Saturday, June 9, 2012

Foraging: Burdock…One man’s weed is another’s vegetable

A man's children and his garden both reflect the amount of weeding done during the growing season. – Unknown

A mature burdock. Photo: Olafschanz, Flickr ccl
I was visiting friends last night and let our dog Henry outside to wander. One of the first thing’s out of my friend’s mouth was “make sure he stays out of the burdocks.” He has some burdock plants that grow at the edge of an old foundation.

The reason he was concerned is because of the burdock seeds, When fully mature that are evil. They grasp onto pants, sweaters, hair… you name it. They particularly like to get stuck in animal fur, and are extremely difficult to remove.

These are the seed "pods" that stick to dog fur so readily.
Photo: freebird4, Flickr ccl
This year’s seeds are a long way off yet, but sometimes last year's stalks and seeds still stand among the new year's growth. So it's a good idea to identify where burdock is growing so you can avoid it…or not. Read on.

Burdock is an interesting plant. It is a biennial plant (leaves one year, flowers the next and then dies) of the Asteraceae family. Asteraceae – also known as the aster, daisy, or sunflower family – is a very large and widespread family of plants. The group has nearly 23,000 accepted species.

The species grows in temperate regions and has become naturalized nearly everywhere in the world with the right conditions. It is originally from the Old World, being native from the UK in the west to China in the east, and Scandinavia in the north to the Mediterranean in the south.

Burdock is a stately plant that can reach about 6 feet (about 2 m) in height and a taproot that can reach 3 feet (1 m) in depth. It has large, wide leaves that have a wavy margin. The purple flowers appear in mid-summer and look very much like a thistle. 

Following the flowers are the nasty round globes filled with seeds that are the bane of every dog owners existence. Anyone who walks their dogs in Point Pleasant Park in Halifax will know this plant. It grows in several spots throughout the park.

So it actually does sound like something to avoid, but it does have it uses in the kitchen.

Burdock root. Photo: I Believe I Can Fry, Flickr ccl
In the kitchen
Burdock was used as a vegetable in the middle ages and is still in use in Asia, Italy, Brazil and Portugal. Most often now it is only the root that is used. 

I have used dried burdock root to make “D&B soda” syrup, which was posted on this blog last year. It was very tasty. I have never tried the fresh root. (The D stands for dandelion, by the way.)

Interestingly, you can use the entire burdock plant for cooking, and for the entire growing season too.

Pick burdock shoots in the spring  and steam or pickle them. If you wait a little later pick the young leaves. They are somewhat like spinach and can be used as a “potherb”(boiled). 

Peeled, the stems can be steamed and served like asparagus. You also can boil the root. It’s supposed to have an artichoke-like taste. To cook the root, peel and sauté for 15 minutes, or steam for 30 minutes.

When the plant goes to seed in the fall, collect those nasty little things too. You can add the seeds to anything that needs a slight crunch, or sprout them and use them in sandwiches throughout the winter.

Burdock can be part of a well balanced diet. One cup of raw burdock pieces contains 85 calories and 0.1 g of fat. It has 20.4 g of carbohydrates, but it is not high in protein, with 1.8 g per serving. 

I would say at this stage the leaves would be steamed or boiled.
Photo: rockcreek, Flickr ccl
Burdock introduces fibre into your diet that helps decrease the possibility of both constipation and diarrhea. 

Burdock is a good source of vitamin B-6 and manganese. That means it’s a good choice for helping your body to use protein and build healthy bones.

Burdock also has potential medicinal applications, but scientific studies are few. The Chinese traditional medicine has used it for centuries, but recent studies have shown it may have antioxidant properties (that help fight free radical damage, a cause of cancer). It also may have beneficial uses in treating skin allergies.

One word of warning. Many people who are allergic to ragweed are also allergic to burdock. They are botanically related.

When you look at it, burdock is far from a nasty plant. In fact, it’s anything but. I certainly won’t look at it in the same way now. But I’ll still keep Henry out of it, if for different reasons than before!


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