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A friend was asking me about this while back. There’s a folk remedy for treating cancer called Essiac. It was made famous by a Canadian nurse, Rene Caisse, who reputedly got the recipe from an Ojibwa medicine man. There are various recipes for Essiac, all based on using four herbs: burdock root, sheep sorrel leaf, slippery elm bark, and turkey rhubarb roots. Woodstock herbalist Susun Weed investigated this formula and came to the conclusion that the original instructions had been altered – turkey rhubarb wasn’t native or naturalised in Canada, sheep sorrel has no reputation for healing cancer, and the slippery elm was probably there to counter the harsh effects of the turkey rhubarb on the digestive tract. Only burdock seemed to fit, with its long traditional use against cancer. She also heard that the original formula had two herbs in it, so she came to the conclusion that it was likely to be burdock and yellow dock roots (yellow dock is a relative of turkey rhubarb’s, also has a traditional use against cancer, and is much gentler on the system).
I’ve not had to deal with cancer in myself or helping others. Cancer treatments (conventional and alternative) can be contentious. I believe in respecting people’s right to make their own choices in health care and offer this post in that spirit.
I also believe that medicine should be cheap and easily accessible. To that end, here’s what burdock and yellow dock look like. Yellow dock is very common in most areas and can be harvested in quantity if necessary. Burdock is less common and is harder to dig up. If you need it in quantity it’s good to buy from a wholesaler. But it’s also good to have a direct relationship with any plant we use as medicine, and harvesting and preparing herbs is a good way to do that (not the only way though). It’s an good time of year to get to know and harvest both plants.
Note: the name ‘yellow dock’ isn’t commonly used in NZ except for when referring to herbal medicine. Mostly you’ll hear it called dock, or sometimes broad leaf dock and curly dock.
Burdock, Arctium spp, is a biennial. This means it will put up leaves in the first year, and flowers and seeds in the second year and then it will die. If you want to harvest the root you need to harvest it before the plant starts to flower. Once it starts to flower, the plant uses the root energy for the flowering and seeding and by the end the root is spent.
Burdock leaves are large and look a bit like a furry rhubarb (although they’re not related). They have a large midrib and prominent veins. This isn’t the best photo, as most of the leaves are wrinkly, but the one in the bottom left corner is more typical:
If you turn a leaf over you will see that it is covered in white down. This down is on the stalks as well and is a key to identifying burdock. Also, look closely at the lower ends of the stalk (closest to where it is growing from) and you’ll see a reddy colour.
The leaves grow from a single tap root which has a reputation for being difficult to dig. It’s good to use a garden fork, loosening the soil around and around the plant. You’ll need to dig down quite a way if you want to avoid breaking off the root in the ground. There are also side roots or the main root splits, so take your time and take care – it’s worth getting all the root as harvesting is killing the plant and the root won’t grow back.
The closest look alike I can think of is foxglove (Digitalis spp), which is poisonous. Not likely to be confused once you see them together, but if you are new to IDing herbs then please use a good ID book or wildcrafter to help you with the ID.
Yellow Dock ID
Yellow dock, Rumex spp, is a perennial, meaning it grows back every year from the same root. It’s another large leafed herb, not as big as burdock generally, and the leaves are darker green and smooth rather than hairy.
There are two main docks in NZ – curly leafed dock (Rumex crispus)
and broad leafed dock (Rumex obtusifolius).
You can use them interchangeably for medicine or food. Broad dock is usually the more common. Both seem to like damp places (river beds, damp ground) but will grow on other places too. In a dry climate, the best places to look are where there is shade or damp, but in wetter climates dock grows everywhere.
Dock leaves grow from a crown above a root cluster that gets bigger with each successive year. Older plants yield more root and better medicine, and will have multiple tap roots. Because root harvest is best done in the late autumn or winter, when the leave have died back and the energy of the plant is focussed below ground, it’s good to find where your yellow dock grows earlier in the season so it’s easier to find when the tops have died back.
And the roots are indeed yellow (inside):
If you want to find yellow dock now for harvesting look for the seed heads. These are photos from the summer – the seeds now will be dried off and brown.
I’ll try and get some better photos this week but in the meantime there’s a good shot of autumn dock seeds here.
The Wessiac recipe can be found here. Both burdock and yellow dock can be used in lots of other ways as medicine or food.