Autumn, and falling leaves, summer’s retreat. The Earth shifting ever so slightly on her axis away from the sun. Each day slightly shorter, slightly colder until suddenly these Indian summer days turn cold and…winter. Sugars shift from leaf to root for winter storage. All energy, all life move inward. Plant roots storing concentrated sun and minerals extracted from deep within the Earth.
Today I harvest minerals. On a cold, grey autumn day, soon after the first hard frost, I dig Burdock Actium lappa and Dandelion Taraxacum officinalis roots for tincturing in apple cider vinegar. I wash them carefully to place whole in a large glass canning jar so I can enjoy their distinct and earthy shapes. After six weeks I’ll begin to use the cider vinegar/root extract on green salads. Burdock is known throughout the world for its familiar ‘burr’ seedpods that stick to clothing. It is a widespread plant and common weed found growing throughout Europe and Asia. It is an important herb in many medicinal traditions where it is commonly taken as a root ‘tea’ or decocotion. It is useful as a blood or liver purifier and aids the liver and kidney systems. The liver and kidneys also contribute to the functioning of the immune system. A weak immune system is one thing but an overactive immune system is also a source of autoimmune diseases. When the immune system is in ‘overdrive’ it suppresses too much and shuts down various body systems. Burdock is considered a superior long term immune system stabilizer helpful in moderating autoimmune diseases such as AIDS and chronic fatigue. Eczema, hypothyroidism, psoriasis are other examples of autoimmune disorders that may be helped by regular use of burdock root.
The chemical artipicrin is present in burdock root in large amounts and has been found to inhibit tumor growth and formation so is used to treat cancer in many cultures. Certain tumors and cancers create an overproduction of cells. This also makes burdock a valuable antibiotic and fungicide. Burdock is prized in treating skin ailments including eczema, psoriasis, acne, athlete’s foot and rashes of all kinds. Burdock pulls minerals out of the soil depths and is rich in minerals such as iron, magnesium, calcium, selenium, phosphorous among others. The root is loaded with inulin (up to 40%) which helps stabilize blood sugar levels. Burdock is commonly used to treat diabetes. Asian cultures eat burdock root as a vegetable which they call gobo. It is thought to bring longevity and sexual vitality.
First year roots are the best. Burdock is a biennial so plants that have flower stalks are second year and not the best as they are very tough and woody. Even first year roots will be surprisingly large, as much as 6-8” thick at the top. I can usually only ever manage to get about 6-8” of root out of the ground but it’s obvious the root extends much farther into the soil. Wash the root off with clear water and remove as much of the soil as possible. Lightly peel or scrub the darkest and hardest parts of the root exposing firm white tissue underneath. Some people cut the root in pieces but I prefer to keep the root whole and in its natural state. I quickly pack a canning jar full of fresh burdock root and pour apple cider vinegar over the top to cover. A couple days later I notice a white sludge material in the bottom of tincture jar – this is the inulin that has precipitated out. I know its kinda disgusting looking but….Shake the jar to mix the inulin back in to ingest. This is the part that helps control blood sugar. The fresh root can also be cut and dried to store for winter teas and decoctions.
Make sure you know you are digging burdock root and not something else like rhubarb which it resembles. Rhubarb leaves and petioles are toxic!
I also infused slices of fresh burdock root in extra virgin olive oil. I use slices for the oil infusion as I want the oil to penetrate the root tissue quickly. I’ve tried a lot of different oils but olive is the best. It does not go as easily rancid as other natural vegetable oils and it’s not too expensive (comparatively). Olive oil has a very high vitamin content so is an excellent skin tonic in its own right but I will use this burdock infused oil to make a healing skin balm. I’ll combine it with other skin care herbs such as calendula, comfrey and goldenseal to create an herbal powerhouse salve. I’m trying to use herbs that are calming to the immune system while active against pathogenic disease.
The dandelion was transported to America by early people who knew the benefits of this abundant, easy to grow and incredibly nourishing ‘weed’. Regular use of apple cider vinegar dandelion tincture creates a potassium rich, anti-cancer environment and is an excellent ally for anyone dealing with autoimmune disorders such as AIDS, Epstein Barre virus and others. Dandelion is a wonderful liver tonic and helps clear free radicals from the bloodstream. It strengthens and stabilizes the nervous, glandular and immune systems. Fall dug roots have high levels of inulin which in addition to stabilizing diabetes and hypoglycemia also helps soothe the digestive tract. Dandelion can also be used to lower cholesterol and blood pressure. The American Indians and Chinese consistently use the entire plant for a variety of ills and as a general blood-nourishing tonic.
Dandelion is certainly easy to recognize and find. Make sure you dig dandelion from yards that have not been treated with herbicides. I tinctured several roots along with the burdock. The two herbs have similar activity and work well together. The roots can also be sliced and dried for winter teas. Dandelion flowers are used to make a wine used to ease heartache. Infused in oil, the brilliant golden blossoms make a healing massage oil which helps release emotions held deep in the tissue. The young leaves can be eaten raw in salads or steamed and eaten as a green. In Europe they blanch the leaves to make them tender by tying them together as they’re growing. They have a bitter taste which stimulates the gall bladder and liver. Young leaves have less tannins and are less bitter. You can find them almost year round buried in the snow or in a protected spot covered with leaves. The white milky sap is a discutient which absorbs and dissolves tumors, diseased tissue and abnormal growth. It can also be used to treat warts. Apply the white sap from a broken dandelion stem to a wart consistently and it will disappear in a few weeks. Then you won’t need any more of that dandelion wine to heal your achy heart!
I’ve tried a lot of different methods to infuse herbs in oil. I’ve also thrown out gallons of expensive oil, with stinking rotting herbs (botulism?) and mold floating around in it! It’s especially difficult to infuse fresh herbs as they add a lot of water to the oil which contributes greatly to the mold problem. So I’ve come up with a method I like a lot. I heat the olive oil in an old crock pot on warm and add dried or fresh herbs. I let the oil/herb mixture get fairly hot and this seems to get rid of the water and sterilize the mixture. This works even better with freshly dried herbs. The crock pot infusion sits overnight on low. In the morning I strain it into a glass canning jar. The best long term results are had with herb particles removed but sometimes its ok to have some herbal pieces remain in the oil just make sure all greenery is submerged completely in the oil. Pluck any ‘floaters’ off the top so everything is submerged. This keeps the mixture from molding. Place a lid on the jar and let steep for six to eight weeks. Check the jars and make sure nothing is sticking up in the air which causes molding. If you see moldy herbs, dense cloudiness and the mixture smells bad – throw it out!
The oil can be used for skin care preparations. A ‘simpler’ recipe is 2 parts oil to 1 part beeswax to make a skin care balm. You can also add essential oils such as lavender, geranium, orange, grapefruit or any other. I sometimes use a combination of perfume oils and essential oils to get some really nice scents I can live with long term. You can also use other types of ‘brittle’ waxes such as carnauba and candelilla. Make sure to use food or cosmetic grade waxes. Save some glass jars from past cosmetics or foods or use small canning jars for your balm. It’s a good idea to label every tincture and oil and dried bit you create as you think you will remember what all these things are but believe me you won’t.