The Teacup Chronicles

Category: Burdock

Japanese style pickled burdock

In the past several years, I have become addicted to preserving things. I can’t seem to help myself. The thought of all those little jars full of goodness accumulating in my pantry  fills me with the warmest feelings of happiness and contentment. It’s like having money in the bank, those jars. Things to look forward too. I find myself mapping out the year in what preserves I will make – rhubarb jam in May, Strawberry in June, bread and butter pickles in July.  I have an endless list.

And I’ll tell you, that deep down, what I’m really drawn to about the whole thing is the idea that somehow, I can capture time in a jar. Does that sound mad? I believe it though. There is more than just strawberries in my jam. There is June sunshine, long lazy days of blue skies, lightning bugs and warm muggy afternoons when the thunderheads roll through. All of that is in there too.  When you preserve something,  you also  preserve a little bit of time, a memory, a thousand sensations. And then you open it up months later and all that is there to taste. June sunshine on a dull February afternoon. It’s a thought that makes me happy.

I was making my spring list of things to pickle, jam and capture in jars, when my good friend Iris called. Iris is one of those truly remarkable people that seem never to be phased by anything. While I am panicking and worrying and over-reacting to just about everything that is ridiculous and unimportant , she goes about in her gentle and easy way, handling the most horrendous of happenings as though they were nothing at all.  This is saying something too, as she is a single mother and the owner of her own herbal products company, which she runs single-handedly.  A remarkable person, as I said. Just being in her presence makes one calm, as though the world has just slowed down a few paces and grown far less complicated than it was before.

Anyhow, Iris called me up to ask me if I might like to collaborate with her again on her seasonal herb share program. We did one back in the winter – packed with elderberry syrup, echinacea, immune soups and the like – which turned out quite a success. So she wanted to keep going with a spring theme this time. I want you to make something that falls more into the food category she said (doesn’t she know me well?). Maybe something with spring greens, or something rooty. It just has to be shelf-stable. 

Well, it didn’t take long for me to pick. Burdock pickles. I make them every year in early spring, and they, along with all my other favorite must have jams and pickles, are an important marker in the succession of the year. There is burdock pickle time just as there is tomato sauce time and canned peaches time. It’s a time of shoots rising, leaves unfurling, damp earthy soil and roots to be dug.

Burdock, to give you a little background,   is a common garden and wayside weed with remarkable medicinal qualities. Herbalists like to call it a “tonic” because it does just that – gently tonifies and strengthens the body, from the digestive tract and liver to the immune system and lymphatics, when used over a period of time. For this reason, I love to consume a little burdock each day at the change of the seasons (spring and fall) to support my body as it adapts to the seasonal transition. In Japan it is touted not just for its medicinal benefit, but as a delicious food as well – a crisp, nutty root with a distinctive sweet flavor that can only be described as burdock. These pickles are my favorite way to get my daily burdock dosage and savor its delicious and unique flavor.

So burdock pickles it was. I headed out with my shovel for an afternoon of root digging, root scrubbing, root chopping and root pickling that ended in a half a dozen glittering glass jars packed with burdock roots, ginger, chile and garlic. Four of them went off with Iris for the  spring herb shares (and to be sold at the Montpelier farmer’s market this Saturday – look for the Grian Herbs booth) and two of them have joined the many other jars of deliciousness in my pantry. And of course, burdock isn’t all you’ll find in those jars.  The damp earthiness in the air, the feelings of mud between your fingers, the unfolding of leaves, the rising up of shoots. It’s all there too. You just have to open it up and taste it.

Pickled Burdock Root

You can also find burdock (or Gobo) in Asian markets or well stocked grocery stores, if you haven’t the chance to go dig some up yourself.

  • 4-5 medium-sized burdock roots
  • 3 garlic cloves, sliced thinly
  • a two-inch piece of ginger, sliced into thin strips
  • 1 red chili sliced thinly (or 1 – 2 tsp red chili flakes)
  •  apple cider vinegar
  •  tamari
  •  sake

Scrub the roots well to remove any dirt and then peel away the rough outer skin. On larger roots, the outer layer can simply be peeled away by hand though on smaller roots you will need to use a vegetable peeler.

Cut the roots into 1 inch long segments, and then julienne them into matchstick size strips. Alternately, you can slice the roots into thin rounds, about 1/8 inch thick if you prefer a larger sized pickle.

Place your prepared burdock into a pan and just cover with water. Bring the water to a boil for 2-3 minutes (just enough to soften the roots slightly) and then remove from heat. Remove the roots using a slotted spoon and place them in a clean bowl, reserving your cooking liquid.

