Native range: Europe, Asia, and the Middle East
Invasive range: Throughout most of North America, Hawaii
Habitat: Roadside, fields, pastures
Description: Large arrow-shaped leaves grow close to the ground the first year. A tall stalk, six or seven feet tall, emerges, with purple flowers on second. Burrs, an inspiration for Velcro, provide seed dispersal. Large fleshy taproot.
Native to the Old World, burdock’s introduction to North America was noted in 1672 by John Josselyn, a sharp-eyed English visitor, who used Gerard’s Herbal: The Historie of Plants of 1597 as a field guide. In a pamphlet called New Englands Rarities Discovered, he listed “such Plants as have sprung up since the English Planted and kept Cattle in New-England,” including common burdock.
Burdock protects itself from predators by a layer of bitterness on the outside and by its thistles, so the early settlers introduced it for its medicinal properties, rather than as food. They went on to instruct the Indians in the making of a roasted-root tea to treat various ills. Among the Iroquois, young medicine men, after days of fasting, were known to drink the bitter infusion in hopes of retaining their spirit-quest visions.
Names. They are also called personata, bardona, appa major, great burdock, and clot-bur. It is so well known, even to the little boys who pull off the burs to throw and stick on each other, that I shall omit writing any description of it.
Place. It grows plentifully by ditches and water sides, and by highways, almost every where throughout this land.”
––Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, 1653
“Docks are very troublesome in our mowing ground; and, without care, they spread much by seed. They stifle the grass by their luxuriant broad leaves.”
––John Bartram, A Brief Account of Those Plants That Are Most Troublesome in Our Pastures and Fields, in Pennsylvania; Most of Which Were Brought from Europe, 1758
“Observation. Every body knows this coarse homely weed, wherever it has gained admittance,––but every body does not take care to keep it in due subjection. One of the earliest and surest evidences of slovenly negligence, about a farm-yard, is the prevalence of huge Bur-docks. The plant is considerably bitter; and the leaves are a favorite external application in fevers, head-ache, &c.”
––William Darlington, Agricultural Botany: An Enumeration and Description of Useful Plants and Weeds, Which Merit the Notice, or Require the Attention, of American Agriculturists, 1847
While first-year roots can be eaten raw, long slow-roasting will make them sweeter. In late summer and fall, the first-year roots, scrubbed of their outer layer, can be boiled like potatoes. Here in Vermont, we harvested ours in mid-September and boiled them for about an hour before slicing them. (They can take longer to soften.) We tossed the julienned burdock with soy sauce and sesame seeds. It was simple and delicious.
The larger second-year plants move their energy from the roots to the breeding stalks and flowers are woody and inedible.
Eric Garza of the University of Vermont prepares burdock roots by fermenting them, without fuel-intensive cooking. He describes his energy-postive approach, complete with a pie chart, here.
Young shoots can be boiled until tender––longer if still bitter. Stalks taste of artichoke, a relative.
Second-year stems should be peeled before flowering and boiled 20 minutes. Seed sprouts edible.
Young leaves, boiled, are edible but bitter. Leaf stems can be peeled and boiled. The leaves are large enough to wrap wild food in for campfire cooking, something most easily done if they are wilted by heat from the fire first.
Gobo: Japanese Burdock
A popular Japanese dish using the taproot is kinpira gobo, julienned or shredded burdock root and carrot, braised with soy sauce, sugar, sake, and sesame oil.
Sushi rolls can be filled with kinpira gobo, which is often tinted to resemble carrot.
Dandelion and Burdock Beer
You can buy “Dandelion & Burdock” bottled in United Kingdom, with its roots in a medieval mead gathered from hedgerow plants. But why not make it yourself, from local invaders?
We’re looking forward to trying this recipe from the Guardian:
A couple of large burdock roots (about 150g)
A handful of dandelion roots (about 50g)
500g sugar (1.1 pounds)
2 tablespoons of black treacle
Juice of one lemon
Teaspoon of carragheen to help clarify the beer (optional)
4.5 liters of water
Scrub and finely slice the roots then boil them with half the water (and the carragheen if using) for half an hour. Experience the aroma of an unpromising vegetable stew.
Take off the heat, add the remaining cold water, the sugar, treacle and lemon and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Strain the liquid into a clean fermenting bucket and cover.
When your brew reaches room temperature add the yeast, keep covered for up to a week then bottle in strong swing top bottles. Another week and it will be ready to drink, though it is well worth easing the top off of a bottle every now and then to check for potentially explosive levels of fizziness. Once ready it is a good idea to keep the bottles in the fridge to prevent further fermentation.
The flavor is mildly bitter and aromatic with a now pleasant hint of that vegetable stew.