Which is the real Bärwurz?
In the Bärwurz distilleries of the Bavarian Forest and beyond that, there are different opinions as to which plant is the actual Bärwurz used for the schnapps with the same name.
Officially 2 different plants can be used for Bärwurz production. The designations Meum athamanticum (“bear root”) and Ligusticum mutellina (“mother root” from the Alps) are often mixed up in the local language, up to the creation of a “Bavarian Bärwurz” which is often made from Ligusticum mutellina.
Ligusticum plays a minor role in the Bärwurz distilleries in the Bavarian Forest, in my estimation they mainly use Bärwurz (Meum athamanticum) for production of the Bärwurz schnapps.
Bärwurz (Meum athamanticum)
Bärwurz is a perennial plant which will return year after year. It belongs to the family of the umbellifers (Umbelliferae). Because of their high contents of essential oils, plants of this family are frequently used as medicinal or spice plants. Analysis prove that Bärwurz has an essential oils content of 0,4 - 0,6%. Herbage, roots and seeds have a pleasant and aromatic flavour, light rubbing in the hands releases the essential oils and the plant develops its strongly aromatic, partly spicy flavour.
Beginning with the stem the leaf branches out more and more (like dill), and it gives the impression of being very finely cut, so that the last leaves appear almost hair-like. We know from experience that the stem reaches a height of 50-70 cm, the flower-head on it is blooming white to slightly violet and produces seeds which optically remind caraway seeds. At the transition from the root to the leaves there is the characteristic barb (root tuft). This tuft of plant fibres arises out of the annual sprouting and dying of the leaf stems which do not decay completely in winter and fibres of which are preserved at the root base. The barb is gradually growing with increasing age of the plant, a fact that distilleries consider a quality feature.
Even a several-year-old root will hardly become thicker than a thumb, its usual thickness is that of a finger. The plant grows primarily at inhospitably high altitudes and therefore sets its roots rather deep, to be able to supply itself with water and nutrients. In an old botanical dictionary, the root is described as “rusty at the outside and whitish and resinous at the inside, with a pungent smell and a spicy, slightly bitter taste”.
Bärwurz is a protected plant
In wild nature, Bärwurz only exists on poor mountain meadows in the Bavarian Forest or in the Ore Mountains. Meum athamanticum belongs to the endangered plant species and is therefore under a regime of protection. Until the seventies of the last century, bear roots were harvested in the Bavarian Forest, in the adjacent Bohemian Forest and in the Ore Mountains in wild nature by specialised collectors who used a spade. This was demanding work; the harvested quantities were quite low, and the bear root population decreased.
A possible solution to this problem was to start the first growing trials to supply to the Bärwurz distilleries in the Bavarian Forest bear roots of consistently high product quality and in the desired quantity.
Although Bärwurz cultivation does not correspond with the cliché of a local called “Wurzelsepp” who climbs the mountains of the Bavarian Forest with his backpack and a spade and who laboriously digs for bear roots, however, Bärwurz cultivation in crops is the best solution.
- Bärwurz cultivation is subject to very high quality standards
- Residue control in the dried root
- A practical way to protect nature by conservation of natural flora
- Well-known and transparent origin
Medicinal plants and aromatic plants, such as valerian, echinacea, angelica, camomile, only to name a few examples, are exclusively cultivated by specialised farmers. It is thus ensured that the valuable plant material is available in a consistently high product quality and in the desired quantity for production of natural remedies. What very few people know or suppose is that Bärwurz from local crops is intensively tested with strict criteria in mind.
My bear root must, for example, fulfil the following quality parameters:
- Absolute freshness for wet goods
- Dryness (residual moisture below 8%) for dry goods
- No pesticide residues (zero tolerance!)
- No heavy metal residues (zero tolerance!)
- Potential foreign components (max. 2% according to pharmacopoeia)
- Smell, taste, consistency etc.
Bear roots obtained from wild (subject to an approval of exemption!) are subject to a very limited quality control. Because of the prohibitive costs for relatively small quantities residue tests are hardly worthwhile.
