The Versatile Burdock Plant: Leafy Greens and Nutrient-Rich Roots
Updated: Sep 8
Nestled amidst the verdant landscapes of the United Kingdom, burdock emerges as a captivating and versatile botanical wonder. With its heart-shaped leaves and peculiar burr-like seed heads, burdock has earned a myriad of intriguing nicknames, reflecting its deep-rooted significance in both human culture and the natural world. Beyond its captivating appearance, burdock also offers a tantalising secret - the edible treasure concealed within its soil. As we delve into the realm of burdock, we shall unravel the enchanting tale of this remarkable plant and explore the delectable possibilities it bestows upon our culinary traditions.
The many names of Wild Burdock
Burdock, a versatile and intriguing plant found in the United Kingdom, boasts a plethora of nicknames, each inspired by various aspects of its nature, historical uses, or local dialects. These nicknames reflect the plant's significance and adaptability in human culture and natural ecosystems.
One of the common nicknames for burdock in the UK is "Stickelburr." This term harkens back to Old English, combining "sticke," meaning stick or prickle, with "bur," alluding to the plant's distinctive burr-like seed heads. These hooked bracts enable the seeds to cling to clothing or fur, aiding in their dispersal.
Another charming moniker for burdock is "Clotbur," deriving from "clot," suggesting a mass or clump, and "bur," emphasising the burr's characteristic appearance. The plant's burrs often form dense clusters, resembling clots of seeds, making them easily recognisable in the wild.
"Beggar's Buttons" is another endearing nickname for burdock. This name stems from the burrs' resemblance to buttons or knobs, as well as the idea that beggars, with their well-travelled clothes, might often find these burrs sticking to their garments.
The term "Burrseed" provides a straightforward description of burdock's seeds, emphasising their burr-like structure. These burrs play a vital role in seed dispersal, hitching rides on animals or humans passing through the plant's habitat.
A more poetic nickname for burdock is "Love Leaves." This name potentially alludes to the heart-shaped leaves of the plant, evoking romantic or sentimental sentiments among those who encounter its distinctive foliage.
In some local traditions, burdock earned the nickname "Louse Bur," possibly due to beliefs in its medicinal properties for treating lice infestations or other skin conditions.
"Fox's Clote" is another regional variation used for burdock. "Clote" is an old term for burdock, and "fox's" may be attributed to associations between the plant or its habitats and the fox, a cunning and resourceful animal in folklore.
These various nicknames showcase the rich cultural and ecological significance of burdock throughout the United Kingdom. With its intriguing appearance and diverse uses, burdock has earned a place in the hearts and minds of people across different regions, inspiring a multitude of endearing and descriptive names.
Learn more about wild foods and plants with the very best wild food and foraging books.
Types of Burdock
There are three main species of wild burdock that can be found in the United Kingdom: Arctium minus, Arctium lappa, and Arctium tomentosum. These species are commonly known as burdock and are part of the Asteraceae family. Let's explore each species and their differences:
Arctium minus (Lesser Burdock): Arctium minus, also known as Lesser Burdock, is a biennial plant that typically grows to a height of about 1-2 metres. It has large, heart-shaped leaves with a distinct wrinkled appearance and a woolly texture. The stems of Arctium minus are generally shorter and more branched compared to other burdock species. The flower heads are clustered and have a thistle-like appearance with purple or pink disc florets and bracts that end in hooked spines. The hooked spines are the defining characteristic of burdock species, which easily attach to clothing or animal fur, aiding in seed dispersal.
Arctium lappa (Greater Burdock): Arctium lappa, commonly known as Greater Burdock, is also a biennial plant and can grow taller than Arctium minus, reaching heights of up to 2-3 metres. The leaf is quite large, heart-shaped, and have a velvety texture on the underside. The stems are stout, and the flower heads are similar in appearance to Arctium minus, with purple or pink disc florets and hooked bracts. The primary difference between Arctium lappa and Arctium minus lies in their size and overall robustness.