Add the ginger, garlic and chili to the burdock and mix well. Then divide this mixture into 2 or 3 sterilized pint size mason jars, filling them to about an inch from the top. In each jar, you will fill 1/4 of the volume with apple cider vinegar, 1/4 with tamari, 1/4 with the burdock cooking liquid and 1/4 with sake. Cap tightly. At this point you can refrigerate until ready to use, or place them in a pressure cooker or water bath to seal and make them shelf-stable.

Really rooty root beer and some thoughts on blood cleansing

If I could send smells across the ethers of the internet, the first smell I’d send you would be sassafras. How can one even begin to describe how fantastic it is?  Deeply spicy with a sweet earthyness and that characteristic undertone of camphor and wintergreen…there is just nothing else like it. I love the smell of it so very much, that I would even venture so far  to say that if I could smell just one thing for the rest of my life, sassafras would be it. In other words, I am a big sassafras fan.

Of course, when one thinks of sassafras, the first thing that comes to mind is root beer. But  you would be mistaken in believing that the smell and taste associated with modern versions of this old rooty beverage is still derived from sassafras. Indeed, since 1976, sassafras and any extracts there-of have been banned from food and cosmetic use in the US,  based upon a study showing that mice practically drowned in safrole, an aromatic constituent found in sassafras, showed increased incidences of liver cancer (go figure). Even though the toxic metabolite produced in the mouse’s metabolism is not produced by humans, and there is no reason to think that sassafras poses anymore risk to our health than say, orange juice –  we are forced to put up with sassafras free root-beer, filled with a slew of artificial flavors designed to imitate sassafras that are probably a good deal more harmful to our health than sassafras itself ever could be.

Ok, I’m taking a deep breath and stepping down off my soap box now. But I like sassafras, and I miss the old style root beers – the kind that really were made of “roots” (not just sugar and artificial color) and the kind that had a medicinal as well as enjoyable purpose. Because, once upon a time, root beer was (I’m pounding my fist on the table here for effect) made from actual roots   – spicy, pungent and bitter-tasting roots –  roots that were called wonderful things like “blood cleansers” and “tonics.” That is the kind of root beer that I’d like to drink!  So, I’m protesting against sassafras-free root beer and I’m protesting against root-free root beer and I’m making my very own – which is (you guessed it) packed full of both – a really rooty root beer.

Now before I share my recipe with you, I want to  take a moment to talk about roots, that old concept of “blood cleansing” and spring – and how they all relate, because I think they each come together in a really fascinating way. You see, I am a firm believer that a large part of the medicine found in plants is their ability to help us adapt to our environment. Plants, unlike ourselves, base their life cycles entirely upon seasonal and environmental influences, responding to changes in light and temperature, moisture, etc. By consuming the plants that grow around us, we give ourselves exactly the type of support we need for adapting to our own environment.

Roots are a great example of this concept, because their medicinal effects are quite different from one season to the next. In the fall, for example, when the plant’s resources are being directed to the root for storage, roots tend to have a more nourishing and building effect. Indeed, studies suggest that dandelion and burdock roots harvested in the fall contain far more inulin – the starchy component of the plant, than do the spring roots. Spring roots, however, are adapted for the spring – encompassing that upwards/outwards movement of energy happening in the plant (and in us) at that time. As the plant’s food storage is utilized for growth, bitter and aromatic compounds tend to become more concentrated, giving the root a more bitter or pungent flavor and a more stimulating effect – helping to direct our own energy outwards in preparation for warmer, more active days.

So how does this all relate back to “blood cleansing”?  Well, cleansing the blood was seen as a necessary spring ritual in many herbal folk traditions. Impure blood would give rise to symptoms of “heat” – things like rheumatic joint complaints, allergies, rashes, boils and skin eruptions, fevers, etc. Cleansing the blood was really about clearing heat –  thought to derive from “toxins” – from the blood, and thereby helping to prevent many of the common maladies induced by the change of seasons and warmer weather. Bitter and pungent tasting roots were enlisted for this task because they stimulate eliminative function – promoting detoxification and elimination of heat-producing “toxins” (ie free radicals, excess hormones, pro-inflammatory compounds, etc) from the body via the feces, urine or sweat – thereby reducing the inflammatory load and clearing away “heat.”.

So let me just really drive my point home and tie this all together: using “blood cleansing” roots to clear heat from the body is all about that spring process of directing our body’s vital energy back outwards – like the roots moving the energy up and into the plant. In winter, we want our blood to be warm. We want to heat our core and, like the plants, direct all our resources – blood and otherwise towards our internal organs so that we can remain vital and withstand the cold temperatures. This is exactly the opposite of what spring requires: spring is warm, the weather is mild and the days require action rather than storage. All that energy and warmth going to the core needs to move back out again. Blood needs to move to the surface where it can be cooled and reduce our core temperature so we can adapt to the warmer weather – just like when we exercise, our skin flushes red with blood which is being cooled at the surface of the body via evaporation of sweat to reduce our temperature. (Interestingly, many roots like sassafras, burdock and sarsaparilla found in traditional root bears are diaphoretics – stimulating blood flow to the skin and enhancing sweat production.) Also,  reserves need to be broken down to support the increased activity level, and bitter roots like dandelion and burdock found in root beer stimulate metabolism and digestive function. Lastly, as we move from a storage to an activity phase, we can let go of unnecessary resources (I like to think of all that protective snow melting away) – – and spring roots stimulate detoxification and elimination via the kidneys, lymphatics, liver and skin. Make sense?

