Monday, February 28, 2011

Equus Ferus Ibericus and Arctium Lappa

The inspirational wildflowers which grow naturally in our rustic yard at Ravenseyrie
You can be sure Greater Burdock (Arctium lappa) is among them!

Note: Unless otherwise specified, all photos have been taken by Lynne Gerard

"I have learned to feel the pain and hear the voices of all living things. I know that all things are equal and should not be judged on some manmade merit system or evolutionary ladder. Beyond that, I have learned that everything is composed of that spirit: water, earth, sky, and wind. They all contribute to life, every part a piece of an overall puzzle, everything necessary to the whole."--Tom Brown Jr.

Two primitive, yet timeless forms: a vestige of Equus ferus Ibericus and Arctium lappa

Arctium lappa in flower
Photo Credit: Christian Fischer
Available through Wikimedia Commons

Greater Burdock
(Arctium lappa)

Many humans loathe this plant. Not perhaps with the same hysterical hatred reserved for Poison Ivy, but nonetheless with a desire to wish the Greater Burdock plants ill will.

A magnificent Burdock plant in front of magnificent Mistral and friends

But how can you profess to love walking in the the natural world if you carry loathing in your heart and mind for particular plants, animals or insects?

Close up and personal...the dried fruit (achene) of the Greater Burdock which holds the club shaped seeds. Arctium lappa can produce approximately 10,500 seeds per plant. These intrepid seeds can remain viable for three years.

A single seed of the Greater Burdock plant

The seeds are encased in this spiny achene

Countless times, a glorious hike with the dogs has been disrupted when the prickly clinging of burrs have brought our merry troupe to a frantic standstill. So good am I now at detecting when a pooch has become the unwilling host to the hooked bristles of Arctium's ingenious seed dispersal system that they have taken to waiting there on the spot for me to carefully pluck out the offending plant matter. But neither they, nor I curse these pesky hitch-hiking achenes...we simply remove them and return to our hike with a song in our hearts for all the elements of our wilderness landscape (the punitive as well as the pleasurable).

You can imagine, can't you, how frequently the horses of Ravenseyrie play host to the fringed free-riding burrs of Arctium lappa? Curiously, it is our resident "Iberian Tarpans" and their draft mule friends that actively seek out these plants (and wear the burrs in punk-rock like hair styles). Our two domestic horses are much less inclined to tangle with or become entangled by Burdock.

Animado's forelock has formed a "unicorn horn" from the way it has picked up Arctium lappa burrs

I know people who methodically cull and burn whatever Greater Burdock plants should chance to grow in their horse pastures, and I don't think they are whistling a song of thanksgiving while engaged in such is more like a war. Anyone who has been faced with removing copious amounts of burrs from their horses' forelocks, manes and tails before they can saddle up for a ride is bound to have a desire to rid their horses' environments from such an irritating plant.

You can likely find more articles written on how to best eradicate Burdock from a landscape than those that extoll the plant's virtues. Since I seem to be following a different path than traditional horsefolk, readers won't be too surprised to find me offering Arctium lappa a warm embrace here at Ravenseyrie.

You see, when you have a perception of the world that is animistic, you recognize the unification of spirit and matter and accept the holistic interactions of all things--making it morally inappropriate to extinguish plants simply because they have been determined by humans to be an annoying invasive weed. Maybe the Burdock plants provide something essential to the landscape and to the horses themselves? And, maybe the Burdock plants can provide another avenue of bonding between horses and humans?

These things are precisely what I have come to believe are real and true through my experiences living here in this wilderness region with our free range equines.

Before I share my own interactions with Arctium lappa, I'd like to share a few excerpts from a variety of my herbology books.

In the foreground are the unmistakable forms of dried Burdock and the background is the unmistakable form of the Sorraia Mustang stud colt, Animado.

