Burdock

The burrs of burdock are what inspired Velcro, a neologism from the words velour meaning velvet and crochet meaning hook in French

Common Name: Burdock, Beggar’s buttons, Burr seed, Cocklebur, Fox’s clote,  Love leaves, Gobo (Japanese), Bardane (French), Kletterwurzel (German), Niubang (Chinese), Lampazo (Spanish) – Both burr and dock have Old English etymologies referring to anything bristly for the former and anything weedy for the latter. Burdock as a combination of the two is an apt description of a weedy plant with seeds that stick to anything with texture, like hiking pants.

Scientific Name: Arctium minus –  The generic name is from arktos, the Greek word for bear. The north pole is similarly named Arctic for its association with the constellation Big Dipper or Ursa Major, the great bear that marks its direction in celestial navigation. The association of arktos or bear with the burdock plant is probably due to the rough burrs that are its most notable characteristic. The species name minus  means small to distinguish it from the larger A. lappa or great burdock, which can be over nine feet tall. Lappa is burr in Latin so the inference would be “bear burr.”

Potpourri:   The Eurasian linguistic diversity of the names for the  plant called  burdock in the English of its western edge is indicative of the continental extent of its native range. It is equally a measure of the degree to which local populations came up with independent local names according to their own cultures even though their languages may have had a common origin, mostly Indo-European. Even in English, the many folksy descriptions referring to its tenacious seed cases packaged as furry burrs that can only be removed one by one make it clear that people have dealt with this weedy seed-spreader for a long time. A dock is a plant in the genus Rumex of the Buckwheat family along with the many species of smartweed and knotweed in the genus Polygonum that compete for turf along the trail. All are noted for weedy dominance of open areas. We all know what a burr is ―the synonymous bristle is its essence. So what could be worse than a dock with burrs? A bigger burdock.

Burdock is a biennial, producing just large leaves the first year

Burdock is a member of Asteraceae, a family that is often called Composite, Sunflower or Daisy. Only the orchid family rivals it for size and diversity, each having thousands of genera and tens of thousands of species. The most notable taxonomic feature is what appears to be an unusually large single flower.  A verisimilitude, the big “flower” is really a composite (hence the name)  of many small, individual florets collocated there. Each floret is a separate functional flower that will produce a seed … the ubiquity of sunflower seeds is exemplary. [1] Burdock is biennial, having a two-year life cycle that starts with the growth of large, lanceolate (lance-shaped) basal leaves that are hard to miss, projecting outward from the base more than a foot in all directions. With a well-established photosynthetic foundation, stalks called peduncles arise in the second year expanding into branched panicles of multiple  inflorescences. The complex supporting structure for each group of florets in a composite flower is called an involucre, and each of the individual bracts (modified leaves) that form its base are called phyllaries. Burdock has many variants, a testimony to its adaptation survival skills. While the composite arrangement  of the floret-flowers of Asteraceae would appear to be a cumbersome compromise, it is among the most successful. The many florets of the community  perch atop a lofty stem to attract pollinators that dwell on the smorgasbord,  fertilizing as they go. The many seeds are ready for the next step, getting to germination. Burdock evolved one of the better ways of doing this. [2]