So root beer – real root beer made from actual roots –  is just the thing for spring. Here’s a delicious recipe that is extremely easy to make at home which uses lacto-fermentation (or fermentation via beneficial lactobacillus bacteria) to produce carbonation – adding an entirely new dimension of health promoting properties to this yummy traditional beverage in the form of probiotics.

Really Rooty Root Beer

Makes 4 quartz. You will need some kind of sealable bottle for this recipe – I use old swing top beer bottles, but screw top mineral water bottles would also work fine. 


For the herb mixture:

  • 3 tablespoons (0.40 oz) dried sassafras root
  • 2 tablespoons (0.20 oz) dried sarsaparilla root
  • 1 thumb sized American ginseng root (organically grown) (0.15 oz)
  • 1 tablespoon (0.20 oz) dried dandelion root
  • 1 tablespoon (0.30 oz) dried burdock root
  • 1 tablespoon (0.10 oz) dried birch bark
  • 1 teaspoon (0.02 oz) dried licorice root

Other ingredients:

  • 1 gallon filtered water
  • 2/3 cup maple syrup or birch syrup
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • 2 cups yogurt whey (obtained by straining yogurt through a cheesecloth lined strainer into a bowl overnight. The whey collects in the bowl, and you are left with a delicious yogurt curd cheese in the strainer, which you can enjoy like cream cheese!)


  1. Place the herb mixture into a large pot with the gallon of water.
  2. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, and let simmer with a cover on for 30 minutes. Turn off the heat and let sit, covered for an additional 30 minutes. Check the temperature after 30 minutes with a thermometer. If it has fallen below 100 degrees F, return to heat until the temperature reads 100 degrees.
  3. Place the maple syrup and molasses into a gallon container (or divide equally between to half-gallon mason jars) and strain the herb mixture into the jar. Stir or cap and shake to dissolve the sugar into the liquid.
  4. Add the whey to the mixture, seal the jars and place in a warm spot for 2-4 days.
  5. Strain the mixture into 4 quart sized or 8 pint-sized sealable bottles. The bottles should be quite full, so add water to fill if any of your bottles come up short. Return to a warm place for another 2-3 days.
  6. Transfer your bottles to the fridge and enjoy at leisure. Do be cautious when you open the bottles, as they likely will have built up a good amount of carbonation, and may bubble over.  For this reason, I tend to open mine outdoors, with a glass ready to catch the overflow so that I don’t lose the bottle to its carbonation.


Fending off winter illness

You’ve made it through a week of sick co-workers, sneezing grocery store clerks and sub-zero temperatures seemingly scotch free. But just as you begin to congratulate yourself for having such an extraordinary immune system, that unmistakable sign appears out of nowhere – a subtle scratch in the back of the throat – the sensation of a lump every time you swallow. The sign is different for all of us, but for all of us portends the same thing: we are getting sick.

But before you start waving your white flag of surrender and bunker down with the Kleenex box, comforter and a stack of old movies, it’s worth putting in a good fight. With a little attention and care, you might find that the “unmistakable sign” sentencing you to a week or more of debility becomes more of a helpful warning, allowing you to subvert illness before it starts. Indeed, you might even come to appreciate the sign. Here’s how you can go from getting sick to getting better without ever having gotten worse:

1. Take Immune Stimulants

When illness is lurking right around the corner, herbs that stimulate immune function, enhance cellular resistance to infection and inhibit viral activity are just the thing – like your own personal team of immune body guards. Echinacea, Elderberry, and Sacred basil are always at the top of my list for these activities, and have been well researched for their effectiveness at preventing illness. At the first sign of symptoms, take a good teaspoonful dose of echinacea or elderberry tincture, and follow with a 1/2 teaspoon dose every two hours thereafter until symptoms subside (I like to alternate the two each dose). Sacred basil can also be taken as a tincture, but tastes so delicious that I prefer it as a tea (made with 1 tablespoon herb to 1 cup hot water), sweetened with elderberry syrup for a truly powerful and extra delicious immune boost. (Be sure to check out Brigitte’s post on Echinacea honey over at My Herb Corner – might make another delicious addition to the tulsi immune tea!).

