Photo by Melody

Head Over Heels in Burdock

By Sharon Brown (SharranOctober 14, 2008
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A child's imagination will take her a very long way. But when that imagination is combined with travels with Aunt Bett, said child would have been wise if she had carried a first aid kit with her.

Gardening picture

Early in my life I developed a vivid imagination.  My mother always said I brought it with me from the womb.  There were no children who lived near me and I was entertained by all my older relatives, but I had the knack of entertaining myself from a very early age.  I had imaginary friends.  My favorite was Corky, and he was quite adventurous, so he went with me on many of my wanderings around the mountains.  He also accompanied me when I went on a few of my earliest adventures with Aunt Bett. 

Now Corky was a monkey, living a pretty active life in my imagination.  I am not sure how I knew very much about monkeys, but I vaguely remember seeing monkey pictures in the Grit, or the Saturday Evening Post, or maybe a Life or Look magazine long before I could either read or write.  Corky was a blond monkey, with blue eyes and long hair and a long tail that helped him climb to the top of the tallest tree and hang there watching the upside down world below him.  I guess a psychiatrist would have a field day with that particular image, but in any case, Corky taught me to climb trees.  I regretted not having a long tail to hold myself in place on the tallest limb, but I made do by hanging  by my knees.  Sometimes the world looked a lot better upside down.

My mother knew about my imaginary friends, but since they helped me entertain myself, she didn't say much about them.  I never blamed them for anything. There was never a:  "Corky made me do it", so I guess she didn't realize how great an influence Corky had.  I had recovered from a bout with polio, and Aunt Bett and Granny Ninna had assured Mom that I needed to exercise my limbs, so she thought the more I climbed and ran, the stronger my legs would be.  She did not know about climbing trees.

It was fall, and Aunt Bett and I were on our way to gather young burdock plants.  I will long remember burdock.  Arctium lappa likes to grow in disturbed areas:  woodland clearings, landslides, the edges of roads; actually it grew in lots of places.  I was pretty well acquainted with the burrs it produced, since I came home some evenings with them stuck in various places on my clothes.  You could hardly walk through a bunch of undergrowth without picking up those hard sticky seed pods. The burrs are actually the lower part of the purple burdock flower and they grow on the tips of the plant stems, so it is hard to avoid them.  My mother was tired of picking the burrs out of my hair and off my clothes, so she told Aunt Bett to make sure I didn't roll around in the weeds.  (As if!!)  Anyway, with that word of warning she let me go with Aunt Bett to gather young burdock.  This was always a fall chore, because Aunt Bett only got the young first year plants that she said were the tenderest.  We were going to dig the entire young plant, roots and all, for her medicines.  I loved being outside, no matter the weather.  I was much more comfortable outside than I ever was inside anyway.Image  That fall day was perfect.

Aunt Bett told me about burdock and how it was used, just as she did with every plant we encountered.  Some folks ate the stalks, cut before the plant bloomed, and she said when boiled they tasted much like asparagus.  Some used it fresh to make a salad, using a dash of vinegar and bacon grease to flavor it.  But Aunt Bett used the young fresh roots to make decoctions.  Occasionally she used the leaves to make an infusion, and on that particular day since we were gathering the entire plant, I guess she was going to make both.

Over time she told me that the decoction was useful externally for treating skin afflictions such as boils, or scaly skin.  The infusion made from the leaves was taken to aid digestion.  Some folks used the seeds to make a tincture and a fluid extract to deal with chronic skin diseases, but Aunt Bett said that she had not been called on to deal with chronic ailments.  I was not sure at that time what chronic meant, but I just shook my head up and down agreeing with her.  More recently, my uncle who is now 84 years old told me that when he was little he had rheumatic fever, and Aunt Bett and her mother used burdock and chicken broth to treat him.  In my research for this article I find that burdock produces these chemicals:  inulin, mucilage, sugar, glucoside, resin, oils and some tannic acid. {1}

