Mighty Burdock

My second date with Hildegard in the herb garden had us digging up burdock. This time, I had done lots of homework beforehand, including reading up on burdock in Susun Weed’s fantastic book ‘Healing Wise’, and locating and digging some up on our farm. ‘Mighty Burdock’ is Weed’s moniker and she includes a charming section where the burdock plant talks to you like some tough guy with a kindly heart.

You’ve seen burdock, even if you didn’t know it. Huge, oblong leaves spreading out in a rosette close to the ground, and in the second year producing a tall flower stalk with smaller leaves that then makes obnoxious burrs in the fall that are the bane of dog and sheep owners. Burdock likes moist, rocky soil, and plenty of sun, and is a likely suspect on roadsides and unkempt meadows. The first year plants (it’s a biennial) look a lot like rhubarb.

burdock plant

When I arrived in Hildegard’s burdock patch, I was surprised to find that the plants were quite different from the ones I had dug up on our farm. Much bigger leaves (as much as 3 feet long!) and thicker stems. Turns out there are two primary species, Arctium lappa and Arctium minus, as well as a bunch of cross-breeds, but they’re all basically the same thing.  Her patch was extensive and impressive, though a number of the plants had gotten too moist in recent rains and the roots were rotten.

As with many useful herbs, different parts of the burdock are best harvested at different times. The leaves and stalks are good in the spring (though I found some of the stalks sweet and tasty even this late), while the roots are best gotten in the fall from 1st year plants, and the seeds are only to be had from 2nd year plants in the fall. I was also fascinated to learn that burdock has a rhythmic pattern which follows the moon: at the full moon more of its energies travel to the stalks and leaves, while during the new moon the roots are more potent. Since we were harvesting roots, we waited for the new moon.

burdock burr and root

roots and seed pods

The roots we pulled out had a delicious, earthy, turnipy smell, and to my delight they were very tasty raw. Since we had a lot, we took some of them in and cooked them in a bit of water. Even yummier! This is definitely something to keep in mind for fall root veggie dishes.

burdock and squash ferment

stewed burdock root and summer squash ferment

But what about the medicinal qualities of burdock? Turns out this is one of the heroes of the herbal medicine cabinet. Susun Weed tells us that it works the most on the lymph, sweat, and oil glands, but also on the liver, lungs, kidneys, stomach, uterus, and joints. It’s a nourishing tonic, so it’s a great thing to take now and then just to keep your whole system running smoothly. And it’s chock full of vitamins and minerals. Burdock is also great for skin care and wound healing, as well as cooling, both physical fevers and emotional heat. It’s only not recommended for people who are already prone to fatigue and cold.

burdock root sliced

sliced roots – interestingly different colours from different plants

Burdock has been a standby in the herbal repertoire of healers since the Middle Ages in Europe, when it was especially used as a diuretic and blood purifier. Chinese and Indian doctors have traditionally used it for chest conditions, such as colds and flus and coughs. Some Native American tribes (it seems to have been introduced with the first European settlers) made burdock root candy for the winter and used it for rheumatism and as a blood purifier. And the inventor of velcro was inspired by the hooks of the burdock burr!

opening burdock burr

opening a burr to get the seeds out

I leave you with this recipe from the blog of Meghan Telpner:

Burdock Root Soup

1/2 cup burdock root, sliced
2 carrots, sliced
1 sweet potato, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
2 broccoli stalks, coarsely chopped
3 celery stalks, sliced
1 cup or 1/4 cauliflower, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup fennel, sliced
2 beets, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1/2 onion, chopped
1-2 inches of fresh ginger root, chopped fine
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
2 tsp turmeric
2 tsp coriander, ground
2 tsp cumin seeds, ground
1 tsp cinnamon, ground
sea salt to taste

  • Dump all ingredients into a pot
  • Simmer for 30-45 mins
  • Leave chunky or blend. I left half chunky and blended the other half to make it creamy.


Ground Ivy

Life has been pushing me in the direction of herbal medicine lately. A gentle nudge, some not-so-subtle hints, a full-on shove. So at last I am resisting no longer and taking advantage of the wealth of knowledge and opportunity laid before me to begin this journey of discovery.

At Twin Oaks, the community just up the road from and parent to Acorn, where I now live, the beautiful, sprawling herb garden has been run by the wise and knowledgeable Hildegard for many a year. And so I have thrown myself at the feet of Hildegard as a student to absorb all that she might be willing to teach me. In this blog I intend to document my lessons, that I might better cement them for myself and also share them with you, gentle reader.

Just a small part of Hildegard’s magnificent herb garden
Just a small part of Twin Oaks’ magnificent herb garden

In our first class, we learned about Ground Ivy, also known as Creeping Charlie, and a host of other names.

Heart shaped leaves and pretty purple flowers
Heart shaped leaves and pretty purple flowers

Hildegard was full of praise for this pretty ground cover. Native to Europe and Southwestern Asia, it grows enthusiastically in most of North America and can be very effective in keeping out other weeds. It clings to the earth but lightly, making it easy to rake up and compost, and Hildegard said she was able to make an equal volume of rich soil out of a pile of it. It thrives in shade, but also handles sun well, so you can put it just about anywhere – but be careful in woodlands as this invasive can choke out native wildflowers.

