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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 ID

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.

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I picked this up from the US herbalists. Sumac is a small tree that’s often planted in NZ gardens for ornamental value. It has distinctive red flower/fruit heads that last on the tree well after all the leaves have dropped. The trunk and branches are elegant, lending to the sculptural look.

sumac in late winter

This sumac is also known as staghorn sumac, Rhus thyphina, which helps differentiate it from related poisonous species*. The best way to ID sumac is by the ‘berries’. It took me a while to be sure that I had the right plant because sumac berries aren’t very berry like. Instead they are a horn-shaped cluster of small, red, furry bits:

I still haven’t found out if those are flowers, fruit or seeds, but the Americans call them berries.

The leaves are quite distinctive too, being obviously symmetrical:

the underside of the leaves

Additional ID keys are the furry stems, and when you break them they ooze a white substance.

*If you read US sources of information about this plant there are cautions about not confusing it with poisonous sumac (a related plant). I don’t think this is an issue in NZ because (a) the poisonous sumac is rare (not sure if it even exists in NZ), and (b) it doesn’t look like staghorn sumac – poison sumac has drooping white berry clusters, not upright red ones. The leaves also look different.

Sumac Lemonade

Once you are sure you have the right plant, pick a few heads. It’s best to not pick straight after a rain, as rain washes off some of the tasty bits.

Pull the seeds off and put into a container.

Cover with cold water (yes, cold. Hot water makes the brew too strong) and squash the seeds a bit into the water.

I left mine overnight which made a very strong brew too, which I watered down. Subsequent batches I’ve made with 1 seed head to 2 cups of cold water, steeped up to an hour. Play around and see what works for you. When ready, strain the brew well to remove the fine hairs and bits of seed.

The taste of sumac is refreshingly sour and astringent. You can add honey or sugar if you like, but I’ve been happy drinking it as is. Drink a small amount the first few times to see how your body reacts – sumac is also medicinal and can make you pee more. I didn’t notice anything obvious and have been enjoying a glassful at a time.

You can dry sumac heads for later use (infusion or spice).

Things I want to try:

~ a longer infusion for maximum vitamin C extraction
~ a sumac berry vinegar (‘cos I have to try most things in a vinegar)
~ sumac as a dry spice (sumac is a traditional middle Eastern spice. A local forager told me to mix ground sumac, thyme and salt).
~ sumac honey
~ sumac and berries or other seasonal fruit (there’s a local company making sumac and plum relish).

Sumac resources

Matt Wood discusses on video different species of sumac, its use as a spice, and as medicine.

Susun Weed video on Euell Gibbons’ washing machine method for large batches of sumac lemonade!

I just found out that black walnuts are edible. Black walnut trees* are the US species related to the English or Persian walnut (Juglans regia) that we are used to eating. The black walnut has a large yellow green globe casing that goes black with age. Inside is a nut shell more like a peach stone than a walnut and very hard to crack (which is why I assumed it wasn’t edible).

But thanks to the fantastic Wild Man Steve Brill I now know how to do the black walnut dance (video) and get to the meat inside (hammer or rock required).

Steve Brill is a very funny man, and a very experienced US forager (also famous for being arrested for eating dandelion leaves in New York’s Central Park), two three good reasons to check out his website.

It seems like all the local English walnut trees are well picked over, so I’ll see if I can find some black walnuts as I know there are a few trees around. According to Brill black walnuts are quite a bit stronger than English ones (he mixes the two), so I’m curious to try them out now.

* I think this is Juglans nigra but there are a number of black walnut species.

I’ve been uninspired for naming this moon, so have settled on the obvious – Easter Moon, even though full moon was a week ago. Easter is a moveable feast and the date is wonderfully pagan, being the first Sunday closest to the full moon after the autumn equinox.

I love the equinoxes, much more than the solstices. I feel like I am standing on the edge of a circle, facing inwards, with my arms spread wide. On my right hand is the summer solstice past, and on my left is mid winter approaching. In front of me, across the circle, is the spring equinox, where I will be standing in 6 months time, again with my arms stretched out and marking the even-ness of days.

