STURDY BURDOCK – Potent Herbal Medicine Clears InflammationMichael Vertolli, RH October 1, 2010
Burdock root has many important medicinal uses. First and foremost, it is an excellent depurative or detoxifying herb. As a result it benefits any chronic inflammatory disease of the skin, muscles, ligaments, tendons and joints. These include acne, eczema, psoriasis, gout and rheumatoid arthritis.
Burdock also reduces congestion of the liver and gallbladder, improves digestion and appetite, helps alleviate chronic constipation, and also benefits inflammatory conditions of the urinary tract such as cystitis. It also helps to reduce lymphatic congestion and swelling of the lymph nodes, and improves general circulation. Overall, burdock benefits both short-term weakness of the immune system and chronic autoimmune conditions.
Burdock root has a long history of use for the treatment of many types of cancer. It is an excellent supportive anticancer herb. This means that it provides general benefits that help the body fight cancer, but its capacity to directly kill cancerous cells is fairly mild. When combined with stronger anticancer herbs, such as bloodroot (Sanguinariacanadensis), celandine (Chelidonium majus), creosote bush (Larrea tridentata), mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) and pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), it enhances their action and helps to reduce their toxicity.
All parts of burdock are used medicinally. The flowering herb is harvested in July when it first comes into flower. The fruits (burrs) are harvested from mid August to early September as they begin to change colour from green to yellow. The herb and fruits have similar properties to the root, but they are much more bitter and have a stronger action on the liver and digestive system. They are also effective for reducing nasal discharge due to infection or allergies, and for lowering a fever. When used topically, the leaves are also very effective for healing and reducing inflammation of the skin.
On the other hand, the root is more effective for treatment of urinary tract and lymphatic conditions. For detoxification and conditions of the immune system, the actions of all parts of the plant are similar in their effectiveness.
Burdock has also been used as a food. In Mediterranean countries, the stems of the larger leaves are often boiled or fried with various spices. The blades of the leaves are not used as they are far too bitter. The root is also edible. It can be boiled, fried, or pickled. It is very nutritious and still somewhat detoxifying even when used as a food. Its flavour is similar to Jerusalem artichoke, but it has a bit denser texture. The roots of the first year plant are also harvested when it is used as a food, however they must be harvested earlier in the season (usually in June) before they get too large. Otherwise they become fairly tough and slightly woody. When used as a food, the root is usually harvested when it is similar in size to a large carrot.
Burdock root is a very safe herb. It is not associated with any toxicity concerns, but is not recommended to be taken on a regular basis during pregnancy or lactation because these are not good times to be detoxifying. It may also increase the rate at which some medications are excreted from the body, thereby reducing their effectiveness. For this reason, it is preferable (for anyone taking prescription medications) not to use this herb on a regular basis without the guidance of an experienced herbalist or other natural health practitioner who is familiar with the use of burdock.
STALKING THE WILD BURDOCK
The months of October and November are a very busy time in the world of a herbalist who does wildcrafting. After a slight reprieve in the late summer, we now have to prepare for the last major wave of harvesting for the year. At this time we harvest roots and rhizomes. These underground parts of herbs are best harvested after the aerial parts of the plant have died back. This is because at this time the life force of the plant has withdrawn into the roots and rhizomes, and they have built up a maximum store of chemical constituents needed to survive through the winter until they can once again receive energy from the sun during the following spring.
Identifying plants once the aerial parts have died back presents a problem. Some plants leave a visible dried stalk that we can learn to recognize, but others do not. In the latter case, unless we know the exact location of the plant (as we would if we are growing it in our garden), we must harvest these herbs when they have died back as much as possible but can still be clearly recognized. That is usually as the leaves are turning from yellow to brown but still maintain their distinctive shape.
Most root and rhizome herbs that do not leave a stalk from which they can be recognized are harvested from early to mid October. One of the more popular herbs that are harvested at this time is burdock root (Arctium spp.). Burdock is a biennial. As a result, in its first year of growth it forms a rosette with no stalk. The entire above ground part of the plant consists of some leaves growing in a circular pattern from a common point on the surface of the ground where the crown of the root is located.
In its second year of growth, burdock starts out looking very similar, but in the late spring it produces a tall leafy stalk that will eventually produce its flowers. Once the flowers are fertilized and the seeds mature, the entire plant dies. When harvesting burdock root, it is the root of the first year plant that we use. If we harvest the root of second year plants after they produce their seeds and die back, the root will be dead or dying as well. Since the first year plant doesn’t produce a stalk, the roots must be harvested before the leaves completely die back or we won’t be able to find them.
There are three species of burdock that grow in Ontario, and one hybrid. Common or lesser burdock (Arctium minus) is the most common species. Great burdock (A. lappa) is somewhat less common. In areas where both of these species occur they may hybridize. Their hybrid (A. xnothum) is also called common burdock. The last species, woolly burdock (A. tomentosum) is relatively rare. It is generally believed that the properties of the root of all three species (and the hybrid) are very similar, if not identical, and they have been used interchangeably. I can verify that similarity with all of them except woolly burdock, as I have never used this species.
