HISTORIES & FOLKLORE
Articum lappa, commonly known as burdock, is a member of the Asteraceae family, with thistle-like flowers that grow on long stalks up to nine feet. Burdock sends an enormous taproot into the ground, up to three feet long, and for this reason it presents many challenges in harvesting, as it's quite an effort to dig up the root. Its broad leaves are oval-shaped towards the top of the plant, growing gigantic and heart-shaped at the base. The foliage is a deep, dark green with a soft down on the undersides of the leaves, and the flowers themselves range from light or bright pink to purplish, appearing in the second year of the plant’s life. Many folks may only notice burdock when they realize they’ve collected burs on their coat or sweater. These are actually the rough, fuzzy fruit of the plant which contains the seeds— think of the burrs as spiky hitchhikers looking for a good spot to land! This is where the common name comes from, such as with the French word bourre which indicates a "tangle of wool", and the German dock which refers generally to a multitude of plants with large leaves. The Greek word arctium comes from arctos which means "bear," and the Latin word, lappa means burr, barb, or thorn.
Fun fact: the invention of velcro is due to the Swiss inventor Georges de Mestral's interaction with burdock on a nature hike. He went home, examined the little hooks on the bur, and in 1955 released the hook-and-loop system that we still use today.
Burdock is native to Europe and Asia, but is now naturalized across North America. While the use of its root is more widely known, many folk cures still employ the leaves as an ingredient in many remedies. Traditional uses throughout the world describe its application as useful for everything from internal digestive issues to relief for a multitude of skin conditions. After its naturalization in North America, Indigenous use of the plant is much the same; largely digestive, blood-purifying, and topical for the skin. And as it turns out, burdock leaves have anti-microbial anti-inflammatory properties that make it perfect for use as a poultice on the skin for irritations, lesions, and burns. Lastly, in European folk remedies, we find recipes for infusions or decoctions of the seeds; the root is used as a digestive aid; and the leaves can be used as a poultice. Some older sources cite it as:
The Roots are sudorific and alexipharmic, good in malignant evers, & are therefore used in the Aq. Theriacalis. They are accounted good against the Gout and Pains in ye Limbs.
The Leaves boild in Milk and applied as a Cataplasm are by some used for the same Distemper; as also for Burns and Inflammations, and are one of the Ingredients of the Unguent Populneum.
The Common People apply them often to ye Feet & Wrists in Fevers.The Seed powder'd and given in white Wine is good to provoke Urine, and helps Fits of the Stone.
And in fact we do know that burdock improves digestion because of its bitter and prebiotic properties, which benefit both digestion and gut biomes.
Bridging the use of burdock in medicine to culinary history is an old English remedy known as a posset, a wine or ale decoction of both root and seeds to “wear down stones”, which we also find in Scotland and Ireland as well. It appears in manuscripts dating back to the 15th century, but in later records, the drink includes heated cream with eggs, honey, and various spices. Some recipes describe the cream as curdling, which does happen; and still others do not expect curdling to appear. Possets are made in a specialized double-handled vessel (resembling a squat, square-bottomed teapot) to pour the decoction directly from the bottom of the pot. In some places, around the 16th century, posset shifted more towards a confectionery dessert now known as a “syllabub”, a name with no clear origin; or the better known cranachan in Scotland. The closest contemporary approximation we might have with this dessert is trifle or caudle (which by the way is also a medicine, as well as a ritual food at Beltane); or eggnog.
Dandelion & Burdock is a modern drink with roots as a light or “hedgerow” mead, made from fermented dandelion in the Middle Ages, but which is now a popular soft drink across the United Kingdom. Before the widespread use of hops, similarly to mugwort, burdock was used as a bittering agent in beers across Europe. This demonstrates the various regional identities of beer according to their environment before mass production.
This recipe for a salad is an excerpt from A NEVV BOOKE of Cookerie by John Murrell, England, 1615:
A Sallet of Burdock rootes. CUt off the outward rinde, and lay them in water, a good houre at the least: when you haue done, seeth them vntill they be tender. Then set them on coles with Butter and Uinegar, and so let them stand a pretty while: then put in grated Bread and Sugar, betwixt euery lay, and serue them in.
This recipe demonstrates the way the root’s tough outer rind— which is black while the meat inside is white— is removed before it’s soaked to tenderize before cooking in butter and vinegar. Therefore we can see how it makes the most sense, for culinary purposes, to seek out tender spring shoots, stalks, and leaves in the plants' first year. These are best suited for eating but similarly to celery, the stalks outer skin will need to be peeled before cooking. These can all be eaten raw, sauteed, blanched, or pickled depending on their intended use.
