Photo courtesy Annette Launer
Great or greater burdock, Arctium lappa (syn. Arctium majus and Lappa major), is also known as bardana (in Italy, Portugal and Brazil), beggar’s buttons, burdock, burr seed, clotbur, cocklebur, edible burdock, gobo (in Japan), grass burdock, hardock, hareburr, hurrburr, Japanese burdock, lappa, lappa burdock, niúpángzi (in China), turkey burrseed, and ueong (in Korea).
It is mainly grown as a food plant, particularly in Japan, but is a valuable medicinal plant, and also a source of inulin, a sweetener suitable for diabetics. All parts of the plant are edible, including the seeds if sprouted. Take care not to inhale the seeds accidentally, as they are covered in tiny hairs which are toxic if inhaled.
Great burdock is a hardy biennial, a native of Europe and the Northern US, which reaches a height of 6 feet (2m) and spreads over an area of about 3 feet (1m). It will grow in any soil, but does prefer a chalky or limey one. It will not grow in full shade.
Sow seeds in late Autumn or Spring in groups of 2 or 3 about 6 inches (15cm) apart, and thin to a single plant when these germinate and are growing strongly. As the plants grow, you will need to dig up some of them to allow the others to reach full size, but you can use the roots in the kitchen – very young roots can be used raw, or add them to casserole, stew or curry (they will take up the flavor of whatever they are cooked with). Leaves can also be used for food (when cooked they are mucilaginous, like gumbo/okra), or for medicine. The seeds won’t be produced until the second year, so if you want to use them, you’ll need to leave some of the plants to grow on. These plants will also produce more leaves, as younger plants only produce basal leaves.
The parts used are one-year-old roots, fresh leaves, seeds and juice.To extract the juice, grate the root and add half a cup of water to each cup of root, then squeeze out the liquid by wrapping in a cloth and wringing it out. This juice can be used as a topical treatment which is used to prevent baldness.
Fresh leaves are used to make a standard infusion, using 3 handfuls of chopped leaves to 600ml (2.5 US cups, 1 UK pint) boiling water. Allow to stand for between 15 minutes and 4 hours and strain. This is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and is also an excellent tonic, particularly in cold weather, as well as a diuretic – so don’t take more than 80ml (1/3 US cup) up to 3 times a day unless you actually require this effect.
To make a decoction add 30g (1 ounce) of fresh or 15g (a half ounce) dried roots to 600ml (2.5 US cups, 1 UK pint) cold water, bring to a boil and simmer for about 20 minutes until the liquid has reduced by half and then strain. Use the same dose as for the standard infusion. This is used to stimulate the production of bile, to induce sweating and as a diuretic. Externally it is used as a wash for skin infections, acne, boils, bites, eczema, herpes, impetigo, rashes and ringworm and as a gargle for sore throat.
Grind the seeds and mix with jam or honey (or just chew them on their own) as a treatment for sciatica. Don’t breathe them in (see note above), though why anyone would want to is beyond me.
The leaves can be used for poison ivy and poison oak, like dock leaves for nettles.
! One of the effects of great burdock differs from person to person: in some people a root decoction can be used as a mild laxative, but others will find it has the reverse effect. The laxative properties may account for some people’s reported problems with diarrhea when using inulin as a sweetener, though chicory is the usual source for this.
As I always say, herbs used for medicinal purposes must be grown organically to ensure they retain their properties, and great burdock is no exception to this rule. To find out more about growing organic great burdock visit the Gardenzone.