One of my herb teachers didn't really teach us about herbs. She said, Here's good books, look 'em up.
But then she taught us herbs. She taught us how to see them and hear them and feel them. We had to do our own research and learned how to use those books, since Herbalists talk in their own language sometimes. And she taught us what she had learned herself, from the herbs.
This is how I feel about many of my favorite plants. There are great herbals out there, written by insightful people. There are repetitious herbals too, full of parroted information, some from long ago. And there are some wacky books, pieced together by people or publishers who wouldn't know an Artichoke from an Arnica. Instead of reinventing the herbal wheel, here are my herbal library favorites,, and I'll share what I've learned about these herbs myself.
Burdock root (Arctium lappa) is also known by the Japanese name Gobo, and that's usually how I get mine- 3 or 4 roots about the thickness of medium carrots that are at least 3 feet long, shrink wrapped together at the local Asian market as Gobo. (It's also sold dried, from Mountain Rose and Herbiary.) They are beige, darker than parsnips, with slightly darker cores.
Usually I either cut them into rounds and simmer them in a stock pot of water for 24 hours or so, or I'll make ribbons with a potato peeler and stir fry them. Either way, I've found they oxidize and turn brown quickly once they're peeled, but this doesn't affect anything.
The taste of Burdock was unexpected the first time I had it. Burdock is generally considered "a Liver herb", in that it helps your liver (a vague and squiffy description!) Most of the time "liver herbs" are bitters, a topic I discussed here. But not Burdock.
Burdock is sweet, in the herbal tradition that refers not to sugary, syrupy, cloying sweetness, but to nourishing, grounding, and satisfying. Homemade chicken soup, freshly cooked rice, and nuts are other savory foods that fit this description, in my mind.
This makes me think about the "Liver" attributes, and about its infamous burrs.
If you've ever walked the forest's edge, you've probably met Burdock. It's a biennial, which means it grows low and leafy the first year, then huge and sprawling to send out seeds the second year. First year plants are the ones harvested for the roots, which grow large to help it survive winter. I've heard of people digging Burdock roots 10-14 feet long, and the accompanying pits they have to fill back in after! First year Burdock leaves are often quite huge too, and I've seen them tied on heads as makeshift hats- it's a great look.
Second year plants grow UP. Last summer I saw one several feet taller than me (pics below don't really do it justice, I was holding my camera up high). This is when we get burrs. Little round globes of hooks that inspired Velcro, tangle everrrrrything that comes near, and apparently contain seeds that are also medicinal- though whoever puts themselves through the trouble of harvesting them might be a little, um, devoted.
The fierce presentation of Burdock- massive leaves, aggressive burrs, long taproots- really belies its taste and energy. It puts me in mind of Mrs. Rachel Lynde.
Have you read Anne of Green Gables? (If not, you are missing out!) Mrs. Rachel Lynde is big, outspoken, in everyone's business, and the first one to deliver a handmade blanket to a new baby or a meal to a sick family.
The Liver has so many jobs and responsibilities, and sometimes its filtering duties get neglected. This leads to rashes, breakouts, and lots of other skin and joint issues as toxins and debris build up in the blood and are pushed out through the skin- think of Lucy in the chocolate factory, or water spilling over a levy.
Rather than truly stimulating the Liver like other traditional bitter herbs, I think Burdock is in the blood doing the dishes and the laundry, so to speak. I feel like truly bitter herbs give the Liver a kick in the pants, which can be very helpful, whereas Burdock quietly comes over and mows your lawn when you've just got too much else on your plate.
It's an excellent gentle tonic, a concept Western medicine is missing but which means to help the body mend, rebuild, and return to healthy normal functioning. Very often our Western baseline test is "Can I function?" Long term help from Burdock would help change that question to, "Am I at the top of my game?" which many people haven't felt in so long I wonder if they'd recognize it.
Here's what it looks like:
You + coffee = wired (from caffeine) + poop (from bitter)
This is what our Western expectations are. Fast, concrete results and damn the caffeine addiction!
You + Burdock= You
No noticeable change today, or tomorrow. But months from now someone will comment on your clear skin, your glowing vitality, and you'll think- It must be all the Burdock! You won't have noticed the gradual improvement in your skin, or stress management, or ability to digest rich foods or recover from excess sugar or alcohol. It's just gotten better.
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Fun Fact: I'm an herbalist and a movement coach. Not a doctor, or a pharmacist, and not pretending to be one on TV.
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