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Harvesting Burdock Root Benefits – Digging deep

Digging deep to harvest benefits of burdock root
by Corinna Wood

The benefits of burdock root are well worth waiting for.

As the fall season wanes into winter, I eagerly look forward to medicine making for harvesting the burdock roots.

The first hard frost of the winter season marks the time that the perennial and biennial plants send their energy down below the ground to store over the winter.

Also, as the moon wanes toward dark, the plants concentrate more on developing their roots underground. So the waning/dark moon times of the last months of the year are especially potent times to harvest herbal roots for medicines.

Delighted, I get out my shovel to harvest those burdock roots!

Let's take a closer look at harvesting burdock root, including how to tell the first-year plants (the medicinal ones!) from the second year plants. And how to actually dig deep enough to pull out the whole root.

We'll also cover how and why to make a tincture to extract the benefits of burdock root for your home apothecary.

Table of contents

How to find first year burdock roots

I first started courting burdock when I was a budding herbalist studying botany and biology in college, including an 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, you need to distinguish between her first year and second-year features.

Let's take a look...

First year burdock . . . first year burdock root

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 . . .

second year burdock rootDuring 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, keep an eye out 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 my area of the Appalachian mountains 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: Arctium lappa has large burrs 1" across, whereas the burrs of Arctium minus are about half that size.

As you know, it's essential to positively identify any plants you're harvesting for food or medicine. First things first: Grab my free guide on 3 Poisonous Plants to Watch Out For (pdf) so you can stay safe on your herbal adventures.

How to dig for the whole budock root

Burdock has a very deep taproot, 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.

Over the years, 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 whole 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

Burdock is one of my favorite root tonics in the wise woman herbal medicine chest.

Just as burdock's roots grow deep in the ground, her action is deeply nourishing in the body.

Burdock root is a powerful tonic for the liver, kidneys and spleen.

When you support your liver, you're also supporting your hormonal system—because the liver is where hormones are manufactured. 

So the benefits of burdock root are an excellent choice for women seeking support through your menstruating, menopausal, and post-menopausal years.

Burdock root is also known for immune system benefits, and is often included in various formulas for preventing and addressing chronic illnesses.

You can eat the roots to receive the benefits of burdock root, or extract them by making a medicinal tincture.

A favorite of macrobiotic cooking, burdock adds a mildly sweet, earthy flavor to stir fry, cooked vegetables, or in soups. (For more on burdock root benefits, see sister herbalist Rosalee de la Forest's article: Burdock Benefits.)

Herbal Root Tincture Recipe

for extracting the benefits of burdock root

To make your own herbal tincture from medicinal roots, just follow these 10 steps:
herbal tincture extracting benefits of burdock root

  1. Harvest the roots by digging a ring or trench around the root, scooping out the soil a little bit at a time until you can gently ease the root out
  2. Look through the roots and discard damaged parts
  3. Wash the roots to remove all dirt 
  4. Chop the roots with a knife or put in a blender with the alcohol
  5. Fill a jar to the top with the plant material, packed tight
  6. Fill the jar to the top again, with 100-proof vodka, and cap
  7. Label the jar—eg, Burdock root, 100 pf vodka, 12/3/2021
  8. Top off the liquid level the next day
  9. Leave your tincture brewing on your counter for six weeks
  10. Strain out the plant material

Voila, you have your home-brewed, potent medicinal burdock root tincture!

Harvesting the benefits of burdock root

The best time to harvest burdock root is after the first hard frost of the year, as plants send their energy and nutrients down to the roots to store over the winter.

The benefits of burdock root include deep nourishment for the liver, spleen, and kidneys.

Remember to locate the roots of first-year growth rather than the second-year plants—otherwise, you’ll be in for a slimy mess. 

Burdock roots grow deep so use the trench method I offered in my short video clip.

When you go out and dig those deep roots yourself, I always believe you get double the benefits of burdock root, 

The healing starts right out there in the garden . . . happy digging!


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