Blog Interrupted

Today’s blog post was supposed to be about pawpaw quick bread. See, I recently decided to refocus my foraging / cooking / recipes on “foods normal people eat”, rather than exotic concoctions with multiple steps and fancy ingredients. If I want more people – including my family – to eat wild food, then back-to-basics type recipes seem a solid bet. Most folks are familiar with banana bread or zucchini bread, so it’s only a small step to pawpaw bread. Maybe dressed up with maple candied black walnuts or a Meyer lemon glaze. Optional, of course.

And then, I wrecked my shoulder. Well, technically, I think it’s my “transverse humeral ligament”, and now my arm hangs in a sling except for brief stolen seconds at the computer, with an ergonomic keyboard in my lap for minimal arm exertion. Mixing wet ingredients into dry ingredients with a wooden spoon? Right out of the question.

Instead, I shall philosophize further on burdock, which I spotlighted in a post a few weeks ago.

Burdock is one of those plants for which you can forage in the winter. Not that you’ll necessarily be able to dig up those roots, mind you – not once the ground has frozen solid. But the scraggly stalks with the spiky seeds reveal the root’s location for thawing spells or harvest once spring arrives.

Burdock burs in the winter
Burdock burs in the winter

Many people think burdock’s role as a medicinal plant overshadows its use as a food, and it has a long history in eastern medicine. The nice thing about harvesting burdock root for medicinal use? It doesn’t matter whether the root is tough, scraggly, broken off too high, hollow inside, or suffering any other condition which might make it inedible. We use it to make teas or tinctures, either of which ends with the root chunks being discarded once the medicinal properties are extracted.

Of course, these days the first step in research is always “perform an internet search”, and the top result for burdock root tea is this article, which (among other things) warns the reader to never collect burdock from the wild. Oops? (I’m baffled by the suggestion that it could be confused for belladona, and this isn’t the only site to say that.) My bigger concern is the potential for toxic chemicals to be stored in the roots, like industrial agriculture run off or chemicals from roadways, depending on the location of the plant.

The other possible problem with foraging burdock for medicinal uses: the burdock might not, in fact, be great burdock (A. lappa), but rather A. minus or common burdock. I have been unable to find any information confirming they have similar medical properties. I mean, maybe they do, but all the studies about the health effects of burdock have focused on A. lappa.

Many authors claim you can distinguish these two varieties based on the overall size of the plant, but Sam Thayer provides more reliable guidance in the description of the leaves, stems and arrangement of the flowers. In the winter time, I only had the dry, dead stalks to go on. Based on the size and tight clustering of the burs in my photo above, chances are I actually have A. minus growing in my yard.


As a side note, I wonder if that’s why I’ve always struggled to forage the flowering stems. So many authors swear they are the best part of the burdock to eat, yet I’ve never managed to gather anything edible from them. Even my most recent attempt this past summer ended unpleasantly, despite harvesting the stalks even smaller than previous years.

A fistful of burdock flowering stalks
A fistful of burdock flowering stalks

So, if you aren’t sure the plant is A. lappa, or if it is growing in a location that may be contaminated with toxins (or if the ground is frozen solid), you can generally find dried burdock root in bulk at local health food stores, or online. There are also preblended tea options, and even powdered / pill forms.

All parts of the (greater) burdock plant can be used medicinally but the roots in particular are favored for detoxifying the body, supporting the lymphatic and circulatory systems, clearing skin conditions, and even helping balance blood sugar. Evidence even suggests that burdock root might have anti-cancer properties as well. It’s also high in antioxidants and important nutrients because the roots can pull from so deep in the soil.

Among other things, burdock root tea can act as an anti-inflammatory. Which suddenly interests me (and my shoulder) a lot! Inflammation in an injured area can inhibit blood flow and slow healing. Drinking burdock tea three times a day for several months was shown to help with even degenerative conditions such as osteoarthritis. I decided to give it a try… though with store bought rather than wild foraged burdock root.

Burdock tea offers many different health benefits
Burdock tea offers many different health benefits

(It is also important to note that burdock root tea is a diuretic (part of how it helps clear toxins out of the body), so avoid it if you are taking diuretic prescription medications like “water pills”. Also, please remember that I am not a medical professional and none of these health statements have been approved by the FDA and you should always consult a physician before using herbal medicine.)

I chose to follow the same recipe and approach described here, namely making a three-drink batch in the morning and drinking the tea throughout the day. Will it work? Hopefully! Of course, I’m also resting the joint, massaging it gently, and alternating hot and cold therapy. I would love to use a stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) tincture compress as well, since it also holds healing powers for injured joints and muscles. Unfortunately we haven’t reached stinging nettle season yet!

(And yes, I’m waiting on an appointment with an orthopedist and an order for an MRI… I’m not solely self-treating. But given the “miracle” of modern health insurance, we’ll see how the western medical approach will play out for me.)

Have you tried burdock root tea, for medicinal purposes or other reasons? I’d love to hear about it!

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