Ah, thistles… such beautiful plants. Stubborn, humble and loud. Their punk-like flowers come in all sizes, and remind me of that most coveted of lands…
I came across burdock—specifically the “Greater Burdock”, Arctium lappa—very soon after arriving in Europe, when I looked into my first european herbal in search of a natural hair tonic. Unfortunately, the book had a very poor picture, and it took me a long time to recognise it live. This is also due to its ability to change quite drastically from teenage- to adulthood.
In its first year, burdock grows as a rosette of very large (half a metre long) heart-shaped leaves that remain close to the ground. In winter the top growth dies back at temperatures a little above freezing, but the roots tolerate much lower temperatures. So, in early spring, burdock goes through a metamorphosis, growing a mighty stem (apparently up to three metres!) with smaller, alternating oval leaves that decrease in size towards the top. The purple flower-heads grow on long stalks at the base of the leaf-stalks. Each flower head consists of numerous florets that protrude from the bristly bur-to-be. As they mature and dry, burs stick on basically anything passing by, allowing the brown crescent-shaped seeds to be dispersed far and wide.
Although somewhat forgotten in the modern european kitchen, burdock is a very succulent plant. The long, crispy roots are the most commonly eaten part, either raw—when young—or cooked—roasted, sautéed, stir-fried, pickled, steamed… yumm!. The outer layer is bitter and stinky, so it is usually peeled off. The roots have a nutty, sweet flavour before the flower stalks appear in the plants’ second year. Roasted, they are often used in coffee substitutes. And, alone or in the company of dandelion, a stout ingredient of refreshing bevs.
Digging them will certainly leave you wanting a refreshment, as the roots tend to be very long, whish is how the plant reaches nutrients deep down, bringing them up in what is called bio-dynamic accumulation.
Burdock root is low in caloric density and is high in two kinds of fiber: inulin and a spongy fiber called mucilage, which is a thick, glutinous substance related to the natural gums and used in medicine as an emollient. Inulin extracted from edible burdock has also shown probiotic properties that could promote health by increasing beneficial bacteria in the gut. These properties may help explain burdock’s purported soothing effects on the gastrointestinal tract.
Usually there will be quite an accumulation of earthworms and other smaller critters around the burdock roots—yes, we’re not the only wise creatures around here. They’re after all those nutrients brought up from the deep soil. In order to avoid killing them, I started uprooting the burdocks using my fingers and a small trowel. But after the third plant I came to the conclusion that I was producing a huge disturbance. A garden fork with long tines proved a less damaging tool.
But the root is not the only edible part. The flower stalks, harvested just as the flowers are forming, can be eaten as celery and tastes like artichoke hearts. And same with the peeled leaf stalks. The young leaves make tasty greens, although many people find them too bitter. And the seeds can be collected—even from your trousers and socks—and sprouted!
Burdock is also a great medicinal plant, and one of the most poweful detoxifying herbs in herbal medicine. The dried root of one year old plants is the part commonly used, but the leaves and fruits are also benficial, if less potent. Burdock is used to treat conditions caused by an ‘overload’ of toxins, such as throat and other infections, boils, rashes and other skin problems. The root is thought to be particularly good at helping to eliminate heavy metals from the body. The plant is antibacterial, antifungal, carminative—probably my favourite—and has soothing, mucilaginous properties. It is widely used against many skin diseases (herpes, eczema, acne, impetigo, ringworm, boils, bites), burns, bruises, and much more. Like Dandelion, Chicory and Elecampane, Burdock has a lot of inulin, and is used as a sweetener for diabetics. The roots of one-year old plants are harvested in mid-summer and dried. The seed is harvested in the summer and dried for later use. The crushed seed is poulticed onto bruises. The leaves are poulticed onto burns, ulcers and sores.
Again, a native, much neglected plant that is apar with any exotic superfood, and can keep you healthy and good-lookin’ goes by as a weed. For my part, I’ll be looking at it with new, hungrier, more grateful eyes. And will be cooking some of those roots!
More about Leewood, the magic edible garden: