Betsy Miller, MS, CNS, LDN
This post is an excerpt from a longer essay I wrote on burdock for the class I taught at this year’s Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference in New Mexico. Burdock is one of the first plants that I cultivated a relationship with as an herbalist, and remains one of my closest plant allies in both my clinical practice and personal care. If you would like to try the burdock syrup that I make, it is delish!
Burdock is a lovely biennial plant that is common across most of the United States. The long taproot, sometimes up to two to three feet in length, is the part most commonly harvested by herbalists and foragers for medicine and/or food, however the leaves and seed have great merit too. The root is best harvested mid-summer of its first year (I prefer harvesting anytime between Summer Solstice and end of July) or by the spring of the second year before the new shoots emerge; if harvested too late into the second year the root might have already begun to rot. The leaves can be harvested throughout the summer too, to be either dried or used fresh; the young fresh leaves are also delicious steamed or sautéed, or made into a yummy pesto with basil and nettles. If I am not going to use the leaves right away, but want to have them on-hand for poultices, I will roll them up and store them in glass jars of apple cider vinegar. They make great poultices for kitchen burns (I add a bit of aloe- always growing in my kitchen- as well as a few drops of lavender essential oil), bruises, sprains or strains. The seed I typically harvest as soon as they form, which in my area (Northern Virginia) tends to be mid-to-late fall, and prefer to tincture immediately. The stem in late spring, when it is about a foot tall, is also delicious steamed, sautéed or pickled.
Sometimes I feel that burdock doesn’t get enough credit or attention because it can be such a common, gentle and food-like medicine. While it is those things, the subtle actions I have experienced and observed while using this plant have guaranteed it a permanent place in my materia media. There are plants that push the mind and body, and plants that nudge; burdock, particularly the root, is the latter. This plant winds its way through our gut, our blood and our lymph, nudging the system back in the direction of homeostasis. It is innately high in many vitamins and minerals, and enhances the body’s ability to derive nutrition from food- in a sense, giving the body a fish and teaching it how to fish. In this situation, as with most “tonic” herbs, burdock functions best when taken over long periods of time, as both food and tea. As many ways as this plant can be consumed, it should be. This is where I see the traditional use of burdock as a ‘blood purifier’ most clearly (although I prefer the term nourisher- I don’t find the concept of dirty or impure blood very conducive to a healing story); it can help restore function to those organs most challenged by the metabolic byproducts of disease (liver, kidneys, lymph).
Even in the non-convalescing individual, this is such a benefit- eliminatory organs not functioning at their highest level will result, overtime, in the accumulation of waste products, both natural metabolic byproducts and toxins from our food and the environment. This would be like never taking your car to get the oil changed- it becomes clogged, the engine can’t run efficiently, and eventually engine parts will begin to wear out and fail completely. The same process happens in our bodies if they become bogged down with the weight of accumulating waste products; I see this especially in individuals eating a less than optimal diet, living a sedentary lifestyle that stagnates lymph flow, or are simply prone to stuckness based on constitution; eventually we start to feel not well; not sick exactly, but we know something just isn’t quite right inside. Enter burdock- that taproot that can fight its way through concrete, that flourishes by the side of the road despite fuel runoff, that thrives in areas of disruption, and winds its way through our internal sludge and stuckness to breathe life back into our tissues that have been so starved for blood and nourishment. In this manner, burdock doesn’t take over the functioning of our body and organs- it facilitates the communication and cooperation necessary for our digestive, lymphatic, endocrine and eliminatory organs to keep us alive and well. When our body’s cells, tissues, organs and systems are working in coordination with each other, daily life inside and out becomes a complexly choreographed dance, rather than a struggle.
One of the ways I most adore burdock, and have found burdock to bring about profound change, is in its ability to draw up things- emotions, traumas, illness- that are so deeply hidden we may not even know they are there. When I was first studying plant medicine, a teacher described burdock as being a “pirate plant,” because it’s long tap root can dig deep into the earth to find water and nutrients before the other plants even have a chance; this is how I have seen the plant work its magic time and time again in clients who have buried experience so deep inside themselves that the fortress seems impenetrable. When taken daily, even in small amounts, burdock seems able to access those deeply guarded recesses of the soul, winding its way through our layers and gently coaxing out our ability to self-regulate and heal. Breaching that fortress is often the most terrifying thing most of us will attempt, and having the deep-rootedness of burdock as an ally creates a safe space for that work to happen, almost as if the root acts as a string that we can follow back out of the maze of our own emotion and experience. I choose the root in this picture because while the seed can reach those deep places, it often does so much more quickly and can bring us to a head before we’re ready to get there. The root, on the other hand, shows us the way and lets us take our own time in getting there.
Be sure to check out more about Betsy by visiting her webpage and also be sure to enjoy the class Herbal Medicine for the New Enthusiast in honor of our Customer Appreciation Month that is Free on The Dancing Herbalist’s website, co-taught between Jillian and Betsy.