About This Plant
Burdock is an easy to grow plant in the Asteraceae family. Known for its Thistle-like flowers and rough, sticky burred fruits, despite being labeled a “noxious weed” in some states, it is an interesting vegetable and has a long history as a medicinal plant, offering deep, nutritive health to the body, especially the liver, urinary tract, and skin. It grows from 2-9 feet tall and produces a long taproot that can grow two feet long in 100 days or fewer. Its flowers are bright pinkish-purple and similar to many Thistle species, with the flower tufts emerging from bristly brats. It flowers from July through October and provides essential pollen and nectar for honeybees around August when clover is on the wane and before Goldenrod starts to bloom. The flowers become seeds in the Fall, encased by the familiar brown burs. Budock will self-seed readily and can become a nuisance if not managed. Management requires staying on top of deadheading flowers.
Burdock is a biennial, producing a rosette of leaves in the first year, then completing its life cycle by flowering and seeding in the second year. The root is harvested in the first year and seeds are harvested in the Fall of the second year. It prefers a deep garden soil in partial shade or full sun but is adaptable to most light levels and soil types. Growing in raised beds, pots, or in improvised long-tubes of fencing, filled with straw and compost aids in the harvesting of roots. Roots have a texture similar to parsnips and when cooked retain their crispness. The outer skin is very thin, similar to carrots. And can grow up to three feet deep. Leaves are dark matte green up to 28” long, are generally large, coarse, and ovate with the lower ones being heart-shaped. They are wooly on their undersides.
Burdock’s Latin name, literally translated, means Bear (Arctium), and seize (lappa). Burdock’s seed pods have short pappus hairs and were actually the inspiration for velcro as they readily stick to you and anything else that brushes against them. They are a potential hazard for humans, horses, and dogs alike. Burdock has become an invasive weed of high-nitrogen soils in North America, Australia, and other regions.
Its leafstalks are generally hollow. Stems are purplish and stout with wide spreading branches. Leaves follow the stem in an alternate pattern. Leaves die back in the Fall, sending their energy back into the roots. After a good frost or two, the Burdock leaves will mostly dieback on the first year plants. This is a good time to harvest the roots, especially for medicinal purposes. Early Springtime is also a fine time to harvest as energy is still in the roots where nutrients were kept all winter long. Later in the Spring, those nutrients get pushed upward and outward as leafy greens and flowers emerge once more. If you wait until the Fall of the second year, when the burs are in full force, you’ll find the roots dried out with little vital energy left. Roots harvested in the Fall will be sweeter compared to the ones harvested in the Spring. Spring roots will taste more bitter because the sugars will have been utilized over the winter. Roots become fibrous by late Autumn. Usually first and second year plants will be growing near each other. Second-year plants die off and go to seed at least a month before the first-year plants lose their leaves.
Seeds need to be stratified and germinate at 80-90% when sown directly in Spring or early Summer after all danger of frost has passed. Seeds should be planted ⅛ inch deep and kept evenly moist. Seeds should germinate in 1-2 weeks. Keep seedlings weeded.
It’s general practice to space Burdock 18” apart. Some growers advocate for closer planting as it helps the roots grow long and thin and means more roots will be dug out of a smaller space.
Burdock is adaptable to most light levels and soil types and is considered an easy plant to grow. It thrives in moderately disturbed areas such as barnyards, field edges, fence rows, railroad tracks, roadsides, along pats and sometimes along the edges of woodland and streams. You might choose to grow it in an area where it can self-seed freely–perhaps in the shady area of a large tree on the side of your landscape. Be aware that animals (and people) will carry the seeds in their fur or feathers distributing them far and wide. If you plan on harvesting the roots, you’ll want to choose an area with freshly dug, loose soil.
Roots are ready to harvest after 2-4 months. You do not have to wait until the tops are dormant in the Fall, but that is when the root possesses the strongest medicinal qualities. Summer harvests are perfect when using the root as a vegetable. Digging roots can be difficult unless the soil is a deep sandy loam. It is best to trench down the side of a row leaving space between the trench and the roots, then push the spade in behind the roots and lever them into the trench, being careful not to break them. If you try to dig straight down next to the root, you are very likely to break the root off, making harvesting frustrating.
Wash the roots. Use fresh in cooking, or if you intend to dry them, slit them down their length. Larger roots should be split into at least 4 pieces. Dry them on a screen in a dark, airy location or in a dehydrator until the pieces snap and are internally dry. Roots can be ground to make a tincture or tea and stored in jars for later use. Roots tend to become rock hard once dried.
