Photo © Steven Foster
Burdock is native to Europe and Asia, and can be found growing in temperate regions throughout the world.1 The biennial herb has purple, thistle-like flowers and a fruit covered in hooked spines. When ripe, the fruit is full of beige seeds that are commonly harvested in the summer months. The stems, roots, and seeds are all used in culinary practices, but only the seeds and roots are used for medicinal purposes.1
History and Cultural Significance
The common name of burdock is derived from a combination of terms. Bur (Latin for burra, meaning a lock of wool) refers to the plant’s sticky seedballs that adhere to sheep’s wool.2 Dock is an old English term that simply refers to a plant.2 The plant is native to Europe and Asia and was introduced to Japan approximately a thousand years ago.3 The Japanese developed the plant into an edible vegetable.4 Native Americans would dry the root and use it in the winter months in soups. The Iroquois were known to use burdock as a source of greens in their diet.4,5
Various Native American tribes used burdock for rheumatism, scurvy, venereal diseases, sores, chancre (ulcer), to cleanse the blood, and as a gynecological aid for ‘weakly females’.5
The plant has several modern medicinal uses. Rarely is the plant used alone, but is instead combined with other herbs. The Chinese believe the herb has aphrodisiac properties.2 Burdock has been used to soothe dry and scaly patches on the skin and scalp.6 It also has been used to support digestion and increase appetite.6
Burdock is mainly used today for its culinary and medicinal properties.7 In Japan, where it is a popular vegetable used in many dishes, burdock is known as gobo. Rarely do the Japanese use gobo alone, but instead will combine it with other vegetables. Gobo can be found in stir-fries or along with carrots in a traditional New Year’s Eve dish, lightly fried in sugar and soy sauce. Many cultures eat the root raw after peeling back the rind. In Britain the root is used in combination with dandelion in a soft drink that resembles in taste the American favorite, root beer.7 The leaves of burdock can be used in salads and the stems can be served steamed.1
Currently, there are no clinical studies available on the internal or external use of burdock.
Most of the information available on the burdock market is in regards to its use as a vegetable. Information on its future in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical markets is currently unavailable and its potential importance remains to be seen.
1 Bown D. The Herb Society of America New Encyclopedia of Herbs & Their Uses. London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd.; 2001.
2 Onstad D. Whole Foods Companion. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Co.; 1996.
3 Nguyen VQ. Burdock. The New Rural Industries: A Handbook For Farmers And Investors 1998 Jan. Available from: URL: http://www.rirdc.gov.au/pub/handbook/burdock.html. Accessed May 15, 2004.
4 Duke JA, Duke P. Common Burdock: Arctium minus (Hill) Bernh.; Family Asteraceae. HerbalGram. 1997;39:87.
5 Moerman D. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland, OR: Timber Press; 1998.
6 Hoffmann D. Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press; 2003.
7 Davidson A. The Oxford Companion to Food. New York: Oxford University Press; 1999.