Burdock (Arctium lappa, Compositae) is famed for having inspired George de Mestral, the inventor of Velcro, as its seed heads are covered with tiny hooks that latch on to the clothes of unwary passers-by. It would have been perfect as Stone Age fastenings for woollen cloaks and nettle shawls – I have tried them out and they work perfectly!
Burdock grows up to 150 cm with large oval, slightly heart-shaped leaves with pronounced ribs, reminiscent of downy rhubarb leaves. The flowers, bearing a passing resemblance to a soft thistle are held upright and the seed heads will often last all winter.
Burdock is found in Scotland particularly, I find, on the east coast where it likes the sandier soils near the sea. I also harvest it inland around Linlithgow on my ‘home territory’. Burdock inspired the annual ‘Burryman’ festival, held every August in South Queensferry, since at least 1687. Here a local man, the Burryman, is covered with burdock heads (around 11,000 in all) and parades through the town to bring good fortune.
I am always surprised that it’s not cultivated as a vegetable here. In Japan, the young first-year taproots are called gobo and considered a staple delicacy. They can be found there in every market, the dark roots bundled together with twine. The roots are high in vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, and can be stir fried and simmered with soy sauce, or parboiled and pickled in vinegar, to be eaten with sushi.
Burdock roots have a slightly sweet flavour and crunchy texture that is more chewy than most root vegetables and are often used like salsify. Chopped into similar sized pieces, and tossed in olive oil and garlic salt, they can also be roasted with beetroots, parsnips and turnips to make a tasty root roast.
Like dandelion root, the roast and ground root can also be used as a coffee substitute. Dandelion and Burdock drink was once a British favourite, an almost cola-like beverage that was drunk for enjoyment or as a liver tonic.
In the Spring, burdock stalks can be peeled and eaten raw in salads, or boiled and eaten like asparagus although they taste more like their relative, artichoke. Candied in sugar, like angelica, the young stalks were once traditional sweets.
The leaves, flowers and seeds are also edible but the leaves are extremely bitter. They are sometimes used instead of kitchen foil to wrap fish, potatoes or burdock roots prior to roasting. I often use them when I’m cooking outdoors to wrap root vegetables, securing them with sharpened twigs, like cocktail sticks, to stop them unravelling. Popped into the coals they protect the outer skins of the roots from becoming encrusted with ash and are a completely sustainable, renewable alternative to the wasteful curse of aluminium foil.
Cosmetically, clinical trials have proven that burdock root extract helps to improve the outer skin’s metabolism and visibly reduces wrinkles in as little as 4 weeks! So it is great added to creams for mature skins, not that I’ve tried it as I’m a bigger fan of dock gel.
The leaves are used in folk medicine to make poultices for cuts, bruises, burns and stings. Burdock root oil, called Bur Oil, is rich in phytosterols and essential fatty acids and is sometimes combined with nettle for scalp treatments. The root is used both medicinally and cosmetically. It contains inulin and 14 different polyacetylene compounds.✓
Inulin, found in the starch, helps to lower blood sugar so is useful in helping prevent the development of diabetes. Burdock is also adaptogenic and helps to normalise metabolic and hormonal functions. Due to its detoxifying effect on liver and particularly the kidneys, it is also used in blends to treat water retention and urinary problems.
In Chinese herbal medicine it is also used to treat pneumonia, sore throats, mumps and measles. They use the seed a lot, whilst in Western herbal medicine it is hardly mentioned. Burdock root is one of the four herbs used in Essiac Formula, given to support the immune health of cancer sufferers.
Whilst it has anti-inflammatory properties and is used in arthritis and gout medicines, due to its detoxifying effect on the kidneys and ability to help the body to eliminate uric acid, it is best-known as a skin herb. Traditionally this action was referred to as blood cleansing and burdock is still the staple herb used in treating eczema, psoriasis, acne, boils, staphylococcal infections and other skin disorders. It is excellent for this use. I use it to support the glandular function of my Lyme patients particularly those that are tired, exhausted yet stoic.
Here is a recipe to try this winter. Please remember that it is illegal to uproot a plant in the U.K. without the permission of the landowner. But few people can resist your offer to do some free weeding for them!
Marinated Burdock Root Recipe
10 slim burdock roots
120 ml rice or white wine vinegar
120 ml miso or stock
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons medium soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt
Nettle seed (traditionally sesame seed)
Peel and cut the burdock into finger-size lengths and soak in water for 5 minutes.
Boil in a pan with water and a dash of vinegar for about 5 minutes while you make the marinade.
Add the rest of the ingredients (except for the nettle seed) to a small saucepan and heat to dissolve the sugar. Bring to the boil. Remove from the heat.
Remove the burdock roots from the heat. Strain. Put them onto a chopping board (some people also put them inside a plastic bag) and pound them with wooden rolling pin so that the roots soften. The object is to soften and flatten them, not to mash them!
Cut the bashed roots into pencil-width strips. Put into a bowl and cover with the marinade for at least half a day or, ideally, overnight. Turn them occasionally to ensure the marinade covers them all.
Serve cold sprinkled with dry toasted nettle or sesame seed.