Arctium lappa or Fox’s Clote, Thorny Burr, Beggar’s Buttons, Cockle Buttons, Love Leaves, Happy Major or Clot-Bur is most commonly known as burdock.
The name of the genus, Arctium, is derived from the Greek arktos or ‘bear’ and the specific name lappa is derived from the Latin word meaning ‘to seize’ or from the Celtic llap, meaning ‘hand’ (on account of the burrs grasping properties perhaps?).
The common name burdock is derived from ‘bur’ from the Latin burra or ‘lock of wool’, such as might be found entangled on the burs when sheep have passed by the plant, and ‘dock’ meaning large-leafed..
An old English name for the Burdock was ‘Herrif,’ ‘Aireve,’ or ‘Airup’ from the Anglo-Saxon hoeg, a hedge, and reafe, a robber (or from the Anglo-Saxon verb reafian, to seize).
Flowers: Burdock has purple flowers sprouting from a prickly ball of bracts or burs. The flowers bloom between June and October. Flower heads are 1 to 3 cm across, composed of purple disc florets surrounded by several rows of overlapping hooked bracts.
Leaves: Large, wavy, heart-shaped leaves that are green on the top and whitish-grey on the underside, this colour caused by the mass of fine down with which they are covered. The upper leaves are much smaller, more egg-shaped and not so densely clothed beneath with down. Lower leaves can grow to 50 centimetres in size.
Height: This plant grows to a height of about 1 – 2 metres tall.
Habitat: Burdock thrives along canal and river banks, disturbed habitats, roadsides and fields.
Uses: The prickly heads or burrs of the burdock are noted for easily catching on to fur and clothing and thereby providing an excellent mechanism for seed dispersal.
After taking his dog for a walk one day in the early 1940s, George de Mestral, a Swiss inventor, became curious about the seeds of the burdock plant that had attached themselves to his clothes and to the dog’s fur. Under a microscope, he looked closely at the hook system that the seeds use to hitchhike on passing animals aiding seed dispersal, and he realised that the same approach could be used to join other things together. The result of his studies was Velcro!
The taproot of young burdock plants can be harvested and eaten as a root vegetable. While generally out of favour in modern European cuisine, it remains popular in Asia. Burdock root is very crisp and has a sweet, mild, and pungent flavour with a little muddy harshness that can be reduced by soaking julienned or shredded roots in water for five to ten minutes.
Immature flower stalks can also be harvested in late spring, before flowers appear; their taste resembles that of artichoke, to which the burdock is related. The stalks are carefully peeled and either eaten raw, or boiled in salt water. Leaves are also eaten in spring in Japan when a plant is young and leaves are soft.
Dandelion & Burdock has been consumed in the British Isles since the Middle Ages. It was originally a type of light hedgerow mead, but over the years has evolved into the non-alcoholic soft drink commercially available today. Traditionally it was made from fermented dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and burdock (Arctium lappa) roots.
Dandelion & Burdock shares a historical origin with a number of drinks originally made from lightly fermented root extracts, such as root beer and sarsaparilla. They were included for a supposed health benefit. The dominant flavour in these other drinks is usually sassafras or wintergreen, both now derived artificially rather than from the plant itself, in part because during the 1960s safrole, the major component of the volatile oil of sassafras, was found to be carcinogenic in rats. All of these drinks, while tasting similar, do have their own distinct flavour. Dandelion & Burdock is most similar in flavour to sarsaparilla.
Nicholas Culpeper in the Complete Herbal (c. 1653) states: ‘The Burdock leaves are cooling and moderately drying, whereby good for old ulcers and sores…. The leaves applied to the places troubled with the shrinking in the sinews or arteries give much ease: a juice of the leaves or rather the roots themselves given to drink with old wine, doth wonderfully help the biting of any serpents- the root beaten with a little salt and laid on the place suddenly easeth the pain thereof, and helpeth those that are bit by a mad dog:… the seed being drunk in wine 40 days together doth wonderfully help the sciatica: the leaves bruised with the white of an egg and applied to any place burnt with fire, taketh out the fire, gives sudden ease and heals it up afterwards…. The root may be preserved with sugar for consumption, stone and the lax. The seed is much commended to break the stone, and is often used with other seeds and things for that purpose.’
Other plants in the Flora& Series can be found by clicking HERE.