Digging Burdock Root
Last week we had the first hard frost of the winter season, earlier than usual in these mountains. That's a marker because it means the perennial and biennial plants send their energy down below the ground to store over the winter. Delighted, I got out my shovel this week to harvest burdock root!
As the moon wanes toward dark, the plants concentrate more on developing their roots underground. So this waning/dark moon and the next—which falls over winter solstice—are especially potent times to harvest herbal roots for medicines.
When to harvest burdock root
I first started courting burdock when I was a budding herbalist studying botany and biology in college, including independent study on plant identification. I decided I would start with wild plants that I could eat—knowing that would be the best way to keep a hungry young woman motivated to learn her herbs!
Aware that burdock was edible, I noticed that when I went walking near my home in the early winter, I would come back with big burrs clinging to my pants. The next time I walked that loop, I brought a shovel along. I practiced rolling her botanical name over my tongue as I walked: Arctium lappa.
With high hopes on that first burdock harvesting adventure, I followed a stalk covered in burrs down to the ground and dug it up. Alas, all I found was a black slimy mess!
What I didn't realize at the time is that burdock is a biennial plant. Standing with my shovel in hand, that fact suddenly seemed a lot more relevant than it did in botany class. To properly harvest burdock root, I needed to distinguish between her first year and second year features. Take a look...
First year burdock
The first year the plant puts out a low rosette of leaves and stores her energy below ground in the roots. Therefore, the optimum time to harvest burdock roots for food or medicine is during the winter of the first year.
Second year burdock
During the second year, the plant sends up a flowering stalk with purple, thistle-like flowers, which develop into brown burrs in the fall. The roots of the second year plants deteriorate as the energy goes into seeds for creating more baby burdock plants.
Identifying features of burdock
When identifying burdock, look for the purple thistle-like flowers in summer that develop into the brown burrs in fall. The large, broad leaves are somewhat triangular in shape with wavy edges. The leaves are fuzzy, with light colored undersides.
If you rub the leaf with your fingers and touch the finger from the underside of the leaf to your tongue, you'll immediately taste the strong bitter flavor from the back of the leaf.
The species that is most common in the mountains of North Carolina is Arctium minus. While Arctium lappa is the species most commonly used in the herbal world, both can be used interchangeably medicinally.
The primary difference between the two is noticeable in the size of the burrs: A. lappa has large burrs 1" across, whereas the burrs of A. minus are about half that size.
Burdock has a very deep tap root, extending a foot or more into the earth. Some roots are as thin as a pencil while others are much thicker. Burdock roots grow so deep that we must loosen the soil deep below the ground before we can harvest the root.
The technique I've found most effective is to dig a ring or trench around the root, scooping out the soil. Then you can gently pull to ease the root out without breaking. See this video clip from my burdock dig this week (a one minute video, sped up from the 3 minutes it took to dig that root).
Benefits of burdock root
Just as burdock's roots grow deep in the ground, her action is deeply nourishing in the body.
Burdock is a powerful tonic for the liver, kidneys and spleen.
A favorite of macrobiotic cooking, burdock adds a mildly sweet, earthy flavor to stir fry, cooked vegetables, or in soups.
You can eat the roots for those benefits, or preserve them by making medicine.
Making medicine with burdock root
To tincture burdock, wash the roots, chop them into small pieces, pack them in a jar and fill with 100 proof vodka and let it steep for at least 6 weeks. Tincture making with fresh plants is easy!
If you'd like a concise reference guide for making herbal preparations, including tinctures, feel free to grab your copy of my Wise Woman Medicine Making Chart.
I always feel that when I make my own medicines or harvest wild foods like burdock, I get double the benefit. The healing starts right out there in the garden . . . happy digging!
Corinna Wood, seasoned teacher and mentor along the wise woman path–from herbs to self love
"I was initiated into the Wise Woman Tradition at the tender age of 22, by Susun Weed and a beloved patch of nettles. Today, I support women with inner growth and healing tools to ground you in your own innate wisdom, needs and desires. My teachings on heart and soul healing draw on earth wisdom of our foremothers––the shoulders on which we stand––to navigate the challenges we face as women in the world today."