Culturally and Economically Important Nontimber Forest Products of Northern Maine
Common Burdock, Arctium minus
Other names: Rhubarb sauvage (French), kawisimus (Maliseet), kawiksaw (Mi’kmaq)
At the mention of the word “burdock,” many people conger up childhood memories of Velcro-like burs that tenaciously cling to anything, from clothing, to shoelaces, to pets and sometimes necessitated haircuts. Because of its ability to spread vigorously, burdock is also considered a noxious weed in some states. But that’s only part of the story: burdock is valued as a medicine and wild food among gatherers in northern Maine.
Physical Description: Burdock can grow to be 4 ½ feet tall. Leaves are large, up to 18 inches long and 14 inches wide, deep green, and oval shaped but can be heart-shaped lower on the stem. Lower leaf stems are often hollow. Purple, thistle-like flowers are produced in bristly heads from mid-summer to early fall, later turning into the familiar brown burs with hooked bracts that persist through the winter.
Habitat: Introduced from Eurasia, burdock is common in areas of nutrient-poor soil, along roadsides, and field edges.
Uses: The root and seeds are used medicinally as an overall tonic and cleanser. People we interviewed felt burdock was a good “blood purifier.” The root is also a nutritious edible known as “gobo” in Japanese. Both the root and the seeds have the same properties, although the root is stronger. Herbalist Natalia Bragg relays this advice:
"When there’s a need for speed, use the seed. When you have time, use the root."
Preparation: Burdock root may be used fresh or dried in tea form. One interviewee recommended drinking three cups of burdock tea a day to provide energy. The roots can also be dried and then steeped in strong alcohol to create a concentrated tincture. Fresh burdock root may be eaten raw or cooked. Sautéing is a popular method.
When to harvest: Burdock root is harvested in the fall. Seeds may be harvested any time after they form, generally in the fall. A biennial, burdock root is best used at the end of its first year or beginning of the second, before the plant flowers.
Tips for Sustainable Harvesting/Management: Burdock is common. However, only harvest roots in areas where there are numerous plants; collecting the taproot root will kill an individual plant. Exercise caution when harvesting plant materials near roadsides or places where herbicides or other chemicals may have been applied.
Photo courtesy of W.L. Wagner @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
Information about medicinal plant uses is provided for educational purposes only. It should not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment and is not a substitute for consultation with a licensed physician.
Last Modified: 05/24/2010