To fully and literally appreciate the tenacity of evolution’s trial and error test of random mutations to see what works is to take a walk through autumnal woods where burdock is not uncommon (it is weedy after all [3]). A hiker, like any other furry animal that brushes up against the erect spikes festooned with prickly ornaments, will walk away with a few. This is what happened to the Swiss electrical engineer cum inventor George de Mestral while hiking through the woods with his dog in 1941 (some sources say 1948). As he pulled away the burrs one by one, he was surprised by the degree of force required to dislodge them. A microscopic inspection revealed the reason … each burr was covered with tiny hooks that caught in the loops of the dog’s fur or the fabric of his pants. In what may have been the first epiphany that nature’s innovations were relevant in the modern era, he reasoned that this “hook-loop” mechanism could be repurposed as a fastener. Thus began a ten year quest to prove that engineering ain’t easy. Working with a number of skeptical textile companies and cotton, he soon realized that making the loops was readily achieved with standard weaving and sewing technologies ―but that hooks were another matter. After a long stretch of trial and error, he chanced upon using nylon as the hook material that could be fabricated as a loop and then cut at an angle to make two hooks. The nylon had just the right rigidity to hold its shape with enough flexure to permit separation from the enmeshed loops without undue force. In 1955, the patent was awarded for Velcro®, a neologism created by combining velour, the French word for velvet with crochet, meaning hook. For many years, it was an interesting oddity with miniscule market share amid the zippers, snaps, and buttons. And that would have been that had NASA not concluded that Velcro would be the  ideal fastener for astronauts clad in clumsy protective suits. Overnight, Velcro became the rage as the epitome of the Space Age. It has since become the attachment of choice for any application where an object must be held fast but which can be readily and rapidly removed without the need for clumsy digital manipulation. [4] One of Barry Commoner’s four laws of ecology is “Nature knows best.” Burdock exemplifies it.

The composite flowers can produce up to 300,000 seeds from one plant.

Every successful plant becomes so by a sequence of random mutations that impart better ways to survive. This includes at least two fundamental qualities. The first is producing and sowing seeds for the next generation in a place where they can germinate … burdock is a super seeder; one plant can produce over 300,000 seeds The second is not getting eaten by either a large herbivore or by armies of leaf-eating insects.  This usually results in the random mutation and selection of genetic mutants to make  phytochemicals with noxious smells or tastes and/or prickly thorns to keep predators at bay. Burdock is exceptionally endowed with the  chemicals of exclusion. This is evident from field observation ― its large, basal leaves are easily accessible to grazing animals or marauding insects but show no signs of damage. Chemical engineering is a root function, its products conveyed up the stalk to the photon-catching chlorophyl-green of the leaves. Laboratory analysis of burdock root has revealed an abundance of terpenoids, sulfurous acytelenic compounds and five antioxidant caffeoylquinic acid compounds. [5] While the efficacy of the chemicals from the burdock factory for medicinal human treatments may be subject to legitimate scientific inquiry and assessment, there can be no doubt that burdock has been used throughout Eurasia for millennia and by Native Americans ever since their introduction to the Americas. Burdock therefore figures prominently in herbal medicine as near panacea.

The debate between herbalists and certified medical prescribers concerning treatment options for various ailments is one of lore versus science, centuries versus decades, and to some extent spiritual versus practical. Herbalists point to the long-term empirical evidence of successful treatments where scientists require double blind trials and statistics. Herbalists decry the hegemony of pharmaceutical companies and their profitability and medical practitioners complain of quack medicine. Burdock is at the epicenter of this debate in that it has a global usage history with some scientific evidence that it works. Its purported benefits are legion. Made into an herbal tea or  ptisan, it allegedly purifies the blood, increases bile and urine excretion (diuretic) while simultaneously improving digestions and sweating.  Other uses include rheumatism, gonorrhea, liver ailments, and gout. Chinese purveyors of traditional medicine (TCM) use it to treat vertigo, measles, as a wash for skin rashes like eczema, and as an antibacterial and antiseptic agent for sore throats, abscesses, snakebite, flu and constipation. [6] These claims can at times rise to the level of exhortation that are reminiscent of the notorious “snake oil salesmen” of the nineteenth century where the only law was caveat emptor. For example, one text claims that it will heal a damaged liver in less than two weeks. [7] On the medical side, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) acknowledges and delineates the traditional uses including diabetes, bacterial infections, HIV, cancer, and kidney stones with the caveat that “there is currently insufficient human evidence regarding the efficacy of burdock for any indication.”  One specific herbal product provides a good example of the herbal dilemma. NIH states that “burdock is an ingredient in the popular purported cancer remedy, Essiac®,” [8] but a scientific study completed in 2006 concluded that “Essiac does not appear to improve health related quality of life or mood states. Future studies are needed to determine whether other clinical outcomes, such as cancer reoccurrence, are affected by Essiac.” [9] The herbal-science debate is neither new nor finished, and it probably never will be.

