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Quick Facts: Burdock

Herbal Nerd Society Exclusive Article

Editor’s Note: The text and still photos in this article are from Herbalism for the Zombie Apocalypse

Artium minusis, Common Burdock
Artium lappa, Greater Burdock
a.k.a., Hobo Buttons, Cockle Buttons, Beggar’s Buttons

Burdock is one of my favorite foods. It’s a gentle cleanser that offers crisp, sweet nutrition and medicine. It preserves easily and most everyone can stand the taste, making it easier medicine for our troubled times than many others.

Plant Identification

Burdock’s leaves can be big, easily two hands across, and are generally heart-shaped to ovalish, becoming more oval higher on the plant. The lower leaves are generally quite wavy at their edges, the higher leaves are often less so. They’re gray-green to deep green in color with a paler downy, fuzzy underside and a relatively smooth top. In first year burdock, the leaves cluster at the base; these are the plants to dig. Second year burdock send up a tall reddish to greenish stalk with leaves much like the lower ones but growing smaller higher up the stalk. Second year burdock look somewhat conic, like the shape of young pines or Christmas trees, but of course with burdock’s leaves, while first year burdock is shaped more like a very young rhubarb or dandelion in its low, slightly mounding habit with leaves growing up and out from a central point.

Young burdocks stick close to the ground like this one.

The flowers of burdock are thistle-shaped, with a spiky, ball-shaped base and a pink to purple explosion of similarly spiky petals arranged in a disk to circular mound atop that spiky ball.

Burdock roots run long and deep. The roots are much like the tap root of a pine, growing straight down with little to no branching unless the soil is rocky or other obstructions force them to change direction.

Once washed, burdock root is beige to dark brown on the outside with a white to cream colored center. Dried roots retain their pale interior and dark outer edges, although when they’re chopped before drying the darker exterior may not be as noticeable.

Fresh burdock root is crunchy and slightly sweet with a distinctive nutty flavor. The white interior will begin to turn reddish brown to brown rapidly on exposure to air. Dried burdock root is slightly bitter to bitter with sweet and nutty overtones.

Fresh and dried burdock smell like a damp woodland, clean and refreshing in a fall sort of way. It has been described by a rather young friend of mine as a forest with pu’erh tea and a bitter, bitter flavor, which I chock up to his youth, being that he was only eleven years-old at the time and I pass along for those of you who are still equally young and trying to identify this survival food on your own.


Near the flowers, burdock leaves become more oval than heart-shaped.

Detailed Description

Overall Appearance: 1.5-5 feet or 0.5-1.5 meters tall, leafy plant

Leaves: Alternate, large up to 16 inches in length, egg- to heart-shaped, thin fuzzy undersides and nearly hairless above, hollow lower stems. Leaves decrease in size and become ovate as they ascend the stalk. Dull gray green to green in color. Basal leaves only on first year. Pithy, reddish stalk with wavy leaves spiraling up in second year.

Flowers: Pink to purple, disk-shaped flowers 0.5-1 inch or 1.5-2.5 cm across, little to no stalk, involucre somewhat spherical, bracts in several series, long and narrow with spreading inward-hooked tips. Fairly long, scattered inflorescence.

Note: Greater burdock flowers have long stalks and are 1-1.5 inch or 2.5-4 cm across, shaped as short, mounded clusters.

Fruits: Achenes, oblong, 3-angled several-ribbed, hairless, pappus of numerous short bristles.

Root: Long, fleshy, brown on the outside, white inside.

Habitat

Burdock is known for growing in disturbed sites. What this really means is burdock likes areas that many other plants don’t. Roadsides, playgrounds, junkyards, train tracks, highways, and similar places all make good ground for burdock. They’re fairly flat and without obstructions. They offer plenty of sunshine with little competition for the water and ground to grow. Often the disturbed nature of the soil makes it easy for burdock to take root, too.

Burdock won’t limit itself to the hard, open places, though, and for food and medicine you may want to seek or plant your burdock in places that are less potentially polluted if possible.

Look for burdock in and around old nurseries and farm yards, in lawns, especially those nearer to the edges of town. Pretty much anywhere with full to partial sun and warm, damp soil akin to what you’d find in a pasture will suit burdock.

Burdock is a hearty, strong wild plant that can get along even through the droughts of our summers without much care. If you have the luxury of living near a natural waterway, burdock will grow nicely fairly close to shore with little to no attention. I seek burdock within fifty or so feet from most rivers, extending my range significantly for those I know to flood in the springs. I’ve also found it growing merrily all on its own in places where really the only water it gets is the winter rain.

Impostors


Yellow Dock

Yellow dock—Leaves of yellow dock are considerably smaller than those of burdock and lack the hairy or wooly undersides. Yellow dock leaves are darker in color, too, often with more red tones than those of burdock. Yellow dock is a perennial, so it grows and spreads from year to year and thus can have multiple taproots with some branching. Burdock is biennial, so it dies back after the second year, and its taproot is long and without branching. Yellow dock roots, whether broad leaved yellow dock or curly yellow dock, are yellow inside while those of burdock are white inside. Yellow dock flowers grow along tall, clustering or branching stems. The seeds turn brown in late late summer well before burdock’s and, on the stems, yellow dock seeds look like stems of small, papery disks. Yellow dock flowers and seeds are radically different from burdock’s thistle-like flowers and seeds.


