The Wandering Burdock
by Karyn Siegel-Maier
Originally published in The Herb Quarterly
"They are Burrs, I can tell you, they'll stick where they are thrown..." - William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida
Nearly everyone has had a brush with burdock. If you live on the east coast of North America, Canada, or in the European countryside, a walk through the autumn woods is often rewarded with the stubborn seed heads returning on socks and sweaters. Shakespeare's Rosalind, of As You Like It, complained "How full of briers is this working day world!" and was met with Celia's retort of "They are but burs, cousin, thrown upon thee in holiday foolery. If we walk not in the trodden paths, our very petticoats will catch them."
Great Burdock (Arctium lappa) is the European biennial, native to Siberia, and now naturalized in damp areas of the northern U.S. A smaller version, Arctium minus, is also found flourishing among wayside patches of American and European soil. Both types sport round heads of purple flowers, which bloom from August to September, and the familiar hooked bracts or burrs that allow the plant to distribute itself via birds, animals, and people.
While many find the adherence of the brown seed-burrs menacing, it was of great technical interest to the Swiss inventor, George de Mestral. George was in the habit of taking long walks through the countryside with his dog, who often returned with burrs in his fur. When George inspected the burrs closely under magnifying glass, he noted the hundreds of tiny hooks that enabled the seed to hold onto an object. After experimenting with plastic models, designed to mimic the burrs action, George eventually presented the world with that indispensable self-adhesive fastener: Velcro.TM
You may be surprised to learn that burdock is quite edible, cooked or raw. The leaves and flowers can be steamed as vegetables, or served with oil and vinegar as a salad. Generally, burdock stems are prepared by carefully peeling away the tough, bitter tasting outer rind. The remaining tender pith is usually sliced and boiled in water as a vegetable, added to soups, or thinly sliced and served raw in salads. The tender pith of the young stems were once made into a popular confection in some parts of Europe.
The Iroquois considered burdock root an important winter food, and it was commonly dried and stored after harvesting for use in the long, cold months ahead. In addition, the roots are sometimes roasted and ground as a coffee substitute. Burdock is commonly found in the markets of Japan, Taiwan, and Hawaii. Japanese markets and health food stores supply the fresh young taproots, which they call gobo. In fact, burdock is as common a vegetable in Japan as the potato is to westerners, and the young roots are commonly served raw, or added to soups and stir-fries. A Russian dish calls for wrapping fish in fresh burdock leaves and roasting in a pit of hot coals.
Burdock can be harvested and used safely, but a word of caution is warranted. As with any herb plucked from the wild, you must be absolutely sure of your identification of the plant. There have been a few rare cases of accidental poisoning due to confusing burdock leaves with deadly nightshade (Atropa bella-donna L.) growing in proximity, or the corruption of herbal tea with belladonna. If you do not possess sufficient botanical knowledge, it's best to introduce the plant into your garden from seed, or to rely on reputable herb houses as a supply source.
If you intend to grow your own burdock, you will have little trouble since it sprouts easily from seed, and is rarely bothered by pests. The roots of burdock are ready for harvesting the subsequent spring after planting. Digging up the roots however, can be quite an endeavor since the taproots can extend to several feet. Some gardeners prepare raised mounds of soil in which to plant burdock, making the effort of dislodging the roots a bit easier at harvesting time. Burdock enjoys full sun, and a rich, slightly moist, but well drained soil.
Burdock has long been considered a medicinal herb. Chinese herbalists recommend burdock for colds, measles, and as a mild laxative, although according to herbalist and author John Lust, it can have the opposite effect on some individuals. Burdock is also incorporated into herbal cancer treatments by various cultures. French herbalists suggest that inulin, a starch found in the seeds and which is easily digestible, is useful to lower blood sugar levels in diabetics.
The 17th century herbalist, Nicholas Culpepper, promoted a rather unusual regimen for expectant mothers using the leaves and/or seeds of burdock. Although the validity of this application is sketchy at minimum, it is nonetheless of interest to those concerned with herbal lore. Culpeper's recommendation was as follows: "By its [burdock's] leaf or seed you may draw the womb which way you please, either upward by applying it to the crown of the head in case it falls out; or downwards in fits of the mother, by applying it to the soles of the feet: or if you would stay it in its place, apply it to the navel, and that is a good way to stay the child in it."
A few last words about burdock...
