Giving Back #2 – Lessons from Burdock

(#1)

It’s been over two years since I last dug up Burdock for the roots and something like five since I first started searching for this plant after seeing Ray Mears unearth some huge specimens and talk about their potential, not only as an important starch-filled survival food, but as a likely caloric staple for the hunter-gatherer cultures who lived here before farming took hold some six thousand years ago. In my eagerness and enthusiasm to partake in this (pre-)history and get my teeth into a hefty wild food that could even compete with cultivated rootcrops like carrots, parsnips & potatoes for size and bulk, I jumped in head first and ended up making my first serious foraging error – mistaking the first spring growths of Lords and Ladies (aka Cuckoo Pint) for Burdock, based on the aforementioned TV footage and a handful of pictures and descriptions I’d seen on the internet. I’d dug up a few plants that had hallelujah’d at me during a walk along the Thames near Oxford and brought them back home in my pocket. They didn’t have the same huge, deep roots, and came with a funny little tuber which I’d not heard mentioned. Nevertheless, ignoring the lingering sores on my hands (which I had attributed to unseen nettles during the digging), I proceeded to steam the stems and do a taste test on them. This was unremarkable by itself, but when I took a tiny nibble from the freshly cut, white inner flesh of the raw tuber, it was a different story. Apparently Lords and Ladies defends itself using microscopic dagger-shaped crystals of calcium oxalate interspersed between the cell walls, and these shoot out when the plant’s body is broken or disturbed, embedding themselves fairly reliably in the flesh of the hapless creature responsible for the disturbance. Youch! So after a promising initial rush of sugary starchiness while I mixed the tiny morsel with saliva in the front of my mouth and gave it a cautious nibble, my mouth started to tingle, then ache and then burn all the way to the back of my throat, even though I’d spat and rinsed with cold water almost immediately. I finally ID’d the plant correctly (thanks mainly to my symptoms) and learned that, while they do have a recorded edible use as a ‘poor man’s potato’ and of being rendered into ‘portland sago’ (a thickener akin to arrowroot) or laundry starch, this requires careful baking and/or pulping in water to destroy or denature the crystals, and when eaten raw it has even been known to cause death through inflammation of the throat tissues and subsequent asphyxiation! Oh shit… Happily the burning died down within a couple of hours so I didn’t have to get too worried in the end, but it was still noticeably sore for the following two days.

Lesson #1 - Respect the plants! Spend enough time to be able to ID them confidently and be careful what you put in your mouth!

It turns out Burdock comes up significantly later than Lords and Ladies, and I did manage to find and dig up some plants later in that same year, learning to look for the dried-out 2nd year stalks and remaining sticky burrs to indicate where I was most likely to find a community of younger plants poking through. (The plant is biennial – forming a rosette and taproot in the first year, hibernating through the winter, then lunging back upwards in its second summer with huge leaves and flowerstalk before going to seed and dying back in the autumn – and the best time to harvest the root is during the first autumn or second spring when most of the energy is still underground.) It was during this time that I found some properly massive specimens, growing in gravelly clay soils by an artificial irrigation ditch.

These gave me my first indication that it might be possible to subsist entirely off foraged foods in this country (hence the triumphal, ‘take that, surburbia!’ pose struck in that second image, my sometime banner photo for this site), especially after I got my eye in over several long-distance walks and started noticing the plants growing in large patches in many different places, especially along roads for some reason (probably having to do with water run-off and heat absorption by the dark tarmac). My eyes swelled with fatness* from seeing a new abundance of food in the landscape in this way, but I also felt a new sensitivity towards the plants themselves and a growing reluctance to swoop in and put an end to all their hard work before they even got the chance to reproduce. I couldn’t just take from these beings. Even if some degree of respect lay in the simple, very personal act of expending work calories in exchange for the carb storehouses they had established (which would then fuel more work calories…) – couldn’t a bankrobber make the same claim in defense of his actions? Just because you could do something, it didn’t necessarily follow that you should. So for a long time I avoided digging plants up or, more generally, any kind of harvesting that would prove fatal to them. A small portion of the leaves, fruits, seeds – okay; whole roots – no no, unless they had to come up for other reasons, eg: gardening operations.

Lesson #2 – Don’t kill unnecessarily. Consider the plant’s needs and, where possible, try to fit yourself around them so that both parties can get what they want.

