Curses and Blessings…BURdock

Burs & Thistles, Curses & Blessings

A study of Arctium lappa….common Burdock

“I passed by the field of the sluggard and by the vineyard of the man lacking sense,

and behold, it was completely overgrown with thistles;

its surface was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down.

When I saw, I reflected upon it; I looked, and received instruction.

“A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest,”

Then your poverty will come as a robber and your want like an armed man.”

Proverbs 24:30-34

 

Burs and Thistles may seem like a curse as described in these scriptures but to an herbalist who appreciates the hidden blessings in burs and nettles they are rather celebrated. I hope by the end of this article you will look at Burdock with deep respect as a green blessing of great value.

Burdock is a delectable edible, an incredible medicinal, and diversely practical in a multitude of fascinating ways, is one of my most treasured weeds. The botanical or formal name for Burdock is Arctium lappa. These nicknames give hints into some of it’s famous characteristics: Beggar’s Buttons, Cockle Burr, Gobo Root , Stick Button and Snake Rhubarb

Before discovering Burdocks green blessings for myself, I only knew it for it’s annoying hitchhiker seed pod burs that would get stuck in my collie Skipper’s fur coat every Fall. Another one of nature’s ways of distributing the seeds far and wide.   Interestingly, these infuriating hooked seed pods became inspiration for Velcro as an ingenious fastener. Dr. George De Mestral, a Swiss engineer, inspected them closely under a microscope and upon examining their simple design of hooks and loops he developed and patented Velcro in 1951.

Burdock is a biennial which means its growth cycle lasts for two years. The first year the energy is in the tasty nutritious roots and the leaves are large like elephant ears growing like a rosette collecting energy to store in the roots. The second year the energy shoots up a tall stalk creating prickly purple flowers that morph into those irksome prickly seed pods. It is all about going to seed and then spreading the life far and wide.

Edible

The Root

The Japanese have cultivated Burdock not as a weed but as a delicacy for hundreds of years. They call it Gobo root.   The best time to dig for the root is in the first year of growth or in the Spring of the second year before the energy shoots up a large seed stalk and the root is tough and fibrous. Once the roots are harvested and cleaned there are numerous tasty ways to prepare this nutritious delicacy. Sweet and Sour Burdock roots, Burdock in stir fries and stews, Burdock roots in a roasted casserole, Pickled Burdock roots, and Burdock Burgers is something I tried recently and they are fabulous…just about any way that you would eat or cook with a carrot works just as well with Burdock.

Sweet and Sour Burdock Root! Perfect for stir fries and soups.

A decoction differs from a tea in that it is typically used to make a strong tea from roots, barks, seeds and wood.  A simple infusion would never extract the minerals and goodness from these green gifts.  So to decoct Burdock root, fill a pan with a quart or more of water, adding the Burdock root slices and boiling them (at first) and then simmering them till the liquid is halved and the roots are tender when bitten into.  Once the roots are al dente then you can make them into whatever your imagination can cook up.  I have made Burdock root taste like BACON just by taking these prepared roots and stir frying them in bacon grease to serve with Elderflower Fritters and Elderberry syrup.  I have also made them taste pretty close to Pepperoni by adding the same spices need to make Pepperoni to the cooked roots and simmering them in a bit of the Burdock pot liquor till marinated before popping them on your wild pizza!  Another fun option is to season these cooked discs with parmesan cheese and Chicken Piccata sauce to taste like mushrooms.

After decocting the roots to make them tender, save the liquid (pot liquor). It is delicious, rather mushroomy in flavor and can be added to soup stock for the enhanced nutrition.

Burdock ‘mushrooms’ on chicken piccata

 

The Stems & Stalks

The stems of a first year basal rosette of Burdock are an often overlooked wild edible gift. They are a bit stringy, like celery but with a bit of peeling they can be prepared to taste not unlike string beans. Boil them till al dente and smother with a Bernaise Sauce, or just butter and salt and pepper them to taste. Any of the stems of the Burdock plant can be enjoyed if it is tender, juicy and not rigid and stiff, thus with a discerning eye these petioles can be enjoyed throughout the Summer.

The Italians call Burdock, Cardoon, which means ‘edible stem’. They collect the stalks or stems of the first year plant in May. The thick juicy stem is like Rhubarb. Take strings off, steam a little bit, chop in chunks, bread them and fry them. They claim it tastes better than eggplant parmesan. Can’t wait to try this next May!

Burdock juicy stems are sort of a wild green bean. They are delicious if picked at the right time and of course prepared properly as well.

