Getting to know a plant

Burdock (Arctium Lappa)

Whilst the ground may be frozen solid and covered in several inches in snow, there is still plenty out there of interest, although you won’t find much to eat. Even in the middle of winter when a plant has completely died back it is still worth being able to correctly identify it, as it can give you a head start come spring and it is nice to be aware of what is around you.

I have chosen burdock to illustrate this point, as it is a very simple plant to recognise by its dead flowering stem and seeds. Most people have probably had the seeds stubbornly cling to their clothing at some point in their lives. The seed heads are known as burs hence the name burdock, although it is actually not a dock but a member of the Daisy family. Each seed on the bur has a long hook that is excellently adapted to clinging onto skin, fur and clothing thus allowing the plant to spread great distances.

However, not all the seeds will be transported away in this manner, and where there is one old stem in winter there will almost certainly be plenty of young new shoots in spring.  There is also likely to be some more established second year plants too, as burdock is a biennial. The first year roots and the young flowering stems make an excellent vegetable.

However, it can sometimes be difficult to identify a plant when it is not in flower as nearly all popular botanical guides refer to ‘wildflowers’ rather than wild plants. This is usually for two main reasons: (i) plants are classified into different families based on the characteristics of the flower, and (ii) the guides are generally written for people interested in looking at flowers rather than eating leaves and roots. There was a book published recently that bases its keys entirely on leaf shape, but learning the technical botanical terms can be quite daunting.

This poses a problem for the forager as most plants are only in flower for for part of the year and there is more foliage to eat when the the plant is not flowering. Whilst more comprehensive books provide descriptions of seeds, experience is the best guide to knowing a plant fully. Therefore, it is important to pay close attention to growth throughout the seasons as leaves have a strange habit of drastically altering their shape when a plant flowers, and it is useful to be able to recognise the stems they leave behind when they die back.

This will enable you to find food throughout the seasons and locate new spots in winter. Furthermore, it is very important to know poisonous plants throughout a growth cycle before you start to pick similiar looking species to avoid any dangerous mistakes.

So, keep your eyes out in winter as those dull looking stems can provide clues to spring bounty.

3 thoughts on “Getting to know a plant

    • There’s no magic trick that will make them come out quick and easy every time, but some things I can think of that might help:
      good strong gardening forks – one big and one small, sandy soil, muscles, loose soil (not too dry not too wet), finding a spot where lots grow close together, digging the root up a bit then pulling and hoping it doesnt snap too early…
      also another technique is to use a long pole and wiggle it around the root

  1. I only knew Burdock as a medicinal herb and ingredient in fizzy pop before reading this, I didn’t realise you could eat the root as a vegetable! Liz

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