Doubtless, burdock is one of the easiest plants to find in the late fall and winter. In truth, you don’t find burdock: it finds you, with its Velcro-inspired burs and tall, bush-like habit. Like the ugly duckling of fables, burdock possesses a real beauty beneath its unattractive skin, however.
Whether you live in Europe, Russia or North America, burdock can be found almost in your back yard. Long a vital component of the arsenal of healing herbs for Europeans and North American natives, this abundant plant also is an excellent culinary weed, possessing great nutritional value.
One of the real benefits of burdock is its accessibility in the middle of winter. Like cattails, burdock roots are a great survival food, but require significant effort to harvest from the icy grasp of frozen soil. Yet, because it may grow to four feet or more in height, it towers above even the deepest snow.
Recently (early March), I harvested a few roots in Manitoba, where frost extends to three feet in depth throughout winter. By chopping around the base of the plant with my hatchet, I was able to recover about six to ten inches of the tap roots.
The roots of younger plants offer the best, most tender harvest, but, in winter, even young roots are shrivelled and tough. In summer, these roots can be used in stir fries, boiled, peeled and baked or made into any variety of boiled or sautéed dishes. In spring, the leaves and stems (peeled) are tender, like asparagus or a mix of sorrel and spinach. I have often simply peeled the younger stems and eaten them raw, as a crunchy snack. For an unusual snack, peel and lightly blanche the stems, then refrigerate them in vinegar bath for a couple of weeks, to produce a unique pickle.
Burdock has been used to treat colds and measles, relieve constipation, purify the blood, act as a liver and general cleanser and even treat skin eruptions. It is antiseptic and antifungal, and has been used effectively as a skin tonic, and to treat diabetes. With the wide range of claims of medicinal benefit, though, it is wise to use burdock as a supplement, rather than relying on it to treat every ailment.
In culinary dishes, the Japanese use burdock often, referring to it as gobo. One Asian recipe calls for a mix of brown rice, shitake mushroom, burdock root, garlic and ginger. A great sauce requires mixing one cup burdock root, ½ cup parsley, ½ cup cider vinegar, ½ cup sherry and one cup of thick yogurt (Greek, preferably). Boil the cider, burdock and sherry over medium heat for six to eight minutes, then blend all ingredients until smooth. This sauce is fantastic with vegetables (particularly green veggies) pork or chicken.
The myriad ways of using burdock is virtually limitless, as are its medicinal and nutritional qualities. So, rather than banning these burs, why not invite them into your garden? They are easily cultivated, and easy to grow!