Burdock, Dandelion and Stinging (Common) Nettle leaves
This is the third in a series of blog posts which highlight some of the seasonal wild foods available to forage across the UK. For this series, Pavla (owner of Hejgro) takes Claire Jefferies (a Frome-based food writer) on regular walks across Somerset to see what is ripe for the picking. Claire’s posts share tips on how to safely identify and prepare these foods, and give suggestions on how they can be enjoyed in a range of dishes.
In Hejgro’s October blog post, Claire and Pavla were joined by Frome-based medical herbalist Roses Leech-Wilkinson, who offered up some of their vast knowledge on the medicinal properties and uses of wild berries. In the second half of that walk, Roses spoke about medicinal uses of roots and leaves. This post shares some of their knowledge of these, namely Burdock, Dandelion and Stinging (Common) Nettle.
Please note: None of the information given in this article constitutes medical advice. Readers are advised to consult with a medical herbalist and/or their own GP before using any wild foods for medicinal purposes. This is particularly important if you have any underlying health conditions or are on any medication, are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Where did we head for this forage?
Rodden Meadow, Frome, Somerset UK.
What did we find there?
Topside and downy underside of mature burdock leaves (Photo credit: Claire Jefferies)
Burdock has large, dark green leaves, which are a lighter shade and slightly downy underneath. They are heart-shaped towards the base, becoming more spear-like on the flower stem. Burdock is a biennial, so if you see a plant with smaller leaves, it is probably in its first year. The plant flowers and goes to seed in its second year, producing thistle-like flowers then seed burrs, familiar to us because they stick to our clothes. Burrs were in fact the inspiration for velcro!
Ways to Eat Burdock
The main edible part of burdock is the root. It can be used as a root vegetable, pickled or cooked in stews and roasts. Roots are large and chunky so, whilst a bit of a mission to get out of the ground, are well worth the effort. They should be foraged in the Autumn of the first year or Spring of the second, after which they become too tough to eat. They taste like sweet chestnuts or parsnips. As the plant will not flower or seed once the root is dug out, it is best to dig it up where there is plenty around to ensure it stays in the area.
Stems appear in a plant’s second year, before which it is only a rosette of leaves. The tough outside of the stem needs to be peeled back first, revealing a thin celery-like vegetable that can be treated like asparagus or used raw in salads. The leaves are usually used to wrap food for BBQs or for cooking in the ground - they are large and bitter but won’t contribute much flavour to the food.
Burdock as Medicine
Medicinally, burdock is helpful for nourishing and building tissues as well as eliminating waste products. The plant contains inulin - a prebiotic. We hear of probiotics in adverts for health drinks, which introduce helpful bacteria into our gut microbiome. Prebiotics, however, are the food that those bacteria need to sustain themselves. Depending on which microbes are already in the gut, a probiotic drink may well only benefit you for as long as you take it, if you do not also introduce a prebiotic to help that new bacteria grow and multiply.
Burdock encourages the actions of digestive juices and helps the liver do its detoxifying work. It also helps to get the lymphatic system working to drain waste products. Lymph is a fluid in the body - the other part of the circulatory system besides the blood. Blood takes oxygen to the tissues and, after the tissues have done their work, they release their waste products into the spaces between the cells. Some of this is then absorbed straight into the capillaries (tiny blood vessels) while the rest enters into the lymphatic vessels which then also drain back into the bloodstream, to finally be eliminated by the kidneys and digestive system.
Burdock is very helpful for abscesses, acne or skin complaints, but it is worth noting here that a little burdock goes a long way. Some people find that when they start on too high a dose, they get a skin eruption as it is very effective at releasing toxins from the body. It is worth starting on a low dose and increasing it gradually, particularly if treating skin conditions, but even if not.
DANDELION (Photo credit: Claire Jefferies)
How to Find a Dandelion When It Is Not In Flower
Traditionally, dandelion flowers from May to October but this year there are still some out in November! In the colder months - without its flowers - it can be a little trickier to identify. There are many varieties in the family which can look very different - some have quite big, serrated leaves while others are more oblong and smooth. There are also some close lookalikes, such as hawkbit. Dandelion does, however, look quite different from burdock. Burdock leaves have a glossier upside with a lighter-coloured, downy underside and its leaves grow much larger than dandelion as it matures.
Loosening Compacted Soil Using Dandelions
Dandelions like compressed soil. Their big tap root grows downwards and loosens the soil. Once the plant has finished its work it can be easily pulled out and will not grow back. If pulled out prematurely, there is always a bit of root left behind so the plant will return. Whilst we think of dandelion as a weed, it is doing a useful job. Its sunshine-flower looks so joyful and its ‘clocks’ offer some childlike fun, so it is great to leave them to shine!
The Classic Digestive Remedy of British Herbalism
Anything with a bitter taste (which includes a lot of wild foods) is going to help the digestive system to do its work. Dandelion is a slight laxative (like burdock, it contains inulin) and it also breaks down hormones we use in the liver. The root is particularly good for these actions.
Dried or fresh dandelion flowers can be infused in a jar of olive oil, left in a sunny place for a month and then strained to be used on painful joints and muscles, chapped skin or swollen lymph glands.
Dandelion leaves have historically been used to treat oedema (water retention). Do speak with your GP before using leaves to treat this, especially as water retention can be a sign of more serious health issues.
If you have any kind of urinary infection, urinary stones or gravel, dandelion can be helpful. Again, please consult your GP if you have any symptoms of stones or difficulty urinating. Unlike conventional diuretics - which deplete your potassium - dandelion leaves replenish your potassium as you take it, even if it is making your kidneys work more efficiently.
The milky white sap from the flower stems can be applied to warts, which are caused by viruses. Put a plaster around the wart so you are not damaging healthy skin, apply the sap straight onto the wart and cover it with a dressing. If you do that regularly over a couple of weeks that should kill the virus.
