Burdock (Arctium lappa)

by Nick Moya

Photo Credit: Christian Fischer
Habitus of Greater BurdockArctium lappa (Asteraceae)

Common names:  greater burdock, edible burdock, lappa, beggar's buttons, thorny burr, happy major, fox's clote, cockle buttons, love leaves, philanthropium, personata, clot-bur (1)(2) bardana (Spanish), bardane (French), gobō (Japanese), niúbàng (牛蒡) (Chinese), u-eong (우엉) (Korean)

Description/Taxonomy:  Burdock is a large herb, classified in the sunflower or aster family (Asteraceae, formerly Compositae). Originally from Eurasia, it has quickly spread throughout the world, becoming naturalized in Australia and the Americas (10).  Burdock is biennial, meaning it has a two-year life cycle. It will put out basal leaves in the spring of its first year, and gather energy in its roots – mainly one, long taproot, like a carrot. During the following winter, the basal leaves will die back leaving only the long taproot underground. In their second year, they will start their season by sprouting more basal leaves, and then put out a tall, erect and branching stock, which can reach up to 3 meters in height (the average is about 1 to 2 meters).

In the late spring or summer of its second year, burdock erupts with small pink or purplish flowers exploding from the top of a spiny ball of hooked bracts, or burs, giving the plant its name. The hooked tips of these burs easily latch onto fur, hair and most clothing, making a pretty effective seed dispersal technique for the plant, which most likely contributed to its quick colonization of almost every continent. The stickiness of the small hooks was actually the original inspiration for invention of Velcro. (They’re usually not too much of a pain to pull out, but a well-placed bur might give a hiker, or their dog, several minutes of aggravation. There are stories of small birds getting the burs caught in their plumage and dying as a result.) The spiny inflorescence itself could be confused, at a glance, with some kind of thistle, which are in the same plant family, however can be told apart easily by its enormous, broad and soft green leaves (not thorny), sometimes reaching up to several feet in length. The leaves are usually cordate (heart-shaped) and darker on the top, with small, soft, whitish hairs on the underside.

The fresh roots have a dark brown, sometimes black, appearance on the outer root bark due to tannin-iron complexes, and they often reach a meter or more in length. Cutting the root open, you’ll find it lighter on the inside, ranging from almost white to light brown, depending on the specimen. The width and color of the roots will depend largely on growth conditions. Wild plants usually don’t get more than a couple centimeters in thickness, but cultivated roots can be much wider and longer, especially in nitrogen-rich soil.

The genus Arctium comes from the Greek, arktos, meaning bear. This is a reference to the bristly, bear-like burs of the involucre. The species name, lappa, also means bur, or thorn, in Latin.

Parts Used:  All parts of the plant can be used for food or medicinal purposes, but mostly the taproot is used, either fresh or dried and then re-hydrated. The immature stalk can also be harvested before flowering in late spring of its second year and eaten raw or boiled with salt (5). Young leaves may be eaten while they are still tender, and can be used externally any time. If the leaves are made into a hot water infusion, they can become mucilaginous and demulcent – a great digestive tonic (1). The seeds/fruits are also used as an effective medicinal.

Medicinal Benefits:  Burdock’s effects on physiology are not entirely understood. It’s been described in Western herbal medicine as an alterative (a tonic for metabolism, sometimes called a “blood cleanser/purifier”), which gives a general description of its action, but does not clearly identify burdock’s effects on any specific systems or organs in the body. The truth is, burdock probably has a wide range of effects on many different body systems, and is therefore very difficult to define in any simple, Western, reductionist context. Many consider it a liver and/or gallbladder stimulant, but that may be misleading, as it may not be acting in a purely stimulating way, such as caffeine has on the nervous system, but probably in a more indirect way, stimulating the lymph via Peyer’s patches, and enteric nerves of the gut, possibly leading to an increase in liver function21. It has also shown potential as a hepatoprotective in at least one study (26). Burdock is also often invoked as a diuretic (increasing urine production and elimination) and a mild diaphoretic (sweat-inducer), which could help explain its effectiveness as a cleanser or purifier, potentially eliminating harmful toxins from the body (23). A tea or decoction of any part of the plant can be used externally on many common skin ailments like eczema, rashes, boils, and cuts (24). Alcohol extracts have been shown to have antifungal properties too (18). One of the most widely known uses of the leaves is as a poultice or salve for burns or sores, and the leaves can be brewed in tea to make an emollient or demulcent (27). Burdock seeds contain arctigenin, and arctiin, which show promise, in at least one study, in possessing anti-carcinogenic and anti-viral properties (8, 9).

As you can see, burdock’s list of known uses is long and can be somewhat vague. So it may be best to stay more or less general, and say that burdock helps the body to metabolize, store and utilize food, and to eliminate potential toxins from the body more effectively. In other words, burdock is an alterative tonic in the truest sense, as it simply assists the body in doing what it naturally does, but more efficiently.

Not all of the effects of burdock are so ambiguous though. One of the most well understood actions of burdock root comes from the benefits of an oligosaccharide called inulin, also found in dandelion, chicory and Jerusalem artichoke roots. Inulin is utilized by the burdock plant itself both as a stable way to store its own sugars (some plants use fluctans like inulin instead of carbohydrates), and also, interestingly, it most likely plays a roll in drought and cold resistance (12, 13).

