovely dock- yellow dock or curly dock (Rumex crispus), and red dock (Rumex hymenosepalus). These two plants are poster children of the Polygonaceae or Buckwheat plant family, which also includes rhubarb, buckwheat, and the many species of wild buckwheat (Eriogonum) we have in our area.
Every herbalist uses yellow dock, as it is widespread all across the continent and Europe. In fact, our dear friend of thirty years, holistic chiropractor Dr. David Milgrim, DC, says "yellow dock is everybody's doc" and we have to agree. Yellow dock has leaves with crinkled margins and a long yellow root that looks somewhat like a carrot. It is one of the most important herbs for digestive health. It helps the liver work more efficiently. This species of dock is used for all sorts of disorders related to poor liver functioning, such as constipation, acne, "dirty blood", and poor digestion and mineral uptake. Many skin disorders can be relieved with internal and external use of this plant.
Red dock, on the other hand, is a Southwestern herb and not known much outside this area. It is well used and admired by Sonoran Desert tribes like the Akimel O'odham (Pima) and the Tohono O'odham (Papago). Spanish speakers of the area call it Yerba de Colorado or cañaigre.
One of the surest signs of spring is the protrusion of the long emerald green leaves of this plant drawing your attention in the otherwise stark landscape of late March/ early April. We always notice it growing by the side of the road at this time of the year on Highway 89A between Sedona and Cottonwood, and along the northern portions of Highway I-17. The leaf stems at this point can be cooked and eaten, which gives the plant another common name, wild rhubarb. You wouldn"t want to eat too much of this form of the plant though, because, like sorrel, the plant is very high in oxalic acid, which can interfere with the body"s ability to absorb calcium. By the time you read this there should be prolific, large clusters of pinkish flowers protruding out of the basal leaf clusters. Later in the season, these same showy clusters will turn from flower to a gorgeous, rusty-colored fruit.
While visually, the contrast of the green and the rust makes the aboveground parts of red dock stunning, it is the below ground parts that really pack a punch medicinally. The roots of this plant are actually tubers, like a potato. Sometimes there can be up to twenty little potato-like tubers on one plant! This makes hunting for red dock roots a fun adventure, much like Easter-egg hunting!. Children, especially, love looking for this plant because it is easy to spot and so fun to unearth the cluster of roots.
Once you collect and wash the roots, they should be sliced thin like scalloped potatoes. After being dried, they will store like this for many years. You will notice the deep reddish-orange color of the roots. It was this brilliant hue that was admired by the Navajo for use as a plant dye for rugs. This plant is very high in tannins, which contributes to the color and also the astringent medicinal benefits. A gargle of the tea from red dock can be used for pyorrhea and gum disease. Externally, a wash or salve can be made for poison ivy, sunburn, and other skin irritations.
Visually, yellow dock and red dock are spring sentinels, reminding everyone to wake up from their winter slumber and get going. Yellow dock does the same for our digestive systems, stimulating movement in a gentle way. So next time you see these plants, and some goofy person says- "What's up, dock?", you know the answer- better digestion, smoother liver functioning, increased mineral uptake, and glowing, sun-kissed skin- and who wouldn't want that? And to quote Porky Pig…."Th-th-th-that's all folks!"
ENDING STATEMENT: The Arizona Ethnobotanical Research Association (AERA) is a non-profit organization founded in 1983 to investigate, document, and promote the use of traditionally utilized plants of the Southwest and to aid in preserving this knowledge for future generations. Phyllis Hogan is the director of the AERA and Jessa Fisher is the herbarium curator. www.azethnobotany.org