Of course the equinox was a few weeks ago, but I like the idea of celebrating or marking time according to the moon. Lunar time is easier to keep track of (maybe that’s a women’s thing too).

And I like that it moves. The first full moon after the equinox can be anywhere from right at the equinox to a month later.

I’ve not spent a whole autumn in Central before, and it’s been surprisingly changeable like I am used to on the coast in summer – hot and sunny one minute, then overcast and the temperature dropping the next. Normally autumn is my favourite time of year, but this autumn has thrown me, I wasn’t ready and I’m feeling the cold too much. I think it’s because on the coast the summer is usually crap, and the autumns are more settled, with the hot weather straddling the two. So autumn is often better than summer, or there is a sense of ease in the transition. But here in central, where the sunny day is god and infuses everything else that happens, it feels like a loss when the days get shorter and the leaves and temperature are dropping. It’s happened fast too, I don’t know if that’s normal for here.

Nice to have a few frosts though, I do like a decent frost.

This Easter I made hawthorn vinegar, and picked berries for drying.

The fennel in my garden is aphid ridden so I was very happy to find some very large, lush fennel in seed in a friend’s garden today (and even happier that he let me pick it). Fennel seed vinegar is a favourite of mine and I got to make more than enough today for the year and for giving away. Here’s what I did:

1. The seed needs to be ripe. This means treat it like a fruit, not like a seed you want for sowing. So you don’t want it dry or brown or shrivelling. Fennel seeds are plump when ripe and still green.

2. Chop the seed heads into a measuring bowl. This will tell you roughly how big a jar you need. I got just under 2 litres, which when compressed a bit fit into a 1.5 litre jar.

3. Once the jar is filled with seed, fill it again with apple cider vinegar. Put the lid on (plastic, as vinegar will corrode metal) and shake a bit to loosen any air trapped in the seeds. There will be more air to surface, so check daily for the first week, and then weekly after that, and top up as needed. It’s important that the plant material stays submerged under the vinegar, especially if you are using unpasteurised vinegar.

4. Label the jar with plant and part of plant, date, menstruum (in this case raw apple cider vinegar), and place of harvest.

5. Let sit for 6 weeks, and then strain into a dark glass bottle.

6. Take as 1 tablespoon in a glass of water, or sprinkle on salads, grains, etc. Fennel seed vinegar tastes divine (if you like fennel), so prioritise it for dishes where the taste comes through.

Fennel seed is a lovely aromatic digestive aid. It has volatile oils in it, which make it warming and stimulating to the digestion. If you find bitters too cooling, the aromatic herbs can be a good choice for digestive woes. Fennel seed is mild, nutritive and easy to use regularly. New Mexico herbalist Kiva has an in depth article on the medicinal aspects of aromatic herbs especially in relation to digestion.

Fennel is a member of the Umbelliferae family, which includes many plants we are familiar with eg carrot, aniseed, caraway, dill, coriander, parsley, celery, parsnip, angelica, lovage. The flower and seed heads form umbels (like an umbrella shape) hence the family name.

There are some poisonous plants in this family, in NZ notably the hemlock, so it’s good to be certain you know what plant you are picking. Fortunately fennel in seed is distinctive by its fennel smell, which is pleasant, and hemlock has an unpleasant smell and other distinctive features. And generally they’re easy to tell apart once you see them:

fennel leaf

hemlock leaf

We have some native Umbelliferae plants in NZ, including a celery, several aniseeds, and the wild spaniard.

This is what I found on my walk today. Well, the puffball anyway. The other mushroom and the dandelion greens I found in the lawn when I got home, and the chickweed was growing in a pot plant.

The puffball was a real treat and in almost perfect condition. It was sitting on the side of the path – someone had probably kicked it out of the way. I see this so often, puffballs in particular. There’s something attractive about kicking them I suppose, and I might too if I didn’t understand what a great food they are. With this one at least, it wasn’t broken, and I spotted a much larger and older puffball a few feet away that was too far gone to eat.

I’ve only been eating wild mushrooms for a year or so (other than field mushrooms of course). I’m comfortable about eating puffballs but am still learning about the species. Because of its proximity to the spent one I think the one I found today is the Giant Puffball, Calvatia gigantea even though it’s not very big.