So we were on our way to gather burdock, Aunt Bett, Corky and me.  Aunt Bett didn't know about Corky.  He and I were wearing our asphidity bags, and I am sure Aunt Bett was as well.  She carried her usual burlap sack, and Corky rode on my shoulder with his tail wrapped around my waist.  We got to the burdock patch, and Aunt Bett told me that since she had promised my mother, I was not allowed in the midst of  the clump of burdock, because it was covered with burrs. She told me that she was just glad I had come with her and that I could help her when she made decoctions and infusions at home.  She said that I could play while she dug the burdock.  That was fine with me, as long as she let me help her make medicines. Corky and I decided that we would climb the tree that was growing just over the burdock.  There was a great branch just a few feet up and it looked to be an easy branch to reach.  Corky went first and when he was settled on the end of the branch, hanging upside down, he told me to come on out 'cause the weather was fine.  I climbed to the branch and looked down.  I was well over top of Aunt Bett's head as she bent to dig the burdock.  I followed Corky's lead and managed to hang upside down by my knees right beside Corky who was hanging by his tail.

Aunt Bett looked up, saw me and yelled, "Laudy mercy, chile, git down from there fore you break yore neck."  That scared me a little and I grabbed for the limb to pull myself upright, but the limb was not strong enough to hold Corky and me both, and we landed flat on our backs in the middle of the burdock.  Aunt Bett remained unscathed, but somewhat ruffled.  I felt around my arms and legs to make sure that nothing was broken, looked over and saw that Corky was OK, then put my hands down to push myself up.  I opened my mouth to tell Aunt Bett that I was fine, but by that time my hands had pushed down hard on plants full of burdock burrs.  What came out of my mouth was not very fine.  I thought my hands were on fire, and by this time so were my back, my neck, my head and whatever else the burdock burrs had affixed themselves to.  Those burrs were stuck in my hair, on my clothes and were clinging to my hands. 

Aunt Bett helped me out of my predicament and began to pick burrs off my hands and entire backside.  She didn't say much, and I didn't cry much, but I knew that I had to come up with another story for my mother. Aunt Bett pulled a small can of salve out of her pocket and rubbed it on my hands. I wanted to put some on Corky's hands but he just shook his head.  Corky was not much of a talker. Aunt Bett wiped my tears and pronounced me fit as a fiddle.  She kept right on digging burdock while I kept on sniffing and coming up with a reason for the burrs stuck in my hair, so that my mother would not have one of her proper fits.  I didn't even get to help Aunt Bett put the burdock into the burlap sack, she would not let me touch it.Image

Burdock is not one of my favorite plants, though I do love to see the purple blooms from a distance.  I know Aunt Bett added a little beeswax to the decoction and made a salve she gave to folks who had dry skin.  She also kept the dry leaves from which she made a tea that she gave other folks for indigestion.  I know that the burrs are hard and have sharp needles that sting my skin when I land on them.  I also know that my scalp was sore for days from having those burrs yanked out of my hair.  I do not linger when I see a patch of burdock.

Not long after that adventure I laid Corky and my other imaginary critters to rest, much like other little girls put away their dolls and stuffed animals when they outgrow them.  But I continued to wander those mountains with my Great Aunt Bett, and I learned as much as that little woman could teach me about every plant that grew there.  I am just so glad that I never outgrew Aunt Bett.

 

{1} http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/b/burdock87.html

All photos are from Plant Files.  Thank you Andrew60, arsenic, and Equilibrium for the use of your photos.


  About Sharon Brown  
Sharon BrownI am a retired high school art and humanities teacher. I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southeast KY and now I live with my two rescued cats, Jazz and Daisy, in far western KY. I am an artist often doing commissioned work, and in addition to writing articles for Dave's Garden, I also write boating stories for a nautical magazine as well as other venues. My greatest loves are writing, painting, my 5 year old grandson, then learning the history of our numerous wildflowers in Kentucky. And, of course, there's gardening.

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Discussion about this article:
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I FOUND Corky!!! cybercrone 1 18 Nov 4, 2008 3:42 AM
Wonderful Hemophobic 12 49 Oct 23, 2008 4:15 AM
Good phicks 1 12 Oct 14, 2008 11:16 PM
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