Herbal Nerd Society Exclusive Article
Burdock, also known as Articum lappa or A. minor, has trotted across the globe on the backs and packs and clothes and companions of humans for centuries. Although it’s a relative new-comer to Traditional Western Herbal Medicine, having been first documented as a minor herb in the late 1700s, it’s had a longer history of use across other traditions, particularly Traditional Chinese Medicine. The parts of Burdock herbalists have most loved, however, has shifted back and forth, much like Burdock’s popularity among professional healers, across ages and cultures.
According to Matthew Wood, Burdock was much loved for its seeds, which were used to fight off infections and increase urine production. Gravel or kidney stones, constipation, uterine prolapse, rheumatism and arthritis, and boils or carbuncles and similar eruptive skin conditions were among the complaints Traditional Western Herbalists countered with Burdock root and seed. The leaves were used topically to heal skin conditions including a variety of rashes and flaky, rash-like conditions such as eczema and psoriasis as well as the occasional snake or spider bite.
The root was taken as a food or tea to help rehability the chronically ill or those with weakened conditions, as well. Traditional Western Herbalists today use Burdock for many of the same conditions as did our ancestors. The taste of seeds and root are bitter, sweet, and pungent; the seeds emphasize the bitter aspect of this set while the root’s emphasis is on the sweet taste. The emphasis on the bitter taste in the seeds coupled with their diffusive energy points to seeds being the better choice if you need to stimulate digestive function and get whatever’s stuck moving more rapidly. The emphasis on the sweet taste in the root coupled with its oily nature suggests that the root is the better choice for chronic, stuck conditions, especially if the overall consitiution is weakening due to prolonged illness.
In either case Burdock works on the digestive and eliminative organs, the Kidneys, Liver, and intestinal tract. Burdock was connected in medical literature of the early 20th century with an Alterative action and grouped with other Blood Purifers. That is certainly one of Burdock’s specialties, but that’s not the end or even the primary action of this detoxifying recovery herb.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Burdock is known as two herbs by one name, Nui Bang Zi. The seeds are most often used in TCM as medicine while the root is considered a vegetable or potherb. Both are cooling and draining, making them detoxifiers of differing potency. The seeds are used to open the surface, allowing Wind Heat to dissipate, and to support the Lung and Stomach meridians. As such, they’re a good choice for conditions related to what Westerners think of as colds, flus, and viruses, particularly when accompanied by a sore throat. They’re particularly indicated when an eruptive rash is present, such as boils or carbuncles but also pox or measles. Here, the seeds will be most helpful in the early stages of the illness.
Burdock root is used in TCM to move lymph and detoxify the blood, often over the course of weeks or months. Burdock’s affinity for detoxifying and moving stuck or stagnant energies may well be the key to recent success TCM practitioners have reported in using Burdock alongside chemotherapy and other treatments. This study indicates that Scientists in China agree that Burdock shows a lot of promise in the treatment of cancer, although they still have many unanswered questions as well.
Ayurvedic Herbalists regard Burdock as a Pitta herb that reduces Kapha and increases Vata. The primary tastes they associate with Burdock are bitter, pungent, and astringent for both root and seed with the addition of sweet to the root’s tastes.
Ayurvedic practitioners favor Burdock for decreasing Ama, as accumulation of stagnant and heavy or toxifying wastes in the body. As such, Burdock root is a Pitta tonic herb, one that supports a healthy movement of the digestive and transformative energies of the body. The root is often paired with Yellow Dock root for a more slow and stead action while the seeds are paired with coriander seeds for a more quickly moving action. In either case, Burdock is not recommended for cases of excess or high Vata as it can further aggravate that dosha.
Matthew Wood connects two rather general indications with Burdock, a worried countenance and exhaustion. Neither are clear, definite, and concrete indications but rather more qualitative and depend on acurate and keen observational skills. That, perhaps, is part of Burdock’s magic. He suggests that the “true physician should have a therapeutic eye,” thus is adept at spotting disease at any time, even outside the clinic, and is ready to offer what help is needed…much like our friend Burdock.
Maia Toll connects Burdock with the ability or need to tap into one’s inner fire as a means to move forward. Certainly folks who are feeling tired, overwhelmed, dried-up and exhausted are in need of a new spark of life. Burdock on an energetic level works to get energies that have gotten stuck moving.
I like to think of the conditions that most call for Burdock as being like an engine that is running low on oil. As the heat mounts, some parts of the engine are overtaxed and start to labor and move more slowly. As they slow down, other areas struggle and seize. The result in the engine and in the body is stuck energies that get in the way of progress, exacerbating the situation. Burdock works to lubricate the areas that need lubrication, stimulate the areas that need a little more umpf, and gently but surely get the whole system moving in harmony once again. Whether you’re reaching for Burdock to treat a physical malady or sitting with Burdock to help move your Soul, Maia’s suggestion that Burdock can help you nurture your fire is spot-on.
Burdock is a diurtic and draining or diffusive herb in any form. It is not indicated in conditions of dehydration or diarrhea. Avoid Burdock root or seed in cases of excess Vata, such as Manic states or excessive anxious, nervous energy where Kapha is out of balance and unable to keep the mind-body rooted and steady.
- The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicines by Matthew Wood
- The Way of Chinese Herbs by Michael Tierra
- The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine
- The Illustrated Herbiary: Guidance and Rituals from 36 Bewitching Botanicals by Maia Toll
- “TCM Herbs – The Amazing Herbs – Burdock Root” by Kit
- “Cancer Chemoprevention and Therapy Using Chinese Herbal Medicine”