Arctium tomentosum (Woolly Burdock): Arctium tomentosum, or Woolly Burdock, is also a biennial species and resembles both Arctium minus and Arctium lappa. The leaves are heart-shaped but covered in dense woolly hairs, giving the plant a silvery-grey appearance. The flower heads are similar to the other species, with hooked bracts and purple or pink disc florets. Woolly Burdock tends to be more adapted to dry and sandy habitats compared to the other two species.
In terms of distribution, Arctium minus and Arctium lappa are more widespread and commonly found throughout the UK, whereas Arctium tomentosum is relatively less common and usually restricted to specific regions.
In terms of identification, Greater Burdock and Lesser Burdock are regularly mixed up. This does not matter though as all species of the Burdock are edible and provide excellent eating.
Burdock Plant Identification
In early spring and in its first-year the plant grows extraordinary leaves which are huge and very similar in appearance to a rhubarb leaf. The leaves have wavy edges and whitish fur on the underside. These leaves are the factory of the plant and start to grow in early spring ready for a year of photosynthesis and in turn storage for its sometimes huge root.
After the first years growing season and due to those huge green factories that the plant produced during the summer the root will be in prime condition – you can take them from summer onwards (then they are big enough). To find these roots in the Autumn / Winter you need to have marked them during the summer with a brightly coloured ribbon or marker because the roots are at their ultimate after the first frost when all of the green foliage is gone. My grandad used to mark the Horseradish plants in the same way! Prepare yourself for some digging though, the roots get deep!
The plant during its second year invests its whole store of energy into producing flowers and seed (the burrs), its last act before the plant dies. If you missed the first year’s growth you can still pick the tender young leaves again the Spring but soon enough the root is inedible, tough and tasteless and the plants life cycle starts again through the seeds.
The leaf - Large, dark green on top, paler and slightly downy on the bottom. Heart-shaped at the base, turning spear-shaped on the bloom stem.
The flowers - Until dry and brown, it looks like a thistle flower and forms a 'burr'. Flowers from mid-summer through late autumn. Those of you who own dogs, will be very familiar with the burr.
The roots - They are normally black and long and can become quite huge, but because to the stoney soil and wasteland in which they grow, they might become forked.
Get the very best Foraging Gear and Equipment from our shop.
Where can you find Burdock?
Burdock, with its adaptable nature, finds its habitat in a diverse array of environments across the United Kingdom. This hardy plant thrives in fertile, well-drained soils, and is often found along roadsides, hedgerows, woodland edges, and in disturbed areas such as abandoned fields and waste grounds, to complete its two year lifecycle it likes, it needs, to grow on untilled land.
It also frequents meadows and grasslands, riverbanks, and coastal dunes, showcasing its ability to establish a presence in both rural and urban landscapes. Whether in the rolling countryside or the bustling cityscape, burdock proves to be an ever-present companion.
Can you eat Burdock?
This sometimes huge weed is indeed edible. The burdock plant is highly nutritious and used throughout the world especially in Asia where it is prized for its health benefits. The leaf is perfectly edible during this period however they are best in spring when they are at their most tender. The stems are also quite edible and available all of the growing season. The stalks or stems can and should be peeled and then treated like asparagus and steamed.
Here's a comprehensive guide to harvesting both the roots and leaves of burdock:
Identify the Plant: Burdock is a biennial plant with distinctive features. In the first year, it forms a low-lying rosette of large, heart-shaped leaves close to the ground. In the second year, it sends up tall flower stalks with purple flowers and burrs containing seeds.
Harvesting Burdock Root:
Choose the Right Time: The best time to harvest burdock roots for culinary use is during the first year, in late summer or early autumn, before the plant produces flower stalks. At this stage, the roots are most tender and flavoursome.
Use Proper Tools: To harvest burdock roots, use a sturdy shovel or digging fork to loosen the soil around the base of the plant. Be gentle to avoid damaging the root.
