Archive for August, 2012

August 27, 2012

I fought the root and the root won…. cooking burdock roots

by Ciaran Burke

Bowl of cooked burdock roots- a tasty healthy snack

The story goes, George de Mestral took his dog for a walk and then invented Velcro. The Swiss inventor took his canine for a stroll one day sometime in the 1940s and upon arriving home he noticed that his dog has in this fur the spiky seed heads of Actium minus otherwise known as Burdock. The barbed seed heads attached themselves to the dog’s fur as they do to any fur or clothing that they come in contact with, this is the plants clever method of seed dispersal. Mr. de Mestral was fascinated by this and apparently examined the seed heads under a microscope and voilá…velcro was invented. Well, maybe not quite so easily.

The spiky seed heads attach themselves to clothes and animal fur

Burdock grows in our garden, especially under the old hawthorn tree in the woodland. Each year their impressive wide leaves wave in the wind to be followed by their thistle flowers, which then make fruits that attach themselves occassionally to one of our cats. Many a time I have cursed the burdock plant. Its roots go deep into the earth and I treated it with disdain, because I had viewed it as an unwanted plant, a weed. It was very hard to eradicate. But things have changed, or rather my attitude to plants, and what I condsider a nuisance or a weed has changed. As I grow increasingly interested in using native and wild plants for cooking and exploiting their culinary possibilities, it means that I now embrace a far greater range of plants than I did previously whenI gardened purely as a gardener interested in ornamental, exotic plants.

Burdock, Arctium minus is a handsome plant in its own way, broad dramatic foliage and emphatic thistle flowers of pink. It is a biennial, it dies after it flowers, just as carrots do. Also in common with carrots, the food stored in its long deep tap root can be exploited by us. In Japan, burdock is commonly used in cooking and is cultivated as a crop for its slender tasty roots. In Japanese the it is known as gobo. It is also used in England for making a traditional beer .

Cover the burdock root slices with water and add a good dash of soy sauce

To cook burdock the Japanese way, you cut the centre core of the root into slivers the size of match sticks and boil them in water into which a dash of soy sauce has been added. When the roots become tender, the liquid is reduced until the root pieces have absorbed all the flavour of the soy sauce.

Deep rooted burdock root

With this recipe in mind my wife Hanna and I decided to tackle a burdock root with a garden and tool of which she makes much use of called a Cobra Head. The Cobra Head tool is made in USA and is most effetive a removing weeds from the garden especially deep rooted weeds such as dock and dandelion. As she dug around the burdock root it became apparent, that even the Cobra Head was no match for the stubborn nature of a burdock root, they do not like to be dug up. After much digging and scraping, Hanna’s efforts to remove the whole root intact were in vain, the burdock root won, and a fair portion of the root remained deep in the soil as I finished the extraction process with a shovel.

Use only the central part of the root, burdock roots are best harvested before the plants have flowered

Luckily we had more than enough to work with for our tasty snack. When preparing a burdock root for cooking, wash it well. Then with a sharp knife remove the outer layer of the root and only use the central core. The outer parts remain woody even after cooking. The flavour of burdock root is mild and agreeable but the addition of the soy sauce when cooking gives it a salty zing. It is high in fibre, calcium, potassium, amino acids, and is low in calories. Also, as it is prepared in water and not frying it makes a healthy snack. I wish I had not weeded out so many burdock roots in the past…

Cooking burdock root slivers in water with a good dash of soy sauce


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August 9, 2012

Berberis darwinii – Barberry Jelly Recipe

by Ciaran Burke

barberry- Berberis darwinii

A Chilean native, discovered by the god father of evolution, Charles Darwin in 1835 and introduced by the great plant hunter William Lobb for the legendary Veitch plant nursery Berberis darwinii was brought to Europe in 1849 by legends of the horticultural and scientific worlds. Since then this evergreen barberry has deservedly been a popular choice with gardeners who value it for its bright orange flowers and spiny holly-like evergreen foliage. the drooping racemes of blooms are also much loved by bees, they buzz around the shrub in a droning symphony of sound that is their soundtrack to their busy work days collecting nectar and pollinating the flowers. The ovary of the flowers will then grow and swell to become a berry, dark plum coloured with a whitish bloom , the size of small peas.

Berberis darwinii -flowers

My first encounters of this spiny shrub were as a horticultural student,  I did some gardening jobs at weekends and during the holidays. I helped a lady in Clontarf, a desirable suburb of Dublin, with her garden. She was a keen gardener who grew Trilliums in her raised beds and coveted her unusual perennials. Her front garden was hidden from the pedestrians by a tall dense hedge of Berberis darwinii. I used to trim it with a hand shears. The cutting was no problem but I did need a stout pair of gloves when collecting the trimmings and bungling them into large plastic sacks for the bin men to take away later during the week. The bags and my gloves invariably ripped each time but I always admired its floral display each May and respected its sturdiness, and the lady was never troubled by anyone sitting on her garden wall!

Over the last few weekd I have been admiring these fruits and was eventually tempted to pick them and make them into a jelly or jam. And, I am so glad that I did, it is delicious. If you have ever tasted bilberry jam, well, it is something like that!

the holly-like spiny leaves of Berberis darwinii

Our shrub grows in the dappled shade of a hawthorn tree and still flowers brilliantly and berries abundantly. At present it stand at about 1.8m high and having pinked most of the fruit, i left a few for the birds, I got 900g from the plant. Following the recipe below I got two good sized pots of jam. I will have to take some cuttings of B. darwinii so as to have more fruit to harvest in future years…


  • 900g of ripe Berberis darwinii berries
  • 2 Litres of water
  • 2 cups of sugar
  • juice of one lemon


  1. Cook the berberis berries in the water until they have softened.
  2. Sieve the berries and liquid to remove the skins and many seeds. What I did was mash them through a sieve then squeezed the remaining pulp through a muslin cloth, made a bit of a  mess but it made sure I got as much as possible from my little harvest. I had 3 cups of berry pulp and liquid (1.5L)
  3. Heat up the berries, add the lemon juice and as it heats stir in the sugar a cup full at a time.
  4. Cook on a high heat for about 25 minutes until the jelly starts to set.
  5. Spoon into sterilized jars and cover.

NOTE: I sterilize jars by washing them well in soapy water, then rinse and dry. Place jars in a cool oven and heat to 140 degrees Celcius for about ten minutes.

My harvest of barberries

Barberry jelly on my scone.

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