~ "Mother went rambling, and came back with a burdock on her shawl, so we know that the snow has perished from the earth." - Emily Dickinson, Letters of Emily Dickinson
~ "The crops perish, and up springs a rough forest of burdocks and caltrops; and hurtful cockles and sterile oats reign in the cultivated fields." -- Virgil, Georgics, translated/edited by Henry David Thoreau, The Dispersion of Seeds, published posthumously as Faith in a Seed, Edited by Bradley P. Dean
~ "We often say that a person's clothes are old and seedy, which may mean that they are far gone and dilapidated like a plant that is gone to seed - or, possibly, that they are made untidy by many seeds adhering to them. So with the fruit of the burdock, with which children are wont to build houses and barns without any mortar: both men and animals, apparently such as have shaggy coats, are employed in transporting them. I have even relieved a cat with a large mass of them which she could not get rid of, and I frequently see a cow with a bunch in the end of her whisking tail, which, perhaps, she stings herself in her vain efforts to brush off imagined flies." -- Henry David Thoreau, The Dispersion of Seeds, published posthumously as Faith in a Seed, Edited by Bradley P. Dean
~ "I learned that a young lady's mother, who one day took a turn in the garden in order to pluck a nose-gay, just before setting out on a journey, found that she had carried a surprising quantity of this [burdock] seed to Boston on her dress, without knowing it -- for the flowers that invite you to look at and pluck them have designs on you -- and the railroad company charged nothing for freight." Ibid.
~ "I am a kind of burr; I shall stick." -- Shakespeare, Measure for Measure
~ The species name is thought to come from the word lappa to mean burr in the Latin, and "to seize" in the Greek.
~ During WWI, the supply of pharmaceutical plants to Europe was interrupted and every patriotic effort was made to cultivate them at home. Burdock was among the medicinal plants listed as being in shortage as proclaimed by the British Board of Agriculture and Fisheries in 1914.
Oven Baked Brown Rice with Burdock & Shiitake
2 cups boiling water
2 cups cold water 1 cup brown rice
1 tbls safflower, sesame, or vegetable oil
4-5 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 medium young burdock root, washed well
1. Combine the shiitake, hot water and oil in a bowl. Allow to stand for 30 minutes. Drain and reserve liquid.
2. Slice the shiitake caps and stems into thin strips.
3. With a paring knife, peel off long strips of the burdock root and place in cold salted water to soak for 5 minutes.
4. Drain burdock and place in a 1 1/2 quart baking dish. Add the mushrooms, reserved liquid, rice, and a dash of salt if desired.
5. Cover and bake in a preheated 350' F oven 25-30 minutes.
3/4 cup finely chopped burdock root *
1/2 cup chopped parsley 1 cup apple vinegar cider
1/2 cup plain yogurt or sour cream
1. Bring the vinegar to a boil in a small saucepan, then reduce heat.
2. Add the chopped burdock root to the vinegar and simmer for 5 minutes.
3. Process in a blender or food processor until smooth.
4. Add the parsley, and yogurt or sour cream and blend well. Serve over warm potatoes, roasted chicken, or steamed vegetables.
* If the root has a thick skin, you'll need to wash and peel it. Peel the burdock root as you are cutting the root into small pieces, otherwise they will quickly turn brown.
For Certified Organic Burdock Root, please visit the Organic Herbs & Spices page.
For centuries, the root of burdock has been used as a blood purifier, helping the liver and kidneys to eliminate waste. There is also a strong belief that the root stimulates the gallbladder and encourages the regeneration of liver cells. An infusion of the leaves, taken as a tea, or used as an external wash, is reputed to be excellent for skin disorders. Fluid extracts made from the fresh root, which also contains inulin and at least 14 different polyacetylene compounds, have genuine beneficial application in the treatment of eczema, psoriasis, and other skin disorders. Two of these compounds possess antibacterial and antifungal qualities; the commercial dried root, however, has considerably less quantities of each. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that inulin serves to correct irregularities of the immune system and inflammatory mechanisms, and checks microbial activity which lead to staph infections, all of which are conditions typical of eczema sufferers. A poultice made of the shredded leaves and egg whites is a popular treatment to speed the healing of burns and bruises.
Burdock has also been applied to the discomforts of those afflicted with gout, a common form of arthritis. Gout, known as "the rich man's disease," is caused by excessive concentrations of uric acid in the blood. This acid, and crystals (monosodium urate), form deposits in the joints and tendons leading to inflammation and considerable pain with movement. Modern herbalists report that burdock is not only an effective detoxifier of the kidneys, but has an anti-inflammatory action, and is successful in aiding the body to excrete uric acid. In his book, Weiner's Herbal, author Michael Weiner reports an interesting folk remedy using burdock to treat gout: "Boil the [burdock] leaves in urine and bran until the liquid is almost gone; apply the sodden remains to the affected area."