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This indigestible sugar has been shown to have marked effects on modulating blood-glucose and insulin levels after a meal (11).  It’s also a very effective prebiotic for gut bacteria (22). It’s a long-chain polysaccharide with a strong resistance to human digestive enzymes and therefore is not digested by humans directly, meaning that it passes through our upper GI system mostly intact. However, when it finally gets to our large intestine, it is digested, and with gusto, by the myriad hordes of bacteria in our colon, especially the healthy kind, Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli (19). Inulin directly nourishes our bacterial friends, limiting the amount of potentially disease-causing bacteria (20) and thereby increasing our ability to effectively digest and absorb nutrients from the food we eat. Modern science is only beginning to grasp the true importance of a healthy gut microbiome, but the research clearly shows links between the relative health of your intestinal flora and immune health (16), skin health (17), and mitigating colon cancer (29). So you could say that one of the surest ways that burdock confers its benefits to humanity is through conferring its benefits to the bacteria inside humanity.

Chlorogenic acid is another potentially beneficial compound found in burdock root. It is essentially an ester of caffeic acid and L-quinic acid (“caffeoylquinic acid”). The function of this polyphenol oxidase, for the burdock plant, is most likely to aid in the biosynthesis of lignan (found in the cell walls of plants), but for us, it’s helpful for its strong antioxidant and blood pressure lowering qualities (3, 4, 25). Similar isomers of chlorogenic acid are responsible for the well-known antioxidant effects of foods like coffee, eggplant, peaches, prunes and edible bamboo shoots.

Active & Supportive Constituents:  Inulin, chlorogenic acid, mucilage, sulfurous acetylene compounds, polyacetylenes and bitter guaianolide-type constituents (28).

Side Effects:  Ironically, it’s precisely because of the prebiotic nature of burdock, and the stimulation of gastrointestinal flora it spurs, that many people experience undesired side effects after ingesting it. Inulin passes through the small intestine undigested, thereby giving our lower intestine a yummy meal. (The technical term for this is FODMAP - Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Monosaccharides And Polyols (30).) However, bacterial fermentation of inulin in the large intestine does produce gas, and this gas can also draw water into the colon and cause considerable irritation, especially for those who have IBS. For most, the creating of more gas isn’t a major issue, yet for some, burdock may act indirectly as a laxative in this way (gas + more water in the colon = discomfort, bloating, diarrhea), especially if taken in large doses. Start small! Many of the negative reports could be from people who just took too much at once, without giving their body enough time to get used to the flush of bacteria in the colon. Small doses, taken with food, or incorporated into meals, consistently over several weeks is usually recommended for the maximum nutritional, healing and prebiotic effects of burdock root.

Some also experience undesired effects on their skin, like breaking out on the face, which may simply be a result of the first release of toxins through the pores.

Dosage and Method of Delivery:  Burdock root, once properly diced and dried, can be very easily enjoyed as a tea. The tea tastes earthy, yet mildly and pleasantly sweet, probably due to the presence of inulin, and is reminiscent of oatstraw or oat tops. It brews a light yellow. Mix a little in with other nutrient-rich, tonic herbs like nettles, dandelion, oatstraw, moringa…

A decoction is also possible, but, as noted in the side effects section above, this would probably result in a day or two of unpleasantness. Small doses over long periods of time are recommended, however the seeds may be more forgiving in digestion.

Tinctures or extracts are a great way to preserve fresh burdock root, instead of drying. Lucky for us, the antioxidant caffeoylquinic acid, and the prebiotic inulin are both soluble in alcohol and water, so a low to medium alcohol solution (anywhere from 25 to 60% alcohol) will make a great, shelf-stable extract. Again, start small on the dosage. Maybe one to two full droppers, one or two times per day, and then increase the dose if you don’t experience any adverse effects.

Illustration from Bilder ur Nordens Flora (Public Domain)

Culinary Use:  Burdock root is fairly commonly included in Asian cuisine – mostly Japanese, Korean, and Chinese. It can easily be included into stir-fry dishes in the same way carrot is used, and gives a mildly sweet, earthy, and slightly sesame-like flavor.

The flavor and health benefits lend themselves well to bone broth, as another characteristic of inulin is that it increases the absorption of some minerals, such as calcium (14) and magnesium (15). Mmmmm… boney goodness...

It can and should be pickled.

“Dandelion and Burdock” was a popular non-alcoholic fermented beverage in Britain in the Middle Ages and seems to be making a late resurgence (31). You may be able to find Fentiman’s version, but if not, you may want to consider brewing some up yourself. 

Cultivation: Burdock likes nitrogen-rich soil, and reacts very well to fertilizer. It’s best propagated from seed in early to mid summer, and harvested before the roots get too fibrous in the late fall of their first year. Burdock grows wild all around the world in temperate, sub-tropical, and Mediterranean climates. It likes full to partial sun.

Wildcrafting info in PNW: Burdock is now naturalized in many parts of the world, and is very common throughout the US. You can often find it in disturbed or partially cultivated soil as an invasive weed. You may have seen it along roadsides or in construction sites, although you probably wouldn’t want to harvest these roots for any food or medicinal purpose, as they may be contaminated/polluted. It’s not hard to find it growing in cleaner places, like meadows, or your backyard!

If it’s roots you want, they are best dug up in the late summer or fall of their first year (August-November) when they’re still young and tender, as they will get more fibrous and harder once winter sets in. Remember, they are biennials, so they won’t flower in their first year, only put out basal leaves. Many times, you can figure out where they are likely to pop up by scanning areas for the far more conspicuous dead flowering stock of the previous year. You’ll recognize the burs (lappa) of the seed pods, and you can be pretty sure that some of the seeds made their way to the ground and will sprout new plants in the same area come spring.

The leaves can be harvested anytime they’re green, but the newer growth is tenderer, and probably more desirable. 

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Nick is the creator of OsoMoya, an online Etsy shop focused on creating high quality herbal wares and medicinal mushroom extracts. He studied herbalism, wildcrafting and botany at the Columbines School of Botanical Studies in Eugene, OR.

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