In spite of a chemical constituency that would suggest a bitter toxicity with an unpleasant sulfur smell, burdock has an equally storied past as potherb. Traditionally, the roots and young stems were cleaned, trimmed and boiled to improve palatability and cook off some of the more volatile compounds. [10] In Japan, gobo is prepared in this manner as one of the ingredients in sukiyaki.   According to the American botanist Charles Millspaugh, however, “the plant is so rank that man, the jackass, and the caterpillar are the only animals that will eat it.” [11] Among Native Americans, the tribes of the Iroquois confederacy consumed burdock as a dietary mainstay, even drying the roots for winter storage to be used in cold weather soups. In the spring and summer, the young leaves were cooked and seasoned. [12] As a testimony to the invasive nature of burdock, even the Hawaiians were among its consumers, believing that the roots had aphrodisiac and body strengthening  properties, giving bundles of roots to newly betrothed couples as a wedding send-off. There may be something to this. A recent scientific study was conducted in which four groups of ten laboratory mice (forty total) were given different amounts of burdock by gavage, the polite but euphemistic term for force-feeding. After four weeks, the mice were evaluated for forelimb grip strength and for fatigue by forcing them to swim to exhaustion. In what should probably be troubling as a matter of ethics, the mice were all killed one hour after completing the torture tests and dismembered so that their liver and muscles could be evaluated for glycogen content. Glycogen is the storage compound for glucose in animals and is the primary source of endurance energy (runners train for marathons by gradually increasing distance over time to encourage glycogen storage in the muscles for use on race day). The study concluded that “a significant increase in tissue glycogen storage with burdock supplementation, which could enhance endurance performance.”  [13] Think of it this way. Burdock is a weed that is scientifically beneficial for animal health and endurance. Promoting its use as an alternative to meat and manufactured supplements would be both good for humans and good for the land we live on. It also might justify the sacrifice of forty mice.

References: 

1, Niering, W. and  Olmstead, M. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers. Alfred A. Knopf, 1998, pp 354-357, 704-709.

2. http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=1&taxon_id=242416085 

3. https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=ARMI2

4. https://lemelson.mit.edu/resources/george-de-mestral     

5. Maruta, Y et al. “Antioxidative caffeoylquinic acid derivatives in the roots of burdock (Arctium lappa L.)”. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 1 October 1995  43 (10): 2592

6. Foster, S. and Duke, J. A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 2000, pp 186-187.

7. Balch, P. Prescription for Herbal Healing. Penguin Books, New York,  January 2002.

8.https://web.archive.org/web/20100717095144/http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/patient-burdock.html

9. Zick S. et al. “Trial of Essiac to ascertain its effect in women with breast cancer (TEA-BC)” (PDF). Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. November 10, 2006 Volume 12 (10): 971–980.

10. Elias, T. and Dykeman, P. Edible Wild Plants, Sterling Publishing Company, New York, 1990, pp 112-113.

11. Sanders, J. Hedgemaids and Fairy Candles, Ragged Mountain Press, Camden, Maine, 1995, pp 222-223.

12. http://naeb.brit.org/uses/search/?string=arctium

13. Chen, W. et al. “Effect of burdock extract on physical performance and physiological fatigue in mice”. Journal of Veterinary Medical Science. October 2017 Volume 79 (10) pp. 1698–1706.

2 thoughts on “Burdock

    1. No, not yet. I knew about the burrs and Velcro of course but I knew nothing of burdock’s medicinal properties nor its edibility until U did the research for this article (which is really what HNB is all about). I intend to dig some up and try it in the spring. Cattails are similar in that the roots are also edible – but very difficult to dig out.

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