Burdock (Arctium) is a plant related to the artichoke, and it has a very varied history. It’s been used as everything from a bittering agent for beers to a popular component of a soft drink, a sharp but tasty addition to Japanese food (especially alongside pork), and in a herbalist’s handbag, it’s been used to bring on both lactation and urine, as well as to ward off the evil eye(!).
It’s also more or less by accident responsible for the existence of Velcro, because in 1948, Swiss inventor George de Mestral went for a walk and came home covered in Burdock “burrs” that attached to his clothes by their individual hooks. Once he’d put the burrs under a microscope, Velcro was almost a certainty.
Let’s take a deeper look at this plant with a rag-bag of uses.
Burdock: its uses in modern medicine
Burdock, and particularly Burdock root, is one of those happy instances where the uses that have been ascribed to it in traditional medicine seem to be more or less borne out in at least some degree of hardcore Western scientific examination. So much so that there may well be a real case to make for using Burdock root as a supplementary treatment for a range of conditions.
It’s an antioxidant-bomb
Burdock root is full of several important antioxidants, including quercetin, luteolin, and phenolic acids. Antioxidants protect the body’s cells from free radical damage, can help treat several conditions, and reduce inflammation. In fact, a recent study found that a preparation of Burdock root helps reduce the inflammatory markers in the blood of patients with osteoarthritis.
It detoxifies the blood
Remarkably, in traditional medicine, Burdock root was believed to pull toxins from the blood of unhealthy people.
Recent studies have confirmed that Burdock does… more or less exactly what it’s advertised to do, pulling toxins from the bloodstream and even promoting increased circulation in the skin, which could help with conditions like eczema. It has also been found to have anti-diabetic properties.
It may, just possibly, inhibit some cancers
Yes, this is a big claim. But the same research that found it detoxified the blood also found some evidence that Burdock seeds might have “potent inhibitory effects” on the likes of pancreatic carcinoma. A separate study found Burdock root interfered with the growth of cancer cells to a significant degree. Seriously – simple Burdock.
It’s obviously true that these results need firming up with more research, particularly into understanding how Burdock does what it does, and finding optimum delivery methods and doses, but the idea of Burdock ‘purifying’ the blood seems to have at least initial support under modern Western testing.
It may well have aphrodisiac properties – for males, at least
This is as yet a non-human result – which in some ways helps to prove its accuracy. In human trials where people know they’re testing a potential aphrodisiac, results can be skewed by the placebo effect.
Rats don’t know about the placebo effect, and probably wouldn’t care if they did. However, a study of Burdock root’s effect on rats reported not only an increase in the amount of sexual behavior in male rats, but also in their degree of sexual function. Further research is, we imagine, rather furiously ongoing.
Also unofficially used for…
Burdock root has traditionally been used for water retention or in cases of urinary infrequency to get the urine flowing again. More research is needed on this, but it is one of the main and consistent uses to which Burdock has consistently been put.
This is an interesting one, because, like herbs such as Motherwort, Burdock has a reputation in traditional medicine for promoting lactation, but such modern research as there has been suggests that it’s unwise for pregnant women to take Burdock for this – or any other – purpose, as it might well also promote uterine spasms, which are obviously not ideal when the uterus is occupied.
When taken in as a food or drink, Burdock is probably safe in reasonable doses – it has after all been used in alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks for hundreds of years in various parts of the world (notably the UK), and it now forms an important part of some Asian cuisines, frequently standing in for its cousin the artichoke.
When applied to the skin, slightly more caution is necessary. It’s possibly safe to use for up to 4 weeks at a time, but it can cause an allergic reaction in people with a sensitivity to some plants and pollens. Applied directly, it can also cause a rash even in non-sensitive people.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women
As mentioned, it’s difficult to certify Burdock safe for pregnant women, given that it might cause uterine spasms. As for breastfeeding women, we don’t know enough about how it might pass to the infant and what effect it might have. Avoid for safety – despite its history in traditional medicine as an aid to lactation.
Remember we mentioned Burdock had anti-diabetic compounds in it? This might well one day be an extremely useful treatment option. At the moment, not enough is known to recommend it clinically, but on the assumption that it might lower blood sugar, be very careful of taking Burdock if you’re already on medication to lower your blood sugar – the last thing you want is a trip to the ER in a diabetic crash, only to have to admit it’s down to too much Burdock in your system.
People with ragweed allergies
If you have an allergic reaction to ragweed and other similar plants like chrysanthemums, daisies, and marigolds, avoid Burdock. You might find yourself more prone to an allergic reaction to the weed than your friends.
People going in for surgery
There’s a chance excess Burdock in your system might increase the chances of bleeding during or after surgery. Stop taking it at least two weeks before any surgery.
Burdock: the history of a weed
You have to be a little bit of a detective when it comes to the history of Burdock, because it’s an enigmatic weed.
It didn’t acquire the name by which we know it until the 16th-century, but it is thought to have been known and used by the Greeks and Romans under its more formal name, Arctium lappa. Or rather more confusingly, as personacea by Dioscorides the Greek, and then as simply lappa by the Romans.
