Arctium lappa / Arctium minus
The first few times you are out foraging burdock, you may not notice the differences. Although appearing as one species when first meeting them, these two burdock species will reveal differences that become increasingly evident as you get to know them.
The greater burdock (Arctium lappa) and lesser burdock (Arctium minus) both have a long-standing tradition of use as a medicine and food.
These two plants belong to a genus of about 10 species. The generic name Arctium apparently comes from the Greek- arktos, meaning bear, which alludes to the rough coated fruits.
The specific name of the greater burdock – lappa, is derived from the Latin word- lappare- to seize, referring to the clinging ability of the burs. It is this unfailing ability to attach to passing fur or clothes that allegedly gave a Swiss scientist- George de Mestral, the idea for Velcro during 1948. His idea is an example of ‘bio-mimickry’, or man copiying nature’s designs.
The species name for lesser burdock – minus, relates to a number of size differences between these two species when compared with each other, be this leaf size or fruiting stalk size.
The other notable difference between species can be seen in the leaf stalks, which on the lesser burdock are hollow, but on the greater burdock are solid.
Today burdock may possibly be best known as one half of the once popular spring tonic drink, ‘dandelion and burdock’. However, it is probably more widely known by gardeners as an imposing and commonly found weed.
Habitats to look in when foraging burdock
In the wild, burdock’s thrive near hedges, on roadside verges, on waste-grounds and old building sites, as well as liking the edges of cultivated fields and sunny spots in woodland edges. Burdocks are essentially lowland plants and will be found at elevations no higher than about 390 metres.
Botanical description to help identification when foraging burdock
Burdocks grow as a rosette in their first year, before flowering in the second. The leaf shape can be classified as broadly ovate, or cordate, with wavy, undulating margins.
The leaf grows to around 45 cm long and 30 cm wide, although growing larger in shady spots. They have relatively wide and long petioles. White-pinkish leaf veins run on an approximate 45˚ angle parallel to the rose-pink mid-vein. Underneath, the leaves are of a much lighter colour.
The Burdocks have erect, branched, flowering stems that will reach 150 cm or so tall, and are conspicuous for their spiky flowers. The individually delicate, purple or rose-pink flowers are produced in a composite flower head, borne on terminal clusters and much like the inflorescence of a thistle. Discover more about a fast track to foraging success with my article on the patterns method of identification.
The colour we see in the flowers emanates from the numerous stamens. Burdocks’ flowers can grow to 4 cm across and wither to leave the common ‘burs’ that are deeply ingrained in many childhood memories. These are easily collected unawares on clothing or in hair when playing and tramping through unkempt land.
Root mainly used for medicine in Britain. Leaves, flowers (in Chinese medicine) and seeds are also used.
Roots: in the autumn or spring. Leaves: before flowering. Flowers, when first opening. Seeds, when ripe.
Acids (including butyric acid, linoleic acid, linolenic acid, oleic acid); aldehydes (including isovaleraldehyde, valeraldehyde); carbohydrates (including up to 45% inulin, mucilage, pectin, sugars, fats); volatile oils (including sesquiterpene lactones); bitters (lappatin); resin; phytosterols (stigmasterol and sitosterol); tannins.
Detoxifying, alterative, lymphatic and blood purifier.
Pharmacology and uses
Burdocks have numerous uses. These are examples of very common planta, previously much used in days gone by, now little employed and subsequently with scarce available scientific literature to back up any traditional uses.
Burdocks are used medicinally in most continents where they are naturalised. For the last 200 years or so, burdock has been chiefly employed in this country as an alterative medicine.
Whole burdock extract has been reported to cause a sharp reduction in blood sugar levels. The roots and leaves are recognised diuretics and hypo-glycaemics. The compound arctiin is a C.N.S stimulant and muscle relaxant as well as being anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal. The anti-microbial activity is attributable to bitter components. A summary of medicinal plant constituents is provided in my article here.
Internally burdock has been traditionally used as a treatment for a number of skin diseases and disorders, as well as inflammatory conditions. These include: eczema, psoriasis, rheumatism, gout, and boils. Topically applied, the leaves are similarly used for a host of dermatological problems.
Burdock helps our general elimination processes by assisting the liver function, the circulation, and through the elimination of toxins via the kidneys, urine, and skin. It can therefore assist all manner of skin disorders, such as acne and boils.
In Chinese medicine, the seeds are used for similar conditions and are also employed to treat colds, pneumonia, and throat infections.
Although currently out of fashion in this country, burdock has had a long-standing use as a food plant. In Japan this is still the case where it is known as a prized vegetable and ingredient of the staple dish ‘gobo’. A number of different burdock cultivars are commercially grown in the far-east. The long taproots from one year old plants are harvested by digging up in the autumn or early spring.
The well-known dandelion and burdock soft drink, made from the roots, is a useful springtime cleansing tonic formerly taken in many counties in Britain, especially in Northern England.
Burdock’s long petioles and immature pre-budding flowering stems can also be eaten, when blanched to reduce bitterness and fibrousness. They will need the outer skin peeled off beforehand.
I prefer the flowering stems, and will make a wild food chutney in the summer using these stems, alongside hogweed and willow herbs.