By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Fifth-grade students from Sunnyside Elementary School on their year-end field trip Thursday were not chastised for playing in the mud - they were encouraged to.
Twenty-two students from Debbie Cottonware's class spent all day in Beaver Creek Park digging up burdock plants, and getting rather dirty in the process.
Burdock, classified as a noxious weed by the Hill County Weed District, is a scourge for local ranchers, who say the plant's burrs can cause cattle to go blind and develop urinary tract infections.
In 1994, county weed coordinator Terry Turner worked with local teachers to establish a feild trip program in which fifth-grade students help eradicate the plant and learn a little about botany in the process. The plants the students dig up are separated from their roots, which are then sold to the Columbus-based herbal company Amber Gold Inc., which sells burdock tea online.
Burdock root contains numerous vitamins and is considered by many to possess healing properties.
"The burdock root has a lot of good qualities in it," Turner said. "It's a blood purifier. it's good for teenage acne."
The money raised from the burdock root sales goes to pay for T-shirts for all the students who participate. The T-shirt, emblazoned with the words "Weed Warrior," has a cartoon of a young man with a shovel happily digging up burdock plants.
Before the students are unleashed on the burdock plants, Turner visits them in the classroom to give a presentation.
"We do a little about plant identification, trying to cover stinging nettles and poisonous plants," he said. "We go over how the project was started, and why we're trying to dig the burdock. We go over some of the health benefits. And the kids get to taste the tea. We brew up a pot for them."
After poor weather delayed the field trip last week, Cottonware's class finally made it to the park Thursday morning. Picking burdock roots just south of the turnoff to Eagle Rock Estates, her class worked for several hours before breaking for lunch at Bear Paw Lake.
"They've been working really hard," Cottonware said while eating lunch at the gazebo. "They really like it, especially the getting muddy part."
Eleven-year-old Ashlee Keeling said the venture was a good field trip "because it's fun digging up burdock."
"It's rich in vitamins B-something, B-something, and B-something," said 10-year-old Brooke Jappe about the healing powers of the plant's root.
Rhiannon Hensley, 10, said that she was enjoying the field trip, but stressed the importance of avoiding the stinging nettles, and said that she doesn't like when the plants snap off, because then the root is not as long.
The decade-long tradition of the burdock dig has spawned an intense competition among classes to see who can pick the most, and largest, burdock plants.
By the time the students took their lunch break, they had removed 682 plants. After a pep talk by Cottonware, they stepped up their efforts in the afternoon, ending the day with a total of 2,062 plants.
While a bit short of the record-setting 7,777 plants picked by a class in 2001, the plants picked by Cottonware's class yielded 59 pounds of roots, Turner said.
All of the burdock picked by the students comes from four locations in Beaver Creek Park which have been organically certified, Turner said, meaning they have not been sprayed with chemicals. The root is separated from the plant and sold to Amber Gold Inc.
The root is boiled for several days until it yields a thick, molasses-like oil which is then distributed in bottles as a tea concentrate. One 1.4-ounce bottle is enough for about 50 cups of tea.
Two more fifth-grade classes from Sunnyside and one from Kremlin-Gildford were scheduled to go on burdock dig field trips today, Turner said.