21 November 2019
Digging burdock root
Last week we had the first hard frost of the winter season, earlier than usual in these mountains. That's a marker because it means the perennial and biennial plants send their energy down below the ground to store over the winter. Delighted, I got out my shovel this week to harvest burdock root!
As the moon wanes toward dark, the plants concentrate more on developing their roots underground. So this waning/dark moon and the next – which falls over winter solstice – are especially potent times to harvest herbal roots for medicines.
Out looking for wild plants to eat
I first started courting burdock when I was a budding herbalist studying botany and biology in college, including independent study on plant identification. I decided I would start with wild plants that I could eat – knowing that would be the best way to keep a hungry young woman motivated to learn her herbs!
Aware that burdock was edible, I noticed that when I went walking near my home in the early winter, I would come back with big burrs clinging to my pants. The next time I walked that loop, I brought a shovel along. I practiced rolling her botanical name over my tongue as I walked: Arctium lappa.
With high hopes on that first burdock harvesting adventure, I followed a stalk covered in burrs down to the ground and dug it up. Alas, all I found was a black slimy mess! What I didn't realize at the time is that burdock is a biennial plant. Standing with my shovel in hand, that fact suddenly seemed a lot more relevant than it did in botany class.
First year burdock
The first year the plant puts out a low rosette of leaves and stores her energy below ground in the roots. Therefore, the optimum time to harvest burdock roots for food or medicine is during the winter of the first year.
Second year burdock
During the second year, the plant sends up a flowering stalk with purple, thistle-like flowers, which develop into brown burrs in the fall. The roots of the second year plants deteriorate as the energy goes into seeds for creating more baby burdock plants.
Burdock has a very deep tap root, extending a foot or more into the earth. Some roots are as thin as a pencil while others are much thicker. Because they grow so deep, when digging up burdock roots, we aim to loosen the soil deep below the ground.
The technique I've found most effective is to dig a ring or trench around the root, scooping out the soil. Then you can gently pull to ease the root out without breaking. See this video clip from my burdock dig at Earthaven this week (ia one minute video, sped up from the 3 minutes it took to dig that root).
How to recognize burdock
When identifying burdock, look for the purple thistle-like flowers in summer that develop into the brown burrs in fall.
The large, broad leaves are somewhat triangular in shape with wavy edges. The leaves are fuzzy, with light colored undersides. If you rub the leaf with your fingers and touch the finger from the underside of the leaf to your tongue, you'll immediately taste the strong bitter flavor from the back of the leaf.
The species that is most common in the mountains of North Carolina is Arctium minus. While Arctium lappa is the species most commonly used in the herbal world, both can be used interchangeably medicinally. The primary difference between the two is noticeable in the size of the burrs: A. lappa has large burrs 1" across, whereas the burrs of A. minus are about half that size.
Just as burdock's roots grow deep in the ground, her action is deeply nourishing in the body. Burdock is a powerful tonic for the liver, kidneys and spleen. You can eat the roots for those benefits, or preserve them by making medicine. A favorite of macrobiotic cooking, burdock adds a mildly sweet, earthy flavor to stir fry, cooked vegetables, or in soups.
To tincture burdock, wash the roots, chop them into small pieces, pack them in a jar and fill with 100 proof vodka and let it steep for at least 6 weeks. Tincture making with fresh plants is easy!
I always feel that when I make my own medicines or harvest wild foods like burdock, I get double the benefit. The healing starts right out there in the garden . . . happy digging!~