 

Leaves

No. just. No. Some say these are edible but I am certain they have never tried them. Bitter is too kind a word for how they taste. Perhaps if you boiled them in 100 changes of water they might be passable but with so many delicious and delectable wild edibles why eat Burdock leaves…

Flowers

My mentor Linda Runyon lived off the land for many years. She loved Burdock in all it’s offerings including it’s baby flower clusters. She claims that if you harvest them early enough they are not spiky and can be boiled to perfection and enjoyed as a pea. Again, I have never been that hungry and find the texture prickly even in it’s early beginnings. But feel free to experiment.

Medicinal

Alterative, Diuretic, Diaphoretic, Bitter, Anti-psoriatic, Demulcent, Anti tumoral, Anti septic, Anodyne, Cell proliferant, Tonic

Burdock is a powerhouse of healing awesomeness. This is the classic case of letting food be your medicine and medicine be your food. The tastiest way to get the medicinal benefits of Burdock is to eat it but making tinctures of the root and the seeds has great healing value as well.

Among it’s vast healing benefits Burdock is famous for: aiding digestion due to it’s high fiber content, detoxifying the liver as a bitter, balancing hormones and the metabolism , reducing inflammation, lowering blood pressure with it’s high concentration of potassium which is a vasodilator relieving tension within the cardiovascular system, controlling diabetes with it’s high levels of insulin, lowering overall blood cholesterol, skin condition from dandruff, eczema, psoriasis, rashes…can be transformed from the inside out with Burdock mainly due to it’s ability to flush the liver and detox the blood. It is a main herb in Essiac tea, an effective herbal cancer treatment. Externally, the large leaves of Burdock can be used as poultices for burns or rheumatism. Burdock poultices improve blood flow to the injured and infected area, fighting infection and speeding healing…and SO MUCH MORE.

Hope and Lily (two of my wild apprentices) hanging Burdock leaves to dry for burn bandages

The Amish gather and dry Burdock leaves, storing them in their hospitals for use with burn patients. They are an anodyne (pain reliever) and dulls pain, antiseptic and kill germs, cell proliferants and multiply new cell growth, and they won’t stick to the wound.

The seeds are also highly valued for their medicine. Their impact is more immediate than the rest of the plant medicine but not  as long lasting in effect. To see long lasting changes in your health the whole plant medicine should be taken faithfully for several month to see changes in degenerative conditions.

Harvesting the seeds is a challenge. Herbalist Jim MacDonald recommends putting the seed burs in a paper bag, and then another paper bag, then a contractors black trash bag and then drive over them with car tires… Then be super careful not to get those nasty stickers into your skin, if you do get prickled like a porcupine use duck tape to remove them.

Practical & Useful

Burdock plates are especially great for picnics. I love the way they look for a wild meal table as well.

Plates: My foragers always collect large Burdock leaves to use for their dinner plates for our wild food feasts.

Fans: During hot Summer months a Burdock leaf can morph easily into a cooling fan

Baggies: Ever wonder what people did to carry lunch to work before the invention of baggies? Dock means large leaf and Burdock leaves can be elephant ear size! Wrapping food in a large Burdock leaf kept food fresh in haversacks for centuries.

Bandages: Using Burdock leaf over a wound is not only a way to protect it but it’s powerful constituents also aid in the wound healing.

Handiwipes: I’ve also used Burdock leaves to clean off a table or counter top

TP: never tried it but…why not?

Teething: Native American women used the fresh Burdock root and strung it for when the young ones were teething. It worked to quiet them down and soothe their gums.  I wish I knew this when my kids were babies, it sure beats the plastic toys we give them to chew on.

Umbrella: Giant Burdock leaves make a handy umbrella in a pinch

Deflea pets: Simmer a handful of brown burs, strain and cool. Use this infusion to wash your pets and kill fleas quickly!

Poop patrol: My neighbor JD picks up his dog Foscoe’s poops with Burdock leaves to keep our yards poop free!

Cultivation

If digging is not your thing, take an old bale of wet hay and knock together four 1 x 4s like an empty-bottomed flat to fit right on top of the hay bale. Then fill this with garden soil and plant your burdock seeds in there. They will germinate and send their roots down into the hay. To harvest, remove the boards and pull apart the hay to reveal perfectly formed and tender burdock roots.”  I have never done this but it is on my bucket list for sure!

In Summary

So now that I’ve enlightened you as to the phenomenal gifts of Arctium lappa: it’s edibility, powerful medicine, usefulness and playfulness perhaps you agree that these annoying burrs are a worthy reminder of God’s Goodness and Provision for us.  I am grateful for their ingenious method of hitchhiking on a passing pant leg or four legged furry animal to spread it’s life far and wide.

Bring on the Wild Blessings!

