Bistort (Persicaria bistorta) is a member of the Dock family and is a hardy perennial with a long thick twisted root. It is widespread and its garden form, ‘superba’, is popular with gardeners because its show of flowers and its height (it can grow to a metre tall) make it an excellent border plant. The Royal Horticultural Society has recognised its popularity and given it The Award of Garden Merit. It is an attractive plant with arrow-shaped leaves on its tall spikes of soft pink flowers. Moisture-loving, it will often go dormant in very dry periods, but otherwise it thrives in most soil conditions and is happy in full sun or partial shade. Its leaves are there all year round, providing conditions are not too extreme, and in spring it puts out new shoots. It blooms in late spring through to autumn but is at its showy best in June and July. Its flowers are rich in pollen and nectar and it is attractive to bees and other pollinators such as butterflies. It does not appeal to rabbits or deer, however, and they leave it well alone.
Bistort is native to Northern Europe, including the UK, and in many places it is, or has been, cultivated as a vegetable. It also has medicinal properties.
Bistort’s popularity and widespread distribution is probably reflected in the fact that it has over twenty common or colloquial names, such as snakeroot, Easter ledges, Passion dock, Osterick and in Scotland, Easter magiant. Many of the names are more common in North East England, where bistort is particularly popular. Also, you’ll notice that many of the names are associated with Easter. This is because of the plant’s close association with Lent, the period of fasting that traditionally precedes Easter. The plant was and still is the main ingredient in a savoury, rather bitter, pudding that is eaten during Lent. The other ingredients of Dock Pudding are oatmeal, onion, and nettles, and the pudding is generally fried in bacon fat or nowadays with bacon. Here’s a recipe for a dock pudding from Calder Valley. Calder Valley claims to be the home of dock pudding and since 1971, has hosted the World Dock Pudding championships! But there are many regional varieties. You could try this one, made with barley rather than oatmeal. This is an Easter Ledge pudding from Cumbria.
As a vegetable, the roots, leaves and young shoots can all be eaten, generally steamed or boiled. Its roots can also be powdered and made into bread.
As a medicinal plant, its uses were widespread in the days before manufactured medicines. Its roots are rich in tannic and gallic acids which give it its characteristic taste but also provide valuable cleansing and healing properties. It is astringent, meaning it shrinks body tissues, and is the reason that its leaves and roots were used to treat wounds and staunch bleeding. It was also used in treating the effects of poisons like strychnine and toxic mushrooms. Bistort itself is NOT toxic at all, to humans or animals.
- RHS tips on growing Bistort
- Profile on Plants for the Future database – including comprehensive information on medicinal uses
Credits: Text and photo by Jan.
DISCLAIMER: Any medical properties mentioned in this blog are meant for informational purposes only. They are not meant to be used to diagnose, treat, prescribe, prevent or cure any disease or to administer in any manner to any physical ailments and are not intended as a substitute for the medical advice of a trained health professional. Herbal remedies can also cause allergic reactions. Please do your own research and consult your heath care professional before treating yourself or anyone else.