"Burdock with its huge leaves and clinging fruits, was considered a true 'bear' plant by the Celts and Germanic peoples, sacred to the mighty thunderer and hammer-slinging Thor. And because the "heavenly bear" (Asenbar, or Osbjorn), who scared off the giants and the 'thurses' who were antagonistic to humans, reigned over the fierce summer storms, the plant was also gathered in midsummer. It was placed in the gables of houses to protect against lightening strikes and the machinations of giants. A brew of the roots was used as a shampoo to make the hair as beautiful and as full as that of the divine bushy-bearded, long-haired god. As late as the Enlightenment, farmers hung burdock over their doors and braided it into their hair or a cow's tail to ward off evil."--Wolf-Dieter Storl in Witchcraft Medicine

Sorraia Mustang filly, Segura has Arctium lappa burrs in her forelock, enhancing her overall prehistoric horse form. While our Sorraia and Sorraia Mustang horses are not pure genetic examples of the Iberian Tarpan, their physical characteristics demonstrate that some of the genes of Equus ferus ibericus have nonetheless survived.

"The burdock plant always conjures up thoughts of the prehistoric."--Tom Brown Jr.

In his fantastic book, Tom Brown's Guide to Edible and Medicinal Plants, the renown survivalist gives a glowing documentation of how this plant is of immensely esteemed for its food value and medicinal merit as well as being handy in a number of pragmatic uses, the most obvious of which is the "Velcro"-like qualities of the burrs.

Photo taken by Kevin Droski

"Burdock is a "deep food" and alterative that moves the body to a state of well-nourished health, promotes the healing of wounds, and removes the indicators of system imbalance such as low energy, ulcer, skin conditions, and dandruff. As a diuretic and alterative, it works through the liver and kidneys to protect against the build-up of waste products and is considered to be one of the best tonic correctives of skin disorders. Burdock is a classic remedy for skin conditions which result in dry, scaly skin and cutaneous eruptions (eczema, psoriasis, dermatitis, boils, carbuncles, sties), as well as also being helpful in relieving rheumatism and gout. As a mild bitter that stimulates digestive juices and bile secretion, it aids appetite and digestion and is well used in anorexia. Externally, it is an exceptional fomentation or poultice to promote the healing of wounds and ulcers, especially when also taken internally on a regular basis."--James Green from THE HERBAL MEDICINE-MAKER'S HANDBOOK

The long, slender root of Arctium Lappa
Photo Credit: Michael Becker

Available through Wikimedia Commons

The Japanese grow Burdock commercially as a root vegetable which they call "Gobo". When we lived back in Michigan I experimented with using Burdock root from the farm yard in stir fry dishes. It reminded me of a better, earthier version of the water chestnuts so common in Chinese cuisine. I have not yet been successful in harvesting Burdock root from the wild growing plants here at Ravenseyrie--with their amazingly deep tap roots (12-24 inches) and our concrete-like soil, there is no removing them by the root! I may try one day to get Kevin to grow a few plants (on purpose) in his market garden where we should have better luck coaxing the root out of the ground.

"Though growing in its wild state hardly any animal except the ass will browse on this plant, the stalks, cut before the flower is open and stripped of their rind, form a delicate vegetable when boiled, similar in flavour to Asparagus, and also make a pleasant salad, eaten raw with oil and vinegar.--Mrs. M Grieve from A MODERN HERBAL

So, we see that historically and even today Arctium lappa is not loathed by everyone.

I confess that while I do not have hardness in my heart for Burdock, I am repulsed by how dreadful the horses look when their otherwise free-flowing hair becomes adulterated by the tangle of burrs. Horses that roam around with burrs in their hair always look like they suffer from neglect. In addition to the irritation the horses must feel from the prickly burrs, their manes and tails loose their capacity to swish away biting insects when knotted up and weighted down by these clinging achenes. And, of course, aesthetically, its much more difficult for a horse to strike a noble pose when his hair is natted up with burrs.

Often times, after the Burdock plants have naturally begun to die back, I roam around with my loppers, pruners and wheel barrel and harvest the Burdock that grows in the places where the horses have regular trails and loafing locations. I typically will put the drying plants on the opposite side of the roadside fence, in the ditch so that they remain available for whatever wilderness creatures use the seeds as a source of nourishment but are no longer able to connect with the hair of the equines as they pass by. There still remains, of course, hundreds of these plants out in the wider landscape which I do not disturb, and in due time the horses will all in one degree or another accumulate burrs in their hair.

