Rod’s Ramblings on Burdock

By Rodney Martin in Animals & Nature, Food


Consider the European settler of the 17th century emigrating to America with some of his belongings—including some cattle beasts, with which he hopes to boost his chances of success.  One day the cattle beasts are foraging on some idyllic pasture on some estate of the European countryside, and the next they are carted without consultation to a harbour, craned onto a ship, and floated off toward the New World.

A close examination of said idyllic pasture on said estate would reveal a burdock plant or two missing some burrs, and it would happen that these very burrs are now en route via cattle beast underbelly to one of the eastern settlements of America.

Soon our travelling cattle beasts will find themselves foraging in a new and wild frontier.  Each of them in its time will seek out a soft patch of grass where it will lower itself, front legs and then hind, and let out a great huff as it drops to its resting pose.  One consequence of this jostling will be that the clump of burrs on the cattle beast’s underbelly will release a burdock seed that will germinate and grow into a vigorous burdock plant.

Some decades later, “the great Clot-Bur” or “burre-docke” will be listed among other plant species in a chapter entitled “Of such Plants as have sprung up since the English Planted and kept Cattle in New England” in the book “New England’s Rarities Discovered” by one John Josselyn, a gentleman of England who had travelled to America.  And so will be documented the invasion of the burdock plant into North America.

Some centuries later still you will have that childhood incident where you are adventuring in the deep woods- or the wild shrubbery at the edge of the park- and you go to scratch an itch on your head, only to discover that a clump of burrs has attached itself to your glowing, youthful locks.  And then you try to pull them out, which entangles them further.  And then the tears begin, and you have to retreat to your mother. She tries her very best, but eventually has to go for the scissors, leaving you with a bald patch that makes you terribly self-conscious at school for the next month or two. And that, in addition to the many burrs that you have extracted from your jeans and jackets and socks and shoelaces over the years, is why you have no fondness for the burdock plant.

But let’s see if we can’t find something to redeem this unloved weed.

There is of course the well-known fact that burdock was the inspiration for Velcro® fasteners.  George de Mestral was an electrical engineer who spent ten years developing a manufacturing process to reproduce the hooks and loops that mimic a burr’s clinginess.  George de Mestral, however, was Swiss, and he got his inspiration on a hunting trip in the Swiss Alps, which are not in North America.  There was no need for burdock and its prickly flowers to make its way to the New World in order for Velcro® to be invented.

Burdock has been used as a folk medicine to treat everything from colds to cancer, but there is very little research showing that it is particularly effective as such.  The root is known to contain a mild diuretic, so if you need to pee something out of your system, burdock root could work as a natural remedy; but there are plenty of safe and well-researched medicines available that are more effective at this job than burdock root.  The same can be said for many of the other medicinal uses for burdock.  Consult your doctor.

If you decide to go full herbalist and pick your own burdock root, make sure that you pick it when the leaves are still on and easily identifiable (large rhubarb-like leaves with a fuzzy underside, and purple-brown stalk) because otherwise burdock root can easily be mistaken with the root of deadly nightshade, which can literally be deadly.  In the 1970s a drug company accidentally contaminated its burdock root capsules with nightshade root and some people suffered from atropine poisoning as a result.  (Since then, burdock root capsule production is regulated to ensure that a contamination of this sort doesn’t happen again.)

Burdock root can be eaten as a decent source of fiber, potassium, iron, and manganese.  I have eaten it.  It is not very tasty.  My wife and I had some in a stir-fry one night after her father had dug all the burdock out of his garden.  He figured we would be into eating it, and he wasn’t entirely wrong—it was a fun experiment.  We julienned it and fried it up in a mix of other vegetables and sugar and soy sauce.  It was a pretty decent stir-fry, but it would have been much better without the burdock root.  It has a bitter aftertaste that hits you at the back of your tongue and overpowers the other flavours.  It also makes you feel a bit crampy afterward.  We’ll be sticking with potatoes and carrots as our root vegetables of choice for the foreseeable future.

And that’s about all there is to say about burdock.  The short answer, then, is no, we can’t really find anything to redeem this unloved weed.  A posthumous pox on the settler who brought burdock to North America.