Wild Edible Plants: Great Burdock
Burdock (Arctium Lappa) is generally considered to be an undesirable pest or weed in our gardens and yard. The mass of brown burrs stick our gloves, clothing, and pets creating a matted, uncomfortable situation. You may find your self cursing this misunderstood plant with each spiky seed you pull. The plant itself is believed to have been introduced from Europe and Asia and can be found in nearly all of the northern United States. However, its status as an invasive is wildly debated.
However, despite the negative associations burdock is a culinary all-star in the realm of wild edibles and it's a wonder that the plant is not commercially grown. Burdock root has a sweet flavor that floats in between potatoes, celery root and celery. It can be shredded like carrots and has a crunchy moist characteristic that makes it fun to eat. The young leaves of the plant can be eaten like lettuce in the spring or steamed and sauteed like spinach and the young stalks can be peeled and eaten raw or steamed and have a flavor of mild asparagus.
Finding and identifying burdock plants is a fairly easy task. During the fall the brown burrs make finding the plant an accidental task. Burdock is a large plant, and the stalk can be up to 7 feet high in some instances. The Leaves of the burdock plant are the defining factor when the stack and burrs are not present. The leaves are alternating and large (up to 20 in long in the summer) with wide flowing lobes that create a wavy edge. The leaves have a distinct center line and often curl towards the stalk creating a hear or oval shaped hole near the the connection to the stalk. The underside is white and slightly woolly when the leaves are large. Smaller leaves on the stalk appear more oval and smooth with no lobes or rippling. The stalks are soild and not hollow, the latter being characteristic of common burdock, which does not have a pleasing flavor.
The burrs will appear purple in the summer months gradually drying and turning brown at the end of the season.
Burdock can be harvested at anytime during the year. The leaves and stalk of course are only desirable when they are ound and tender. It is possible to eat the mature leaves and stalks but they generally take on a fibrous and tough texture that is rather unappealing. The roots are best when harvested from large plants, and they can reach up to a meter deep and several inches in diameter.
The best way to harvest the roots is to dig them up. Cut the plant with 4 to 6 inches of stalk left above the soil. A post hole digger used around the plant works well, but I prefer the good ol' shovel when I harvest. I loosen the soil around the root on all sides by pushing the shovel in with my foot and then wiggling it around. Then I push the shovel in on an angle cutting off the top foot of root and pull up prying it from the ground. I find this to be the most efficient way o harvest. Digging a deep hole takes a long time and you don't get much more from the process.
To prepare the root, you must first peel and soak it. Peel the hard skin off and let the root soak in cold water overnight. You can then shred it into salads or coleslaw. The root can be prepared just as you would a carrot, sliced, and boiled, steamed or sauteed. Traditional Asian preparation is to cut the root into strips about 1/4 in thick, boil or steam, and serve with sauce as a side or appetizer. The root can also be cut wafer thin and fried to create vegetable chips.
Burdock can be cultivated in your garden as well. Small burdock plants can be transplanted or the burrs can be harvested and sown the following sping however, if you wish to use the plant as a vegetable in your garden you might want to look for seeds from a supplier as they will provide a sweeter and more desireablel flavor. If cultivated the plant can be harvested for leaves and stalks in the early spring but be sure to cut no more thant 30 - 50% of the growth to ensure the plant stays healthy.