Harvesting burdock root can be quite a challenge as it tends to be very large. It can grow to two or three inches in diameter and up to five feet deep! Because it grows deep into the subsoil, it tends to reach its largest size if the subsoil is loose and sandy. In areas where there is more resistance, such as rocks or heavy clay, it tends to be smaller and more branched.
Since harvesting the root of this plant necessitates killing it before it has an opportunity to reproduce, we want to get as much of the root as possible. This can require digging very deep. Fortunately, even for a herbalist like myself who uses a lot of this herb, because the root is so large I rarely need to harvest more than one or two plants. For the average person who only needs to harvest enough for personal use or for their immediate family, even one root will provide much more than they will require. It is therefore preferable to dig down along the side of the main root and harvest one of the secondary taproots. This will usually provide plenty while not requiring the plant to be killed.
Burdock is an alien native of Eurasia that has naturalized throughout most of North America. It is one of the many important medicinal herbs that are well adapted to the kind of changes that people tend to make to the environment where they live. These herbs tend to follow us wherever we go and be quite plentiful and difficult to over-harvest. Using them allows us to reduce our use of some of the native species that are more vulnerable due to habitat loss and competition from non-native species.
Some of the other common alien medicinal herbs that have naturalized extensively throughout much of Ontario include chicory (Cichorium intybus), coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), common mullein (Verbascum thapsus), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), elecampane (Inula helenium), garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), motherwort (Leo-nurus cardiaca), ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), plantain (Plantago spp.), purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), queen Ann’s lace (Daucus carota), red clover (Trifolium pratense), soapwort (Saponaria officinalis), St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), sulphur cinquefoil (Potentilla recta), sweet clover (Melilotus spp.), wild madder (Galium mollugo) and yellow dock (Rumex crispus).
PREPARING BURDOCK MEDICINE
When roots such as burdock are harvested, they must first be scrubbed well to remove any soil. Then they can be dried or used fresh to make a tincture. Burdock root is significantly more potent when fresh than when dried. As a result, the best way to use it is in the form of a fresh root tincture. I usually make fresh herb tinctures at a 1:5 potency. At this potency the typical adult dosage is about four to five droppers (three to four milliliters) which is slightly less than a half teaspoon.
The fall is a great time of year to spend some time outdoors enjoying the crispness of the air and the changing colour of the leaves. It is also our last opportunity to harvest some herbs before the frosts of winter freeze the ground and we have to wait until spring for our plant friends to reappear.
Harvesting our own medicinal roots is a bit more work than harvesting other parts of a plant, but it is still a rewarding pastime and it gives us one more excuse to spend some time outdoors during this beautiful time of year.
The Wise Woman View of Burdock
By Julia Woodford
According to Healing Wise by Susun Weed, burdock is a beloved ally of wise women and herbalists everywhere. She says that burdock’s action is most profound on the lymph, sweat, and oil glands, and is not suitable for treatment of acute conditions because it works slowly and thoroughly at deep levels.
In the wise woman tradition founded by Weed, regular use of burdock root helps supply optimum nutrition to the glandular and immune systems while providing overall power and emotional stability to the whole being.
“Burdock nourishes the most extreme, buried, and far-reaching aspects of ourselves …. breaking the ground for transformation,” she says.
I like to go burdock hunting in the fall after the first frost. I roam around fields and forests looking for unpolluted areas with loose soil because burdock root grows deep and can be hard to dig out. Once I’ve extracted one or two fresh roots, I take them home, clean them up, and chop the roots into small chunks. Then they are placed in a big mason jar, and the jar is filled up with organic vodka. The burdock tincture is then left to steep over the winter months (I start using it after 6 weeks). Organic cultivated burdock roots can be found in the health food store, which is a lot easier than digging it yourself. It can be boiled like a potato and then served with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, or added to a cooked vegetable salad (eg. kale, corn, and beet salad).
I first got interested in burdock in my 30s when looking for solutions to my low self esteem. After many months of using burdock regularly, I started feeling emotionally stronger and my skin problems cleared up. It is also very useful for alleviation of premenstrual symptoms (due to its liver cleansing effect) and menopause (due to its ‘cooling’ properties). I take it with reckless abandon whenever I feel the need for root medicine to calm my frazzled mind.
According to Weed: “Burdock energizes and organizes the lymphatic and immune system, encourages the kidneys, sweet-talks the liver, turns on the flood gates of sweat when fever rises, and helps the uterus and the wise woman to move with truth and strength in the flow of birthing.”
Michael Vertolli is a Registered Herbalist practising in Vaughan (just north of Toronto). He is the Director of Living Earth School of Herbalism, which offers in-class and online general interest courses, certificate, and diploma programs. For more information: 905-303-8723. Visit his website: www.livingearthschool.ca Blog: michaelvertolli.blogspot.ca