One of my first self-gathered wild foods was burdock root. I was studying herbs at the time and burdock often was praised in my textbooks.
But more than its blood cleansing and immune strengthening properties, I was curious about the flavor. I read that, in Japan, burdock root is a common vegetable called "gobo" and, having once lived in Tokyo for half a year, I suspected it would be good.
Burdock is a biennial, starting its first year as a basal rosette of big, coarse, dull leaves with fuzzy undersides.
A branching flower stalk appears the second year in late spring, carrying prickly purple flowers in summer.
In fall, the flowers turn into brown seed heads that stick to fur and clothing, a characteristic that inspired the Swiss engineer George de Mestral to invent Velcro.
After thoroughly studying the plant and its poisonous look-alikes - cocklebur (Xanthium pensylvanicum) and rhubarb leaves - I was ready to forage for this new food.
It was early spring and the burdock leaves were easy to spot, often close to the remains of last year's flower stalk.
The leaf stems were solid and grooved, which meant I was dealing with greater burdock, or Arctium lappa, which can grow up to 9 feet tall.
The common burdock, or Arctium minus, also edible, doesn't grow taller than 5 feet and has a hollow leaf stalk that isn't grooved.
Greater burdock produces roots that can grow 3 feet long opposed to 1 foot for common burdock. They are best when harvested from early spring to late fall and before the second year flower stalk appears, after which the root becomes too woody.
In addition to the roots, the young leaf stalks can be peeled, battered and fried and have a mild artichoke heart flavor.
If worse comes to worst, the leaves can be eaten, too, but the French farmer ladies in the old days had a better use for them. They supposedly wrapped their butter cakes in burdock leaves for transportation to the marketplace.
This might explain the name "bur" or "beurre," which means "butter" in French.
"Bur" also could come from "burra," Latin for "lock of wool," which often could be found entangled in the seed head burrs when sheep had passed by them.
Fields, pastures and cultivated land are burdock's habitat. It also loves my rocky soil, which made it impossible to stub up a whole root, so I settled for short, broken-off roots.
It didn't take long to gather enough for the traditional kinpira gobo recipe I found on the Internet. I scrubbed the thin, first-year roots and peeled the thicker second-year ones.
I waited in anticipation while the roots where simmering. But when I finally had my first bite, I immediately recognized the lovely earthy, crisp flavor. This was that wonderful carrot-like vegetable I've eaten many times in Tokyo! What a pleasant surprise.
Coming in April: Japanese knotweed, eat it or dig it.