Great burdock (Arctium lappa) is a coarse biennial herb native to Europe and Asia, and naturalized throughout North America since its introduction by European settlers. This massive herb is thought of as a tenacious weed by many gardeners but it is valued by herbalists worldwide as a medicinal and culinary storehouse. Great burdock may grow as tall as 9 ft (3 m) in its second year. Common burdock (Articum minus) a smaller species, is abundant in North America, growing to 5 ft (1.5 m) tall. There are about 10 species of burdock.
Over the centuries, the hardy burdock has acquired many names, including beggar's buttons, bardana, burr seed, clot-bur, clothburr, cocklebur, cockle buttons, fox's clote, great burr, Gypsy rhubarb, happy major, hardock, hareburr, love leaves, personata, philanthropium, thorny burr, and turkey burrseed. In Japan the herb is known as gobo and is cultivated for its somewhat sweet-tasting root, an ingredient in numerous culinary dishes. Gobo has been grown in the United States as a vegetable for soups and salds since the 1980s. In Russia, a common name for the herb is lapuh. Most common folk names for this member of the Compositae family refer to the large and prickly seed covers that adhere securely to passersby.
Burdock has a deep primary root producing a large rosette of basal leaves in the first year that may grow as large as 1.5 ft (0.45 m) long and nearly as wide. In the second year of growth, burdock shoots upward with a stout, grooved, branching stem. Leaf stalks are longer than the leaves, and each has a purple hue at the base that extends up the stalk along the inner groove and into the leaf veins. Stalks are hollow in common burdock. Leaves resemble those of rhubarb in size and shape. They are dark green on top and a downy, pale green on the under-side. Flower heads are round and thistle-like, with numerous, small purple-hued, funnel-shaped blooms in mid-summer to early fall. Blossoms are surrounded by
Burdock's fibrous primary root and rhizome expand to about 1 ft (0.3 m) underground. Most of the herb's medicinal constituents are stored in these underground parts. The entire plant has both nutritive and medicinal uses. The roots contain as much as 45% inulin, as well as alkaloids, essential oil, flavonoids, glycosides, mucilage, polyacetylenes, resin, tannins, and volatile oil. The seeds are rich in vitamins A and B and essential fatty acids. Both the seeds and the root have a demulcent quality that is soothing to the mucous membranes of the body. The leaves are generally less potent than the root and seed when used in medicinal preparations.
Burdock is primarily a tonic and alterative herb. The cumulative effect of its use is said to bring a subtle strengthening and cleansing to the entire system. Though most of the therapeutic benefits attributed to this stately herb have not been clinically proven, burdock has been long tested in folk use, and is a safe, if mild, herbal remedy. Burdock has been traditionally used as a blood purifier. It promotes perspiration and the release of toxins from the body. It is helpful in clearing up such skin conditions as psoriasis and dry, scaly eczema. It works best when used over a period of time. The bitter properties of burdock, particularly noticeable in the dried leaf and seed, stimulate bile secretions. It is a good digestive herb and liver remedy. Burdock's anti-microbial and fungistatic properties have been traced to as many as 14 different polyacetylene compounds in the root. Burdock has been used to treat boils, canker sores, carbuncles, measles, and sties. It will help restore friendly bacteria in the system after antibiotic use, and may bring relief in cases of chronic arthritis and gout. Burdock may also help reduce blood sugar levels.
In medieval times burdock was used for more serious problems, such as the treatment of syphilis and leprosy. Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth-century German abbess, considered burdock a valuable remedy for cancerous tumors. Herbalists in other cultures and times, including the Americas, China, India, and Russia have turned to the root of this familiar herb for a folk treatment of cancer. The oil of burdock, known as repeinoe maslo, used over a period of six to eight months, was said to help stimulate the growth of new hair. A drink prepared with aged wine and fine-shredded, fresh burdock leaves was taken after the bite of a mad dog. A poultice of the fresh leaf, applied to the forehead was used to relieve headache. Shredded leaves were also combined with an egg white, beaten until stiff, and the mixture was applied to burns to speed healing.
Burdock seeds have also been used in medicinal preparations, particularly to treat psoriasis and to stimulate the digestive process. In Chinese medicine seeds were used as a treatment for feverish colds and sore throat.
Burdock has been recently shown to have significant antibacterial and anticandidal activity, which helps to explain its place in folk medicine as a treatment for various infectious diseases. In addition, a team of Asian researchers reported in 2002 that burdock appears to counteract the damaging effects of alcohol on the liver.
Burdock root is harvested from the first-year plant in the early fall. Roots are deep and may be difficult to extract. The leaves are best used when fresh, as the dried leaf is bitter. Harvesting is done before the plant flowers.
Decoction: Burdock's medicinal properties, concentrated in the root, are best extracted by decoction. Add about 1 tsp of thinly-sliced, fresh or dried burdock root per 8 oz of cold water in a glass or ceramic pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes. Drink up to three cups daily.
Poultice: Simmer fresh, chopped burdock leaves for up to five minutes. Drain, squeezing out the liquid. Cool until warm. Apply to the affected area and secure with a clean strip of cotton gauze. A little oil applied to the skin first may keep the poultice from sticking when dry. Prepare a fresh poultice every few hours until the desired relief is obtained.
Tincture: Combine one part fresh herb to three parts alcohol (50% alcohol/water solution) in glass container. Set aside in dark place. Shake daily for two weeks. Strain through muslin or cheesecloth, and store in dark bottle. The tincture should maintain potency for two years. Standard dosage, unless otherwise prescribed, is 1/2 tsp, three times daily.
Culinary: Fresh burdock roots are mild tasting and somewhat sweet. They may be peeled and thinly sliced to add to soups, salads, and in a mixture of stir-fried vegetables. The young leaves of the first year plant may be eaten fresh or steamed as a nutritious potherb, and the fresh stalks, peeled and steamed until tender, are also a culinary treat. Burdock root, roasted and ground to a powder, has been used as coffee additive or substitute.
Medicinal preparations containing burdock should not be used by pregnant or lactating women. Burdock prepared as a vegetable, however, appears to be safe.
Large doses of medicinal preparations containing burdock may cause the level of potassium in the blood to drop too low. There have also been case reports of people developing an allergic skin rash from touching the leaves and stems of the plant.
Burdock has been reported to interact with medications given to control diabetes. Persons with diabetes should consult a physician before taking any herbal preparation containing burdock. In addition, burdock has been reported to intensify the activity of diuretics (drugs given to increase urine output) and lithium.
Burdock may also interfere with the absorption of iron and other minerals in the diet. Persons who must take supplemental iron or other dietary minerals should consult their health practitioner before taking burdock.
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American Herbalists Guild. 1931 Gaddis Road, Canton, GA 30115. (770) 751-6021. <www.americanherbalistsguild.com>.
Herb Research Foundation. 1007 Pearl Street, Boulder, CO 80302. (303) 449-2265.
Rebecca J. Frey, PhD