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Lessons from Burdock

When people find out that I forage a lot for wild foods and engage me in anything more than a cursory discussion on the subject, I’m often surprised by how quickly they jump to the question of whether it would be possible to subsist entirely off plants gathered in this way. Sometimes they use this as a fast-track to denial - ‘you can’t feed a family on weeds, so why bother?’ – while other times, at the other end of the all-or-nothing spectrum, you can see a utopian vision of freedom invading their imaginations in a heartbeat.

Usually, in these hyper-individualistic times, they then want to know how to do it for themselves, perhaps imagining it would help them in a survival situation – giving them a competitive edge over the panicked hordes in a zombie apocalypse – or allow them to retreat into the woods away from any contact with society. Sometimes they want to know if hunting and gathering could sustain a global population of 6 to 7 billion human beings (again this often functions as a dismissal of the whole concept of gathering wild foods).

Only rarely do they ask about specifics relating to their present situation: what’s available for harvest in their immediate surroundings; what’s a good plant to heal an ailment they or a friend or family member are suffering from; what’s a good recipe for including a new plant in their diet, etc. Only rarely do they show signs of a slow-burn commitment to expanding their knowledge and practice over the years in a considered attempt to improve the quality of everyday life both for themselves and for those around them.

But the more I learn about plants, and the more I gain practical, first-hand experience of how they can support me in my dietary, nutritional, medicinal and even spiritual needs, the less I find myself caring about the big, worldwide questions or about driving at maximum speed towards 100% pure, personal self-sufficiency. I’m already on my way. I can intensify my efforts if I want to get there quicker, but really, what’s the rush? It’s unrealistic to expect somebody to turn all their inherited culture’s ways upside down in one lifetime. I do what I can in my given circumstances.

In the meantime I needn’t fall prey to the new religious guilts of carbon footprints and hosepipe bans (which come with the implied message that all human activities are inherently destructive and suggest that the only responsible course is to minimise the ‘impact’ as much as possible) because I know that it’s possible for human beings to act in ways that actually benefit other plant and animal species while satisfying our own needs in a mutually supporting relationship. Working slowly to maximise my impact in this way feels about a million times better than the self-loathing embedded in most contemporary environmentalism.

Here are some specific experiences with a specific plant that led me to these conclusions.

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 which 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 identified 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! Happily the burning died down within a couple of hours, but it was still noticeably sore for the following two days.

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

It turns out that 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 second year stalks and remaining sticky burrs to indicate where I was most likely to find a community of younger plants poking through. 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 the second image above), 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. 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. 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, 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 with 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† 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 - 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 you will be repaid in full.

This year, as part of my herbal apprenticeship, I had it 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 and 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 (wild garlic) 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.

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. 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 afterwards. 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? 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, nobody complained, and people 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.

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. 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. As if it’s angry about being exposed to the air. The taste is more pleasant – vaguely nutty and radishy raw, but blander when cooked.

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. PFAF go into some of the other edible uses for the aboveground parts. I’ve experimented with their suggestion to germinate the dark-brown woody seeds and eat them like bean-sprouts. They are actually quite nice this way – the taste resembles that of the older leaves, but takes a week-or-so to get to their shocking, bitter potency.

Common burdock/gobou (source)

Why is burdock root not known as a foodstuff in Britain (unless you count the dandelion and burdock drink, which most often contains only artificial flavourings)? Under the name gobō it is well-known in Japan (Masanobu Fukuoka grew it ‘semi-wild’ in his orchards), where they often cook it with pork, fry it with carrots or even snack on it like crisps. Perhaps chronic famines compelled the Japanese and other Asian culinary traditions to diversify their foodbase away from simple grains, as happened in France (and surely during earlier times in Britain). Or maybe they never saw any reason to totally supplant and forget earlier subsistence strategies from the times before intensive agriculture. Either way we’ve not been so lucky here. As Ray Mears & Gordon Hillman wrote in Wild Food, the book accompanying the BBC series:

Roots were an extremely important food source for our ancestors. In Britain we have more than 90 indigenous species of edible root of which most were probably used by the combined populations across the country. Even an individual band of hunter-gatherers probably used 20-30 species in the course of their annual round. Compare this to our present-day diet, in which root foods are dominated by a single introduced species – the potato – and in which our cultivated carrots, turnips, swedes and radishes were probably much later additions, domesticated in the Mediterranean Basin from where they were introduced into Britain, although wild forms were native here. The bland taste of these domestic forms probably appeals to a lot of palates in contrast to the broad range of distinctive and often strong flavours offered by wild roots. (pp.80-1)

I’ve wondered if, in the days before fossil fuels, the civilised/imperial culture put a premium on energy density in the foods it chose to cultivate, especially the carb-heavy grain staples. These provided a coarse fuel for the greatest possible amount of work from the slave classes of manual labourers and domesticated farm animals (neither of which are particularly well adapted to the food), and later fed the armies which would spread this way of life through conquest of neighbouring territories. This appears to have been the case with the potato which, freeze-dried and stored over long periods in the form of ‘chuño’, originally underpinned the Inca empire and was subsequently adopted by Spanish conquistadors, mainly because it ‘proved a convenient food for slaves in the Spanish silver mines and sailors on the Spanish galleons’ (link). Whenever I’ve done work that requires a lot of physical exertion I’ve found that I need bulky foods like bread, pasta or porridge to sustain the effort employers expect from me.

But then, why choose these field crops to cultivate as staples instead of tree crops like oak, hazel or chestnut, or wetland crops like reedmace – yields of which have been shown to compare favourably to grain harvests, and which don’t require the huge energy inputs of deforestation, drainage or annual tillage of the soil? As Patrick Whitefield has written:

No-one went to the trouble to invent a northern form of agriculture using the indigenous edible plants. If they had, the landscape might look very different now, perhaps more like the native wildwood and less like an imitation of the south-west Asian steppe. (The Living Landscape, p.85)

Others report that foods rich in animal fats and protein give just as much – if not more – energy to humans than starchy foods. For example, ‘Less than two pounds of pemmican [a mixture of dried meat and saturated fat from buffalo] per day could sustain a man doing hard physical labor. The ratio of fat to protein in pemmican was 80%-20%.’ Perhaps if the first Neolithic farmers and the subsequent waves of invaders hadn’t been so aggressive in imposing their foreign plant and animal domesticates, Britons would still be eating foods like nuts, berries, tuberous roots, fish, and meat from woodland animals and wildfowl. This would undoubtedly result in better human health as well as being more appropriate to the indigenous ecology. I don’t see why burdock wouldn’t fit into that mix.

Lesson 4: A plant may give you energy, but what do you need that energy for? If some start to harness it in a bid to concentrate and increase their power, using you as the tool (or weapon) through which it is channeled, then maybe you had best leave that plant, like the fossil fuels, safely in the ground.

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

Ian M’s blog can be found here.

* – Psalm 73
** – Daniel 5 (dunno why all these biblical references were springing to mind – maybe because I originally wrote this during Lent?)
† – 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.
‡ – 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.’

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