A couple of things clicked in me over the following years. First I heard about Australian aboriginal practices of digging up edible roots and replanting the crown and the rosette so the plant would grow back again, allowing for a sustainable harvest, albeit over a long timespan. Then I saw Derrick Jensen talk about the fundamental law of the predator/pray relationship – ‘If you consume the flesh of an Other, you now take responsibility for the continuation of the Other’s community’ – and how life was only possible through this respectful bargain of looking after the land and all the species sharing the same space with you. Most importantly ensuring that the sum total of your actions contributed to the health and resilience of the community, because in the end every species gets weighed in the balance† and those that are found wanting lose their right to life and become extinct. Finally I got to grips with the notion that humans weren’t exempt from this law, and the rather counter-intuitive idea that our direct involvement, even through heavy-handed, apparently destructive techniques such as fire setting, coppicing, hunting etc, could actually have a beneficial impact on ecosystems, as well as for the individual plant and animal species concerned. As Kat Anderson put it in Tending The Wild, an exploration of land management in preconquest native Californian cultures:

Several important insights were revealed to me as I talked with elders and accompanied them on plant gathering walks. The first of these was that one gains respect for nature by using it judiciously. By using a plant or an animal, interacting with it where it lives, and tying your well being to its existence, you can be intimate with it and understand it. The elders challenged the notion I had grown up with – that one should respect nature by leaving it alone – by showing me that we learn respect through the demands put on us by the great responsibility of using a plant or an animal.

Many elders I interviewed said that plants do better when they gather them. At first this was a jarring idea – I had been taught that native plants were here long before humans and did best on their own without human interference – but it soon became clear to me that my native teachers were giving me another crucial gift of insight. California Indians had established a middle ground between the extremes of overexploiting nature and leaving it alone, seeing themselves as having the complementary roles of user, protector, and steward of the natural world. I had been reading about how various animals’ interactions with plant populations actually benefited those plants – how grizzly bears scattered the bulblets of Erythronium lilies in the process of rooting up and eating the mature bulbs, how California scrub jays helped oaks reproduce by losing track of some of the acorns they buried – and it seemed plausible that the many generations of humans in California’s past had played a similar role. If it was true that native plants did better with our help, it meant that there was a place for us in nature. (Tending The Wild, p.xvi)

I remembered that in the footage I’d seen (has anybody else come across this? I did find it on youtube a while ago, but haven’t been able to track it down for the life of me) Ray Mears had in fact made a point of planting the seeds from nearby mature plants when harvesting his Burdock root to help the plant propagate itself and hopefully replace what he had taken.

Lesson #3 - Ultimately Others have to die so that you can live. In return you have an obligation to look after their brothers and sisters and help their kind to thrive. Someday you too will die and the loan these others have given to you will be repaid in full.

This year, as part of my herbal apprenticeship, Sarah has suggested making a tincture or vinegar from Burdock and Mullein roots. Unfortunately I’ve not yet seen the latter growing anywhere near to me, but about a week ago it felt like a good time to go out hunting for Burdock again, so I grabbed my digging stick (made from a stout piece of Hawthorn), a small hand-trowel & fork and headed down to the river, where I’d gathered from successfully in previous years. Unfortunately there were no signs of growth yet in any of the usual spots, so I made do with some early Ramsons and baby Nettles, and started making tracks back home via a different route. All of a sudden, in a sunny patch by the side of the path, I spied some old flower stems, and – hooray! – some of the flannely, white-bottomed leaves just starting to emerge from the sandy soil in several places nearby.

(Note the shiny, darker green leaves of Lords and Ladies in the top right of the picture.) I judged that there were enough new plants to spare three for my purposes, so I selected a small group suitably close together and set about digging my trench.

The digging stick did most of the work in loosening the soil for me to scoop out with my hands, but there were several tree roots that impeded my progress and the hole started to get too deep for convenience. I think a long-handled fork would have sped things up considerably. In the end I think it took me 1/2 to 3/4 of an hour to get more-or-less to the bottom of the three roots and pull up the best part of them.

It was hard, sweaty work! A few horseriders and dogwalkers came past during this time, which made me slightly nervous because technically I think you need permission from the landowner before uprooting any plant in the UK. Because this was beside a public footpath I didn’t know who to ask, so I went ahead and assumed it was okay as long as I tidied up after. Who within a ten-mile radius, apart from me, considers Burdock anything other than a noxious weed, if they even can even recognise it in the first place? Hopefully the above writing should make it clear why I disagree with Richard Mabey when he instructs his readers:

Never pull up whole plants along any path or road verge where the public has access. It is not only anti-social and contrary to all the principles of conservation, but also, in most places, illegal. (Food For Free, p.23)

(Honestly, I don’t care what the current lot of bandits and gangsters ‘in charge’ of this country have defined as ‘illegal’, and generally view these as suggestions that I’m free to ignore as long as someone isn’t actually there & prepared to back up the law with violence or the other usual forms of coercion.‡) Anyway, luckily they didn’t seem to mind, and appeared interested when I explained what I was doing. When I was done I scooped all the soil back into the hole, tamped it down a little, seeded it with a few handful of burrs and covered it with a loose mulch of leaves and twigs, making sure to thank Burdock for its generosity, explain my intentions and promise that I would be back in the future:

Can you tell anyone’s been there? It occurred to me that loosening the soil in this way would ease the growth of any new plants germinating either from the seeds or the remaining chunks of root. In time, if I continued to frequent the patch, digging up a few plants here & there maybe every other year, my activities would change the growing conditions for that whole plant community, perhaps leading to larger, fatter roots or more vigorous above-ground growth. A low-key form of cultivation that would truly tie my well being to the plant’s existence (as Kat Anderson would have it), taking the form of a mutually beneficial longterm relationship. Anti-social, my arse!