Heather digging up Burdock roots for our wild feast

Quick tip, my favorite way to wash edible wild roots is sitting on a rock in a mountain stream and working the roots into the sandy soil until they are scrubbed clean.

 

Befriending Plants…Heal All

I had been busy, too busy to choose a plant to teach on for my Befriending Plants class.  There are so many plants that I treasure and want to introduce others to in a more memorable way.

The day of my class, I got up early to hike to the white rock overlooking the valley.  It is my favorite place to watch the sunrise.

As I sat there asking for guidance the sun’s first rays bore a hole in the hills on the horizon and instantly the pasture surrounding me sparkled with glowing gems of dew illuminated with the light.  I thought of the verse “The sun of Righteousness will come with healing in His wings”.  Now with the sun’s light illuminating my ability to read, I opened my Bible to Luke chapter 1 looking for the words Zacharias uttered when his baby boy, John the Baptist, was born, “And you, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; For you will go on before the Lord (the Messiah) to prepare His ways; to give His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, with which the Sunrise (the Messiah) from on high will dawn and visit us, to shine upon those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. To guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Wow, Jesus is our Healer!  He came to make broken things whole…to shine Light in the darkness…to heal the broken hearted…to bring Life out of death…Peace.

And then I saw my plant, Heal All or Prunella vulgaris.

It’s royal purple flower spikes were carpeting the illumined landscape celebrated with the strength of the sun’s rays.  I picked one and looked at it fascinated by it’s beauty magnified by the jewelers loupe.  I recalled all the herbal preparations I had used it for in the past and it’s healing powers.

God gave me my plant to introduce for the day and now I could hardly wait to share this precious gift with my students.

At the beginning of each class I share a devotional, which I had just been given on the mountain side J And since I was teaching about a plant of rather remarkable healing qualities, I asked my friends to share someone in their life that is a true healer and always made them feel better.  We shared our stories and then I introduced them to this beautiful perennial plant.

Prunella vulgaris is the proper name for a highly powerful healing plant.  It didn’t earn the nicknames: Heal Al, Self Heal or All Heal for nothing!

Prunella’s beautiful orchid-like flower spikes are magnificent to behold under a jewelers loupe, lavender faces that bloom from tiny plum shaded buds.  Prunella means little plum for this reason and vulgaris is Latin for common.   Vulgaris is the name given to herbs that were commonly used for healing (Thymus vulgaris, Artemisia vulgaris…)

The family is lamiaceace, the mint family, and has it’s familiar characteristic of the square stem, opposite leaves, and irregular flowers.  It is not however, aromatic as most lamiaceace (Mint) family members are famous for.

For centuries this ubiquitous sprawling plant was considered a medicine cabinet all to itself, but sadly it has been neglected and under appreciated in all but traditional Chinese medicine today.

Edible?

Yes…as a tea or raw (chopped fine) in a salad for it’s bitter digestive qualities.  It is high in Vit A, B, C and K, and manganese and zinc are it’s key minerals.

Medicinal?

Heal All is used as an alterative, antibacterial, antibiotic, anti inflammatory, antimuteagenic, antioxidant, antiseptic, antispasmodic, antiviral, astringent, bitter, carminative, cholagogue, diuretic, febrifuge, hemostatic, hypotensive, immune stimulant, liver stimulant, stomachic, tonic vasodiolator, vermifuge and vulnerary.  It earned the nickname for historically being used for everything that ails you.

I will highlight only a few of it’s many virtues and how to prepare it for each health challenge.

  • Vulnerary

Self Heal is perhaps known best for it’s vulnerary (wound healing) properties. Another nickname “Carpenters Weed” indicates this plant to be useful for any mishap a carpenter might face. Good for bumps, hammer blows, bruises, sprains, strains, scrapes.

The salves, liniments, and creams I have made with the fresh plant are useful for this.  I like adding Rosemary and Lavender essential oil to a Prunella infused olive oil to rub into strained muscles or bruises.  Rosemary essential oil has a powerful circulatory action stimulating the blood flow and a gentle rubbing of this oily combination will help disperse the stale blood and bring fresh blood to the injured area facilitating healing, Prunella does the rest.  It is really remarkable.

To make an infused oil with this plant or any plant, simply gather it fresh at the peak of it’s energy, dry it a bit in the sun, chop with a knife to break the cell walls releasing the healing constituents, cover with a good quality seed oil to infuse for a few weeks, keep it covered and stir daily, finally pour off the infused oil and bottle for use when making salves, lip balms, liniments and creams.  Heal All helps things heal up a bit faster.