One early winter, while hanging out near the equines, I was mesmerized when the big draft mule, Jerry, walked over to the fence and stretched his neck over the woven wire to deliberately retrieve a large stalk of the dried Burdock and began eating it. While he did consume the prickly achenes, he mainly devoted his attention to eating the stalks.

Though I have never seen either of the domestic horses, Zeus (Thoroughbred) and Mistral (Arabian) dine on the offerings of Arctium lappa, I have witnessed the Sorraia Mustangs and mules sampling portions of the broad Burdock leaves in summer as well as eating the dried plant matter in the autumn and winter. Apparently its an acquired taste which the domestic horses have determined they can do without.

It is this type of interaction with the wild environment that may trigger particular genes to "switch on" a more primitive/wild phenotyical and morphological expression than they might otherwise. The mingling of chemical reactions that occur between what equines eat (as well as their overall relation to their environment) and how it affects them on an epigenetic level must have the potential for an infinite array of combinations. How intriguing to imagine that the consumption of the Greater Burdock plant may have an effect on the way primitive genetics play out in our Sorraia and Sorraia Mustang horses, perhaps further enhancing their vestigal relatedness to "Equus ferus ibericus" the "Iberian Tarpan". (Greater Burdock is native to the temperate regions of the Old World. Arctium lappa is known as Bardana in the Iberian Peninsula.)

But aside from all the science...what about the spirit of Arctium lappa? For me and the horses, especially the "wild" ones, Burdock has served as a means of strengthening our bond of trust and appreciation for each other. Because the horses live a semi-wild existence in an expansive environment where hitch-hiking seeds are a regular feature, my de-burring services are required virtually all year round.

Even in wintertime (I believe it was around -26°C on the day of this photo) it is my task to remove burrs and detangle manes and tails. Photo credit: Kevin Droski

But how does one get a "wild" untrained horse kept at liberty in the big wide open to submit to standing patiently while the labor intensive task of removing burrs and detangling manes and tails takes place?

Animado hoping to impress, and he does!

Animado, in a more mellow moment

I am fortunate that I can live here and be with the horses on a daily basis. They have come to accept my touch, largely because I can itch them in places they cannot take care of themselves. From this starting point we advanced to grooming and the handling of legs, etc. (To read an interesting article my friend Kris wrote about how well the art of itching brings horses and humans together, please check out the entry "Scratching an Itch" on Kris' "Words About Horses" blog site.)

But as accomodating as they are for these interactions, they do not particularly like having me remove those burrs, especially the youngsters whose attention spans are so limited. Here is where the spirit of Burdock comes in. It is the nature of plants to have unlimited patience, to be in the moment and to take advantage of particular features of the day, and the horses themselves have a similar "go with the flow" manner of being.

There are times when the horses are approachable and willing to engage with me, and other times when they prefer I leave them to themselves. I never attempt a burr removal session during a time when they do not want me around. Instead, I have discovered which times of the day they are absorbed in grazing and which times of the day they take their naps. During both of these periods of their day, the horses become extremely mellow, as if they have been drugged (and I'm convinced that eating grass has a drugging effect). When they are absorbed in the fine art of grazing, they readily accept me performing my burr removal activities on their tails. And, when they are ready for their naps--well that is a golden time for She-Who-Pulls-Burrs!

Before and after photos of Encantara. She had taken up a sternum nap position and remained snoozy during the entire burr removal process.

When these "wild" horses are dozing, they allow me to remove and untangle even the most deeply embedded burrs and knots. In fact, what seemed to be such an irritating and unacceptable inconvenience for them during their awake times becomes a soothing, pleasant intimacy when I become part of their grazing and dozing periods.

Ciente, our Kiger Mustang mare of good Sorraia type has a very long mane requiring attention quite frequently, as you see in the top photo. I had begun with her tail while she was grazing, but she soon decided to stand and nap, so I was able to devote my attention to her mane and forelock. In no time at all she looked gorgeous once again, but remained napping for another ten minutes or more.
I have come to love the job of removing the burrs of Arctium lappa from our equines. The de-burring sessions provide opportunity for quality one-on-one time between me and each of the horses and when I proceed on their terms, during the most advantageous times, there is such a sweet "togetherness" that results!