Bärwurz takes time…
The plant belongs to the so-called “frost germs” and grows very slowly. After the seeds of the mother plant have been harvested in late summer, sowing can start a few weeks later. Because Bärwurz is a frost germ as explained above, the bear root will only germ in the next spring. End of March - beginning of April the radicle will appear, soon after that, cotyledons will become visible. By the end of the first vegetation period (in the meantime one year has passed by since sowing), the bear root has 2-3 leaves and a root with a diameter of 2-3 mm and a length of 5-8 cm. That is all... The persistent plant Meum now enters the dormant stage and afterwards increases in size between its third and fifth year of standing.
What very few people know or suppose is: The Bärwurz plant is harvested only after 5 years, the older, the better, as experienced Bärwurz distillers affirm. After this period, the root has roughly grown to the thickness of a thumb and has reached a length of 25 to 35 cm, including some secondary roots. Nevertheless, harvesting remains quite effortful, because we must carefully make a deep ditch to prevent losses and injuries of the plant.
Bärwurz in history
Since ancient times mankind strived to alleviate illnesses and sufferings by all possible means. Knowledge through experience which had been collected in naturopathy for centuries was passed to the succeeding generations which in turn completed the acquired knowledge by the new findings of their time, thus creating knowledge about the nature’s healing powers which reaches into our present time.
From today’s perspective, we must admit, however, that the first naturopathic experiences in history cannot always be rationally understood. If a certain plant is mentioned repeatedly through different historical epochs, it is noticeable that this plant is a special herb.
Bärwurz as ingredient of the Theriak
In antiquity Theriak was a widely used “miracle cure against all type of toxins”. In addition to numerous herbs, such as ginger, angelica, valerian or St. John’s wort, this medieval miracle cure also contained “roots of Berwurz” - so the spelling for Bärwurz of that time. Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy, describes Theriak as follows:
„The main virtue of this medicine is that it effectively protects against all types of toxins; everybody who takes an appropriate quantity of it in the morning will be resistant to toxic substances the whole day“.
Special interest was undoubtedly given to the so-called “pushed-through poppy juice” which, according to current assumptions, did not only at that time improve sensory perception...
The ancient recipe lost its importance in the outgoing Middle Ages.
„More precious and more effective than pure gold “
this is how Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) described the effect of the pear honey which she had created as a remedy against migraine. This mystic of the Middle Ages mixed pears with honey and added bear root powder in addition to three other herbs.
„This remedy destroys all bad liquids in man and cleans him just as dirt is washed off from dishes“ (Physica)
In the recent past medicine by Hildegard von Bingen has played an increasing role again. Spice mixtures for pear honey with Bärwurz are easily available in trade, specialised pharmacies offer the readily prepared natural remedy for sale.
Bärwurz in the garden of Charlemagne
In the 9th century and after several famines in his empire, Charlemagne passed the “Capitulare de Villis”, a decree about the crown estates and royal properties, to remedy the sufferings of the population.
„Our free citizens shall be well provided with food and shall not be brought in debt bondage by anyone“,
following a statement by Charlemagne. To achieve this aim, he established a set of rules including 70 capitularies, by which he particularly intended to increase the profitability of agriculture. These rules for running farms applied to the royal properties and intended to give knowledge to the rural population.
Capitulary 70 starts as follows
„We give the following instruction: The following plants must be grown in the gardens: Lilies, roses, bear root,...“
Nowadays, it is unknown to us which role the plants which were mandatory for the garden of Charlemagne played, there is, however, no doubt that significant importance was attached to Bärwurz in view of the above-mentioned mandatory instruction about its cultivation.
Bärwurz in the Bavarian Forest
Bärwurz was first found in the medicine cabinets of the locals called “Waldler” around the year 1800. It remains a secret why in mountainous regions spirits with tangy taste were prevailing.
- Bärwurz in the Bavarian Forest, the Ore Mountains and Harz Mountains
- Enzian schnapps in the Alps
- Meisterwurz schnapps in Austria
- Topi (Topinambur schnapps) in the Black Forest
Gerd Eckert, a distillery owner of the lower Bavarian town Deggendorf, pretends to be the owner of the oldest Bärwurz distillery. His ancestors started in 1915 to produce Bärwurz schnapps and to sell this medicine of the Bavarian Forest to their customers. This schnapps from bear roots became commercially successful as highly effective digestive and pleases curious palates from the north of the Federal Republic as well.