Back home, after a couple of days I got round to scrubbing one of the roots, slicing it up, leaves’n’all in the food processor and dunking it in vinegar for a liver-supporting tonic that should be ready in a month or so:

(Note the dark ‘ring’ in the cross-section, which I’m guessing marks the end of the first year’s growth as it does in trees.) The following morning I sliced up another half-root’s worth to go into a breakfast fry-up:

(Ingredients: eggs, bacon, onion, red pepper, beechnuts, nettles, linseed, butter all fried together, plus tea, toast, tomatoes, salt, pepper, herbs, ramsons butter, nettle infusion. Mmmm…) The root has a very distinctive smell when freshly cut. A sharp, slightly abrasive smell at the same time earthy and musty that seems to reach deep into your throat and lungs. Like it’s angry about being exposed to the air. The taste is more pleasant – vaguely nutty and radishy raw, more bland when cooked. I slice it at an angle to get bigger chunks and make chewing easier, as the fibres get tough and stringy length-wise, given half a chance (although I’ve seen a recipe that called for ‘julienne’-style matchsticks).

There’s a fourth lesson Burdock has played a part in teaching me, having to do with those greed-swollen eyes I was talking about, but I’ll tell you about that some other time. It has to do with Civilisation’s love affair with carbs and the kind of work they, uniquely, can provide the fuel for. Suffice it to say I’ve grown disenchanted with simply attempting to find alternative kinds of food to feed the slave classes…

If you want to read more about the medicinal side of things, I recommend you read about Home-Sweetening Christine’s experiences with Burdock and check out this comprehensive page of info. I’ll report back in a month or so about how I get on with the vinegar infusion. PFAF go into some of the other edible uses for the aboveground parts.

I wish you luck and excitement as you get to know this remarkable plant.

———————————

* – Psalm 73

† – Daniel 5 (dunno why all these biblical references are springing to mind – maybe because it’s Lent?)

‡ – As I’ve written elsewhere, ‘People (or a class of people) who have degraded and brutalised the landscape so comprehensively over the last few centuries/millennia have no business telling the rest of us how, when (or if!) we will relate to the land.’ See also Banksy’s comments on advertising, where he writes:

You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.

(which strikes me as an appropriate attitude towards most landowners) … and finally Umair Haque’s handy little saying: ‘If you want to live an empty life, follow the rules.’ (thanks Vanessa)

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11 Responses to “Giving Back #2 – Lessons from Burdock”

  1. Sarah Head Says:

    Really love your article, Ian – thanks for sharing. I’ve never yet managed to dig a really big burdock root. If you fancy experimenting and reporting back, the diuretic effect of burdock is supposed to kick in about 20 minutes after chewing the root – which is about 10 minutes quicker than coffee!

  2. comfreycottages Says:

    What an amazing post, Ian! Very thoughtful and well written. I am so grateful you included the bit about the lords and ladies! Yes indeedY! Correctly identifying before tucking in is a major issue! You have learned a lot and I appreciate your insights and opinions shared! Hugs, Leslie

  3. christine Says:

    Yowza, Ian, PFAF has in its blurb that the young leaves can be eaten raw. My cheeks are caving in just at the thought :)

    No worries on wiping out your colonies, every single scrap of root starts a new plant when it comes to burdock. I like that re-planting crowns idea, reminds me of that trick of putting the tops of beets in a plate of gravel on a windowsill to get some edible greenery.

    I now cut burdock roots in julienne, I think it improves the flavour a bit. It sure doesn’t keep well, I find. This year I’ll try leaving the bits of root in lemon juice and see if it keeps them from turning brown til I’m ready to use them.

    Great post, but I’m jealous as hell that you’re out there foraging while some of us are still freezing.

    C.

  4. Ian M Says:

    Thanks all,

    @Sarah – interesting, will definitely look out for that and guinea pig myself (and maybe others!) on it at some point.

    @Leslie – thanks, my pleasure :) Yes, the mistake sounds pretty dumb in hindsight, but something like that was bound to happen really, given that I started out with practically zero knowledge and insisted on self-teaching (though there wasn’t really anyone around here I could seek advice from at the time). Still, as a wise person once said, ‘I have learned so much from my mistakes… I think I’ll go make another one’ (!) More pics of Lords & Ladies, including dug up tubers, here.

