A bunch of burdocks
Considered a pest by many landowners in Maine, burdock is prized by herbalists and foodies for it's curative powers and flavors. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

Among landowners, Brenda Herrling may well be in the minority in Maine. There is no burdock growing in her Bradley yard, but she really wishes there was.

Burdock, a biennial plant in the aster family, grows along river banks, roadsides, vacant lots, yards and in fields around Maine and thrives in poor soil. The plant can grow to more than 4 feet tall with large leaves and a purple, thistle-like flower.

It’s also considered a noxious weed due in large part to the burrs produced by those flowers that easily attach to clothing, animals, birds or anything that brushes up against them. Once the hooked bracts get a hold, they act like velcro and can be very difficult to remove.

But some Mainers feel burdock does not deserve its negative reputation, and that if people knew how beneficial the plant actually is they would promote its growth rather than try to eradicate it.

“I really do want burdock growing in my yard,” said Herrling, who is currently in her third year of a three-year herbalist apprenticeship with a Waterville naturopath. She’s also a licensed massage therapist and plans to incorporate her herbal knowledge. “Once you figure out what it can do, so will you.”

Burdock is valued as a medicinal plant and as a wild food in Maine, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Its uses include everything from an overall tonic to a blood purifier, according to the agency.

Herrling can tick off a number of burdock’s beneficial uses, citing work by phytotherapist David Hoffman.

For centuries, according to Herrling’s readings, the various parts of the plant have been used as a diuretic, a digestive aid, appetite stimulant and as a treatment for skin conditions, arthritis and wounds.

You can use burdock as a medicinal by drinking it as a tea, according to Herrling. She suggests preparing a burdock tea by pouring boiling water over the roots, stem or leaves and letting it steep for 15 minutes.

“You don’t need to drink it all at once,” she said. “You can sip several ounces at a time throughout the day.”

Central Maine homesteader Patty Pendergast also makes a tea out of the burdock on her land.

“I made tea with chamomile for sunburn,” she said. “I make a weak tea of dried burdock after illness to clean [my] liver and blood and drink one cup a day for three days.”

The roots can also be dried and then soaked in strong alcohol to create a concentrated burdock tincture that can be taken orally a few drops at a time.

If medicinal uses were not a compelling enough argument to keep some burdock around, the roots are also edible, either raw or cooked.

“The Japanese have eaten burdock root for centuries and call it ‘gobo,’” Herrling said.

The flavor of fresh burdock root is described as crisp, sweet and earthy. Once cooked, it has a taste similar to artichoke. It can be sauteed, used in stir fries, added to soups, boiled, roasted, stewed or baked. It can also be pickled in rice wine vinegar to use in sushi.

“In Russia they used to dig a hole, wrap fish in [burdock] leaves and then cook the fish in the hole,” Herrling said. “They did not need any other seasonings for the fish.”

The flowers are also needed by early season pollinator birds and insects.

While Pendergast does like to use burdock in her medicinal teas, she also does not want it spreading on her property so she is happy to let her livestock feast on it.

“Goats don’t eat everything, but they keep the burdock, dogwood and dandelions in check,” she said. “Chickens eat young burdock [and] the goats and chickens keep at it so [the plants] don’t get to spread.”

Early spring is the best time to dig the roots. Not only will they be at their most tender, the flowers have not yet developed into burrs.

“Burdock is one of those plants that is a treasure,” she said. “But even I would not use those sticky burrs.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.