Backyard Herbalism: Burdock and its hitchhikers
Friend or foe?
Burdock is a multi-purpose herb. To most it is just a pest. The sticky burs gather on your clothes and tangle your hair. They can be almost impossible to pull out of a fuzzy sweater. If you try to dig it up, you may think you'll never get to the end of its taproot. If you do, you still probably left bits of root that will spring up next year. If you just have a lone plant or two that you chop down before the seeds are mature in the second year, you might halt its spread.
Or maybe you'll be glad when more grows to harvest next year. Burdock has been used medicinally for centuries. Today it is used often as a detoxifying tonic. Burdock root has been used to clear renal stones and to stimulate the liver to process toxins for elimination by the kidneys. However, there is more to this plant.
Burdock is also a food, herbal first aid for the skin and a composting aid.
It's a fairly well-known story how George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, examined the hitchhikers he and his dog had picked up on a walk. He saw the tiny barbs, or hooks, on the end of the spines covering the seedpod. From this he conceived of Velcro.
What does burdock do?
Burdock is one of the movers and cleaners in the herb world. Its deep-rooted character matches with its cool, bitter-sweet nature. It is used to clean out the digestive and urinary (renal) systems. It acts in particular on the liver and kidneys. It is diuretic (makes you pee) and can help clear out debris. It's detoxifying effects can also help skin disorders to clear up. I consider it a fairly gentle herb but be aware it can get both the gastrointestinal and urinary tracts moving.
Burdock in the kitchen
That weed in the yard is also a freebie for the kitchen. The root alone, or with other roots like carrots, dandelion and parsnips it can make a tasty side dish. In Japan it is used as a stir-fry veggie. It is also pickled there and in other parts of Asia. It can be fried by itself, stewed with mushrooms, meats and other veggies and put into soups.
The top for on top
The top of the body being the skin, that is. Burdock leaves can be gathered to use as a poultice for the skin. Wrapped around sores, bruises and abrasions it soothes and reduces inflammation. It's been known to heal ulcers and draw out boils. It is part of nature's first aid. Don't forget to throw it all in the compost when you're done!
What do I do with burdock?
- Dig in the fall of the first year or the spring of the second before all the energy stored in the taproot is used up in the maturation process. The older the root is the tougher it gets.
- Wash, peel and cook as a vegetable. You'll probably need a scrub brush to get all the dirt off of them. Let roots dry before you peel them. Though, not everyone peels burdock roots. I like to cook it slow and get it tender.
- Wash, slice thin and allow to dry to store for decoctions. Decoctions are similar to a tea or infusion but simmered instead of steeped.
- Can be used in medicinal tinctures as a tonic benefiting digestion, the liver, the kidneys, the lymphatic system, and the endocrine system.
- Harvest leaves as the flowers begin to form, not after.
- Dried leaves for tummy tea. More bitter than the root.
- Use fresh as a poultice.
- Thrown in the compost it speeds up decomposition.
- In a decoction for fevers.
- Can be mixed with other movers and cleansers like stinging nettle, yellow dock root, dandelion leaf and root, and milk thistle seed.
What's in those hitch-hikers?
Those burs are just trying to bring the seeds they enclose to further pastures. Their needles are hooked and, like velcro, they will cling to anything clingable. Beware - they are prolific and if you are handling them don't let them drop just anywhere or they will come back to haunt you.
That said, those burdock seeds inside the burrs are useful as well. They contain essential fatty acids as well as vitamins A and riboflavin. They have a cool but slightly spicy character. An herbal decoction of burdock seeds (made by boiling seeds in water and then straining) can be used for hot, feverish colds and sore throats.
The seed pods or burs of a burdock might also be referred to as cockleburs, however, they should not be confused with the cocklebur plant (Xanthium strumarium L.). The flowers of burdock bloom a pleasant purple-pink color before the seed pods ripen. The burs of the cocklebur have white flowers and smaller leaves. The plants don't look that much alike except for similar seedpods but you wouldn't want to get the information about them confused. The cocklebur is toxic to animals.
Devil's Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens), aka grappling hook, is a hitchiker that grows wild in South Africa. It is used for pain, fever and digestive ailments. The German Commission E (a now defunct group that created monographs of herbs for medicinal use) approves the use of Devil's Claw for arthritis and low back, hip and knees pain.
There are also hitchhikers that grow in North and South America known as Devil's Claw that are not to be confused with the Devil's Claw sold in whole food stores. The pink flowered Proboscidea parviflora and the yellow flowered P. althaeifolia of the southwestern United States have pretty flowers and a stinky smell. The spiny curved claws grow off a large seed pod that develops. They hook around ankles and feet to secure their ride. The claws and pods are used in traditional Native American basketry in the southwest. Pueblo Indians use green pods as a food similar to okra.
Devil's Beggarticks (Bidens frondosa) are small smooth flat seeds that grow two little horns, or teeth, that latch on to the clothes and fur of passers-by. They are harmless nuisances that can be useful as honey plants but they can spread quickly. Take care to remove and dispose of any hitchhikers you pick up before they settle in your garden areas.
Burdock before flowering
How do I know it's a burdock?
If you're not sure what plant you have, no need to be in a rush. It's not going anywhere and you can keep an eye on it to see what it does.
Burdock is a biennial. The first year you get lovely, broad, dark green leaves that grow out from a basal rosette low to the ground in spring. It dies back in winter and returns the spring of year two. During the second summer a central flower stalk develops, the leaves getting smaller as they come out farther up the stock. Green flower buds develop at the top. They have soft "baby" barbs that don't hook and grab on to you yet. The flowers bloom at the end of summer, then turn brown and get loose to "hook-up" in the fall. If you don't want the seeds to spread or be a nuisance, and you don't want to collect them, cut the central flower stalk that develops in the second year before the flowers go by. Dispose of it carefully. Some seeds may still mature and disperse.
Not to be Confused: Rhubarb
Take heed to know your herbs before you pick - at a quick glance rhubarb can be misplaced for burdock if you are not aware that rhubarb has red stalks. While the stalks of rhubarb can be a pie baker's delight the leaves contain a high level of oxalate that is toxic.