Burdock or Gobo - Forgotten, Rare, and Less-Known Vegetables - A Curious History of Vegetables: Aphrodisiacal and Healing Properties, Folk Tales, Garden Tips, and Recipes - Wolf D. Storl

A Curious History of Vegetables: Aphrodisiacal and Healing Properties, Folk Tales, Garden Tips, and Recipes - Wolf D. Storl (2016)

Forgotten, Rare, and Less-Known Vegetables

“Business as usual.” This adage is as true in the garden as it is in the kitchen. As creatures of habit, most gardeners doggedly sow and plant the same vegetables they’ve always sown. This despite the fact that the number of less-known vegetables ideal for the garden is so plentiful it could fill a book of its own. Here follow just a scattering of the forgotten vegetables I’ve grown at one time or another. They are all compatible with a typical northern climate, such as is found in northern Europe and most of North America.

Burdock or Gobo (Arctium lappa var. edule)

Family: Compositae: composite, daisy, or sunflower family

Other Names: bardane, smaller burdock, clotbur, cockle-button, cuckoo-button, hardock

Healing Properties: cleanses blood, lowers cholesterol, inhibits fungi and bacteria, supports liver and gall bladder, promotes urination (diuretic)

Tea from roots: promotes hair growth

Symbolic Meaning: bear plant, dedicated to Germanic Donar, or Thor, the “divine bear”; wards off lightening; fickle love (language of flowers)

Planetary Affiliation: Venus, Jupiter

Many have encountered wild burdock, whether they realize it or not. Though a native of the Old World, wild burdock has become a widespread invasive weed in the northern areas of North America. It is a “bear” among plants. (There’s more on that to come.) It has leaves like elephant ears, a mighty taproot, and a flower head with many barbs. Many a girl has made acquaintance with hazelnut-sized burdock fruits when naughty boys tossed them into their hair and these capsules have been the undoing of many a long-haired dog and cat. But how many know that this plant with the nasty burrs is both healing and delicious? In eastern Asia—China, Java, and especially Japan—a cultivated form of the plant is highly valued for its roots and young spring shoots. The gobo or takinogawa is a favorite vegetable of the Japanese, so much so that it’s cultivated on large, industrial plantations in order to keep up with the demand. The root—which, grown in loose, well-fertilized soil, can reach the size of a baseball bat—has a strong, nutty taste. In the “land of the rising sun,” as the Japanese fondly call their country, the vegetable is added to soups, deep-fried as tempura, or mixed with sea weed, carrots, and other vegetables and sautéed in sesame oil, then seasoned with ginger and soy sauce. Gobo goes very well with rice and fish dishes. The young shoots taste similar to cardoon (an edible thistle plant); as they are rather bitter, they call for the right kind of sauce to make them tasty. In Russia a “Taiga stew” is made of two parts finely chopped burdock and one part sour dock. The Russians even use burdock leaves in soups and purées, but as they are very bitter they’re difficult for Western taste to get used to (Koschtschejew 1990, 206).

Illustration 87. Burdock root

Burdock root is very nutritious. It contains biotin, protein, vitamins C, B1, B6, B12 and E, and many minerals, including potash, sulfur, silica, and manganese. Like many composites, the carbohydrates in the plant are mainly made of inulin, which makes the root ideal for a sugar diabetes diet.

Burdock sprouts and grows quickly. And while the plant needs a lot of room and soil that is not compacted, its plants are very pest-resistant. As heavy feeders they appreciate plenty of compost as fertilizer. The roots of the biennial plant are harvested in the fall of the first year or in the spring of the second year; they are best three or four months after sowing, as then they are especially tender. In the second year they shoot to flower and seed, and the roots become too woody to eat. Harvesting these roots is the biggest challenge for the gardener. They can grow up to three feet long and break easily—to harvest them one must dig a deep trench next to the row and then carefully take the root out. This works best after it has rained and the soil is moist and loose. In Japan the roots are grown in wooden boxes; for the harvest one simply needs to lower the sides of the box. The roots can be stored very well in a sand heap. (Note: the black rind should be peeled off before cooking.)

Germanics and Celts of olden times regarded wild burdock as a plant belonging to the bear. Bear plants are especially big (hogweed, for example), mighty in healing (such as clubmoss, bear’s garlic, or bearberry), or very hairy (such as the roots of meu [Meum athamanticum] or licorice root [Ligusticum] or bear’s medicine). The Germanics dedicated the plant to their favorite god, Thor, the god of thunder and lightning; just like the burdock, Thor is a healer: big and strong and hirsute. Understandably, it was believed that the plant could help hair grow. In Europe one can still buy burdock root oil that (used externally) is not only good for hair but also for rheumatism and joint and skin ailments.1 The famous herbalist Maria Treben (1907-1991) described how, having lost a lot of hair as a young girl, she was advised by an elderly woman to boil burdock roots and wash her hair with the water. She wrote that after several washings her hair grew back so thick she could hardly brush it (Treben 2009, 130).