One Bärwurz schnapps is not just like another Bärwurz schnapps
The delicate palate of the Bärwurz connoisseur will be delighted to discover the variety of Bärwurz schnapps. Starting from the two closely related plants which are used in the Bärwurz schnapps, Bärwurz distilleries use as many production methods as there are Bärwurz distilleries.
Maceration + distillation
From my point of view this is the classical method of Bärwurz production. The distiller soaks carefully cleaned fresh roots (often Meum athamanticum, rarely Ligusticum) in high percentage alcohol and allows them to react for a period of 4-8 weeks, depending on his individual experience. This process (called maceration) slowly extracts active ingredients, essential oils, colourings and flavourings from the root. The mixture of alcohol and roots is now filtered and distilled, whereby distillation in this case must be understood as cleaning process. Strictly speaking distillation only separates colourings and suspended solids from the desired clear distillate. To be able to enjoy the Bärwurz schnapps, it is necessary to dilute with water to the desired strength for drinking of 38 to 45 vol.
By the way: The process described above is identically applied for the production of Melissa spirits etc.
As already described for the above-mentioned manufacturing process, maceration also consists of soaking the roots (often Ligusticum mutellina, rarely Meum athamanticum) for several weeks in high-percentage alcohol to obtain a cold extraction (maceration). Afterwards distilling is no longer required, but only fine filtration. Then the alcohol level is reduced to drinking quality by adding water.
The final product obtained by the Bärwurz distiller is a slightly brown yellow schnapps whose taste is almost identical to that of the distillate.
“Root into bottle” – method
This production method is often used by hobby Bärwurz distillers, its application, however, is much more difficult than we would suppose. From the name of this method we can already guess that a bear root (often Meum athamanticum, rarely Ligusticum mutellina) is put into a bottle. Suitable base products are a bottle of corn schnapps or a bottle of vodka with rather little specific taste as otherwise the Bärwurz schnapps created will lack of the actual Bärwurz taste. As described before, this method is also based on maceration which makes our “corn” adopt the authentic Bärwurz taste. Problems often lie in the dosage of the quantity of roots which is put into the bottle and the soaking period of the root in the high percentage alcohol which is decisive for the release of ingredients.
In short: Mostly too many roots are kept in the bottle too long, so that the final product literally “knocks down” even the most resistant local of the Bavarian Forest. Cheers!
Rather take the seeds than the root
The manufacturing principle is not much different from the method maceration + distillation, however, instead of the root we are using Bärwurz seeds (Meum athamanticum). Bärwurz seeds are very aromatic and they contain essential oils, so that an excellent result can be expected with this method as well. The Bärwurz schnapps created in this way is finer and is therefore recommended for the sensitive palate.
Bärwurz in the medicine of Hildegard von Bingen
Hildegard von Bingen calls this “Bärwurz-pear-honey” more valuable than gold, because it frees our intestins from their “fungus”, i.e. from intestinal mycosis, pathogens and toxins, and it prevents headaches (migraine) which are caused by these toxins. This “gold by Hildegard” has proven its effectiveness for intestinal repair and for regeneration of the natural intestinal flora until today.
Please find hereafter the recipe according to Hildegard von Bingen:
„Take pears (8 pieces), cut them into pieces and throw the core away. Then boil the pears in water and crush them to mash. Now take Bärwurz, slightly less galangale and even less liquorice than galangale and even less peppermint than liquorice. Produce a powder out of these ingredients, mix all powders and pour them into moderately heated honey (8 tablespoons). Now add the warm pears and thoroughly stir the (boiling) mixture. Then fill the product into a cup. In the morning, with empty stomach, eat one teaspoon of it, after lunch two teaspoons and before going to bed at night three teaspoons“.
Let’s be frank: This pear honey is not a culinary delicacy..., but when taken as a long-term form of treatment, pear honey is said to be very effective for curing migraine attacks, for regeneration of the natural intestinal flora and for increasing natural defence forces. At this point I would, however, emphasize that I am not a “healer” and that I have learnt the above-mentioned advice from the corresponding literature. Should you have any questions regarding the effectiveness or the application of pear honey, please contact a doctor or a pharmacist.