Herb to Know: Burdock

| October/November 1999

Pesky weed, gourmet vegetable, or healing herb? Maybe all three. You’ve probably picked burdock’s prickly fruits (burs) out of your socks or the dog’s tail after an autumn hike, but did you know that burdock’s roots, stems, leaves, and seeds are esteemed as food and have a long tradition of medicinal use?

The genus Arctium comprises about ten species of robust biennials native to temperate Eurasia. Two of them, great burdock (A. lappa) and the similar but shorter common burdock (A. minor), are naturalized throughout much of North America. A third species, cotton burdock (A. tomentosum), occurs here sparingly.

First-year plants have long, fleshy taproots and long, celerylike stalks topped by a large, somewhat triangular leaf. The burdock leaf stem is skinny, and the leaf is dull green above and covered with gray down underneath. Great burdock leaf stalks are solid, while those of common burdock are hollow, a feature that botanists use to tell the two species apart. In their second year, the plants put up tall flower stalks—as tall as 9 feet in great burdock. These bear smaller, oval leaves. Great burdock has flat-topped clusters of stalked, thistlelike purple flowers up to 2 inches across that bloom from July to October; common burdock’s flowers are similar but short-stalked or stalkless and smaller. Each flower head consists of numerous thin, tubular florets, which protrude from the bristly green bur-to-be. The mature burs stick on animals’ fur and people’s clothing, dispersing the dark brown crescent-shaped seeds far and wide.

The generic name, Arctium, comes from the Greek word for “bear” and refers to the prickly fruit. The specific epithet lappa (Latin for “bur”) is sometimes applied to great burdock root when it is used as medicine. Minus is Latin for “less” or “smaller.” “Bur” is related to the Old English word byrst, “bristle,” and “dock” comes from a Scottish Gaelic word for burdock. Alternative common names include fox’s clote (another word for bur), beggar’s buttons, and happy major.

Medicinal Uses for Burdock

Throughout history, burdock has been used to treat health problems ranging from corns to cancer (it’s an ingredient of the Essiac cancer formula) and from gout to gonorrhea. In ancient times, it was believed to be an herb of Venus and hence linked to fertility and love. It’s been said that a pregnant woman could prevent miscarriage by applying burdock seeds and leaves to her navel. Native Americans used infusions of the roots, seeds, and buds to treat venereal diseases, rheumatism, kidney stones, and scurvy. The Pennsylvania Dutch and the Chinese have used a root or seed tea to tone their innards and ­relieve skin disorders. The tea soothes irritated mucous membranes and also makes you sweat. In China, the seeds are also used to treat measles, sore throats, tonsillitis, colds, and flu.

Culinary Uses for Burdock

There’s a lot of good eating in burdock plants. The Japanese have known this for years and have developed numerous cultivars with extra-large roots, which they roast, sauté, stir-fry, and pickle. The young roots, when peeled (the outer layer is bitter and strong smelling), stand in for radishes. They are high in vitamins and minerals.

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