Getting Your Dandelion Fix
Like burdock, dandelion is another great root vegetable for roasting. You can eat the flowerheads or single petals in a salad, add petals to flapjack, or pickle unopened ones and use them like capers. Flowerheads can also be added to sugar in a jar, which will absorb the flower juices to produce dandelion syrup.
Hejgro’s Dandy Root Chutney uses foraged dandelion roots from Frome farm Vallis Veg, along with carrots, onion, fennel and a natural sweetener of dried fruits. The roots have been cleaned, soaked in salted water and dehydrated to remove excessive bitterness. The typical sweet and sour flavour profile of chutney has been given some fresh undertones of mint and fennel.
Dandelion tea can be made by adding dried or fresh leaves to a cup of hot water. Naturally, it is best to pick leaves from soil that has not been treated with pesticides. Early Spring brings the most potent leaves but fresh ones appear most of the year after the lawn is mown.
STINGING (COMMON) NETTLES (Photo credit: Claire Jefferies)
Telling the Difference Between Nettle Flowers and Seeds
Most people can easily identify the leaf of the stinging (common) nettle but it can be a little harder to distinguish the flowers from the seeds. This is important because it is best not to pick anything from nettles in flower. At this point the plant will be producing cystoliths - microscopic rods of calcium carbonate - which can be absorbed by the body and interfere with kidney function. As with other plants, energy is also now focused on producing the best flowers, which means the leaves can also be tough and stringy.
‘Male’ and ‘female’ flowers grow on separate plants, which is useful to know as only the ‘female’ plant goes on to produce seed. From their second year, nettle flowers from May to September. Both sexes are green with yellow stamens, but the white ‘male’ flowers often have a purplish tinge and point up or parallel to the ground. The ‘female’ flowers (also white) tend to droop because they are heavy with the pollen sent out by the ‘males’. ‘Male’ flowers have four stamens in a ‘+’ shape whilst ‘female’ stigma have a fluffy, brush-like appearance.
Comparison of ‘male’ (left) and ‘female’ nettle flowers (right) Photo credit: handmadeapothecary.co.uk
Once you have found your ‘female’ plants, you can identify the seed by looking for their mitre-shaped cases:
Mitre-shaped ‘female’ seed cases on a nettle plant (Photo credit: handmadeapothecary.co.uk)
Harvesting Nettle, Minus the Sting
When picking nettles, choose leaves at the top of the plant as these are the freshest and most nutritious. Notice the direction the hairs are pointing on the stalk, then pinch the stalk where it meets the stem in that same direction, to flatten the hair. Pick off the leaf-filled stalk with your thumb and index finger.
The key to harvesting nettles without being stung is to be firm and confident when pinching and picking the stalk. You can break all the leaf hairs/stingers by rolling a folded leaf back and forth in your hand. Leaves are best picked in Spring or late summer/early autumn. If they have been cut back there will then be a new flush of fresh leaves, giving you a crop through the summer months too. A plant with purple leaves is best avoided as it is a sign the plant is stressed.
The seeds should be harvested when green, and when the threads that hold them droop towards the stem. They are best consumed fresh but if dried immediately, can last a year. Frozen, they will last about three months. To harvest them, simply snip off the seed strings into a bag, or hold the stem over a bag and give it a vigorous shake.
As we are now in root season, you really cannot overharvest nettles. Unlike dandelion or burdock which has a deep tap root, nettles have quite a shallow, stringy yellow one, making them easy to pull out.
Nettles are a Powerhouse of Nutrition and Healing
Nettles are an amazing superfood absolutely packed full of vitamins and minerals, and can be eaten raw. Nettle leaves featured in Hejgro’s September blogpost, so do check that out for lots of varied recipe ideas. And don’t forget, Hejgro’s Dandy Root Chutney also contains nettles.
All parts of the nettle are medicinal and the plant has a broad range of actions. Seeds are a natural upper and nourish your kidneys and your adrenal glands, which sit atop your kidneys. These glands are important players in our fight/flight response in the sympathetic nervous system. These seeds can help restore energy yet, unlike caffeine, don’t give the downer after the lift. The dose needed to generate an effect is different from person to person so it is worth going cautiously to see what works for you.
It is said that the Romans brought nettles with them in order to stay warm. They would have whipped themselves with them to encourage both blood circulation and a heat sensation. Getting stung does bring blood to that area of the body, which can be helpful if sensation is reduced because of poor blood perfusion (although the cause of the impaired blood flow should always be treated too). If you want to treat joint pain or gout you can also sting yourself with nettles, or - perhaps preferably - eat the leaves or infuse them in freshly boiled water: Cover the leaves for 10-15 minutes, then strain and drink. Other cleansing actions include clearing the skin and, as a diuretic, help our kidneys work effectively. They can be useful for kidney stones and gravel (under qualified medical supervision). This dynamic plant can also support with hayfever, arthritis, rheumatism and diabetes, as well as helping to prevent cardiovascular disease.
Another great attribute of nettles are the minerals they contain for bone health - particularly iron, calcium, magnesium, silica, potassium, manganese, zinc, copper, and chromium. Vitamins include K (an important bone builder) and C (a key antioxidant shown to reduce fracture risk), along with most of the B vitamins too.
Nettle root is an incredible prostate medicine. Anyone with inflammation, enlargement, a suspected tumour, unusual frequency, urinary retention or difficulty initiating urine stream may find they benefit from nettle root. Of course, in the event of any one of these symptoms or suspected symptoms it is really important to get medical advice from a GP or qualified medical herbalist.
As you can see, it is well worth facing our fear of being stung, as nettles’ health-giving potential can be hugely potent and wide-ranging.