Burdock root has many important medicinal uses. First and foremost, it is an excellent depurative or detoxifying herb. As a result it benefits any chronic inflammatory disease of the skin, muscles, ligaments, tendons and joints. These include acne, eczema, psoriasis, gout and rheumatoid arthritis.
Burdock also reduces congestion of the liver and gallbladder, improves digestion and appetite, helps alleviate chronic constipation, and also benefits inflammatory conditions of the urinary tract such as cystitis. It also helps to reduce lymphatic congestion and swelling of the lymph nodes, and improves general circulation. Overall, burdock benefits both short-term weakness of the immune system and chronic autoimmune conditions.
Burdock root has a long history of use for the treatment of many types of cancer. It is an excellent supportive anticancer herb. This means that it provides general benefits that help the body fight cancer, but its capacity to directly kill cancerous cells is fairly mild. When combined with stronger anticancer herbs, such as bloodroot (Sanguinariacanadensis), celandine (Chelidonium majus), creosote bush (Larrea tridentata), mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) and pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), it enhances their action and helps to reduce their toxicity.
All parts of burdock are used medicinally. The flowering herb is harvested in July when it first comes into flower. The fruits (burrs) are harvested from mid August to early September as they begin to change colour from green to yellow. The herb and fruits have similar properties to the root, but they are much more bitter and have a stronger action on the liver and digestive system. They are also effective for reducing nasal discharge due to infection or allergies, and for lowering a fever. When used topically, the leaves are also very effective for healing and reducing inflammation of the skin.
On the other hand, the root is more effective for treatment of urinary tract and lymphatic conditions. For detoxification and conditions of the immune system, the actions of all parts of the plant are similar in their effectiveness.
Burdock has also been used as a food. In Mediterranean countries, the stems of the larger leaves are often boiled or fried with various spices. The blades of the leaves are not used as they are far too bitter. The root is also edible. It can be boiled, fried, or pickled. It is very nutritious and still somewhat detoxifying even when used as a food. Its flavour is similar to Jerusalem artichoke, but it has a bit denser texture. The roots of the first year plant are also harvested when it is used as a food, however they must be harvested earlier in the season (usually in June) before they get too large. Otherwise they become fairly tough and slightly woody. When used as a food, the root is usually harvested when it is similar in size to a large carrot.
Burdock root is a very safe herb. It is not associated with any toxicity concerns, but is not recommended to be taken on a regular basis during pregnancy or lactation because these are not good times to be detoxifying. It may also increase the rate at which some medications are excreted from the body, thereby reducing their effectiveness. For this reason, it is preferable (for anyone taking prescription medications) not to use this herb on a regular basis without the guidance of an experienced herbalist or other natural health practitioner who is familiar with the use of burdock.
STALKING THE WILD BURDOCK
The months of October and November are a very busy time in the world of a herbalist who does wildcrafting. After a slight reprieve in the late summer, we now have to prepare for the last major wave of harvesting for the year. At this time we harvest roots and rhizomes. These underground parts of herbs are best harvested after the aerial parts of the plant have died back. This is because at this time the life force of the plant has withdrawn into the roots and rhizomes, and they have built up a maximum store of chemical constituents needed to survive through the winter until they can once again receive energy from the sun during the following spring.
Identifying plants once the aerial parts have died back presents a problem. Some plants leave a visible dried stalk that we can learn to recognize, but others do not. In the latter case, unless we know the exact location of the plant (as we would if we are growing it in our garden), we must harvest these herbs when they have died back as much as possible but can still be clearly recognized. That is usually as the leaves are turning from yellow to brown but still maintain their distinctive shape.
Most root and rhizome herbs that do not leave a stalk from which they can be recognized are harvested from early to mid October. One of the more popular herbs that are harvested at this time is burdock root (Arctium spp.). Burdock is a biennial. As a result, in its first year of growth it forms a rosette with no stalk. The entire above ground part of the plant consists of some leaves growing in a circular pattern from a common point on the surface of the ground where the crown of the root is located.
In its second year of growth, burdock starts out looking very similar, but in the late spring it produces a tall leafy stalk that will eventually produce its flowers. Once the flowers are fertilized and the seeds mature, the entire plant dies. When harvesting burdock root, it is the root of the first year plant that we use. If we harvest the root of second year plants after they produce their seeds and die back, the root will be dead or dying as well. Since the first year plant doesn’t produce a stalk, the roots must be harvested before the leaves completely die back or we won’t be able to find them.
There are three species of burdock that grow in Ontario, and one hybrid. Common or lesser burdock (Arctium minus) is the most common species. Great burdock (A. lappa) is somewhat less common. In areas where both of these species occur they may hybridize. Their hybrid (A. xnothum) is also called common burdock. The last species, woolly burdock (A. tomentosum) is relatively rare. It is generally believed that the properties of the root of all three species (and the hybrid) are very similar, if not identical, and they have been used interchangeably. I can verify that similarity with all of them except woolly burdock, as I have never used this species.
Harvesting burdock root can be quite a challenge as it tends to be very large. It can grow to two or three inches in diameter and up to five feet deep! Because it grows deep into the subsoil, it tends to reach its largest size if the subsoil is loose and sandy. In areas where there is more resistance, such as rocks or heavy clay, it tends to be smaller and more branched.
Since harvesting the root of this plant necessitates killing it before it has an opportunity to reproduce, we want to get as much of the root as possible. This can require digging very deep. Fortunately, even for a herbalist like myself who uses a lot of this herb, because the root is so large I rarely need to harvest more than one or two plants. For the average person who only needs to harvest enough for personal use or for their immediate family, even one root will provide much more than they will require. It is therefore preferable to dig down along the side of the main root and harvest one of the secondary taproots. This will usually provide plenty while not requiring the plant to be killed.
Burdock is an alien native of Eurasia that has naturalized throughout most of North America. It is one of the many important medicinal herbs that are well adapted to the kind of changes that people tend to make to the environment where they live. These herbs tend to follow us wherever we go and be quite plentiful and difficult to over-harvest. Using them allows us to reduce our use of some of the native species that are more vulnerable due to habitat loss and competition from non-native species.
Some of the other common alien medicinal herbs that have naturalized extensively throughout much of Ontario include chicory (Cichorium intybus), coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), common mullein (Verbascum thapsus), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), elecampane (Inula helenium), garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), motherwort (Leo-nuruscardiaca), ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), plantain (Plantago spp.), purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), queen Ann’s lace (Daucus carota), red clover (Trifolium pratense), soapwort (Saponaria officinalis), St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), sulphur cinquefoil (Potentilla recta), sweet clover (Melilotus spp.), wild madder (Galiummollugo) and yellow dock (Rumex crispus).