Known as gobō in Japan, niúbàng in Chinese, and u-eong in Korean; the root may be eaten either fresh or sauteed, and the leaves themselves are cooked the same as any other leafy green. Kinpira gobō is a dish in Japan in which burdock and carrot are finely sliced into thin strips and sauteed with sesame oil, soy sauce, sugar, and sake or mirin. Another popular dish is burdock makizushi, which is rice and pickled burdock root!
Burdock, called pitrack in Anatolia, is a common motif woven into Turkish, Persian, Iranian, or other Central Asian and Middle Eastern kilims, flat hand-woven tapestry style carpets used for a variety of purposes from furnishing large rooms to individual use as prayer rugs. Burdock appears in these patterns as a symbol to ward against the evil eye—the belief comes from observing the way burdock burrs stick to people and leave the plant. But another facet of the symbol is due to its voluminous flower bundles, which represent abundance, and the symbol then serves as a blessing to the household. Therefore we see over a dozen different designs for these symbols varying across tribes, regions, and purposes; but each representing either a protective ward or a blessing for abundance.
The Anglo Saxons included clate, ie burdock root, specifically; as one of the many ingredients in “the green salve” of the Lacnunga, known for its healing properties. (The Lacnunga is a medical manuscript in which we find Anglo Saxon medical texts and remedies, charms, recipes and prayers) It was also said that clate was useful “against a sudden sickness,” boiled in ale with wenwort, bishopwort, fennel, and radish. It should be noted that healing in this context wasn’t separate from acts of magical work, hence why we’re adding this note here in this particular section. Salves in the Lacnunga are cited as a magical technology with a wide variety of practical applications. Cures were in this sense a critical part of spiritual hygiene and protection.
Burdock is one of the roots used in various traditions of carving protective objects, such as the alraun, in which the root is carved into a figure and put into a small box (sometimes fashioned as a small coffin) as a protective entity. Alrauns are most commonly known to be made out of mandrake but several other roots, especially if forked and already resembling a figure, may be used. Alrauns are potent magic, not suggested as curiosities; and require lots of tending to and care. They can offer up great blessings, similar to poppets, when well cared for.
Many people use burdock in the home to ward against negativity; such as casting it as a powder, especially around the corners of the home. It can be added to any incense or blend for protection as well. Some traditions call for cutting the root into small pieces which can then be strung like beads on red thread to wear around the wrist or the neck for protection against ill intent and negativity.
Across cultures it seems burdock is a powerfully apotropaic amulet and symbol; no doubt its positive effects as a healing agent as well as its naturally occurring characteristics (the burrs) are what draws forward its properties as a defensive agent. Use in amulets, potions, baths, washes; or as part of a ritual meal.
HISTORIES & FOLKLORE
Inula helenium, elecampane, is an herb native to southeastern Europe, but which over time has naturalized in most temperate regions of Europe as well as western Asia and eastern North America. It takes two years to mature, and then blooms large, yellow blossoms until it goes to seed and dies back in the fall to begin the cycle again. The roots are best harvested in the fall in their second year when they’re at their most potent. If harvested in their first year, they're too tender and not potent enough; and in their third year, they're too woodsy and tough. It's most commonly found in meadows and fields, or along roads, fences, and hedgerows in moist areas. Some surmise elecampane's Latin species name helenium refers to Helen of Troy; as it's believed she may have held a branch or a bundle of the herb in her hand as she was whisked away to Troy by Paris, or that elecampane grew from her tears which fell to the ground as she was abducted from Sparta. Yet another story tells of Helen's use of elecampane against venomous snake bites. It seems the word inula may be the name of the type of flower itself. We can trace the etymology through the Middle English name, elena campana, which comes from the Medieval Latin enula campana, literally translated as, field elecampane. Enula/inula = the flower; campana = of the field.
Throughout North America, but predominantly in East Coast and Northeast Nations, Native practitioners use elecampane as a food but also for a variety of ailments or as a colic remedy for horses— it is supposed the common name "horseheal" comes from North American Indigenous uses. In Northern and Continental European peoples, who associated the plant with fairies or elves, the herb served as a remedy for elf-shot—an affliction in which a person feels acute sharp pains with no other indications of illness; or a sudden drain of energy, giving its name "elf wort" or "elf dock". Irish folklore database has one entry recording elecampane as curative for “lung troubles”. Anglo-Saxon writings from pre-Norman Conquest tell of elecampane's culinary and medicinal properties; and magical ones, too. It was believed to offer benefits towards love if gathered on St. John's Eve--it would be gathered, dried and ground up with ambergris and worn as an amulet for nine days; then given to the person desired to eat. The Balkans believed sewing elecampane into the hem of children's clothes would ward off malefic magic.