Gather the Roots: Gently pull the burdock plant from the soil, and then carefully shake off excess soil. Cut off the leaves and stems, leaving just the root.
Rinse and Store: Rinse the burdock root thoroughly to remove any remaining soil. After harvesting, store the roots in a cool, dark place. You can store them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for a few days or freeze them for long-term storage.
Harvesting Burdock Leaves:
Choose the Right Time: For harvesting burdock leaves, you can do so during the first year when the plant forms the rosette of leaves. The leaves are at their most tender and flavoursome during this stage.
Use Proper Tools: To harvest burdock leaves, use a pair of sharp scissors or garden shears. Cut the leaves close to the base of the plant, leaving the majority of the plant undisturbed to continue growing.
Ethical Harvesting: As with any foraging activity, practise ethical harvesting when collecting burdock leaves. Only harvest a few leaves from each plant to ensure the plant's health and survival.
Rinse and Use: After harvesting, rinse the burdock leaves thoroughly to remove any dirt or debris. You can use the fresh leaves immediately in salads or as a cooked vegetable. Burdock leaves have a mild, slightly earthy flavour and can be a delightful addition to various dishes.
By responsibly harvesting both the roots and leaves of burdock, you can fully appreciate the versatility and natural goodness that this remarkable plant offers in your culinary and medicinal explorations.
Burdock Root and Leaf Medicinal Uses
Burdock is loaded with antioxidants, and these can be found in both its leaves and roots. The roots being high in fibre, means that it is great prebiotic and therefore benefits gut health, andtherefore boosting immunity as well. If you like a glass of wine, or two. The look no further than the burdock root. Burdock root also offers several advantages for detoxifying the liver and promoting liver health in addition to being a blood purifier, blood purification is probably its most well known benefit.
Here are some of the medicinal uses and benefits of burdock:
1. Detoxification: One of the primary medicinal uses of burdock is its detoxifying properties. The roots are believed to support liver function and enhance the body's natural detoxification processes. Burdock is considered a diuretic, helping to promote the elimination of waste and toxins through urine, which may aid in purifying the blood and improving overall body detoxification.
2. Digestive Support: Burdock has been used traditionally to support digestive health. The roots contain compounds that can stimulate the production of digestive juices and enzymes, promoting better digestion and easing common digestive issues such as bloating, indigestion, and constipation.
3. Skin Health: Burdock is well-known for its potential benefits to the skin. The roots and leaves are used in traditional herbal medicine to help address skin conditions like acne, eczema, and psoriasis. Its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties may help soothe irritated skin and promote a clearer complexion.
4. Anti-Inflammatory Properties: Both the roots and leaves of burdock contain anti-inflammatory compounds, such as polyphenols and flavonoids, which can help reduce inflammation in the body. This makes burdock a popular choice in herbal remedies for addressing inflammatory conditions like arthritis, rheumatism, and other inflammatory disorders.
5. Antioxidant Benefits: Burdock is a rich source of antioxidants, including quercetin, luteolin, and phenolic acids. These antioxidants help neutralise harmful free radicals in the body, protecting cells from oxidative stress and potential damage. As a result, consuming burdock may help promote overall well-being and support the immune system.
6. Blood Sugar Regulation: Some studies suggest that burdock may help regulate blood sugar levels. The plant contains inulin, a type of dietary fibre that may have a beneficial effect on blood sugar control. Although further research is needed, this potential benefit makes burdock of interest for individuals with diabetes or those at risk of developing the condition.
7. Immune System Support: The immune-boosting properties of burdock can help strengthen the body's defences against infections and illnesses. Regular consumption of burdock may support the immune system in its fight against various pathogens, helping to keep you healthier and more resilient.
8. Diuretic Effect: Burdock's diuretic properties can promote increased urine production, which may aid in flushing out toxins and excess fluids from the body. This can be beneficial for kidney health and maintaining a healthy fluid balance.