Then, because historians love a good argument about arcane subjects, there’s a discussion over the use by Dioscorides of the name Arction, and whether he was referring to Greater Burdock or Lesser Burdock. The smart money – or at least, most of the money, is on it being Lesser Burdock. You’ll sleep better for knowing, won’t you?
Burdock’s nom de cunning disguise, personacea, is seen regularly among Roman herbalist writers though – Celsus the physician in around 1 CE named it Personina planta and recommended smashing the root in wine and drinking it. And, while you were there, applying it to any venomous bites you may have picked up at the Forum.
It pops up as Clate among the Anglo-Saxons, while the Gaelic nations, naturally enough, had a handful of names for it, of which, Leadan liosda (“a head of stiff hair”) is both the most official and the most gorgeously poetical.
Naturally enough, when it emerged in the Americas, it’s thought that it was first known by its Spanish name – Bardana. But from the 16th-century onward, it’s been relatively standardized in English as Burdock.
Burdock has long had a reputation as a fighter of fevers (perhaps unsurprising given the recent tests that have shown it to have a cleansing effect on the blood and some inflammations). As far back as the 12th-century, a book of medical advice called The Trotula was recommending a preparation of the root to fight the heat of an acute fever.
That said, it has also been ascribed all sorts of other uses over time. Our man Dioscorides ignored fevers and the like, and recommended it for coughs, and for consumption (Tuberculosis).
Why he did that, we’re not sure. Possibly with its effect on the blood, he reasoned that it would help those whose symptoms included coughing up blood.
Whatever the reason, Thomas Culpeper in 17th-century England agreed, citing it as beneficial to those of a bronchial disposition. It’s fair to say that Culpeper frequently took the wisdom – or anything else – he found in the writings of the ancients and parroted it as gospel, giving those ancient remedies a great forward leap in time and belief. Irrespective of any evidence.
There is, as far as we can tell, no evidence that Burdock has any kind of beneficial effect on either coughs or Tuberculosis. The British took it to their hearts both as a cold remedy and as a cordial though – Dandelion & Burdock (No, really, they didn’t think to disguise the name at all) is still a popular beverage with older Brits to this day (though these days, it’s carbonated and doesn’t claim to do you any good beyond quenching your thirst).
Culpeper and Dioscorides are not alone in using Burdock for things against which they have no known effect. The Anglo Saxons would swear that a hot cake made of the smoked root of Burdock, applied to the hemorrhoids, along with a lie down for a day or two, was guaranteed to cure the condition.
By the 19th-century, British medical botanists Barton and Castle claimed that King Henry III of France had been cured of syphilis by decoctions of Burdock root – an almost screamingly unlikely assertion, but again, Burdock’s reputation as a blood purifier may have made these claims easier to believe.
We hear a lot, both in history and in modern medicine, of the uses and potential uses of Burdock root. But there’s evidence that Burdock leaves have played their part in the plant’s traditional medical history too.
Dioscorides – never a man to be silent, given the chance of speaking on a subject, recommended them as a treatment for old ulcers. Culpeper, always keen to follow suit – tough here possibly with more validity – recommends the leaves be made into a poultice to draw the heat out of burns.
The use of Burdock leaves survived and crossed the ocean, so that the early 20th-century saw them being used in poultices in Main and Utah (notably both communities with a strong connection to their European settlers’ old country remedies).
With its connections to alcoholic hedge mead, the bittering of beer, and various decoctions throughout history with a tinge of the alcoholic about them, it’s hardly surprising that Burdock should have found its way into an allegedly healthy “posset” along the way. Posset in this sense is a fairly powerful alcoholic concoction, rather than the pudding with which you might be more familiar.
No one quite knows where this piece of endlessly repeated folk wisdom came from, but Burdock seeds were thought to “wear down stones” in the body. It’s almost slightly creepy that Burdock stones, on testing, appear to have a cancer-withering property of some sort, because there’s little of logic in the ancient idea – but it does seem to have a modern-day corollary.
Nevertheless, Burdock seed possets, either in wine, sherry, or some other strong liquor – far be it from us to suggest this may have been a strong incentive to make the thing – were used in Britain and Ireland for this stone-breaking purpose.
We do not have enough records of evidence of any successful applications of this posset to definitively declare whether there was anything in the notion but hope and a vague sense of like curing like – seeds and stones, etc.
That said, there has yet to be any extensive research on the effect of Burdock seeds on patients with gall or kidney stones. It’s tempting to suggest that an idea would not have gained purchase if there hadn’t been something to recommend it, but as we know from studying the history of traditional medicine, all too often the something was hope and guesswork, rather than any sound results.
Burdock has had a long history of being used for all sorts of medicinal purposes. The miraculous thing is that several of them survive into our modern era with their reputations not only intact, but seemingly – at least from initial studies – confirmed by Western medical testing. Who knows? Maybe the hot Burdock cake hemorrhoid cure or the Burdock seed stone-crushing posset might yet be revived in the 21st-century.