(looking at further references, there are a number of Latin names in NZ being used for the Giant Puffball. Three according to Landcare.)

I’ve eaten them young like this before but didn’t realise they were the giant variety. You can see the big ones when old half-way down this post, and when perfect for eating in this post.

If you’re going to eat a puffball, it needs to look like this inside. Nice and firm, and white.

Puffball scrambled eggs

* slice the puffball and cut small enough to do well in the eggs

* fry in butter until golden on both sides

* add other frying ingredients – in this case garlic, but tomato would be nice too

* beat a couple of eggs with a pinch of salt

* pour over the ‘shrooms, add diced dandelion leaves, and scramble

* serve with chopped chickweed dressed in olive oil, herb vinegar and salt

That used up half the puffball so I sliced the other half in varying thicknesses and fried both sides. When it had cooled I ate it with avocado. Puffballs have a subtle flavour although certainly mushroomy. The ones I ate with the avo had a honey taste, not sweet. Maybe the frying in butter brings that out. The texture is tender.

(the other mushroom in the picture at the top of the post is as yet unidentified…)

For a while I’ve been thinking this moon would be Four Berry Moon, a very local to me name, where hawthorn, elderberry, blackberry, and rosehip are all in fruit and available for harvest. I’d love to know what wild plants are in berry near you?

This could also be called Bioflavonoid Moon, but really, land-based peoples have had nourishing relationships with these plants for millennia before science learned how to take things apart ;-) However, as bioflavonoids are one of the Important Nutrients currently, instead of buying those expensive supplements or imported blueberries in the winter, try an infusion, tincture/liqueur, herbal honey or vinegar of any of those berries. Now is the time to dry or put up some herbal goodies for the colder months. Bioflavonoids have a range of actions in the body, notably as anti-oxidants. Eating the berries is the best way to get maximum amounts but only the blackberries are easy to do so. Bioflavanoids are soluble in water, and as far as I know vinegar and alcohol, so infusions, vinegar are another good way. Wine or jelly/jam too.

This month could also be called Crumble Moon (everyone seems intent on making fruit crumbles), but Changing Moon is what I’ve settled on, as the shift from summer to autumn is most apparent – willow and poplar leaves are starting to golden, the weather is alternately cool and hot, the light has changed as the sun heads towards the autumn equinox on the 21st. People seem susceptible to colds, as our bodies adapt to the shift in temperatures, and the rivers and lakes are not so warm with the longer, cooler nights.

The full moon was last Monday (a week ago), and again was rising big and yellow, being perigee (close to the earth) the day before. I missed most of the moon rises this month, there being too much cloud on the horizon – another autumn sign?

rosehips and hawthorns waiting to be brewed

Like Curious Kai, I usually have a secret blackberry stash. Unfortunately blackberries here in Central don’t seem to do that well and while I’ve been watching a secret, rather large patch locally I haven’t been getting my hopes up too much – it seems that the intense dry allows the bushes to grow and flower and even fruit but often the fruit doesn’t ripen and shrivels instead. I remember reading years ago in Tom Robbin’s Still Life With Woodpecker about blackberry bushes in Seattle growing so much with all the rain there that Woodpecker (or was it Leigh-Cheri) imagined them taking over the city. No such luck here.

Until yesterday that is, when I found a patch that was not only large and growing well but the berries were big and fat and ripe. And they are just coming on, meaning there will be picking for some weeks to come.

This patch grows near a river and is surrounded by kanuka, willow, native scrub, and lots of weeds creating a fertile and damp niche for the bramble to thrive in.

Blackberries are pretty close to my favourite fruit. I’ve been harvesting them wild for 30 years, starting in my early teens when I couldn’t believe that this intense, succulent berry was there literally free for the picking. It was my first real foraging success as a young adult, something I could do on my own and take home to make blackberry and apple crumble (can’t remember if it was me or mum that did the cooking bit). I’ve been in love with them ever since.

