You’ve probably walked past a burdock many times, thinking, “What is that GIANT plant?!” It is a common roadside weed of impressive proportions: leaves can be 24 inches long, flower stalks can be five feet tall, and the root reaches two to three feet in length. It does not look bad, it is a well-known medicinal plant, and some parts are edible. But we still consider it a weed. Go figure.
In Japan, burdock root is sold as the vegetable gobo and is served pickled, or sliced and sautéed in tamari sauce. When grown as a commercial crop, burdock is buried in sand, making it less challenging to dig up than harvesting it in the wild. Where I hunt in Pennsylvania, our soil is rocky and hard; Burdock root takes hold and won’t let go. Pulling up burdock root is not like pulling up a bunch of potatoes. It takes extensive digging and cleaning (no smooth, easy-to-rinse surface here) to make this root edible.
Besides being used as a vegetable, burdock root is medicinal. Although I don’t eat it, I have had great success using burdock tincture as an anti-inflammatory. It saved me an emergency room trip because my throat was closing up due to swollen lymph nodes, and I keep it around for any condition that requires lymph or swelling to drain quickly.
I make burdock vinegar every year for my husband too, and he drinks it straight. Just a jar full of sliced burdock covered with raw apple cider vinegar and left to infuse for a few months. Then I push him out, and he eats the burdock roots as pickles. He’ll pour the infused burdock vinegar into a shot glass and drink it anytime he’s a little upset, and it reminds me to do more when we run low. I can’t imagine how he steals it, but the smell worries me. One man’s medicine is another man’s poison, and it works for him.
Burdock and Its Nutritional and Healing Qualities
Burdock is a wonderful plant, despite the fact that most people who come across it only remember it for the spiky seed pods that stick to you – and all another thing. Burdock is often one of those plants that ends up on various town and city “noxious weed” lists because of its seed pods. And yes, they can be really annoying and irritating if they are stuck to your clothes, socks, hair, and so on. And yet, this is a plant that provides us with nutritious food, healing and medicine any time the ground is not frozen solid.
Burdock is primarily a nutritional and metabolic tonic; that is, it is rich in minerals and vitamins, and eating it is beneficial for digestion. It is best eaten fresh or tinctured. For a complete list of burdock’s medicinal qualities, I highly recommend Jim McDonald’s discussion of burdock. Grieve’s Modern Herbal also has a nice entry. Burdock is one of those amazing plants that you can eat as food, cause it is food, but it has good medicinal qualities that are like medicinal food. It’s really amazing and, I think, it’s really unappreciated!
How to use burdock roots
Burdock roots can be grated raw in salads or homemade veggie burgers. It can be simmered or roasted with other roots. In a previous blog I have shared three simple recipes for burdock root. It can also be simmered to flavor soft drinks or beer.
Lesser burdock (Arctium minus)
Contrary to the name, lesser burdock can grow to a height of 1.5 to 2 meters. The leaves of the smaller burdock are also quite large. For example, the basal leaves of the rosette can grow up to 60 cm in length. In contrast to most other burdock species, lesser burdock prefers soils with low levels of lime or soils free of lime. One feature that distinguishes lesser burdock from greater burdock is the leaf stalk. These are hollow in Arctium minus, but filled with pith in Arctium lappa. The young parts of the burdock plant are edible and are said to taste like artichokes when cooked.
Large burdock is one of the most famous species and it grows quite high at 80 to 100 cm. The rosette leaves of the greater burdock, which can be up to 50 cm long, provide shelter for many beetles and other insects. The flowers of the common honeysuckle are also very attractive to native bees, bees and woodpeckers. When growing burdock to harvest the roots, a variety of the subspecies Arctium lappa var. sativa is commonly used. This variety is distinguished by particularly long, unbranched roots.
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