2. Avoid immune depleting foods

When the body is grappling with an illness, the last thing it needs is to be handicapped and subverted at every turn by your diet. Cut out all forms of refined and processed foods (sugar, flour products, alcohol) – which can impair immunity up to 75% after consumption by interfering with vitamin C absorption. Also avoid any foods that promote dampness and cold in the body (sweet fruits, nuts and dairy). These foods exacerbate symptoms such as congestion by facilitating the energetic imbalance of the illness.

3. Warm the body

In Chinese medicine, winter illness is viewed as an invasion of cold and damp into the body. By enhancing warmth and moving bloodflow and vital energy to the periphery, the body can restore balance and squelch illness before it takes hold. (Indeed, a low grade fever is actually a good thing as the higher temperatures prevent viral replication.) Take a hot bath or foot bath; drink hot teas made with ginger and cinnamon; eat warming soups made with garlic, ginger and cayenne and bundle up with scarves, hats and mittens.

4. Eat soup

Soup really is the perfect immune food – full of nutrients and warming, immune boosting spices in an easily digestible, warming and hydrating form. Add beta-carotene rich orange vegetables to strengthen tissue barriers and strengthen immune response, as well as vitamin C and mineral rich greens like kale and collards. Best of all, you can add immune tonifying herbs and spices like echinacea, astragalus, garlic, ginger and burdock right to the broth. See my Medicinal Chicken Soup recipe or my post on Soup Stocks for more ideas.

5. Drink Tea

So often, people want a pill or a dropperful of something so they can get it down and continue on their way. Fair enough. But drinking tea does something a pill or tincture can’t – it continually washes your upper respiratory membranes with anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and tissue strengthening fluid. This washes away pathogens to a sure death by stomach acid and soothes and heals raw, tender membranes. The warmth heats the body and stimulates natural defenses. So drink that tea – use warming spices and aromatic herbs like ginger, cinnamon, thyme, rosemary and sage found in your kitchen cabinet, and soothing anti-inflammatories like licorice, calendula,  and marshmallow for raw, painful membranes.

6. Gargle

Most viruses take 2-3 days to proliferate after initial infection before symptoms occur. By gargling frequently with warm salt water, you can dramatically reduce viral load and prevent full fledge illness from occurring – especially if your water is infused with anti-microbial herbs like calendula, sage, thyme, echinacea, myrrh, propolis and bee balm.  A very effective gargle can be made by combining:

  • a strong tea of sage and calendula (made by infusing a tablespoon of each in 1 cup water for 30 minutes)
  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 2-3 teaspoons salt
  • a pinch of cayenne
  • 1 drop each thyme and myrrh essential oil.

7. Use a neti pot

Using a neti pot helps to cleanse the sinuses and upper respiratory tract, protecting us from infection for the same reasons stated above. Daily use also tonifies the sinus membranes and can dramatically improve conditions like chronic sinusitis, and post-nasal drip.

8. Stock up on vitamin C

Vitamin C and bioflavanoids work synergistically to boost immune activity and strengthen tissue barriers. Vitamin C is absolutely imperative to immune function as it is a potent antioxidant used by all immune cells. Add Rosehips to your tea, take Elderberry syrup, and eat non-sweet Citrus fruits, chile and bell peppers, dark leafy greens and berries.

9. Support your lymph

The lymphatic system is responsible for cleansing cellular debris and waste products from the body fluids, and houses the immune punching powerhouses called lymph nodes – where immune cells are concentrated to survey for intruders and clean up wastes. When fending off illness, the lymphatics can become sluggish due to the overload of immune cells and waste products, leading to tender and swollen lymph nodes. By supporting lymph flow, this stagnation can be remedied, ensuring a speedy clean up crew and the delivery of fresh immune players to the area of infection. Echinacea is a great lymphatic, but if lymph stagnation is evident, add Calendula, Cleavers or Burdock root to your immune teas and soups.

10. Inhale essential oils

Essential oils have strong immune supportive properties – being anti-viral, anti-microbial, decongesting and anti-inflammatory. Place a few drops on a scarf to inhale throughout the day; diffuse into your environment with a good heat-less vaporizer; add to baths and foot baths (dilute by adding 15 ml to 1 oz of carrier oil for using this way); add 1 drop to a steam or gargle or add to chest rubs. My favorites include eucalyptus, thyme, frankincense, peppermint, spruce, rosemary, lavender, lemon and ginger.  (Lucinda over at Whispering Earth has a really informative article on using essential oils for immune health, so be sure to check that out if you’d like to learn more.)

Even if you do end up sick, following these tips will ensure that you’ll be feeling better faster with less severe symptoms, which is always good. But if you pay attention to that “unmistakable sign” and start supporting your body ASAP, I think you’ll find that the illness might never set in at all, which is great!

P.S. For more information on supporting immune function, check out this article. If you do find yourself under the weather, be sure to also check out this great article by the lovely Lucinda on dealing with illness when you do find yourself in for the long haul.