Elecampane was considered by the Greeks and Romans to be one of their most important herbs. The Romans made a delicate sauce out of elecampane root to aid digestion after rich meals, and Pliny suggested “let no day pass without eating some of the roots of Enula, considered to help digestion and cause mirth”. Galen who recommended the root as medicine said, “It is good for passions of the hucklebone called sciatica.” And Hippocrates lists the herb as a stimulant to the organs. Elecampane is commonly grown in the herb-garden of Europe as the root not only offered benefit as a medicine but was favored as a sweetmeat when candied. Via Dr. William Thomas Fernie in Herbal Simples Approved for Modern Uses of Cure, 1897:
Some fifty years ago, the candy was sold commonly in London as flat, round cakes being composed largely of sugar and coloured with cochineal*. A piece was eaten each night and morning for asthmatic complaints, whilst it was customary when travelling by a river, to suck a bit of the root against poisonous exhalations and bad air. The candy may still be had from our confectioners, but now containing no more of the plant Elecampane than there is of barley in Barley Sugar.
*a pigment made from an insect
In addition to being candied, the root was made into a decoction and from that, lozenges were made towards the end of relieving cough and in particular, whooping-cough. Occasionally, it was also made into the form of a confection for pastilles, a type of medicinal candy similar to a lozenge but chewable/chewy, one ounce of powdered root being mixed with two ounces of honey. The origin of pastilles, it should be noted, are their function as medicinal incense in which herbs were pressed into a pill shape and burned to either fumigate a space or as a curative for disease.
Absinthe, which originated in the Canton of Neufchâtel, Switzerland, commonly includes elecampane root in various recipes across Swiss and French recipes. Medieval herbalists, in particular, monks; used elecampane as the main ingredient in a digestive, or cordial wine, called “potio Paulina” after St. Paul’s suggestion to use a little wine for the stomach’s sake. One traditional method calls for the root to be added to a port with currants and sugar for its digestive and anti-parasitic properties. And the Pennsylvania Dutch were known to infuse wine and beer with elecampane root which was cooked down to a syrup in recipes similar to this one:
One handful each of elecampane, dogwood bark, wild cherry bark, and hops, added to two quarts of water and boiled down to one quart. Add one pound of sugar and boil down to a pint. Take several teaspoons every day. (The Red Church or the Art of Pennsylvania German Braucherei, by C.R. Bilardi)
A medieval Italian recipe for brodo, a sweet and sour fish recipe, calls for elecampane to be fried along with skinned almonds, raisins, and prunes in the oil of the fish with onions. Then pepper, saffron, ginger, and cardamom are pounded and mixed with this mixture along with wine and vinegar. In typical medieval culinary fashion, the lines between sweet and savory are blurred in this classic dish to create a complex array of flavors. The book this recipe is taken from does note an uncertainty towards which part of the plant would have been used, but based on the materia medica of the time and its use in pastilles, we can guess it was most likely the root.
Renaissance kids looked forward to both Christmas and Easter when they would receive licorice confections, which often included various herbs including elecampane. Licorice followed settlers to the Americas, where the herbaceous confections were used to cure respiratory and digestive problems. The King’s American Dispensatory of 1854 describes elecampane as an aromatic stimulant and tonic, and is much used in chronic pulmonary affections and weakness of the digestive organs. Later on the Eclectics who referenced this book (the Eclectics were a botanical school of medicine in the 1800s-early 1900s) incorporated elecampane into their materia medica from which it was further included in the US Pharmacopeia of 1890.
As mentioned earlier, elecampane has associations with the fairies and specifically as a curative for elf shot in humans (elf shot is most commonly known to afflict livestock and in particular cattle; these circumstances have a variety of other cures). It was also known to be used as a kind of incense or smoke for consumption (inhalation) to induce a clairsentient state for lucid dreaming or contact with spirits. It is also often smoldered for use in journeying or divination. Elecampane is used for magical works in love, protection, psychic powers, and dreaming. It’s excellent for seeking contact with nature and land spirits. With caution, it may be useful or has potential to be useful in building good relationships with the Good Neighbors. It can be used in amulets, sachets, incense, potions, baths, washes, and oils.
