Cockle Buttons Sounds Nicer Than Burs

text and photos : Norma A. Hubbard (February 2021)

On a day where it felt like we were living on the tundra as the winds swept across the snow-covered fields, I noticed very few plants managed to stay upright. What was standing was mostly what we consider weeds. One plant seemed particularly immune to the cold, snow, and winds as it wasn’t even bent over. Standing rather majestically along the ditches was burdock (Arctium spp.), a plant with which many of us are all too familiar, as who hasn’t pulled burs off their cat, dog, kid or clothes!

It may come as no surprise burdock is an invasive species, not native to Canada. It is unclear who, or how it was introduced here; some believe it was accidental with burs attached to clothing or animals, while others think it was brought here for medicinal purposes. In either case, it has been here since the early 1700’s. What grows around our area is mainly common burdock (Arctium minus). Some other names more commonly used in England for burdock are burweed, Lappa, Fox’s Clote, Thorny Burr, Beggar’s Buttons, Love Leaves, but my favourite is Cockle Buttons.

Burdock, like many invasive plants, grows in almost any soil. While it prefers moist, fertile soil, it has no problem rooting in ditches. Burdock is a biennial herb – meaning it takes two years to mature, so it does not flourish in cultivated areas that are tilled each year. In the first year, plants are low growing rosettes of large heart-shaped leaves, looking very much like rhubarb. In the second year, stalks 60 to 180cm (2-6ft) grow and produce pinkish purple flowers in late summer. By the fall, flowers dry and become brown burs. Some plants may take longer than two years to flower. Small hook-like spikes on the burs are what enables it to stick to just about anything that touches it. During the early 1940’s, George de Mestral noticed how easily the burs stuck to his pants and his dog’s fur and examined the burs under a microscope. It was these tiny hooks which became the inspiration for Velcro.

As mentioned, burdock is considered medicinal and quite edible, although I have never eaten it. The Great Burdock (Arctium Lappa) is known for its root, a long taproot, that seems to be the most desirable part of the plant. Roots should be harvested in July from first year plants. Roots have a sweet taste and may be eaten raw or cooked. Roots are said to be a blood purifier. Among old remedies, and not modern medicine, it was used to treat measles, arthritis, tonsillitis, viruses like colds, throat pain, and as a diuretic. Leaves are slightly bitter but can be eaten as well. It should be noted that most animals will not graze on burdock, and it is thought to give a bitter taste to milk if cows eat too much of it. I think I am with the animals on this one, as I am not too keen on munching on burdock. Also, burdock is quite damaging to livestock. When horses or cows have too many burs attached, it can cause stress and infections. Once wool is matted with burs, it is de-valued, and it is uncomfortable for the animal.

As annoying as it is to remove burs, I thought, at least it provided food for birds. Sadly, while researching burdock I found out that these plants can be more than just annoying. My belief that the burs were seeds like other wild plant seeds, such as thistle, or black-eyed Susan’s that birds could eat in winter, is quite the opposite. Apparently small birds and bats may become entangled in the burs and die a slow death.

So, if you want to harvest burdock, please be mindful of leaving large clusters of burs which may be harmful to our little birds and bats. The best way of eradicating burdock is to cut it down before it matures. A single plant can produce between 6,000 to 16,000 seeds! Since plants have deep taproots, digging must go deep, and re-seeding with desirable plants will discourage the return of the burdock. And as always, avoid using herbicides, especially while it is flowering, as bees and butterflies feed on the flowers … and we do want those!

Sources : Grieve, M., A Modern Herbal; Invasive Species Council of British Columbia; Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs