Burdock: A Lion in Porcupine’s Clothes
Many years ago, on a cold morning in February, the Kimura family went out to the edge of the forest to gather the roots of a wild herb growing there. A few days before, the grandfather had fallen ill and had lost his appetite, growing very weak over the course of the following days.
The father, Koji, the mother Ayumi, and their two children took the wooden bucket and a shovel and walked down the rutted, muddy road. When they reached the forest, they looked where the trees and the grass of the neighbor’s cow field met. It was there they found the plant they sought. It was no longer green, but the old brown seed-stalks stood broken and quiet and were easy to recognize, even from a distance. The stalks still had, here and there, some spiny seed-heads, looking like little brown urchins.
They dug the roots and returned to make a thick soup with them. The roots were called gobo, and the grandfather got better.
Many thousands of miles away, in the north of England, the shepherds were fond of digging the roots of a plant they called the greate Burre Docke, or Lappa. It was said to "taketh away paines of the bladder; and ….drunke with old wine doth wonderfully helpe against the bitings of serpents." This herb was thought to be as strengthening here as it was in Japan, and Gerard, the writer of one of the "great herbals", from 1597, says of it: "…it is a good nourishment, especially boyled….a most approved medicine for a windie or cold stomacke."1
Both of these plants, each from another half of the world, are one and the same–today known as burdock, or Arctium lappa. It is from the daisy family, but its tiny flowers look nothing like the well-known daisy. Later, after the flowers are gone, only the spiny, barbed seed heads are left. They catch onto clothes and animal fur, hoping to be taken far and wide to scatter the seeds for new populations.
Burdock is a close relative to such herbal stars as echinacea, dandelion, and feverfew, but of late does not seem to share much of the limelight. Burdock root, greens, and seeds were known to the ancient Greeks as healing remedies, and in western herbalism they were important foods and medicines throughout the middle ages.2 Today they are still thought of for helping to ease liver complaints and other digestive disorders, as well as being an effective diuretic, and for clearing skin diseases like acne. The seeds have a history of use as a strengthener of the respiratory system.3 The young greens and stalk are still eaten throughout Europe as a delicious and nutritious pot-herb, which a modern nutritional analysis shows to be a good idea. In 100 grams (2.5 ounces) of the fresh root can be found 61 mg of calcium, 77 mg of phosphorus, 1.4 mg of iron, 0.03 mg of thiamine, and 0.05 mg of riboflavin.4
More interesting than the vitamin and mineral content of burdock, though, is its rich complement of active medicinal compounds. Modern research has isolated chemical constituents that have proven to be anti-bacterial and anti-fungal,5 and most importantly, tumor-protective6 and desmutagenic.7 Desmutagens are defined as substances that inactivate mutagens (cancer-causing agents) by reacting with them and "taking them out of action." These mutagens include pesticides and natural chemicals from plants and compounds that are created from foods (such as meats) by cooking. These potential cancer-causing compounds are now abundant in our food, water, and air; many of them are already stored in our fat tissues. Natural herbal remedies such as burdock may very well be of extreme importance to modern societies such as ours. Recently it was reported in newspapers across the country that the "Rising rate of cancer may be tied to [our] environment." The article explained that even after "40 years of intense effort" to find a cancer cure (and billions of dollars a year of our money spent),….people in industrialized countries are dying from cancer at a greater rate than ever."8 Even more chilling is the number of people who will actually contract cancer, now estimated to be one out of three! One out of four are projected to die from cancer.
At present, it appears that our best protection against this modern epidemic is three-fold. First, as the world-famous toxicologist Bruce Ames has recently said, identify the major chemical mutagens, and we can eliminate much of this cancer.9 Second, keep our immune systems strong and healthy, which can be accomplished by maintaining a high level of wellness, a peaceful, happy, and flexible spirit and relaxed and varied work schedule, including enough rest to replenish our available energy. Third, add desmutagens in abundance to our diet. Many of these have been identified and include mustard family members such as cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts, foods with a high beta-carotene potential (such as carrots, yams and squashes), and of course, herbs such as burdock–a proven desmutagen and tumor protector.
Burdock’s powers may go beyond those just mentioned. In the beginning of our story about this remarkable plant, we met a Japanese family, who traditionally used burdock (gobo) for its revered strengthening properties. An excellent account of its usefulness as a healing and warming food comes from one of the best-known macrobiotic authorities and cooks, Aveline Kushi. In her book Complete Guide to Macrobiotic Cooking,10 Ms. Kushi mentions that gobo is eaten all year, but is especially warming for the winter months. She says that it has a "very strong energy." In her book recipes can be found for the root, prepared with other vegetables such as carrots and green beans. Tofu is often added to provide further nutrients. The tender gobo roots are common in supermarkets and natural foods markets in many parts of the country and can be prepared by boiling, sauteeing or deep-frying. I enjoy thinly-sliced gobo roots stir-fried in olive oil or sesame oil with garlic, greens (such as kale), red peppers, and tofu. The crisp, firm roots can also be added to soups of all kinds.
I place burdock in the category of "deep defense" herbs. These are herbs like astragalus, reishi, and shiitake, that can help increase the strength of our immune system, especially when weakened by stress or other environmental factors.
I often recommend the herb as a general strengthener for weak digestion, candida, chronic fatigue, dizziness with general weakness, and people recovering from illness.
In modern western herbalism, it is often mixed with dandelion, ginger, and other herbs to act as a "blood purifier," or herbs that help with detoxification. Thus, I have often recommended it in practice for people who are on cleansing programs as a tea with one part fennel, one part fenugreek, one part flax, and one part peppermint. Drink a cup of the tea in the morning and one in the evening. For more rapid cleansing, up to 4 cups a day can be taken.
Although burdock is often overlooked in favor of brighter stars like ginkgo, ginseng, and echinacea, the future hopefully won’t pave a way to burdock’s door–but rather make peaceful paths through the woods to ask its favors. And perhaps the future will see it proliferate in many organic farms and become much better known for its powerful qualities.
- Gerard, J. & Johnson, T. (ed.). 1633. The Herbal or General History of Plants. Reprinted by Dover Publications, New York (1975).
- Madaus, G. 1938. Handbook of Biological Medicine. Reprinted by George Olms Verlag, NY (1976).
- Lewis, W. 1791. An Experimental History of the Materia Medica. London: J. Johnson.
- Chadha, Y.R. (ed. in Chief). 1985. The Wealth of India. New Delhi: Publications & Information Directorate, CSIR.
- Leung, A.Y. 1980. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
- Dombr·di, C.A. & S. Flde·k. 1966. "Screening report on the antitumor activity of purified Arctium lappa extracts." Tumori 52: 173-5.
- Morita, K., et al. 1985. "Chemical Nature of a Desmutagenic Factor from Burdock ((Arctium lappa Linne)." Agric. Biol. Chem. 49: 925-32.
- Washington Post (no author given). 1990. "Report: rising rate of cancer may be tied to environment." San Jose Mercury News. December 10, p. 5A.
- Ames, B.N., et al. 1987. "Ranking possible carcinogenic hazards." Science 236: 271-280.
- Kushi, A. 1985. Aveline Kushi’s Complete Guide to Macrobiotic Cooking. New York: Warner Books.