Blackberries arrived here in the 1800s with the British who planted them no doubt fully aware of their virtues. Unfortunately since then blackberries have become much maligned by various local bodies and DOC. I’ve not come across blackberries sprayed at berry time, but if you are concerned then phone your local council or DOC* (if you’re harvesting on public land). With a bit of prompting they should be able to tell you what’s been sprayed when. Or talk to the landowner if it’s private land.

*technically you can’t harvest anything, including introduced weeds, from a National Park without a permit, so spray enquiries are best done without mentioning food. I’m not sure about other DOC reserves.

Blackberry, Rubus fruticosus, is part of the rather large Rosaceae family, and is a very close relative of raspberry and the native bush lawyer/tataramoa. Raspberries are less common than blackberries in the wild but can sometimes be found in or around old homestead sites. Tataramoa produce delightful but small berries. By all means taste, but unless you are caretaking bush and know there are plenty to spare, please leave harvesting for the native birds. Blackberry, raspberry and tataramoa are all highly useful as medicines.

In the cooler and wetter places I would expect blackberries to be fruiting next month. It pays to keep an eye out though because you’re up against birds, possums, children and passers-by. It also pays to keep a pottle or two handy in the car for chance encounters (this is true of any wildcrafting and foraging).

I’ll be going back to the patch over the next few weeks to gather berries for eating, vinegar, honey, possibly liqueur and because it’s my first harvest in a hot dry climate I might even try drying some (ok, so I’m sure I won’t get all that done but no harm blackberry dreaming). If you’re new to blackberry harvesting, then it pays to go prepared. Gumboots and overtrousers are a boon if doing a big harvest. Often there is a bit of negotiation with the brambles so a stick or glove for your non-picking hand is useful for holding down errant branches – please take care of the plants and don’t go stomping or breaking unnecessarily. Not only is this a courtesy to the plant who is feeding you, but it ensures your path isn’t too obvious to passersby.

Blackberry and apple crumble

Here’s my peasant foodie recipe for blackberry and apple crumble (sorry, it got eaten before I could take a photo). Normally I would bake this in the oven, but I was staying somewhere without an oven so here’s the adapted frying pan version (you could do this camping pretty easily too, in any size pot as long as the heat is low). Make twice as much as you will eat because this is divine cold the next morning.

* Get a frying pan and melt some butter in it.

* Slice some apples and make a layer in the pan.

* Add a layer of blackberries.

* Add another layer of sliced apple.

* Repeat layers until the pan is 3/4 full or you run out of blackberries.

* Make a layer of rolled oats. I like the large ones.

* Add quite a few knobs of butter and some cinnamon.

* Pour some water over the mix, wetting the oats as much as possible, until there is a decent amount of water in the pan (say half full).

* Bring to a simmer with a lid on, and cook slowly until all the oats are steamed and wet through and the apple is soft.

Goes well with yogurt, cream or ice cream, naturally, but is also good on its own. Best served not too hot.

Blackberry and apple are perfect partners. The local wild apples aren’t quite ripe yet but hopefully will be before the blackberries finish. In the recipe above I used some semi-sweet apples from the organic shop, which collapsed and disappeared in the cooking, leaving a sweet, gooey mass for the blackberries to stew in.

More recipes

Feeling inspired? Here’s some ideas from other bloggers:

If you’re lucky to get blackberries, rosehips and apples all ripe at the same time, then English herbwife Sarah Head offers her hedgerow tonic recipe. She also has a delightful looking blackberry cordial recipe (scroll half way down).

I’m hoping to make some blackberry liqueur similar to this schnapps recipe.

After a hard week I asked myself what I needed. I’m running out of herbal vinegars, so it makes sense that when nourishing food and something to ground me was at the top of my need list, making burdock root vinegar came to mind – a walk, digging in the dirt and producing great food.

I set off in the sunny morning, hoping to keep ahead of the coming snow storm. I went to my favourite burdock haunt only to find it had all gone to seed and was now spent. Burdock is a biennial, which means it flowers and seeds in the summer/autumn of its second year of growth and then it dies. By that time all the energy and nutrients in the roots are spent. If you want biennial roots you need to harvest them in the autumn of the first year, or the spring of the second year (i.e. before they flower and seed).

