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.
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.
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.
The Iroquois dried burdock roots, then soaked them and cooked them in winter soups. Foragers find the wild roots nutty, sweet, and tender if gathered before the flower stalks appear in the plants’ second year. Digging them is a real chore as the roots are very long; here’s where planting your own burdock in raised beds of fluffy garden soil can help.
Roots can also be steamed, baked, and boiled with a pinch of soda in the water. The boiled roots may be mashed, made into patties, and sautéed in butter. Bell peppers, carrots, turnips, parsnips, mushrooms, and mustard greens are worthy companions. Common burdock roots have been roasted and ground for use as a coffee substitute. Dried burdock root, nettles, dandelion leaves, and brown sugar are the main ingredients of an old-time herb beer.
Or try peeling the flower stalk, harvested just as the flowers are forming, and eating it like celery. Italians parboil the peeled stalks for a minute, drain, dip in egg, then in crumbs, and fry for a treat that tastes like artichoke hearts. Another option: candy them (see recipe below).
The peeled leaf stalks are also edible; great burdock’s solid stalks yield more for your effort. The young leaves make tasty greens but need to be cooked in two waters (the first with a pinch of soda) to remove any bitterness.
Too late for tender leaves, flower stalks, or roots? Pick some burs off your socks and collect some of the seeds. Sprout the seeds in a small jar and use them like bean sprouts.
Burdock grows just about everywhere with no help from gardeners, but for the most tender aboveground parts and the biggest roots, provide deep, loose, fertile, well-drained garden soil, full sun, and plenty of water. ‘Takinogawa Long’ is a Japanese cultivar selected for roots that can be 3 feet long and an inch in diameter. Harvest roots during the summer or fall of their first growing season. Be prepared to do a lot of digging. If you keep some plants so that you can harvest the young flower stalks the following year, make sure that you at least cut off the flowers to prevent bur formation. Neither you nor the neighbors will appreciate having volunteer burdocks growing everywhere.
• Goodwin Creek Gardens, PO Box 83, Williams, OR 97544. (541) 846-7357. Catalog $1. Plants of Arctium lappa.
• Richters, Goodwood, ON, Canada L0C1A0. (905) 640-6677. Catalog free. Seeds and dried roots of A. lappa; seeds and plants of A. lappa ‘Takinogawa Long’.
• The Thyme Garden, 20546 Alsea Hwy., Alsea, OR 97324. (541) 487-8671. Catalog $2. Seeds and roots of A. lappa.
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