Encantara on a different she was so comfortable in her nap she laid her head right in my lap. How much better to perform these necessary grooming tasks when the horses enjoy such ministrations, rather than forcing them to stand tied while we grumble and fight to get the job done?

I have realized that this togetherness is not just experienced between me and the horse, but between me and the sun, me and the wind, me and the earthy fragrances as I, too, become mellow and drugged by the elements. Who would have imagined that a plant loathed by so many, could serve such an exquisite opportunity for unity?

While this article is featuring Arctium lappa as the primary seed hitch-hiker, I would be remiss to not also mention the lovely Hound's Tongue (Cynoglossum officinale) plant which also grows in great profusion here at Ravenseyrie. Their burrs are smaller and more disc-like but do their own part for creating unusual hair styles and tangled knots among the equines. Unlike Burdock, however, I haven't witnessed much in the way of these animals selecting Hound's Tongue for ingestion. If they do eat it, they do so in secret.

Hound's Tongue (Cynoglossum officinale)

Zorita with Hound's Tongue burrs in her forelock

Encantara has picked up some Hound's Tongue seeds

Monday, February 14, 2011

Documenting Altamiro's Offspring/Encantara

Belina with her 2009 filly, Encantara

The Spring of 2009 was an exciting time at the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve. Kevin and I were eagerly anticipating the second "crop" of foals that Altamiro and his four mares had created.

First on the landscape that year was the amazing Encantara.

Born to Belina on May 10th 2009 (Mother's Day as it happens), Encantara's birth story is chronicled here.

Belina, is our pony-sized mare whose Sorraia characteristics are not as pronounced. We were not sure just what type of contribution she would make to the preservation of these endangered primitive Iberian horses, formerly called "zebros" (which are now thought by some to be remnants of the "Iberian Tarpan"). However, as a maiden mare Belina delighted us by producing Fada, a lovely example of what one would expect an "Iberian Tarpan" to be--albeit diminutive and uncommonly dark in colour. And when we saw what Belina and Altamiro had created for their second offering to the conservation of ancestral horses, our mouths dropped in disbelief. Those stripes! I remember exclaiming to Hardy Oelke when I shared with him the good news of a new filly that "The Zebro is alive and well at Ravenseyrie!"

To learn how Encantara came by her well-fitting name, read this journal entry from May of 2009.

Now, for a long photo documentation of the enchanting Sorraia Mustang filly, Encantara:

Spring 2009
Here Fada checks out her new full sister, whose presence means for Fada that she is now cut off from Belina's udder and from this day forward will no longer consume mother's milk.
(Unlike humans, who not only continue to drink mother's milk beyond infancy, but are drinking a beverage that is made for baby calves...)

Here Encantara is standing with Animado, her older half-brother out of Bella

Summer 2009

I love the way the grullas look in this particular type of summer sunlight!

Autumn 2009

Winter 2009

Spring 2010

Summer 2010

Autumn 2010

Winter 2010

Encantara grazes through the snow, with Animado in the background

I will add more photos to this page (and the other pages I've put up so far documenting Altamrio's offspring) when Spring arrives on Manitoulin once again.

I hope readers appreciate seeing the photos of our Sorraia Mustang youngsters in this way. I find it is incredibly interesting and illuminating to take note of the alterations in coat colour and body shape as these horses move through the change of seasons and phases of growth. Of course it isn't just the grulla colour, or the contrasting stripes that make for the phenotype of the Sorraia--it is these in combination with the distinctive bone structure, bearing and behavior that one comes to appreciate how strong and persistent and alive the ancient genetics of the "Iberian Tarpan" are and how fortunate we are to not have lost them for ever, like so many other extinctions.

To see more photos and read some meaningful moments I have shared with Encantara please check out these earlier journal entries:
Touching Encantara and Rites of Passage

Encantara is part of the group that will be going to live in Cheyenne, Wyoming at the Soul of Sorraia Ranch, to help intensify the conservation efforts Mike and Sheri Olson have begun with their own Sorraia type mustangs. To learn more about Soul of Sorraia, please click on the link for them I have posted in the side bar of the Journal of Ravenseyrie.