Listen to the Stories of the Burdock and the Beet Roots

These Humble Plants Show Us a Way to Health

By Tom Cowan


Since the writings of Democritus in ancient Greece about 2,500 years ago, humanity has grown more and more accustomed to thinking in purely material terms. Increasingly, in normal conversation, we refer to actions, thoughts, and feelings that we have as being caused by certain chemicals found in our bodies. We often hear people say that oxytocin causes them to feel close to another person, or that “my hormones” are off or raging or low, as explanations for certain behaviors. We claim that diseases such as “bipolar disorder” are caused by a chemical imbalance in our blood.


This belief that chemicals literally cause our thoughts, feelings, or actions is a fundamental principle in modern pharmaceutical medicine. We are taught that depression is caused by a serotonin imbalance, heart disease is a result of excessive cholesterol, and certain forms of breast cancer are caused by the build-up of the BRACA protein in our tissues. None of these claims, when held up to strict scientific scrutiny, are found to be accurate. 


As an example, no study has successfully correlated the experience of “depression,” itself a vaguely defined term, with levels of serotonin in any bodily fluid. This idea is a theory, one that is unproven and likely false. Consider the argument that giving someone a petrochemical-based drug that changes one’s mood is proof that the chemical caused the mood to appear; this is like saying that cocaine, which clearly and rapidly changes one’s mood, proves that “depression” is a cocaine deficiency. Rather, a more accurate way of describing life is to think of each living being as a story, a story that is simply waiting to be told, or waiting to be understood.


Seeing the human being in sickness and in health as an evolving story was the basis of how I practiced medicine. It is also the basis of how I describe the plant powders we make at Dr. Cowan’s Garden. Each plant species has an evolving story, asking to be understood and incorporated into the story of its human friends. Our job is to patiently listen to the plant so that we can hear, understand, and then use the plant in the way the plant intends to be used. This process is how the human being integrates into the world of nature.


Two examples of this integration process are revealed in studying burdock and beets, two of our powders that I use most days in my cooking. Burdock is a plant that no gardener wants anywhere near their garden. It is tenacious, spreads rapidly, and is nearly impossible to get rid of once it establishes a foot hold. Burdock also makes burrs that stick to just about any substance it encounters. Unfortunately, this includes your pants, gloves, or  dog’s fur.


Burdock’s story is that it is the picture of cancer living happily in nature. Just like burdock, once cancer gets a foot hold in your body, it is tenacious, it spreads, and it is very hard to eradicate. The humble burdock shows us the way out, which is why it has shown up in nearly every herbal cancer formula for the past few centuries, for burdock has learned to happily live with its story, something the cancer patient has usually not yet come to grips with. Just as with our response to burdock, we attempt to burn out the cancer, poison it, or go to war against it. The cancer, like burdock, often wins this war, and we are left exhausted. Rather, welcome burdock into our lives and into our kitchen; it will help show us how to live peacefully with things that are aggressive, tenacious, and hard to get rid of. 


A second example is the humble beet root. Looked at with child’s eyes, there is no mistaking that the signature of the beet root is its almost shocking red color. A plant that produces a blood-red sphere growing in the earth is almost begging us to understand its connection to the human blood. When cut, it bleeds, and it contains sugar much like the sugar found in the human blood. And, wherever it has been grown, it has been used to treat disorders of the blood, usually either “weak” blood, sometimes called anemia, or tension in the blood and its vessels, otherwise known as hypertension.



The beet root is the story of blood-building and the flow of our blood. Sure, it contains chemicals such as nitric oxide that we say “relax” the blood vessels, but this is just the end of the story. The essence of the beet is in how it speaks to us. If we take the time to listen, our wisdom will increase, our health will improve, and our world will come to a new phase in its respect for life. 


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