Another herbal gem from the daisy or Asteraceae plant family is the hardy biennial burdock. Indigenous to Europe and temperate zones in China, burdock was later introduced to Asia and America, and has since become naturalised in many regions across the globe. It can be found sprawling along fences, across roadsides, in wastelands, and in many fields across our rural countrysides, where it mostly grows as a weed.
Despite its weed status, it is one guaranteed to complement your New Year’s plans to shake and shed post-festive season loads of over-indulgences. Imagine the burrs on the seed heads with their little hooks working within ouur body’s tissues helping to dislodge the buildup of toxic waste products. That is perhaps burdock’s main claim to fame. These same little burrs inspired Swiss inventor George de Mestrel to replicate these hooks and create velcro!
Burdock is an ancient medicinal plant, present as a common feature in the herbal repertories of European and American folk healers. Its primary applications were employed to assist the removal of waste from bodily tissues through each elimination channel, including not only the bowels and kidneys, but also detoxifying from the skin and lungs. While burdock’s roots, leaves and seeds have been used for many centuries for medicinal or culinary purposes, however the roots have perhaps developed the greatest known applications in ancient and modern day herbal medicine.
Burdock’s key actions were seen, and continue to be recognised as providing mild laxative and diuretic, as well as depurative and alterative, or blood-purifying effects. It has long been considered one of the best herbal depuratives, also working as an anti-inflammatory agent. It has thereby found its chief uses in treating skin disorders, including chronic conditions such as psoriasis, eczema, and boils; and especially conditions requiring elimination like gout, and rheumatisms like arthritis, urticaria and acne. Burdock was also a go-to in conditions with weak circulation in the presence of skin eruptions like leprous and venereal diseases. Additionally, used topically for treating bites, ringworm and impetigo, and a host of other conditions manifesting themselves on the skin, the leaves were also used externally as a poultice for bruises and a wide range of other skin problems. It was seen to open up the elimination channels of the, and tp provide bitter and cooling properties that has been used for poor appetite and digestive complaints.
It had other uses in herbal concoctions for relieving stomach pain, to promote sweating, to break up stones in the kidneys and bladder, and to ease pains during childbirth. Seeds were used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for treating measles eruptions, sore throats, colds, influenza and tonsillitis. TCM and traditional Indian medicine acknowledged cooling, drying and decongestant properties, while TCM also ascribed the roots with endurance and strength promoting attributes, and found it to possess aphrodisiac effects.
All plant parts gained reputation for “curing cancers”. Hildegarde von Bingen, the herbalist nun in the twelfth century used it for the treatment of cancerous tumours. It has been consumed regularly as food and as a beverage for countless centuries, and also with dandelion root since at least the Middle ages to create a potent wine.
Coined names such as Beggar’s and Cockle Buttons, Fox’s Clote, Clot-Bur, Happy Major and Love Leaves; the Latin name Arctium is Greek for arktos meaning a bear, and lappa meaning ‘a hand’, ‘to seize’, or Celtic ‘to grasp’. This is thought to be associated with the grasp of a bear’s claw, imaginably difficult to shake off. The ‘Bur’ is believed to be a contraction from the Latin burra, meaning a lock of wool, associated with the entanglement of Burdock’s burrs upon passing unsuspecting sheep. The ‘dock’ aspect is said to derive from the large dock-like leaves.
Burdock gained a place in Gaelic tradition centuries ago in South Queensferry, Scotland, in the annual harvest festival of Burryman. The day before the town’s Ferry Fair, a fully suited and balaclava-donned man would cover his entire body, head to ankle with hundred of the burrs. Resembling a bear, he would be paraded around town all day by a couple of attendants, visiting pubs, factories and other hot-spots. Onlookers were expected to provide whisky (which the Burry man was naturally required to drink through a straw), and money, perhaps as a consolation for the subject’s torture, but also to afford good luck for the town, and to ward out evil spirits.
There have been very limited clinical studies conducted to support Burdock’s traditional use and knowledge, and most scientific data has come from in vitro and in vivo studies. However, there have been an ample number of animal studies supporting liver-protective effects. Also, a small-scale observational study demonstrated clinical efficacy of a homeopathic dose of Burdock in treatment of acne vulgaris, especially inflammatory types.
In vitro and in vivo research has shown Burdock to possess antioxidant, free-radical scavenging and anti-ageing effects. The caffeolyquinic acid derivatives have been seen to produce at least some of these antioxidant activities. In vivo studies of alcohol extracts via injection have shown anti-tumour activities, with further studies showing inhibition against carageenan-induced oedema, and carbon tetrochloride-induced hepatotoxicity and liver damage. Burdock’s constituent arctiin, a bitter glycoside, has demonstrated some of these anti-cancer properties, in addition to chlorogenic acid, which has been shown to slow tumour growth. Arctiin has also shown antii-inflammatory effects with an ability to reduce platelet activating factor thereby improving circulatory function. It is additionally associated with burdock’s diuretic effects, helping encourage the excretion of uric acid by the kidneys, relieving rheumatic conditions.
Polyacetylene substances are also present, which produce antibacterial, antifungicidal and further antimicrobial effects. These alongside the diuretic aspects help to alleviate conditions like cystitis. Burdock as well contains bitter glycosides; alkaloids; fixed and essential oils; resin; tannins; mucilage; organic acids and mineral salts.
The seeds and fresh root of burdock have been shown to regulate blood sugar, with the polysaccharide inulin primarily relevant, which promotes the growth of bifidobacteria in the large intestine. Inulin comprises some fifty per cent of the root, making it an excellent carbohydrate source for diabetics. Burdock root tea may also be useful for diabetics (or anyone for that matter) given that the bitter properties act as a tonic to the digestive system, helping to regulate digestive functions and excretion.