Ground Ivy has been used medicinally and culinarily for thousands of years. It’s full of vitamin C and Hildegard told me she recently made a tea with loads of fresh ground ivy, elderberries, and holy basil and fed copious amounts of it for three days straight to a visitor with bad cold, who then made an astonishing and speedy recovery.

We’ve all been there - yuck!
We’ve all been there – yuck!

We wandered around the garden looking at many patches of Ground Ivy to pick the very nicest. Recent rains had the plants in lower lying areas looking a little yellowish. Finally we settled on a big patch on higher ground. Hildegard showed me how to snip the leaves with scissors rather than tearing or pinching them up, which traumatises the plants more. We filled up a basket and then headed back to the tiny room she uses for processing tinctures.

Here we stuffed the leaves tightly into a small mason jar, to about an inch from the top, reaching in with scissors to cut them up a bit. Then we poured in vodka nearly to the top, put a piece of plastic over the mouth of the jar, and screwed on the lid. (The plastic is there to keep the alcohol from being in contact with the metal of the lid.) Now it will sit for at least six weeks, drawing out the valuable compounds from the ground ivy to make a tincture which will allow us access to their medicinal properties whenever we feel the need of them.

Hildegard mentioned that whenever possible she likes to use medicinal herbs fresh, so when I got home I harvested another jarful of ground ivy and made myself a tea from the fresh leaves. I, however, found its taste odd and slightly nauseating, so I think I’ll stick with adding the tincture to other things.

A little more research on my own told me that besides being chock full of vitamin C (it proved useful in curing scurvy), ground ivy can be used as a substitute for animal rennet in cheese making, and that the Saxons used it in brewing beer before hops were introduced. The 16th century herbalist John Gerard called it the most excellent medicine in the world for eye ailments, and also recommended it for sciatica, back pain, as a diuretic, an astringent, and a stimulant. While these claims are not perhaps all able to be substantiated, it certainly seems like this prolific little creeper is an excellent addition to one’s herbal medicine cabinet.


Growing Grain and Making Bread

Farm and Sparrow bakery in Candler, NC buys grain – especially Turkey Red hard winter wheat – from farmers, and grinds it to make flour, bread, and pastries. Jul2015 (442) oven at Farm and Sparrow bakery small

Ken and I visited Farm and Sparrow on our summer road trip, which we’ve also written about in posts about seed growers, breeders, and research stations, and most recently, using home-grown grain and why I care about locally grown grain.

The crew of Farm and Sparrow bakes bread and pastries in a wood-fired brick oven.  They sell to a local pizzeria as well as directly to consumers at several markets in nearby Asheville.  We greatly enjoyed the powerful fragrance of fresh flour in the milling room and the taste of their Heirloom Grit bread.

We also visited two of the farms that Farm and Sparrow buys from.Jul2015 (511) at Dayspring Farm small
DaySpring Farms in Commerce, Georgia is operated by Murray Brett and his son Nathan.  They grow Turkey Red wheat as well as NuEast hard red winter wheat, Appalachian hard white winter wheat, canola, corn, cowpeas, dry beans, and fresh vegetables. During our visit we picked up the Turkey Red wheat seed we’re now selling.  Murray and Nathan are enthusiastic about growing corn and legume seed crops for us in the future, and we hope to line them up with some crops next year.

The last stop of our two-week road trip was Looking Back Farm in the northeast corner of North Carolina.  There, Kenny Haines and his son Ben grow corn, wheat, cowpeas, and soybeans, much of it for Anson Mills. Jul2015 (744) at Looking Back farm small

They also do soybean trials for the Rural Advancement Foundation International.  Kenny has been growing organically since 1987, long before organic food was popular.  His wife was a nurse and insisted that their sons not be exposed to pesticides.

Looking Back Farm was one of the largest farms we visited on our trip.  They farm 350 acres, all by themselves, with more and more help from Ben’s sons.  They’re precision tractor operators, planting and weeding and harvesting all their crops with their equipment.  Like many of the farms we visited, they scale their work to their family’s labor, since it’s hard to find skilled farm workers who’ll commit to the work and the farm.

When we had the opportunity a couple years ago, we were happy to buy some Iron and Clay pea seeds from them, but generally they grow no less than 10 acres of any crop.   Southern Exposure’s inventories are small enough so that it would only make sense for them to grow seed for us if they were also growing the same crop for food or seed for someone else.

We asked David Bauer of Farm and Sparrow if Aug2015 (639) At Sub Rosa bakery, Richmond smallany other bakeries also mill grain and buy from farmers.  He mentioned Sub Rosa bakery in Richmond, VA.  When I visited Sub Rosa, baker Evrim Dogu was making Polenta bread with Bloody Butcher corn from our neighbor William Hale, who also grows seed for us.  The sourdough loaf we bought was very crusty on the outside and very creamy on the inside.  I usually prefer a more even-textured bread, but found this loaf deeply satisfying.Aug2015 (607) At Sub Rosa bakery, Richmond small

Saving the Past for the Future