Burdock: A Lion in Porcupine’s Clothes

Many years ago, on a cold morning in February, the Kimura family went out
to the edge of the forest to gather the roots of a wild herb growing there.
A few days before, the grandfather had fallen ill and had lost his appetite,
growing very weak over the course of the following days.

The father, Koji, the mother Ayumi and their two children took the wooden
bucket and a shovel and walked down the rutted, muddy road. When they reached
the forest, they looked where the trees and the grass of the neighbor’s
cow-field met. It was there they found the plant they sought. It was no
longer green, but the old brown seed-stalks stood broken and quiet, and
were easy to recognize, even from a distance. The stalks still had, here
and there, some spiny seed-heads, looking like little brown urchins.

They dug the roots and returned to make a thick soup with them. The roots
were called gobo, and the grandfather got better.

Many thousands of miles away, in the north of England, the shepherds were
fond of digging the roots of a plant they called the greate Burre Docke,
or Lappa. It was said to “taketh away paines of the bladder; and ….drunke
with old wine doth wonderfully helpe against the bitings of serpents.”
This herb was thought to be as strengthening here as it was in Japan, and
Gerard, the writer of one of the “great herbals”, from 1597, says
of it: “…it is a good nourishment, especially boyled….a most approved
medicine for a windie or cold stomacke.”1

Both of these plants, each from another half of the world are one and the
same–today known as burdock, or Arctium lappa. It is from the daisy
family, but its tiny flowers look nothing like the well-known daisy. Later,
after the flowers are gone, only the spiny, barbed seed heads are left.
They catch onto clothes and animal fur, hoping to be taken far and wide
to scatter the seeds for new populations.

Burdock is a close relative to such herbal stars as echinacea, dandelion
and feverfew, but of late does not seem to share much of the limelight.
Burdock root, greens and seeds were known to the ancient Greeks as healing
remedies, and in western herbalism they were important foods and medicines
throughout the middle ages.2 Today they are still thought of for helping
to ease liver complaints, other digestive disorders, as an effective diuretic,
and for clearing skin diseases like acne. The seeds have a history of use
as a strengthener of the respiratory system.3 The young greens and stalk
are still eaten throughout Europe as a delicious and nutritious pot-herb,
which a modern nutritional analysis shows to be a good idea. In 100 grams
(2.5 ounces) of the fresh root can be found 61 mg of calcium, 77 mg of phosphorus,
1.4 mg of iron, 0.03 mg of thiamine and 0.05 mg of riboflavin.4

More interesting than the vitamin and mineral content of burdock, though,
is its rich complement of active medicinal compounds. Modern research has
isolated chemical constituents that have proven to be anti-bacterial and
anti-fungal,5 and most importantly, tumor-protective6 and desmutagenic.7
Desmutagens are defined as substances that inactivate mutagens (cancer-causing
agents) by reacting with them and “taking them out of action.”
These mutagens include pesticides, natural chemicals from plants and compounds
that are created from foods (such as meats) by cooking. These potential
cancer-causing compounds are now abundant in our food, water and air; many
of them are already stored in our fat tissues. Natural herbal remedies such
as burdock may very well be of extreme importance to modern societies such
as ours. Recently it was reported in newspapers across the country that
the “Rising rate of cancer may be tied to [our] environment.”
The article explained that even after “40 years of intense effort”
to find a cancer cure (and billions of dollars a year of our money spent),….people
in industrialized countries are dying from cancer at a greater rate than
ever.”8 Even more chilling is the actual number of people who will
actually contract cancer, now estimated to be one out of three! One out
of four are projected to die from cancer.

