The Incredible Edible Burdock

You’ve probably brushed against burdock at one time or other and are familiar with the clinging seed heads. But, did you know the root is a delicious vegetable that detoxifies the body? Burdock tea is an effective remedy for acne, eczema, and psoriasis. What’s more, the herb that inspired Velcro is also reputed to be a remedy for hair loss.

Mother went rambling, and came back with a burdock on her shawl, so we know that the snow has perished from the earth. - Emily Dickinson, Letters of Emily Dickinson

Burdock (Arctium sp.) is easily recognized by its prickly seed heads, which tend to cling to the socks and sweaters of unsuspecting travelers while hiking through woods and fields. This persistence for attachment is what brought burdock from the Old World to America and Canada. The hook-and-loop design of the seed bracts also fueled the imagination of Swiss inventor George de Mestral, who introduced the world to Velcro in the early 1940s.

While burdock seems to be biologically engineered to further its natural range, it’s main pharmacological action is to promote the elimination of toxins. In fact, burdock has a long history of use in folk medicine as a blood purifier, diaphoretic (increases sweating), and a diuretic. The root of the plant is attributed with the ability to stimulate bile production and to regenerate cells of the liver. The plant is also reputed to reduce excessive levels of uric acid in the blood and deter the formation of monosodium urate crystals, two characteristics of “rich man's disease," or gout. At one time, burdock was considered a treatment for cancer, catarrh, and syphilis. The herb is also said to be an aphrodisiac.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the seeds are known as niupangzi (also Niu Bang Zi) and are used to expel wind-heat that accompanies cough, fever, sore throat, arthritis, rheumatism, anorexia nervosa, and various gastrointestinal disorders. These effects are likely due to the presence of more than a dozen different polyacetylene compounds, several of which have been proven to possess antibacterial and antifungal properties. The herb also contains inulin, which helps to regulate inflammatory responses initiated by the immune system. In addition, phytosterols in the plant are believed to stimulate natural hair growth. In fact, an extract obtained from the root known as Bur oil is sold in Europe as a natural remedy for scalp conditions and hair loss. For the home herbalist, a simple tea made from the dried leaves is an effective wash for treating various skin conditions, including acne, eczema, psoriasis, and athlete’s foot. Of course, the antimicrobial properties of the tea also benefit those suffering from colds, flu, and inflammatory disorders.

Many people are surprised to learn that burdock is an edible food, cooked or raw. The Iroquois harvested and dried the roots to serve as a source of food in winter. In Japan, young burdock taproots are as common in the marketplace as potatoes are in the West. The classic Japanese dish known as Kinpira gobo features braised burdock taproots combined with carrots, although the roots are also added to miso soups, rice dishes, and stir-fries. The young leaves and flowers can be steamed as a vegetable or added raw to salads. While the root imparts a sweet and pungent flavor, the leaves and flowers taste very similar to one of its botanical cousins—the artichoke.

Burdock has earned a place in literature as well as in the medical journals. In addition to Emily Dickinson noting that the appearance of burdock on her mother’s shawl was an indication of the emergence of spring, she also paid tribute to the herb with this poem:

A Burdock-clawed my Gown- Not Burdock's-blame- But mine- Who went too near The Burdock's Den-

The Russian novelist and essayist, Leo Tolstoy, famous for his epic War and Peace, made an entry in his personal diary that described an encounter with a burdock plant that stood alone in a plowed field: “It makes me want to write. It asserts life to the end, and alone in the midst of the whole field, somehow or other had asserted it."

In The Dispersion of Seeds, published posthumously as Faith in a Seed, Henry David Thoreau wrote, "We often say that a person's clothes are old and seedy, which may mean that they are far gone and dilapidated like a plant that is gone to seed - or, possibly, that they are made untidy by many seeds adhering to them. So with the fruit of the burdock, with which children are wont to build houses and barns without any mortar: both men and animals, apparently such as have shaggy coats, are employed in transporting them. I have even relieved a cat with a large mass of them which she could not get rid of, and I frequently see a cow with a bunch in the end of her whisking tail, which, perhaps, she stings herself in her vain efforts to brush off imagined flies."

Perhaps the prose that best portrays the tenacious nature of burdock was penned by William Shakespeare and delivered by the character Lucio in the comedy, Measure for Measure. Upon vowing to defend Friar Lodowick (who is really the Duke of Vienna in disguise) from the bawdy speech of the peasantry, Lucio ensures his unwavering devotion with this simple statement: "I am a kind of burr; I shall stick."