As a perennial herb offering food and medicine, yellow dock is a plant to know, especially during hard times. Native American tribes have considered yellow dock a panacea and survival food.
Yellow dock (Rumex crispus), also known as curly dock due to the wavy edges of its long, narrow leaves, is an introduced plant from Northern Africa, Europe and Asia. It’s currently found all over North and South America, and has become a staple in traditional American herbal medicine practices.
To recognize yellow dock from late spring and throughout summer, look for the tall seed stalks ranging from greenish-pink to dark rust as they dry along roadsides, in pastures, and wherever else the ground is compacted. As a member of the buckwheat family (Polygonaceae), the seeds can be ground and added to ground cornmeal for porridge, also known as mush, or it can be added to a base of ground maize and herbs to make pinole – a Mexican and Central American food or beverage, depending on the preparation.
Yellow dock’s long, slightly-yellow taproot breaks up the hard clay soil, and is very difficult to remove from the ground. People who cultivate yellow dock for the commercial herbal trade have deep pits of loose soil so the taproot grows particularly long and straight, and is much easier to remove.
A primary action for yellow dock root is to heal digestive complaints. Having both astringent tannins and laxative anthraquinone glycosides, specifically emodin and chrysophanin, yellow dock can dose-dependently act as an astringent for diarrhea, or as a gentle laxative, also known as an aperient. Smaller doses are used in loose stool patterns, while larger doses, containing a higher quantity of anthraquinones, are indicated in constipation.
A specific indication for yellow dock is when someone has an elongated, deep-red tongue which narrows into a point. The tongue indicates constriction and heat in the bowels. Yellow dock can be taken in low doses over an extended time as a tonic herb for low-grade gut inflammation, particularly associated with gastrointestinal imbalances, sometimes called leaky gut.
As a mildly bitter herb, it stimulates the actions of the liver, which gives yellow dock its other traditional use as an alterative – called a blood purifier by old timers and Native Americans – which is a cleansing agent for toxicity often manifesting as itchy skin, known as pruritis, or as eczema, psoriasis, acne or joint inflammation.
A decoction of yellow dock root can be taken internally, made into a salve, or used as a wash. For athlete’s foot, yellow dock root decoction – the root is boiled for 20 minutes – is used as a foot soak.
Yellow dock root is often provided with iron supplementation for women because it is thought to increase iron assimilation.
Throughout Southern winters and into early spring, yellow dock leaves are an excellent sour-tasting wild green to add to salads, stews, or cooked like spinach. When eating them raw, the younger the leaf the better. The stems can be peeled and eaten raw or roasted.
Yellow dock leaves do contain some oxalates, as does spinach, so if you’re prone to kidney stones, refrain from yellow dock leaves. Though a mild plant, yellow dock is contraindicated in pregnancy due to its laxative effect, and cautioned with young children, as in during lactation.
This article originally appeared in Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, June 5th, 2011.