Comfrey

Comfrey — Comfrey leaves are generally smaller than those of burdock, although when the plants are young in spring they may look similarly sized. Comfrey leaves are more ovulate with pointed tips and a taper into the leaf stem while those of burdock are heart- to a more rounded oval-shaped with a more rounded tip. Comfrey leaves and stems are fuzzy above and below with the sharpest hairs on the stems. Burdock leaves are smooth on top with a fuzzy underside and fuzzy stems. Comfrey leaves tend toward a darker green than those of burdock, as well. Comfrey flowers are small, delicate bell-shaped blossoms growing loosely several blossoms per stem at the base of younger leaves in the top third or so of the plant. They can be white, creamy yellow, or pink fading to blue. Burdock flowers are a bit larger than those of comfrey and are shaped more like spiky disks atop each bur, which looks like a spiky green ball while the plant is in bloom. In fall through winter, comfrey has no burs while burdock’s burs are brown atop brown stems.


Thistle Flowers (note the shape of the leaves.)

Thistles— Various thistles have flowers very much like those of burdock. Their leaves, though, are considerably smaller than burdock’s. If the burs, seeds, or roots you’re harvesting come from a plant whose largest leaves aren’t at least the size of two outspread hands, it may be a thistle rather than a burdock. Be sure the leaves are quite large and the flowers or burs have burdock’s hooked bracts before you harvest.


Rhubarb

Rhubarb— leaves of rhubarb are not wooly or hairy in any way while those of burdock are soft, fuzzy, wooly, hairy on their undersides. In addition, the leaf stalks of rhubarb are very tart while those of burdock are bitter. Be aware that rhubarb leaves are poisonous and the root, which is more a rhizome than a root, is more a medicine for diarrhea than a food.


Foxglove, aka Digitalis, in bloom


Foxglove foliage, note the leaves are long but neither wide nor heart-shaped.

Foxglove or Digitalis— Foxglove is deadly poisonous in all its parts. It’s most often mistaken for comfrey, but shares habitat desires with burdock and, especially to a novice, can be mistaken for burdock. Foxglove leaves are long, but not wide, with a wavy-toothed edge and a far more ovulate shape than those of burdock. Like burdock, foxglove leaves are wooly and pale on their underside, but foxglove leaves are a lighter, more medium green atop than those of burdock. Plus, burdock leaves are heart-shaped with the leaf distinctly joining the stem but not seeming to travel along the sides of the stem. Foxglove leaves grow along the stem and are quite wooly near the base. Foxglove flowers are tube-shaped and open from the bottom up, unlike the thistle-shaped flowers of burdock.

Harvesting and Processing

Burdock roots are best harvested in mid- to late-fall once the seeds have become those wonderful brown, dried burs. Post appropriate guards, and plan to dig as much as an arm’s length into the soil, carefully loosening as you go. Roots can be harvested in the second spring, but be absolutely positive you’ve got the right plant as you’ll need to dig them before the new greens start to shoot up and the roots become woody and fibrous.

Burdock ready for harvest.

Harvest burdock flowers in early spring, when they’re still young and very flexible. They make a good substitute for artichoke hearts. Clean them and trim any spiky bits, then braise, parboil, or boil them to reduce their bitter qualities.

Young burdock leaves and stalks can be eaten fresh in salads. Harvest them in early spring. The stalks can also be braised or fried like asparagus for a mild, tasty treat.
Burdock seeds can be harvested in fall. Be sure to remove the burs before putting them in your mouth. See the tip in Tips and Techniques for Harvesting and Preserving for doing so…and for removing the burs from your mouth if you should try eating them with their burs intact.

You can gather second year roots in the early spring, but once the stalk has shot up more than calf high or so the roots become woody and less useful as food or medicine.

Using and Preserving What You’ve Harvested

Burdock root is good food and medicine. As a food, it’s terrific added to any skillets or stir-fry-style cooking. You can slice it thinly and stuff it in fish or other small game before roasting them over an open fire. It’s excellent braised or steamed with other root vegetables. It holds up well in soups and stews, adding a lovely nutty, earthy flavor to the dish. Shaved, it even makes a reasonable addition to fresh salads, especially those made with winter greens like mustard and kale.

As a medicine, burdock root is excellent for toning the digestive system. Use it to help restore digestive balance and eliminate constipation and to cleanse the blood and kidneys. Burdock’s anti-inflammatory property helps improve digestion by reducing swelling in the intestinal tract and helping the body to better process food and absorb nutrients. Burdock is helpful for the exhaustion so many of us face from living in this stressful post-apocalyptic world because it helps to tone the liver and supports the kidneys by improving elimination of wastes through them. Diabetics, too, can benefit from burdock’s ability to prevent excess sugars from entering the bloodstream through the intestinal tract. To use burdock as an internal medicine, make the roots or leaves into a tea or decoction, or, of course, add them to your food.

