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Burdock: Herbalism's Touchy-Feely Bear

Herbal Writing & Recipes

For educational purposes only. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Burdock: Herbalism's Touchy-Feely Bear

Sarah Sorci

Burdock (Arctium lappa) is a common weed throughout much of the US. Its slightly fuzzy, elephant ear-like leaves distinguish this plant throughout most of its two-year lifespan. However, both its common and botanical names focus on its unique fruit and seed pods. The genus name Arctium comes from the Greek arktos, or "bear." Its species name, lappa, comes from the latin lappare or "to seize." Indeed, the rough, hairy fruit (bur) looks like a fuzzy bear, and will cling to anything passing by to spread its seed. Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral credited burdock's stubborn adherence to his socks as the inspiration for his renowned invention: Velcro.

There are numerous culinary uses of burdock. The Japanese call it gobo, and use the slightly-sweet taproot fresh or cooked, as one might use carrots. Growing up in western NY, older Sicilian men called the stems gardooni. Hunting gardooni each spring is an event, and folks are careful not to share their harvesting spots. My grandpa took his bagful to grandma, who stripped the "skin" off the stems, boiled them, and fried them in a flour and egg batter. They may be eaten raw or cooked. Some say they taste like asparagus.

Medicinally, burdock is one my favorite gentle, nourishing tonics. According to David Hoffman's Medical Herbalism, "In general, burdock will move the body to a state of integration and health, improving indicators of system imbalance such as skin problems and dandruff" (528). Its stimulation of the liver is likely involved in its skin-supportive nature. Dr. Sharol Tilgner notes that burdock gently "stimulates the liver, the gallbladder, the kidneys, the skin, digestion and the lymphatic system" (56). 

According to Hoffman, burdock root is composed of 45-50% inulin. Inulin is a valuable prebiotic-- a complex sugar that does not get completely digested in the stomach or small intestine. Therefore, it serves as food for beneficial gut flora. Because inulin is slow to break down, inulin-containing foods are generally considered a fine choice for supporting healthy blood glucose levels. Stay tuned for a longer article about inulin.

Burdock makes a delicious tea, tincture, infused honey, syrup or vinegar. Harvest the root in the fall of the first year (now is a fine time!), or the spring of the second year. At both of these times, the plant will have only basal leaves-- not a tall flowering stalk. The taproot can be a challenge to dig; I find that a spade feels nicer than a trowel, but use what you have. Be sure to harvest in locations that have not been treated with lawn chemicals.

Burdock is highly safe for most people when used casually. Those taking medications should talk to their doctor before using burdock regularly (medicinally). 

Sources: 
Mountain Rose Herbs. www.mountainroseherbs.com/products/burdock-root/profile
Hoffman, David. Medical Herbalism. 2003. pp. 528-529.
Tilgner, Dr. Sharol. Herbal Medicine: From the Heart of the Earth. 2009. second edition. pg. 56.