Arctium lappa, commonly known as burdock, is rare in the wild in Ireland, though is more common across much of Europe. Depending on location, burdock grows up to six feet tall, with broad heart-shaped leaves that can be up to eighteen inches long an architectural plant that makes a statement. The large green leaves have a light grey/green underside, and when the wind blows there is a lovely flowing, rippling effect, like foam on breaking waves, as the light grey undersides appear and disappear in the breeze. With its thistle-like flowers it is a member of the compositae family which, as well as thistles, includes daisies, marigolds, sunflowers and many more. For the last couple of years burdock has been one of my favourite plants in our herb garden.
Perhaps one reason I love burdocks is because they look after themselves so well, self-seeding from year to year and making a fine display in what would otherwise be a rather bare part of the garden, shaded by a sycamore, Japanese maple and a Lombardy poplar. Unlike many self-seeding plants, they are easy to weed out if they spring up where you don't want them.
But if not loved for their self-sufficiency, I would certainly love burdocks for their value as a medicinal herb, one of the absolute prime herbal detoxers, valued since ancient times as a blood tonic and purifier. For this reason burdock would almost invariably be included in a herbal prescription for eczema and dermatitis, as well as itchy rashes of indeterminate cause and most other skin conditions. It would also be rare for me not to include burdock in a prescription for arthritis or gout, as well as finding a use for it in other illnesses where the body needs a bit of internal deep-cleaning.
This year though, some surplus small burdocks were dug up in the course of essential weeding, so I'm going to try out their fresh roots either juiced, for the novelty value, or made as a decoction, bringing the roots to the boil and simmering for a short while, before straining off and discarding the roots, the medicinal properties having been extracted by the water. I'm interested to see what a fresh decoction tastes like, as burdock root has often been incorporated into the popular folk-medicine equivalent of soft drinks, like burdock and sarsaparilla, or dandelion and burdock. Although the whole root is used, it's unusual to see how the loose outer cortex of the root peels back like a banana to reveal a small white pointy cone of plant material within, which has the visual appearance of fresh coconut flesh. For use in a herbal pharmacy the whole root would be prepared in some way, usually dried and powdered and made into a concentrated extract, such as a tincture.
When burdocks die and their leaves rot, a dried stem-and-branch skeleton is left which, tied to a post for a bit of support, makes a picturesque bird feeder to hang fat-balls from. I tied one to a railing just outside the patio doors to the garden and it has lasted two winters so far, with the sparrow community hopping all over it while waiting their turn on the feeder, giving delightful entertainment for much of the day. Patients often comment on how relaxing it is to sit there watching all the birds while waiting for their medicine, and they are absolutely right. Very calming.
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