Much maligned for the burrs that cover children's clothing and get caught in dogs' fur, this misunderstood weed is actually a highly valued plant for both food and medicine.
Burdock (Arctium lappa and Arctium minor) is easily recognizable, especially in the fall when the burrs are out and sticking to everything that walks by. In the early spring, this biennial plant has large wavy green leaves that are woolly and silvery underneath. The leaves can get quite large, up to a foot wide and 2 feet long. Be careful to distinguish from rhubarb leaves, which are a cultivated (non-wild) plant, but are poisonous.
Burdock grows mostly on roadsides, vacant lots, any disturbed area across North America, though Burdock is originally from Europe and Asia. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the Burdock seeds of Arctium lappa are called Niu Bang Zi and are used to clear Wind-Heat from the throat, for symptoms such as fever, cough and a sore, red, swollen throat. It is also used to clear heat and toxicity from any red swelling, even in cases of rashes, measles and mumps. It will also moisten the intestine when constipation is present.
In Japan, Burdock root is known as Gobo, and is used in food preparation, mostly peeled, chopped into thin strips and sauteed with other root vegetables. Kinpira Gobo is a side dish served with rice that is seasoned with mirin (a sweet rice wine used for cooking), tamari, sweetener, and sometimes sesame seeds.
In western herbal medicine, the roots are used as a tea or tincture to cleanse the liver, purify the blood and especially for clearing the skin. Its benefits to the skin are widespread: treating acne, eczema, herpes, wounds, ulcers, even conditions of scalp and hair, including baldness. The leaves are often used as a poultice to treat bruises, burns and joint swellings.
As a wild edible plant, burdock roots and stem are eaten. The long leaf stems and early spring flower stalks are peeled and eaten like celery, while the long taproots are dug in the early spring or late fall from plants that have not yet sent up their flower stalk; once the flower stalk goes up and seeds (burrs) are formed, the life cycle of that plant is over and the root would be of no use.
The roots can be scrubbed, peeled and eaten, either raw or sauteed. Burdock has a very high amino acid profile, is also high in minerals: one cup boiled root contains 61.2 mg Calcium, 48.8 mg Magnesium and 450 mg Potassium. Alternately, the roots can be brushed clean, sliced and dried to use later as tea (drying can be sped up in a dehydrator or oven set to very low temperature.)
Another edible use of burdock is in homemade fermented vegetables:
Wildly Fermented Wild Edibles
1 cup grated burdock root (can buy in Asian or gourmet food markets, or harvest as above, scrub, peel and grate)
1 cup grated carrots
2 cups shredded cabbage
a couple large cabbage leaves, set aside
1 tsp or more salt, to taste
Combine all ingredients except large cabbage leaves in a large clean bowl.
With your cleaned hands, mix vegetables, massaging the salt in to release some water.
Taste and add salt to your preference, you should enjoy the flavor.
Put all ingredients into a one quart canning jar, pushing down firmly with your fist to make sure there are no air bubbles, and that the liquid rises above vegetables.
Cut and roll the large cabbage leaves, and put them over grated vegetables, pushing down, to keep the other vegetables under the liquid.
Make sure there are a couple inches left at the top, as the mixture will expand (if you have too much, you can eat the extra as coleslaw.)
Loosely cap, or cover with a cloth to keep insects out.
Press the veggies down into liquid each day.
The fermented (or cultured) vegetables will be ready in 3 to 7 days, depending on your taste. The warmer the weather, the faster it will ferment. The more fermented, the more sour it will be.
Discard the larger top cabbage leaves, put a lid on the jar and it will keep in the refrigerator for months, until eaten.
Reprinted with permission.