At present, it appears that our best protection against this modern epidemic
is three-fold. First, as the world-famous toxicologist Bruce Ames has recently
said, identify the major chemical mutagens and we can eliminate much of
this cancer.9 Second, keep our immune systems strong and healthy, which
can be accomplished by maintaining a high level of wellness, a peaceful,
happy and flexible spirit and relaxed and varied work schedule, including
enough rest to replenish our available energy. Third, add desmutagens in
abundance to our diet. Many of these have been identified, and include mustard
family members such as cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts, foods with a
high beta-carotene potential (such as carrots, yams and squashes), and of
course, herbs such as burdock–a proven desmutagen and tumor protector.

Burdock’s powers may go beyond those just mentioned. In the beginning of
our story about this remarkable plant, we met a Japanese family, who traditionally
used burdock (gobo) for its revered strengthening properties. An excellent
account of its usefulness as a healing and warming food comes from one of
the best-known macrobiotic authorities and cooks, Aveline Kushi. In her
book “Complete Guide to Macrobiotic Cooking,”10 Ms. Kushi mentions
that gobo is eaten all year, but is especially warming for the winter months.
She says that it has a “very strong energy.” In her book recipes
can be found for the root, prepared with other vegetables such as carrots
and green beans. Tofu is often added to provide further nutrients. The tender
gobo roots are common in supermarkets and natural foods markets in many
parts of the country and can be prepared by boiling, sauteing or deep-frying.
I enjoy thinly-sliced gobo roots stir-fried in olive oil or sesame oil with
garlic, greens (such as kale), red peppers and tofu. The crisp, firm roots
can also be added to soups of all kinds.

I place burdock in the category of “deep defense” herbs. These
are herbs like astragalus, reishi and shiitake, that can help increase the
strength of our immune system, especially when weakened by stress or other
environmental factors.

I often recommend the herb as a general strengthener for weak digestion,
candida, chronic fatigue, dizziness with general weakness and people recovering
from illness.

In modern western herbalism, it is often mixed with dandelion, ginger and
other herbs to act as a “blood purifier,” or herbs that help with
detoxification. Thus, I have often recommended it in practice for people
who are on cleansing programs as a tea with one part fennel, one part fenugreek,
one part flax and one part peppermint. Drink a cup of the tea in the morning
and one in the evening. For more rapid cleansing, up to 4 cups a day can
be taken.

Although burdock is often overlooked in favor of brighter stars like ginkgo,
ginseng and echinacea, the future hopefully won’t pave a way to burdock’s
door–but more Zen, make peaceful paths through the woods to ask its favors.
And perhaps the future will see it proliferate in many organic farms and
become much better known for its powerful qualities.

1. Gerard, J. & Johnson, T. (ed.). 1633. The Herbal or General History of
Plants. Reprinted by Dover Publications, New York (1975).

2. Madaus, G. 1938. Handbook of Biological Medicine. Reprinted by George
Olms Verlag, NY (1976).

3. Lewis, W. 1791. An Experimental History of the Materia Medica. London:
J. Johnson.

4. Chadha, Y.R. (ed. in Chief). 1985. The Wealth of India. New Delhi: Publications
& Information Directorate, CSIR.

5. Leung, A.Y. 1980. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients. New York:
John Wiley & Sons.

6. Dombr·di, C.A. & S. Flde·k. 1966. “Screening report on
the antitujmor activity of purified Arctium lappa extracts.” Tumori
52: 173-5.

7. Morita, K., et al. 1985. “Chemical Nature of a Desmutagenic Factor
from Burdock ((Arctium lappa Linne).” Agric. Biol. Chem. 49: 925-32.

8. Washington Post (no author given). 1990. “Report: rising rate of
cancer may be tied to environment.” San Jose Mercury News. December
10, p. 5A.

9. Ames, B.N., et al. 1987. “Ranking possible carcinogenic hazards.”
Science 236: 271-280.

10. Kushi, A. 1985. Aveline Kushi’s Complete Guide to Macrobiotic Cooking.
New York: Warner Books. BURDOCK: A Lion in Porcupine’s Clothes Christopher
Hobbs ver. 1.0 12/17/90 3

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Written by Christopher Hobbs LAc AHG

Explore Wellness in 2021