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  • Writer's pictureOrion Aon

How to Identify and Forage Common Burdock

Some of my favorite wild foods are widely considered weeds. They are usually easy to find and abundant because of their weedy nature. There’s no concern for over-harvesting because their removal is often helpful to the native ecosystem, and they are delicious! Common burdock fits that mold perfectly. Here in Colorado, it’s considered a noxious weed, the worst of the types of weeds according to the agricultural departments that designate such things. Foraging burdock is pretty straightforward. Let’s cover how to identify it, review some look-alikes, understand where it grows, and learn how to harvest and eat it!


The basal rosette of common burdock.
Burdock starts life as a basal rosette before flowering and going to seed.

Description


Common burdock, Arctium minus, is a large, herbaceous biennial plant. It stays as a basal rosette during its first year of growth, producing a spread of large leaves and gathering energy to flower the following year. Burdock’s leaves are generally ovate or cordate (oval or heart-shaped), the underside and stem are fuzzy, and the top side has a waxy feel. The leaf margins are smooth and sometimes quite wavy. These leaves emerge from a substantial central taproot that can be over three feet long and a few inches thick.


A large colony of common burdock.
Burdock can quickly take over which is why it's often considered a problematic weed.

During its second year of growth, burdock sends up a stout flower stalk. This stalk can be well over five feet tall and a couple of inches thick. Like the leaves, it is wooly and has a ribbed or grooved appearance. The leaves on the flower stalk are much smaller than the basal leaves.


The flower stalk of common burdock.
The flower stalk of common burdock can be 5 to 6 feet tall and grows rapidly.

The flower stalks branch and produce clusters of prickly-looking green flower buds. These open into simple, purple-pink flowers and eventually dry into hooked burs that readily stick to clothes, hair, animal fur, and even skin! Reportedly, the hooked burs of the larger cousin, greater burdock, Arctium lappa, inspired the invention of hook-and-loop closure, often called Velcro.


The burred seed pods of common burdock.
Burdock seed pods inspired the invention of hook-and-loop closure and are quite "grabby".

Potential Look-alikes


The information in the description above should be enough to identify common burdock properly. However, look-alike information is regularly requested, so here are some possible species that could be confused with common burdock. This list is not comprehensive and may not be relevant to your region. Remember only to eat wild foods once you're 100% confident in your identification.

  • Curly dock Rumex crispus also has large leaves and flowering stalks, but its leaves are smooth, and it does not produce burs. Curly dock is also edible.

  • Houndstongue, Cynoglossum officinale, is another biennial forb with large fuzzy leaves, but it produces small flat burs and is not nearly as large as burdock. Houndstongue is toxic.


A comparison of dock, houndstongue, and burdock leaves.
A comparison of dock, houndstongue, and burdock leaves.

Range & Habitats


Common burdock is native to Europe but has been introduced to North America, South America, and Australia. It is usually considered a weed in many of these regions and, in some areas, is listed as invasive and noxious. In Colorado, burdock is a List C noxious weed due to its potential to take over pasture-land and agricultural areas. In these areas, it’s usually controlled by heavy herbicide use, but it can also be controlled by eating the roots and flower stalks and preventing them from going to seed!


A young burdock plant in early spring.
A young burdock plant in early spring.
 

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Foraging Burdock & Edibility


Burdock has some great edible parts, but they require a little work and processing to shine. The above-ground parts of common burdock are covered in a sticky, bitter coating. This bitterness can be used in small amounts for applications such as making homemade cocktail bitters or balancing a dish with some bitterness. A little goes a long way. The leaves are best used for this and can be dried and saved in an air-tight container. The leaf stems, or petioles can be eaten but must be peeled and scraped to remove the bitter layer. This can be a lot of work, but it results in a celery-like stalk that tastes similar to cardoons or artichokes.


The fuzzy leaf petiole of common burdock.
The fuzzy leaf petiole of common burdock can be scraped and peeled to remove the bitter coating.

My favorite part of burdock is the immature flower stalk. These can be harvested by cutting them from the plant with pruners or a sharp knife. I prefer to knock the leaves off the stalk while it's still attached and then cut the stalk free as the base, but you can also reverse the order and remove the leaves after harvesting.

A handful of perfect burdock stalks ready to be peeled.
A handful of perfect burdock stalks ready to be peeled.

The next step is to peel away the fibrous outer layer, which is done in two stages: the outer skin and then the leftover celery-like fibers. Our teeth are good at peeling away the outer skin, but you can also use a small knife. Either way, grab a section of the outer skin and peel it away from the softer inner core. This will leave behind a stalk with tough fibers that can easily be removed with a vegetable peeler or the same small knife.


A steps of peeling burdock flower stalks.
Peeling burdock is a two-step process. First the outer layer with a knife or teeth, and then the inner layer with a peeler.

The final product should be the tender inner stalk, which has a nice artichoke flavor and a texture similar to a starchy vegetable. These are great substitutes for artichoke hearts in spinach-artichoke dip (use a wild green for the spinach), and they also go well in various cooked and braised applications. To preserve them, they can be pickled or steamed and frozen.


"Artichoke-spinach dip" made with burdock stalks and lambsquarters greens.
"Artichoke-spinach dip" made with burdock stalks and lambsquarters greens.

The large tap roots can be eaten and dried for “coffee” or tea. To harvest the roots, target second-year plants in the early spring or first-year plants in the late fall. Avoid any plants that have flower stalks. Ideally, look for plants growing in softer, sandier soil for easier digging. A long-bladed shovel is the best hand tool for harvesting burdock. Look for one with a very solid handle so it can be used to lever out the large root. To dig them up, work the shovel around the entire plant, step the blade in as far as it will go, and loosen the soil. Go around again, slowly levering the shovel back to pull the root up. Eventually, you will either cut or pop the root loose. It's hard work to get the deepest portions of the root, but don’t fret; the top foot or so is still perfectly edible.


A bunch of common burdock roots after digging.
The roots of burdock are best dug in the early spring or late fall.

Cut away the leaves, and scrub the root clean with a brush. Some like to peel the root, but I think brushing it under water does the trick for cleaning it. The root of greater burdock is known as gobo in Japan. The root of this smaller cousin can be used in all the same ways, though it tends to be a little tougher. Some of my favorite dishes for burdock root are kinpira gobo and soy braised burdock root (written recipe below!). It can also be slow-cooked with roasts or braised dishes, dried for tea, and roasted for “coffee” like dandelion and chicory root.

A knife, burdock roots, and carrots on a cutting board.
Cleaned burdock roots and carrots ready for kinpira gobo.

A note on herbicide. Since burdock can be problematic in some areas, avoid plants that may have been treated with herbicide. Skip any plants that look unhealthy, wilted, or seem off. If you’re uncertain, it is better to be safe and avoid harvesting plants recently treated with chemicals.


Soy Braised Burdock Root


Foraging Calendar


To learn more about the best seasons to harvest this species and many other wild foods, check out my Foraging Calendar & Wild Food Database! You can try the demo version to learn more, and join my Patreon to gain full access to the Foraging Calendar and other exclusive perks! Joining is the best way to support all the work I put into my content and website to help you learn about foraging! Thank you for checking it out!


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