Known to the Saxons as eolone, the leaves grow large but in Saxon magic, the power is regarded to live in the root. A potion prepared as a decoction was thought to relieve respiratory troubles and fortify the myne (emotions and memories). It might also be used in love potions. This plant is beloved of the Alfar, as shown by its folk name elfdock. Therefore elecampane is used as an offering to them in either preparation (especially the root is candied) or in planting; or it’s said that carrying it will make them both better disposed toward you, and turn away some of their lesser spells. Carve the rune Wunjo/Wyn into the root as a talisman; it is associated with Ljossalfheim (more commonly known as Álfheimr, one of the nine realms of Norse cosmology, known as the “land of the elves” it is located near Asgard), or Ljosalfheim which means “realm of light” and as such, works well with elecampane's Latin name, which means "light".
HISTORIES & FOLKLORE
We most likely know juniper best through its use in gin, made from the small, fleshy dark blue berries as well as various other aromatics. The etymology of gin comes from the French and the Dutch words, genévrier and jenever. The origin of the spirit’s use is speculated to have been medicinal long before the Dutch monks wrote a recipe in the 1200s in Der Naturen Bloem, which calls for juniper berries to be boiled in rainwater or wine to treat stomach ailments. A quick note about manuscript documentation: many scholars feel that the appearance of something historical in a manuscript speaks to or implies a precedent or practice long before the initial documentation, because for example, a recipe requires a refinement, which means a lot of work happened before that happened. So this practice is much older, obviously, than the 1200s, is what I’m suggesting. Another 13th Century manuscript written by Thomas van Cantimpré, Liber de Natura Rerum, also introduces juniper as a way to treat stomach pain. What we now know is the bitter nature of juniper stimulates bile and other gastric juices thus easing digestion, settling the stomach and calming gas, bloating, and cramping. Several Northern European uses of juniper included making a decoction out of berries and the tips of leaves for respiratory ailments, and there’s some documentation of people prescribing dandelion in the spring and juniper berry in the autumn for these. The Egyptians were known to have used juniper in recipes such as internal medicine for purification, infestations of tapeworm, and embalming the dead; and like many other cultures, for incense, offerings, or otherwise “sweetening” the air in homes and sacred spaces, temples, and royal halls. Because of its aromatic qualities, burning makes sense but additionally, for people across Europe and the Mediterranean, juniper branches were often placed on floors to walk over and release the scent into the air. As an ingredient high in antimicrobial properties, it’s not surprising to see it used for the dressing of a body for wounds or skin ailments; or in fumigation of spaces for purification. Naturally these recipes and other similar ones appear in Greek medicine; and they also offered juniper to the gods, viewing it as a stimulus to physical stamina. The Welsh have a folk believe that says if you cut down a juniper tree, misfortune will soon follow. The Brothers Grimm recorded a German folktale titled The Juniper Tree in which we read a story about a death, a guardian spirit ie, protection, rebirth, and transformation (albeit morbidly). In Scotland, juniper is burned at Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year—a purification and a blessing ritual. In Southeast Asia, local people of Lahaul Valley in the Northwestern Himalayas India have a longstanding folk tradition of offering juniper boughs and leaves to the deities; and collect juniper leaves, boughs, and wood for religious use in general, as well as for building and for medicine.
Across North American Indigenous medicines, juniper is relied upon for a multitude of health needs. Methods of use include decoctions or infusions of roots, leaves, branches and bark; decoctions of berries; steam from boiling branches; chewing berries/cones; adding cones/berries to an infusion; and more. Juniper is a sacred ceremonial plant used in ceremony across North America, which hosts at least two different varieties of between California juniper and Virginia juniper.
As you can see, juniper is one of the most anciently rooted medicines throughout the world; and its uses and applications are universally extensive, and exhaustive!
Heads up: many species are extremely resinous and unpalatable, if not outrightly poisonous. If the juniper you come across is used as an ornamental, it might not be useable as medicine or for culinary use, such as: savin juniper (J. Sabina), ashe juniper (J. ashei) and redberry juniper (J. pinchotti); and there are many other species yet to be examined for toxicity. Common edible species across the US and Europe are Juniperus communis, Juniperus virginiana, and Juniperus californica.