I find with biennials that often there is a population of only one year at a time. So there were no first year plants alongside the old seeded ones. I went to a friend’s farm who I knew would know where burdock was if he had any. We walked his place but apart from one or two very small first year plants there was nothing. On to another friend’s place where burdock grows in the driveway. Normally I wouldn’t harvest from a drive with lots of car traffic but in the absence of plants elsewhere I’ll sometimes go with the not ideal. No plants in the drive either.

I wonder if all the rain we’ve had in the last 8 months has made it a poor year for burdock. I’m used to seeing them growing in rocky places so maybe they like well drained soil?

On my burdock search I did pass the milk thistle paddock, full of lush first year plants.

A few words on names of plants: common names are notorious for being used for several plants that have no relation to each other. ‘Milk thistle’ is used for both Silybum Marianum (a thistle) and Sonchus spp (a relative of the lettuce) known in NZ as puha. They are of the same family (Asteraceae), but they are not closely related enough to be used interchangeably as medicine, although there are some similarities. This is why it’s always good to ID food and medicine plants by their Latin name.

In New Zealand ‘milk thistle’ means puha (aka sow thistle or Sonchus spp). In the US to herbalists it means Silybum Marianum. Silybum marianum in NZ is usually called variegated thistle. What I was looking at in the paddock was Silybum marianum, the variegated thistle. Clear as mud!

Silybum is a commonly used plant in herbal medicine. Both traditional use and modern research know it as a potent liver herb. The seeds are generally used for this, but I remembered something about being able to eat the leaf. I dug three plants, roots and all. They came out very easily (all that rain in the soil!), the roots being off white and rather short for the size of the plant. I’ll have to look again later in the year to see what the older plant roots are like.

At home I tasted the plant, being careful to cut the spines from the leaf edge. The leaf is crunchy like lettuce but tougher. Definitely a green taste, bland at first. There is an increasing taste of the bitterness that you would expect in a thistle but not overly so. The stalk, fibrous and juicy, is reputed to be more bitter but I found it more bland than the leaf. I’m sure growing conditions would affect this alot. Bitter is common in liver herbs. It stimulates digestion in the stomach and production of bile.

The root is interesting, not strong but a unique flavour – earthy, a bit reminiscent of burdock but milder, and with an almost peppery undertaste, like a very mild radish. Both leaf and root are definitely palatable.

I could find only two references to silybum edibility. Richard Mabey (UK) said all parts have been eaten traditionally. Tim Low (Australia) says the leaves are still eaten by tribes in Israel and North Africa.

IMG_0011 copy

I washed and coarsely chopped the whole plant and filled an agee jar once with the plant and then again with apple cider vinegar. Note the white markings on the leaf, a key to IDing Silybum, that’s the variegated bit.

I wrote on the jar the name of the plant, parts used, menstrum (vinegar in this case), place of harvest and date. I’ll let it sit for at least six weeks and then decant to use the vinegar on salads, greens and grains, or just a tablespoon in a glass of water.

Vinegar is good at extracting minerals and other valuable nutrients so herbal vinegars make a good mineral supplement. I have no idea what the nutrient content of silybum leaf and root is but am usually game to make vinegars from edible plants to see what they are like. I’ll be interested to see what it tastes like.

IMG_0009 copyHere’s a close up, showing an interesting red ring appearing in the root cross section.

Maybe that bigger root would be more peppery than the one I ate.

The next day I check the brew, stirring with a chopstick to get any remaining air out and topping up with more vinegar so the plant is completely covered. It reminds me of globe artichoke vinegar which I make from whole, green artichoke heads. Artichoke makes a fantastically flavoured vinegar and I find it very beneficial to my liver function, producing a definite relaxation in the digestive organs.

Globe artichokes and silybum are fairly closely related. Silybum flower heads can be eaten like artichokes, although I’d guess they’d be more fiddly to prepared. The silybum vinegar smells of the plant now, and I can see the  potential for it being a similar food type ally for the liver.

(Did I mention that burdock is a kind of thistle?)