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Burdock photographed by George Chernilevsky, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Hikers know it and bicyclists loathe it. It’s that ungainly weed that offers little in the looks and fragrance department, and according to most people who have come into direct contact with the plant, it is one they could live without.

Burdock has a bad reputation that comes from its menacing habit of attaching itself to anything it touches, from animal fur to clothing, and even bike tires. While their large heart-shaped leaves make the plant seemingly harmless, their small flowerheads can catch you off guard. These bright pink or purple flowers are striking enough to be mistaken for the milk thistle plant. Although there is some similarity and milk thistle and burdock are in the same Asteraceae family, they have different genuses: milk thistle is Silybum, and burdock is Arctium.

The trouble really starts when outdoor enthusiasts and wildlife get too close, causing severe frustration and even death — birds that become entangled in the burrs can suffer a slow death as they are unable to free themselves. The fruits (flowerheads) contain small bracts with hooked spines curving inward, forming prickly burrs that are extremely difficult to remove once they find their new home. According to the Native Plant Atlas, burdock has become a problematic invader of pastures, hay fields, and open prairie ecosystems. It is a host for pathogens like powdery mildew and root rot that threaten other important, native plants. If cattle overgraze burdock, their milk can become tainted and the seed heads that get stuck in sheep’s wool can have dire economic consequences for farmers and ranchers.

Native to northern Europe and Asia, burdock was accidentally introduced to the U.S., likely by cattle where burrs inconspicuously hid in tails and coats. Burdock occurs as a weed in wildland areas of the Southwest and is not considered an invasive. It prefers moist, disturbed areas and turns up in arroyos, meadows, woodlands, and riparian communities in elevations below 7,300 feet. A self-seeding plant that produces up to 15,000 seeds, burdock can and will spread quickly.

All plants fill a specific niche in the environment and burdock is no exception. Despite its negative attributes, burdock offers a lot in terms of holistic and dietary uses. Medicinally, there is a long list of ailments and conditions that burdock purportedly can alleviate, though research varies. Still, there are a lot of current studies taking place due to its mass popularity with people interested in naturopathic and botanical medicine.

Roots, leaves, and seeds of the plant are used in supplements and contain minerals including potassium (308 milligrams), phosphorus (51 mg), and calcium (41 mg). Burdock also contains chemicals that might have activity against bacteria and inflammation. Most notably, it is used as an antioxidant, blood purifier, and anti-inflammatory, and as a reducer of bad cholesterol. As a supplement, it is used to treat colds, cancer, diabetes, gastrointestinal complaints, joint pain (rheumatism), gout, bladder infections, liver disease, complications of syphilis, and skin conditions including acne and psoriasis. Some people believe burdock can increase sex drive, preferring its herbal form to Viagra.

One thing to consider when taking burdock is a possible interaction with other medications including allergic reactions, so always consult with your health-care professional before taking. Burdock is in the Asteraceae family, whose other members include ragweed, chrysanthemums, and marigolds. If you have allergies to any of these, burdock should be avoided altogether, even topically. It is also believed to increase the risk of bleeding during and after surgery, so it is recommended to stop taking at least two weeks prior to a scheduled surgery.

Foraged food is in vogue, making burdock a star in botanically based dishes as well as revisited Old-World recipes. Its root (aka gobo) has an earthy though mildly bitter taste and can be eaten raw or cooked. Burdock root, leaves, and powder can be purchased at natural-food stores and farmers’ markets or can be foraged from the wild; just handle with care if you go that route.

If you’re still not impressed with this multipurpose plant, consider this: burdock inspired the creation of Velcro. In 1941, a Swiss engineer named George de Mestral was hunting and noticed small burrs on his pant legs and covering his dog’s fur. After taking some specimens home and examining them under a microscope, he observed the interlocking system and, by 1948, he had patented his invention and called it Velcro, based on the French words for velvet (velours) and hook (crochet).

Carole A. Langrall has been in the floriculture industry for over 20 years, from working with South American flower growers to opening floral event studios in Santa Fe and Baltimore. As a Master Gardener, she educates and lectures on the importance of native plants, beautification projects, and environmental art. She is available for demonstrations, classes and special events. Contact her at www.flowerspy.com

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