Burdock leaves can be harvested young and added to salads. Older leaves can be added to soups but are tastier as potherbs that are strained out before adding the bulk of the soup ingredients. They can be used as tea for both medicine and for general nutrition.

Tips and Techniques for Harvesting or Preserving

First of all, if you’re digging burdock roots, be sure you have a good look-out, a stout shovel, and a good root-digging-spike. The roots run deep, so you’ll need to dig a long while. Once you’ve worked a reasonable hole around the upper portion of the root with your shovel, use a strong rod or root-digging spike to help loosen the soil around the lower part of the root until you can pull it free from the ground intact.

Cut burdock root into small chunks before drying it. Once it’s dried, it’ll be a lot harder to cut it down. Burdock root will dry well, but it helps if you can keep air circulating if you live in a rainy climate like mine. It will mold if the air stagnates and becomes too moist.

Burdock root can be preserved in vinegar or alcohol. Cut it up and stick it in a sealable jar. Add enough vinegar or alcohol to cover, and let it stand away from sunlight for at least a season. The vinegar or alcohol will extract many of the medicinal and nutritive properties, making it especially good for people and animals recovering from illness or starvation.

Once you’ve crushed the burs and removed the seeds, you’ll want to remove the little burs or hooks from them. If you’re lucky enough to have both power and a cheap coffee grinder, a quick whirl or two in the coffee grinder will do the job. But, if you’re without power, you’ll want to find or make a mortar and pestle or something akin to one. At our winter camp, I keep a set of rocks, one naturally a little hollowed out, that look a little like the ancient corn grinding stones they used to have in museums that the native people of North and South American once used. Mine aren’t as sophisticated as those ancient carved sets, but they work pretty well. I harvest the seeds and carry them to our winter camp where I spend some of those long winter hours working the burs off the seeds we intend to eat. I don’t generally bother to remove the seeds from the ones I’m making into tea I know I can strain, but if I’m not positive I’ll be able to strain it I only use de-burred seeds in teas, too.

How to Recognize Fresh, Good Quality Herb for Folks Who Don’t Harvest Their Own.

Burdock root, dried or fresh, has a distinctive sweet, woody scent. The inside should be white to cream colored and the outer edges should be dark brown, although in dried burdock the distinction in color between the inside and outside can be harder to detect. Fresh burdock root will turn a reddish brown to brown color when the inner part is exposed, such as when it’s been peeled.

Tools or Special Considerations for Harvest.

For digging, you’ll want protection. It takes a long while to dig the roots and can be pretty absorbing, leaving you open to potential attack from zombies and unfriendlies.
Bring a stout shovel, a strong rod or digging spike, and a basket for your harvest. Gloves will protect your fingers and fingernails from being damaged from the soil and the work, but aren’t necessary.

Seeds and burs are best stored or carried in a paper bag or a box made of cardboard, metal, or plastic so they don’t get stuck in your clothing, hair, skin, or animal companion’s fur.

Plan to use a mortar and pestle, coffee grinder, or similar tools to remove burs from seeds you plan to consume. I’ve come to understand a few folk have foolishly tried eating burdock seeds before they pounded off the burs and ended up with those little burs stuck in their tongue, gums, or the insides of their mouths. Those same folk have tried chewing a bit of plantain several times over the course of a few days and letting the pasty results sit on the bur-stuck area to draw the burs out with reasonable success.

Caring for the Earth and Wildcrafting Guidelines

Burdock root helps rejuvenate the soil. It grows deep and draws nutrients to the soil’s surface. It’ll also help remove toxins from the soil. Before virus Z, people in North America called burdock a pesky weed and worked to eradicate it in many of the areas that most needed rejuvenation. Today, we must let this hearty plant thrive where it will.
Burdock is valuable to all of us not just because it rejuvenates the soil, but also because it offers food and medicine to all of us survivors. If you’re harvesting from a patch of burdock, be sure to leave at least half the bounty for others who may come along, for wild animals who may need it, and for the Earth. Also, fill in the soil where you dug the root, preferably taking the time to cut up the tops a bit so they’ll break down and compost their nutrients back into the soil more quickly.

If you liked this, read Herbalism for the Zombie Apocalypse for more! 

Candace Hunter

Candace Hunter is a self-taught herbalist and artist who never, ever practices on guinea pigs in part because her family and friends are generally up to the job. She is co-author of The Practical Herbalist's Herbal Folio series and author of Herbalism for the Zombie Apocalypse. She edits The Practical Herbalist website and Practical Herbalist Press publications. She has also recently entered into the field of podcasting with reckless abandon. Listen to her on Real Herbalism Radio today, see her work at CandaceHunter.com, or find her on Facebook at Candace Hunter Creations.

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