Burdock is a plant that you are more likely to notice on your socks than in the wild or in your garden. The perfectly designed hooks at the ends of the bracts surrounding the clusters of rather dull, mauve flowers ensure that, when the seeds are ripe, anything with fur, from a rabbit to a gardener, will carry the seeds far and wide. Burdocks are found throughout the northern hemisphere and in the UK tends to grow most frequently in wasteground and poor, dry soils where its deep roots can find moisture and nutrients. It produces large, heart-shaped leaves in rosettes, dull green above and silvered below and then stems to 1m high with well branched clusters of flowers. It is thought that the name arctium is derived from the word for bear (arktos), because of the roughness of the burrs and lappa means ‘to seize’. Burdock is a fairly easily explained combination of burr and dock, because of the large leaves which vaguely resemble docks. The ability of the seedheads to stick to clothing has not been lost on people over the years. Apparently, in Queensferry, Edinburgh, the annual ‘Burry Man’* ritual takes place in August, when a man, covered in burrs walks through the streets to bring good luck, after which the costume is burned.
It is also said that Velcro was inspired by burdock. George de Mestrel was walking his dog and as he picked off the burrs thought that it could be made into something useful. The portmanteau word Velcro is derived from VELours (velvet) and CROchet (hook in French). Fourteen years later he had perfected and patented it and the rest is history.
Although nothing seems to eat burdock plants, it has been used as a human food and the young stems can be picked, peeled and boiled. The taste is said to resemble globe artichokes which is not unlikely as they are distantly related. The roots are also eaten s a vegetable in Asian cuisine and known in Japan as gobō.
The roots have some medicinal uses and they have some antibacterial and antifungal properties as well as being diuretic. But it is most familiar in the British Isles as an ingredient in the soft drink Dandelion and Burdock which is a sort of home-grown cola or our version of rootbeer. Unfortunately most bottles of the stuff these days don’t contain any burdock at all. If it is a 2l bottle for 60p don’t expect any herbal extracts though the smaller bottles such as Fentimans and Hoopers are the real deal, and may be alcoholic too!