Family: Asteraceae, the Aster Family
Description: Non-native biennial herb, up to 1.3m tall. Leaves broadly arrow-shaped, hollow petioles, ½ inch burs
Abundance: Occasional on Mt. Desert Island
Habitat: Fields, roadsides
Plant Parts Used: Root, leaves
Food: Coffee, tea, soups, vegetable dishes
Medicine: Cleansing, nourishing, colon cancer, builds immune system, grounding, menopause, lymphatic support, supports liver and kidneys, eliminates metabolic waste products
Burdock is a pesky weed that land owners often try to eradicate due to their Velcro-like burs that stick to everything and spread nearly everywhere. There are two species of burdock, Arctium minus and Arctium lappa, which grow in New England. Arthur writes: “Both species can be used for food and medicine (they are interchangeable). The main difference is that Arctium lappa has larger taproots and early season shoots (so you get more food). Otherwise, the flavors and potency are very similar.” Apparently there is no record of Arctium lappa on Mt. Desert Island, but it grows elsewhere in New England.
My first experience with burdock (besides picking the burs off my dog and myself as a kid) was in a medicine I was given by herbalist Anne McIntyre during my apprenticeship with her. I arrived at her home in England days after I had unknowingly dug through a bank full of leafless poison ivy, a plant to which I had never had an allergic reaction before. Days into my apprenticeship, I broke out in a poison ivy rash all over my body—it had gotten into my blood stream. As poison ivy does not grow in England, there were not as many rescue remedies available in the local drug store as there are in New England. Anne made me a medicine full of blood-cleansing plants, including burdock, which moved the poison out of my blood stream quickly. The Potawatomi, Iroquois, and native people from Oklahoma to Delaware and Ontario have been recorded to use burdock root as a blood medicine and purifier, primarily taken as an infusion.
The New Englanders I spoke to considered burdock as food and medicine. During the same apprenticeship with Anne, we were experimenting with raw food diets. I frequently came across recipes calling for burdock root marinated and chopped in various ways. Sue told me that she primarily uses burdock root as a nourishing food and for cleansing the body. A cleansing tea of the leaves is especially good for colon cancer when used in an enema. She gathers burdock roots during the spring or fall of their first year of growth for food and tea. She also dry roasts the roots, grinds them, and uses them as a coffee substitute that she considers smoother and lighter than dandelion coffee. John told me that burdock roots help build the immune system and are tasty in soups.
Deb told me that burdock is a grounding plant, especially during experiences with serious illnesses and menopause, as demonstrated through how strongly rooted they are in the ground, making them difficult to pull. The root should be harvested in the fall of its first year or the very early spring of its second year. She described burdock as being sweet, bitter, and oily. She said that burdock is included in herbal formulas for menopause to give the endocrine system more of these important oils. Burdock supports the liver, kidneys, and lymphatic system, including congested or swollen lymph nodes, cystic breast tissue, and functional ovarian cysts. Burdock also helps eliminate metabolic waste products. She enjoys eating burdock in the winter and includes them in soups and other vegetable dishes.
Caution: The prickly burs on this plant may irritate the skin and eyes.
Note: This post is part of my Plants and People series. See my Plants and People page for more information about the project and the people referenced in this post.
- Brooks, John. Personal Interview. 28 Nov. 2010.
- Haines, Arthur. “Burdock” Message to the author. 16 Dec. 2010. E-mail.
- Hayes, Terry-Anya. Personal interview. 27 Oct. 2010.
- Michener, Martin C. Botany Everywhere: Woods, Field, Home, and Garden Plants of NE USA, Third Edition. Hollis, NH: MIST Software Associates, Inc., 2009. PDF.
- Mittelhauser, Glen H., Linda L. Gregory, Sally C. Rooney, and Jill E. Weber. The Plants of Acadia National Park. Orono, Me.: University of Maine, 2010. Print.
- Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Medicinal Plants: an Ethnobotanical Dictionary. Portland, Or.: Timber, 2009. Print.
- Soule, Deb. Personal interview. 4 Feb. 2011.
- Szwed, Sue. Personal interview. 12 Nov. 2010.
- Turner, Nancy J., and Patrick Von Aderkas. The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms. Portland: Timber, 2009. Print.