Illustration 88. Thor, “the godly bear,” for whom burdock is a sacred plant

As the burdock was associated with the thunder god, Thor, it was called “Toennersbladen” (thunder leaf) in Northern Germany, where it was hung from roof gables to protect houses from lightning. Since Thor was known to slay all kinds of “worms” and “snakes” that cause disease, many rituals were practiced asking for his help. When requesting aid against maggots plaguing animals, for example, a supplicant would approach a burdock plant clutching a rock in one hand. Without speaking, the petitioner would think the following: Burdock, I am strangling you. Burdock, I won’t let go of you until the maggots have let go of the animal.

As a majestic bear plant, the burdock truly has the signature of regal Jupiter, but Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) and other astrological doctors put it medically under the rule of Venus. The juice of the leaves was used as a diuretic, and a tea made of the seeds was given for urinary stones. In addition a tea of the roots and leaves was made for venereal diseases—syphilis raged in Culpeper’s time—and for cleansing the blood. Today phytotherapists would agree: the whole plant activates gall bladder secretion and is both diuretic and sudorific, similar to—or even better than—sarsaparilla imported from South America. By cleansing the kidneys and skin, tea of burdock taken over a stretch of time helps cure gout as well as syphilitic and scrofula conditions. In addition the plant supports liver and gall bladder functions—in this case through Jupiter’s influence. Thanks to its polyacetylene content, the plant also has bacteriostatic and fungicidal properties; as such the tea can be used externally for acne and boils and internally for flushing out toxic substances and uric acid, as well as for curing bladder infections and spleen, kidney, and liver ailments. Similarly, lupus can be treated internally with burdock tea and externally with burdock salve. The powdered root helps treat chemical poisoning. Skin tumors used to be treated with crushed leaves. Modern research has shown that all of the plant parts are effective in helping combat cancer (Mabey 1993, 41).

Just as in ancient times in the Old World, for the Native Americans, the bear was believed to be the “medicine man amongst the animals.” A Dakota medicine man is quoted as saying: “The bear is quick-tempered and is fierce in many ways, but he is our herbal teacher. Whoever dreams of a bear will become a healer.” As far as its healing properties go, burdock absolutely deserves its botanical name, “Arctium lappa” (Greek arktos = bear; Celtic lapp = paw). Since native peoples also believed that such a powerful plant was capable of driving off the devil, for protection burrs were sometimes braided into a cow’s tail or put in one’s own hair.

In France burdock is called “bouton de soldat” because soldiers used to replace lost buttons with burrs—a practice that became the model for the hook and loop fastener commonly known as Velcro. And in the language of flowers, burdock stands for “inconsistent love”—because it will cling to anyone.


Burdock-Tomato Salad with Almond Dressing and Burdock-Snake Bread ✵ 4 SERVINGS

SALAD: 1 cup (225 grams) burdock roots, stems, and leaves, cut into bite-sized pieces ✵ 3 large tomatoes, sliced ¼ inch thick ✵ DRESSING: 1 tablespoon almond paste ✵ 3 ounces (50 milliliters) vegetable broth ✵ 1 tablespoon red wine or balsamic vinegar ✵ 1 tablespoon wheat germ oil ✵ 2 tablespoons sunflower oil ✵ 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper ✵ fresh herbs, finely chopped ✵ SNAKE BREAD: 4 burdock roots, chopped ✵ sumac or paprika powder ✵ 2 pounds (905 grams) bread dough

SALAD: Put the burdock roots, stems, and leaves in a serving bowl and garnish with the tomatoes. DRESSING: In a separate small bowl, mix the almond paste, vegetable broth, vinegar, wheat germ oil, sunflower oil, pepper, and herbs. Drizzle the dressing over the burdock and tomatoes.

SNAKE BREAD: On a floured, flat surface, mix the burdock roots and paprika into the dough and knead well. OPTION 1: Roll the dough into long “sausages” about 1 inch in diameter. Wrap each sausage around a fresh willow stick to roast over a fire, constantly turning until roasted golden brown. OPTION 2: Preheat the oven to 350 °F (175 °C). Shape the dough into buns about 3 inches in diameter. Bake in the oven at 350 °F (175 °C) for about 35 minutes. Serve with the salad.

Burdock Flower Buds with Herbal Sauce and Whole Grain Rice ✵ 4 SERVINGS

¾ cup burdock flower buds ✵ ¼ cup fresh herbs such as parsley, thyme, or marjoram, finely chopped ✵ ¼ cup olive oil ✵ 1/3 cup white wine ✵ 1/3 cup cream (18% fat) ✵ herbal salt ✵ black pepper

In a medium pan briefly sauté the burdock buds with the fresh herbs in olive oil, covered. Add the white wine and cream and simmer, covered, for about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

TIP: This dish pairs nicely with whole grain rice.