9. Nutritional Content: Both the roots and leaves of burdock are rich in essential vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B6, manganese, iron, and potassium. Incorporating burdock into your diet can be a nutritious way to boost your nutrient intake.
While burdock offers promising medicinal benefits, it's essential to remember that individual responses to herbs can vary, and it should not replace medical advice or treatments. Before using burdock for medicinal purposes, especially if you have any underlying health conditions or are taking medications, it's wise to consult with a qualified healthcare professional or a herbalist who can provide personalised guidance on its use.
By understanding the potential medicinal uses and benefits of burdock and using it responsibly, you can explore its herbal virtues and integrate this remarkable plant into your wellness journey.
Find out about the medicinal values of other herbs and weeds, click the link and check out our selection of natural medicine books.
What does Burdock taste Like?
Burdock root has a nice crunchy texture, burdock has a sweet rooty flavor that's a hybrid of lotus root, radish or jerusalem artichoke but with a slightly bitter edge. Older roots can taste a little woody, so go for the younger ones. Its a great carbohydrate alternative to meat and tastes great. The burdocks leaves taste as you would expect, like a green leafy vegetable.
So, how do you eat Burdock? The Burdock roots and leaf can create a huge range of wild food recipes all of which are incredibly tasty. Include the leaves in salads and the stems as a side similar to asparagus. The roots can be used in burdock teas or infusions, treated like parsnips and roasted or made into crisps for a healthy snack. There is so much that this common weed can provide, but below is some inspiration to get you going.
Quick Dandelion and Burdock Cordial
The classic burdock recipe that everyone has heard of, this delicious cordial is loaded with nutrients and health benefits, top up with lots of ice and sparking water to make a sunny day tonic.
3 tbsp fresh burdock root, cleaned and chopped
3 tbsp fresh dandelion root, cleaned and chopped
thumb sized piece of ginger, grated
3 star anise
250g golden caster sugar
In a large pan, add the water and bring to the boil. Add the burdock, dandelion, star anise and ginger to the pan and simmer for 15 minutes.
Using a very fine sieve, strain the liquid removing the spices and roots. Then add back to the pan. Bring to the boil and reduce slightly. The liquid should be perfumed and slightly thicker, store in the fridge.
Golden Roasted Burdock Roots with Garlic and Thyme
800g burdock roots, cleaned and cubed (5cm long pieces)
1 bulb of garlic, broken into cloves (skin on)
1 tbsp thyme leaves
3 tbsp sunflower oil
pinch ground cumin
2 tsp lemon juice
In a roasting tray, place the burdock roots, thyme, cumin and oil. Toss so that they are all coated well in the oil, herbs and spice. Roast at 180c for 45mins, 25 minutes into the cooking add the garlic cloves and toss or turn your burdock root. Cook until nicely golden.
Once cooked, add the butter and lemon juice. Toss once more and serve.
Chinese Style Burdock leaves
250g young burdock leaves, stem removed, roughly chopped
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp oyster sauce
pinch of chill flakes and toasted sesame seeds
Heat up a wok with your oil, when hot, add your garlic and chilli flakes, quickly followed by the burdock leaf. Turning the leaves or tossing the leaves in the pan. Add a splash of water to help the leaves wilt.
Once wilted, season the leaves with the oyster and soy sauce and serve topped with the toasted sesame seeds.
Love cooking Burdock? Click the link to get more Asian Inspired Burdock Recipes.
Bonus Burdock Recipes
Here's even more delicious ways to use burdock roots in your cooking:
The burdock plant is yet another example of a once famous edible plant, falling from fame. Now described as a 'weed', this highly nutritious and delicious plant is rarely eaten, but mainly used in teas and tonics.
However, if you stumble on a burdock in your garden, instead of pulling it up, why not let it grow on, mark it and in winter dig it up and try its roasted roots. We are confident that once tasted, you'll not call this fantastic plant a weed again.
Have you visited our Shop? Get the very best books and foraging gear, grow your own wild food and learn to preserve it like a pro. Visit our Wild Food and Foraging Shop now.