The root of burdock contains not only an amazing amount of fibre in the form of inulin, but also a range of other nutrients helping to support not only optimum liver function, but also heart, and overall vital health. Among its key nutrients are vitamins E, C and K; a range of B vitamins – especially B6 and folate, and a range of minerals including iron, calcium, magnesium, phosporous, manganese, copper and potassium.
Out in the garden
Burdock has a massive, long brown spindle-shaped tap root containing white flesh that grows to depths of up to a metre. It therefore requires deep soils, preferring well-drained positions in rich, light, loamy soil, especially those composed of sand or lime-stone substratum, growing best in open sunny positions. It is best to plant the seeds when the soils have warmed up to more than 10 degrees Celsius, and is thus ideal to sow them in late spring through summer. Otherwise, easy to germinate, these should be sown at a depth of 1.5 cm, separating the seedlings to more than 20 cm apart.
During the first year, burdock grows a leafy rosette with large, wavy oval leaves that have a light grey downy on their undersides. In the second year, erect, grooved and widely branching stems grow with alternate leaves spanning more than 60 cm, and it will grow to heights of over a metre tall. Appearing in summer through early autumn, upon these stems bloom purple to red flowers with the characteristic hooked spiky bracts, which inspired the creation of velcro.
The fruits are achene with each hooked bracket containing singularly wrapped seeds. In the second year these produce the seeds which can be resown. It is best to keep an eye on the seed heads, as due to burdock’s invasive nature, left unmanaged it can easily become a weed, propagating itself by self-seeding and distributing itself by sticking to passersby. Therefore, collecting the seed heads before they go to flower, leaving only one or two flowers from the best plants from which to collect seed for the next year’s planting can solve this problem.
Burdock is low-maintenance, requiring little water, and only the odd soaking. It has been coined a useful plant for organic growers, because it tends to have very few pest or disease problems. However, it can be prone to pesty nematodes. These can be remedied by ensuring rich organic soil matter to ensure the proliferation of beneficial species; and also by planting tagetes marigold or mustard seed as a green manure in the soil location prior to planting. Their prowess can also be limited by practicing crop-rotation in your garden.
Due to the deeply penetrating roots, a garden fork is likely required to harvest. The roots of one year old plants are reported to be best harvested in autumn, or from two year old plants in spring. The harvested roots should be washed thoroughly, cutting the thick ones lengthwise. If you intend to use them for tea, dry them at low temperatures of below fifty degrees Celsius.
In the kitchen
Young stems and leaves harvested in the first year can be used in salads or lightly cooked, and the young peeled roots can be enjoyed raw. The taste of the one year old roots are slightly bittersweet with a smooth nutty, pungent flavour and crisp texture. The older roots should be peeled and can be soaked in water with some vinegar for a good hour before cooking, which prevents them discolouring and reduces the intensity of the bitterness for those who have yet to acquire a taste. Pickle them, or add them to soups, stews and stir-fries.
The roots are commonly eaten in Japan where burdock is consumed as a delicacy known as Gobo. There it is often shredded, lightly simmered, added to stir fries, sushi, or made into tempura. In fact much of that which is commercially grown in Australia is exported to Japan.
Create your own burdock and dandelion drink with a teaspoon of each root in 600 ml of water, some added ginger or other spices, and some type of sweetener. Enjoy it hot, or chilled with ice.
Infusions rather than decoctions are a preferable preparation due to the unstable nature of some of the constituents. Add 1 teaspoon of the dried root to 200ml of boiling water and enjoy two or three cups each day. It is rather nice with some cinnamon or licorice root added.
A hair rinse for dandruff or excessive hair loss can be made by decoction, or make a face wash from the cooled brew for greasy or acne prone skin. The fresh grated root can also be used as a skin cleansing toner.
Burdock has no established warnings and interactions with other medicines. However, there are cautions that should be heeded, such as during pregnancy – as with any herbal medicines. Also, avoid where there is a known allergy to the daisy family.
As burdock can reduce blood clotting, its use should be avoided in people with blood clotting disorders, as it may increase bruising or bleeding risk. In addition, theoretically, burdock may impact people with kidney disease, due to the diuretic effects; and may also impact on blood glucose metabolism in those with diabetes. Therefore, cautions are warranted, and advice from a qualified professional is recommended.
Lastly, due to its ability to release toxins as it purifies the blood and tissues, it should therefore be used gently over a period of time, rather than going gung-ho, which in some can cause a significant ‘healing crisis’.
With the dawning of each new year following the festive season, which is usually marked with excess, we face the opportunity to review our toxic habits and vices and make decisions around those that are no longer serving us, and that we wish to change. We make resolutions to break patterns and to implement health promoting goals that will take us closer to becoming our ideal selves. Sometimes, however well-intentioned, we set our bars too high, focusing on restrictions and of being disadvantaged, and then we wonder why we fail.
Burdock gives us the opportunity to recognise that these less ideal behaviours, however toxic, provide the means for invaluable learning that can be harvested and prepared how we chose. Propagating wild and widely thanks to its sticky burrs, shows us the ease with which we can be carried forward in new directions with minimal efforts. Therefore applying mindful awareness is required to realise our desired positive achievements. Burdock’s roots represent not only the opportunity to release toxic influences, but to find and establish the ideal ground onto which we can plant seeds that we wish to grow. So, Gobo gently with some burdock root tea into the new year.