Across northern and central Europe, including Scandinavia, France, Germany, and Hungary; people use the berries directly on meats such as venison, lamb, goat, veal, quail, pheasant, rabbit; and any other type of game. The berries add a spicy, pungent flavor to many foods, such as both baked and pickled cabbage, sauerkraut, gravlax (Scandanavian cured, not smoked, salmon), and cheese. The berries can be made into a sauce of their own, very popular with goose, duck, and other fowl; or to flavor jams, jellies, and aspics. In Eastern Europe, juniper brandy is popular and made from fermented juniper berries into a distilled wine. The Finnish beverage, Sahti, is made from malted and unmalted barley, rye, and oats but flavored with juniper berries instead of hops (though some varieties may use both). The mash, sahti wort, is very loosely filtered (the drink itself is considered and classified as "unfiltered") through juniper twigs and branches, the kuurna, a long, curved wooden trough, historically carved out of a tree. This beer is regarded as one of Finland's traditional and ancient rustic beer styles, carried out since before the 12th century. The ash of California juniper berries is a good source of calcium according to some Navajo uses. The berries of North American juniper species are sweeter, drier, and are therefore easily ground into a grainy meal, and multiple Indigenous cooks across the continent have historically used these to make cake-like baked foods but they are also used in many of the same way as European varieties.
Juniper is almost universally considered a sacred tree across cultures throughout the world from Chinese, Tibetan, European, Middle Eastern, and North American Indigenous cultures. It is thought to ward against malefic magic, illness, and general negative forces. It’s widely used as incense or smoke medicine; blessed water, or saining, as a powerful protective and/or cleansing and detoxifying tool, and as a talisman of subtle energies.
A large number of Indigenous uses of juniper vary between tribes but are regarded ceremonial medicine, burning the leaves for incense or creating a steam from boiled twigs and berries; a tea or infusion of leaves, twigs, and/or berries might be poured over hot stones in a sweat ceremony. Depending on the tradition, the lodge itself may also be built in part from the juniper. In many unrelated folkloric practices throughout the world, juniper is hung outside or inside a home or burned in ritual for protection, worn as an amulet or medicine bundle around the neck to ward against evil spirits, or a sprig is carried as a protective charm before setting out on a particularly dangerous venture or journey. It isn’t unusual for plants described in folklore as having properties that drive off bad spirits or ward from the evil eye also have some degree of anti-microbial properties, and this is also true for juniper. In Scottish, Irish, and some British traditions, juniper is burned in the purifying bonfires of Beltaine and other festivals, and most famously in January during the great Hogmanay festivals in Scotland during the rites of the new year. Scottish and Irish purification traditions include saining by both smoke and water, often infused with and blessed by juniper leaves. Traditional witchcraft, cunning craft, and other witch practices call for burning juniper in ritual protection and blessings of the home, and rituals for prosperity, health, harmony, and protection against any harm, disease, the evil eye, or ill-doings. Many traditions that engage divination, journeying, and seership burn juniper to aid in their divinatory work. If you have a hard time finding mugwort, juniper can substitute in this healing, visionary, and/or ceremonial work!
So we can really see the properties of juniper lend themselves to magical workings in protection, talismanic magic, prevention/curing of illness, detoxification, fumigation and purification throughout the world. You can use juniper in any protective, prayer, or offering works in amulets, sachets, baths, washes, oils, incense, lustral or holy waters, saining, or smoke!
In regards to sacred smoke, a Scottish New Year tradition is saining with juniper. I’m using past tense verbiage here but this is still a living tradition for a good number of people, and as many people learn more about Scottish folk traditions, we're seeing a good many people bring back its return. Traditionally for the saining rite at the new year (though this was done at other times and places as well throughout the year), water was collected from sacred stream and juniper was gathered the night before. While it was traditional to remove the entire plant from the earth and bring it to the home, today we gather juniper from a bush or a tree with whom we have a relationship, and take a symbolic rather than an abundant amount (though if possible, substantial enough to ensure fumigation of your entire home--fortunately a small amount of juniper produces a significant amount of smoke). The water was made into menstruum (silvered water, with a chant tháirgeadh (tar ug), airgead (arigat), uisce which translates to production, money, water) and juniper left by the hearth to dry. In many cases, this work was done under specific conditions (such as nighttime, and pulled by hand with no use of iron) or circumstances (water collected from a “dead and living” stream, gathered in silence) and accompanied by specially dedicated prayers, oftentimes syncretic with Christianity.
The next day, the entire household would gather to prepare for the ceremony, sealing the house up at all openings--doors, windows, and anywhere there was a crevice or a crack--so the smoke would be contained within. Everyone would gather for the ceremony, take a sip of the menstruum (no longer recommended but you can ceremonially lift the water to your lips), then the rest was sprinkled throughout the house with a particular focus on the four corners and the beds. The juniper on the hearth was then burned at the hearth (some reports indicate it is carried burning, through the house), filling the sealed house with smoke to the point of dense fumigation. Once this was complete, the seals were removed, and all doors and windows opened to release the smoke and air the house out. The household drinks to their collective health (whiskey) and eats the first breakfast of the new year!
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