My herb mentor, Heather Nic an Fhleisdeir sold infused Prunella vulgaris olive oil to a cosmetic company in Italy who contacted her for Heal All infused oil to use in making lipstick for cold sores.  The first run of the oil was a hit and they were selling 500 lipsticks a day.  Now they have 20,000 orders.

We made some lip balm at our foraging class on Friday with the infused oil and everyone loved it.   I also made a roller with the oil and some Melissa oil for ready use for anything topical.

  •  Antiviral

Many herbs are also anti viral, Prunella vulgaris is excellent at treating all things viral.  Ulcers of the mouth, herpes, cold sores or ulcers in the mouth… Make a lip balm with the infused oil for cold sores.  Gargle with a strong infusion of the tea made with the dried plant for mouth ulcers and taken as a tincture for internal use as an antiviral are all great options for attacking viral conditions.

Another great use for Prunella tea is as an eye wash for sties and pink eye.  It’s astringent, antiviral, antiseptic and anti inflammatory properties work so quickly and effectively.  Make a weak tea and wash infected eyes with the tea.

  • Immune Stimulant, make a strong tea or take the tincture in a bit of warm water.  My herb mentor Heather Nic an Flheisdeir says this about Prunella vulgaris

“I especially love Prunella for her antibiotic action.  At the first sign of infection adding Prunella to herbal maintenance helps to shorten the duration of an illness.  At the same time, if the infection is bacterial in nature, Prunella will help to fight off the bacterial infection as well as a viral infection.”

  • As a Bitter it upgrades digestion, helps a sluggish liver get back to work and stimulates bile flow.  I love eating it’s flower heads chopped small in a raw salad to get the bitter benefits.
  • High Blood pressure, Prunella’s diuretic, vasodilation and hypotensive actions are helpful for lowering blood pressure.
  • Heal All contains ursolic acid, an anti tumor compound that can be useful for treating tumors.  As an anti mutagenic, it can stop the growth of mutagenic cells.

This plant is so smart, it knows how to take care of troubles of all kinds.

Today this plant is underutilized as a medicinal herb which is a shame since it grows readily wherever it is planted and has such a wide variety of uses.  Prunella should be found in every medicine cabinet.

Here are some of the ensuing poems that my students wrote about this beautiful yet powerful healing herb.

Prunella Poem by Lynn Maxwell

Fuzzy wuzzy was Prunella,
She’s a little square stemmed fella. 
Orchid like her flower face, 
All healing is her saving grace. 
Speared green leaves and purple blooms,
Selfheal will mend all your wounds. 
Drink in tea or salve your cut,
It will heal you head to butt!

 

Prunella Poem by Laura Weant

Prunella Vulgaris
Bitter-tasting sweet medicinal
Spiky wound healer
Fever reducer
Un-minty germ killer, anti-tumeral
your fuzzy, pointy flowerhead lies low
but fast advances
tiny orchid antiviral
green cone-like blood clotter
in honey, in tea, infused in oil
you heal all wounds
from beginning to end
little plum
little pineapple
little orchid
nothing little about you

The last thing I shared after the poems were read and enjoyed, was a time when God used Heal All, Self Heal, All Heal, Prunella to heal my broken heart.

April 2, 2014 I sat under a magnificent Maple tree on a mountain top waiting for the phone call from my husband to tell me that our son had died.  Brian was a wingsuit pilot that survived a flying accident in the mountains of Switzerland. He was filming for a TV show on BASE jumping and wingsuit flying.  Rescued by helicopter on the cliff’s edge he was on life support at a hospital in Bern.  My husband had the privilege of being with him and though he was not conscious we had hopes of his survival. When the MRI results revealed no brain activity…we had to let Brian go.  Once this decision was made I knew my son would only be breathing for an hour on his own and I asked to not ‘pull the plug’ till I was on my mountain top alone with God.

The time I had on that summit was one of the most precious times I have ever had with my Savior.  I asked for a blue bird to comfort me but Jesus sent a hawk instead.  It flew straight at me and did aerobatics right over my head showing off it’s agility and then flew into the sun.  At that very moment my cell phone rang and my beloved husband spoke these words, “Brian is with Jesus now”, “I know”, I whispered.

I will never forget the Love that filled my soul and the tangible ways that God held me in my grief on that day and the days that followed. 

The following Winter, further grief sent me back to my mountain top and there under the same Maple tree I discovered literally thousands of Heal All seed heads right where I had been sitting at Brian’s passing.  I picked one and God told me that He would heal ALL that hurt and make me whole in His love.  The tears I cried were healing tears and the bouquet I picked of Heal All seed heads I have to this day.

 

“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds, healing their pain and comforting their sorrow.” Psalms 147:3

Once again I am reminded that we are here to be Loved by the One who is Love itself and we are not alone.