Seeds are harvested in the Fall of the second year when the round seed heads have turned mostly brown–wai too long and the seeds have a tendency to get battered by weather . Harvesting the seed can be somewhat tricky as the itchy hairs on the seed heads will stick to everything. Herbalist 7song has a great demonstration on his website of how to harvest Burdock seed (https://7song.com/wresting-burdock-seed-and-its-medicinal-uses/).
He recommends tying your hair back and tucking it away in a hat and wearing non-stick clothing, such as a rainjacket to harvest the seed heads. He collects the seed heads in a plastic bag until he’s ready to process them. Then, he closes the bag and drives his car over the bag multiple times in order to flatten the itchy barbed hairs of the seed head and to separate the seed from the pods. Then, wear a face mask to avoid inhaling any of the hairs, work outside, preferably in a light wind, to hand separate the seeds from the chaff. After hand separating, winnow the seeds to remove the remaining hairs from your seed collection.
- Natural dying; plant produces a yellow dye
- Root can be eaten as a vegetable
Burdock root is used as a popular vegetable in Japanese cuisine where it is called Gobo. The root has a texture similar to parsnip. It is very crisp and has a sweet, mild, and pungent flavor with a slight muddy harshness that can be reduced by soaking julienned roots in water for five to ten minutes. The outer skin is thin like a carrot’s. Very young roots can be eaten raw and older roots are usually best cooked. Roots can be cut into slivers and stir-fried. A popular Japanese dish is Kinpira Gobo which is shredded Burdock root and Carrot, braised with soy sauce, mirin and/or sake, and sesame oil. Makizushi is rolled sushi filled with pickled Burdock root. The root can also be made into a fried snack food similar in taste and texture to potato chips. It is sometimes used as an ingredient in tempura dishes. In Japanese cuisine, it is sometimes artificially colored orange to resemble a carrot. Pickled Gobo makes for a delicious condiment. Roots can be peeled and roasted with Fall vegetables or combined with potatoes and mashed.
In the United Kingdom, Burdock and Dandelion are brewed into a popular soft drink. Young leaves can also be eaten raw or cooked. Seeds can be sprouted like bean sprouts. The fresh root stores will in the refrigerator.
Burdock is valued as a nutritive and metabolic tonic. It is rich in minerals and vitamins and eating it is beneficial for digestion. Its primary medicinal uses come from its bitterness which is how the plant protects itself from predators. It stimulates the digestive tract, including the liver and pancreas. By stimulating the liver, it helps rid the body of toxins and as such is known as a detoxifying herb. It also has mild diuretic properties, further promoting the elimination of toxins via urine. It has been used both as an antidote for poisoning and to help those in recovery from alcohol addiction. Burdock is high in inulin–levels as high as 45-50% in the fresh roots and levels being much higher in the Fall than in the Spring. Inulin acts as a prebiotic in the gut, helping to cultivate healthy flora. It is said to lower blood sugar levels so people with blood sugar issues should use caution. Burdock was an herb in the two famous cancer formulas from the 1920s–Essiac and the Hoxsey formula. It is rich in minerals and vitamins and is known as a nutritive tonic.
The root is believed to break down excess uric acid in the joints, thus relieving gout and the heat and pain associated with arthritis. As a detoxifying herb, it also can help with scalp and skin problems. Fresh Burdock leaves can be lightly steamed and applied as a poultice to draw out infection and speed healing.
Burdock is native to the temperate regions of Eurasia, from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, and from the British Isles through Russia and the Middle East to India, China, Taiwan, and Japan. It has become naturalized in the United States.
Burdock is easily grown in average, moist but well-drained soils in partial shade. This plant is characterized by its large leaves, small stocks, and small, prickly, magenta-colored flowers. Burdock is mainly used for medicinal purposes, but the entire plant is also edible. Young stems and leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, and its roots (cooked or dried) is said to detoxify the body.
Native Range: Europe, Middle East, Asia
Growing Zones: 4-10
Mature Height: 2-5 feet
Mature Width: 1-3 feet
Sunlight: Full sun, Part Sun, Part Shade
Soil Type: Average
Drought Tolerance: Good
Growth Rate: Moderate
Leaf Description: Large heart-shaped
Bloom Time: Summer, June-August
Bloom Description: Prickly, purple or magenta colored flowers
Harvest: Root, Seeds
Harvest Time: Fall, October
Special Properties: Bees, Butterflies, Pollinators, Deer resistant
** When processing seeds, wear a face mask and protective clothing. The tiny hairs on the seeds are toxic and can cause irritation if inhaled.