    @Christine – not tried the young leaves – are they as potent as the older ones then? Young dandelions taste much less bitter than the mature beasties around here… Nice to know about the Burdock root scraps, though the ones I left in the above-pictured trench will have about a metre to grow before they hit sunlight… Now you’re making me feel guilty for not going out plant-hunting every day. I could tell you what time I’m averaging for getting out of bed in the mornings at the mo, but on second thoughts I don’t want you to hate me that much ;)

  5. christine Says:

    What, you’re not up with the dawn and out with your digging stick before most office slaves are even having their morning cuppa?
    If your burdock is up I’d imagine you should be getting nettles and violet leaves and horsetail and dandelion and…ok sorry, I have a really bad case of forager’s withdrawal syndrome.

    I guess the young burdock leaves are less bitter than the older ones, can’t say I’ve tried the older ones, too chicken. Those young leaf stems that are supposedly edible are, well, barely so. Just my opinion of course.

  6. Dave Dann Says:

    ‘Ultimately Others have to die so that you can live. In return you have an obligation to look after their brothers and sisters and help their kind to thrive.’
    Would you say that you are farming burdock?

  7. Ian M Says:

    Hi Dave, thanks for dropping by :)

    Personally I wouldn’t say that; others might. I’m happier to say that I cultivate it, although the word still has that association with tilling the soil… Kat Anderson described it as ‘protoagriculture’, though by itself that seems to imply a certain backwardness – a more primitive form waiting to evolve to the ‘higher’ European level. She explains it this way:

    The dichotomy between hunting and gathering and food production has tended to disguise the existence of a rich continuum of human-plant interactions ranging from true gathering to full domestication. In the words of the eminent geneticist Thomas Ledig, “The transition from foraging to farming is not a sharp break, rather it is a gradation” [...] Most if not all of the cultural groups in aboriginal California could claim an intermediate spot in this gradation because they enhanced and intensified food resources by practicing various forms of resource and land management. Many of these management practices, along with selective harvesting strategies, were the same as those utilized in early agriculture to increase yields of the edible parts of domesticated plants. The protoagricultural techniques used by native people altered natural environments enough to put artificial selective pressures on many species of desirable plants, setting them on the path to domestication. In a few cases (e.g., devil’s claw, discussed in Chapter 5), domesticated varieties of desirable plant species may have actually been created by the time Euro-Americans began to settle California, and many other species were arguably in a state of incipient or intermediate domestication.

    Some scholars have speculated that the sorts of protoagricultural practices employed by the indigenous people of California are not only very ancient (perhaps thirty thousand to fifty thousand years old in Africa, Europe, and Asia) but also nearly universal among human cultures. The widespread knowledge of how to augment populations of wild food plants is a likely explanation for why there are many and diffuse origins of agriculture throughout the world. In California, it is possible that protoagricultural practices were so successful in meeting human needs that there was no motivation to develop more labor-intensive techniques for growing domesticated crops. (Tending The Wild, pp.252-3)

    I’ve never gone out of my way to do things in the most ‘labor-intensive’ way possible, which perhaps explains my approach here!

    cheers,
    Ian

  8. Dave Dann Says:

    Hello Ian
    Interesting blog you have. Good to read someone writing from the UK and understanding coppicing, quoting Rackham.
    Dave

  9. Ian M Says:

    Thanks! Slightly embarrassed it took so long for me to get to him. Too busy with all the American writers where all the ‘action’ seemed to be. I’m lucky to work with a well-established conservation group that specialises in restoring derelict coppice for commercial contractors to take on here in Surrey. I still have reservations about the practice (these days if something wasn’t around before the Neolithic I struggle to maintain my interest ;)), but I’m happy to learn from those who know about it, as their understanding of woodland ecology goes a darn sight deeper than mine. Plus you can’t beat working in ancient woodland, especially with a nice fire going… I see from your pages that you have some experience of it too?

    all best,
    Ian

  10. Where I’ve been « Frequently Found Growing On Disturbed Ground Says:

    [...] boy, this was ages ago) – My old ‘Lessons From Burdock‘ post was published on the Dark Mountain website and subsequently on Energy Bulletin with a [...]

  11. dazinism Says:

    I tried a few times to post this comment on the Dark Mountain repost of this post without any luck

    http://dark-mountain.net/uncategorized/lessons-from-burdock/

    so I post here instead

    Over the period of seasonal celebration I was reading through a load of tabs I have had open on my browser for some time. One was this post, which I loved, along with the following discussion. One of the next tabs I read was this page – I found it while doing research on seed sharing (the author organised a permaculture seed share for some years).
    Apparently written 20 years ago. Ties in nicely with the discussion at the Dark Mountain reproduction of this post :-)

    http://mountaingardensherbs.com/paradise.html

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