Burdock, the “Velcro” of wild plants

Burdock, the “Velcro” of wild plants

“Nature seems partial to the burdock. What extra pains she seems to have taken to perpetuate this worse than useless plant! Every man’s hand is against it, and nearly every animal has reason to detest it. Against their wills they are engaged in sowing its seeds.” John Burroughs, from Field and Study, Nature Lore, 1919

I found the above quote while reading one of my books of essays by John Burroughs. Though more than 100-years-old, he pretty much nails the bothersome manner in which burdock spreads its seeds.

We have lots of common burdock on our property. I have controlled it as best I can, and again this spring and summer I have done battle with this persistent wild plant. It likes old fields and it has found our back pasture a perfect habitat and, in spite of my annual brush-hogging and mowing, it remains. We have two horses who enjoy the large pasture for exercise and grazing. We, however, don’t appreciate the chore of removing the burs of the burdock from their tail and mane. For those who raise sheep, the clinging burs can be a real problem and lower the value of their fleece.

I looked it up in my “Audubon Field Guide to North American Wildflowers” and found Common Burdock (Arcticum minus) is in the sunflower family (Asteraceae). It is described as a large, bushy plant with globular and very prickly pink and lavender colored flower heads of about a three-quarter inch wide. It is the hooked tips of the flower head that hold fast to your socks, sweaters or fleece jackets as well as the fur of animals. The seeds of the plant are inside the flower head, making its clinging characteristics an excellent mechanism for seed dispersal.

As the story goes, burdock is the inspiration for the invention of Velcro fasteners. In the early 1940’s George de Mestral, a Swiss inventor, devised his invention after having to remove the burs from his dog’s fur. He looked at the burs under a microscope and seeing the seizing quality of hooked barbs devised Velcro.

The plant is easy to identify due to its large oval shaped dark green leaves and heart shaped lower leaves. The leaves can be up 18 inches long. It can also grow quite tall and reach up to 5 feet in height, though the ones we have in our pasture tend to only grow about 3 feet tall at most.

Burdock is native to Eurasia and came to the United States with colonists, either intentionally or as accidental introduction. It may very well have hitched a ride across the Atlantic attached to someone’s coat or within the fleece of imported sheep.

It now grows across much of Canada and the United States and can be especially problematic in the western states with large range land for grazing livestock. It is classified as an invasive plant species in some of the western states, however, here in Connecticut it is not listed with the Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group at UCONN.

Control of burdock can be achieved by repeated mowing as well as digging up the root stem. The roots can grow very deep and regrowth will occur unless the entire root is removed. Applying herbicide or white vinegar to the cut root stem is also effective.

Burdock is a biennial plant. In its first year of growth a rosette of leaves on slender stalks will appear. In the second year the plant grows more sturdy stalks and clusters of round, thistle-like prickly flower heads with purple florets and spiny fruits that will cling to passing animals and unwary humans.

Burroughs was not entirely correct in claiming that it is a “worse than useless plant” as it has been known for culinary as well as medicinal uses. It is grown as a vegetable crop in Japan and other Asian countries. The taproot of the first year burdock can be harvested and eaten as a root vegetable and the Japanese are known to use the plant as an appetizer with sautéed burdock root and carrot. The leaves of first year plants are also used in salads or steamed and the root used in soups and stews. Burdock root was also used in Europe in making beer as a “bittering agent” before the use of hops became widespread.

Other uses of the plant can be found in traditional folk medicine. The oil of the burdock root has been used as a scalp treatment and as a diuretic to increase urination to flush the urinary tract, as well as other reported uses.

The next time I do battle with the persistent burdock in our back pasture I may reconsider the task and remember its potential use in brewing beer or as a tasty salad green. More than likely my thoughts will return to the tedious chore of pulling the Velcro-like clinging burs from our animals and garments, and it will be game on as I fire up the brush hog.”

We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor with a countless variety of fascinating plants and animals. The vast majority of these plants I enjoy and appreciate, while there are a few others I tolerate (to an extent). They all represent the unique variety of living things encompassing our natural world. It lays before us to be cared for, enjoyed and passed on.

Information for this column was gleaned from The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers, Invasiveplantatlas.com, Motherearthliving.com and the website for the American Botanical Council.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org


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