Common Burdock: Arctium minus (Hill) Bernh.; Family Asteraceae

UTILITY

Cooking this malodorous herb produces something deserving the appellation "vegetable." Having read that cooking with baking soda partially breaks down the tough fibers in the leafstalks, I bravely bit into one that had survived two changes of water. With the soda, I gained some tenderness, lost some vitamins. The large roots, diced, came out quite tasty after similar treatment. Remembering the celery-onion soup mom used to give me when I had a cold or flu, I gathered up more burdock leafstalks and some wild garlic flower heads, and boiled them up together. The result: one of the better culinary episodes in the foraging chapters of my life, especially after I added salt and pepper and oleo. Rogers and Powers-Rogers (1988) note that claims of endurance and sexual virility sell a lot of this herb in Japan. Yanovsky (1936) notes that Iroquois ate the Great Burdock (Arctium lappa) as a greens. Indians also used the roots in soups, as have I, and they dried and stored the roots for winter use. Scorched roots serve as coffee substitutes. Only in 1990 did I learn that the NCI had an interest in burdock lignans as chemopreventive anti-mutagens. Ironically burdock is conspicuous in several allegedly "quack" cancer remedies, e.g., the "Essiac" and "Hoxsey" formulas. With my immune system and liver overassaulted by overmedication, I am imbibing a little of the Essiac formula, just in case! Hartwell mentions folk use of Arctium for cancer in such diverse places as Belgium, Canada, Chile, China, India, Indiana, Italy, Japan, Oklahoma, South Africa, Spain, Ukraine, and Wisconsin. All three Arctium species on the Weed Science Society of America (WSSA) list might be sampled judiciously.

DISTRIBUTION

Especially common in full sun or partial shade about old rural dwellings, pastures, old fields, and waste places, starting to flower in June (North Carolina) to July (Maryland) and fruiting on up to frost. Flowering and fruiting specimens are all but useless for food. As with most biennials, it is the food in the roots of the first year's winter rosette that is most copious. The plant exhausts this when it goes to flower (bolts) in its second year. Ranges through all contiguous 48 states; climate zones 4-8 (average annual minimum temperatures of -20ø to 20ø)(1).

DESCRIPTION

Coarse biennial or perennial herbs, as much as six feet tall when in flower.

LEAVES: huge, in basal rosettes during the vegetative year(s), the stalks seemingly arising from the ground, hollow (or solid in the Great Burdock, Arctium lappa), the blades egg-shaped to nearly rounded or heartshaped, somewhat pointed at the tip, irregularly saw-toothed at the margin, heart-shaped or notched at the base, whitish beneath; flowering stems have leaves one at a node, alternating along the stalk, the stem leaves smaller, with shorter stalks, grading into much smaller leaflike appendages below the flower clusters.

FLOWERS: thistlelike, of dense clusters of minute flowers aggregated into the "thistle," sepals 5, minute; petals 5, fused to each other throughout much of their length; stamens 5; ovary simple, with 2 terminal processes.

FRUITS: aggregated in the developing burrs which readily attach to animals and foragers, explaining the wide distribution of this pesky weed.

(1.) USDA Plant Hardiness Zones Rogers, B. and Powers-Rogers, B. 1988. Culinary Botany. PRP-Rogers, Rogers & Plants, Kent, WA. 176 pp. Yanovsky, E. and Kingsbury, R. M. 1938. Analyses of some Indian food plants. J. Assoc. Off. Agric. Chem. 21:648-665.

American Botanical Council.

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By James A. Duke and Peggy Duke

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