Burdock: weed or medicine?

Burdock (Arctium lappa), also known as Beggar’s Buttons, Cocklebur or Niu Bang Zi, is a common weed plant found in North America, Europe and Asia. Its botanical name is derived from the Greek arktos, or bear, suggesting rough-coated fruits, and lappa, to seize. It is a substantial biennial plant reaching 1.5m in height with very large leaves measuring 50cm across. It flowers in June and July and they are covered with a dense array of stiff hooked bracts (often referred to as burrs) that cling to clothes and fur on contact. Burdock favours growth on roadsides and waste places, possibly indicating its use as a natural detoxifying plant: it is effective cleaning the environment from pollutants and also removing toxins from the body.

Burdock is commonly used in western herbal medicine for skin eruptions, especially eczema in the dry and flaking phase, and psoriasis. Arctium was also traditionally used for septic disorders, boils and any chronic inflammatory state. It can be applied to cracks, grazes, chapped skin and insect bites and, in the form of a compress or poultice, to speed up the healing of wounds and ulcers. Arctium has an antimicrobial action, which lends to its reputation for treating acne and toxic conditions resulting in skin eruptions such as boils. Burdock root oil can allegedly be used to stimulate hair growth in the condition of alopecia.

 According to Nicholas Culpeper, a British herbalist from the 1600s, “The burdock leaves are cooling and moderately drying, whereby good for old ulcers and sores…. The leaves applied to the places troubled with the shrinking in the sinews or arteries give much ease: a juice of the leaves or rather the roots themselves given to drink with old wine, doth wonderfully help the biting of any serpents; the root beaten with a little salt and laid on the place suddenly easeth the pain thereof, and helpeth those that are bit by a wild dog…” Culpeper also recommended the seed “to break the [kidney] stone and cause it to be expelled”.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, burdock seeds are used and are known as Niu Bang Zi. The main use of the seeds is to clear heat in infectious situations. This can be heat that leads to skin eruptions, that is part of localized infections such a sore throat, and that contributes to drying the stools and thus to constipation.

Whether burdock, thistles or dandelions, the following quote, borrowed and modified from A. A. Milne’s beloved character Eeyore, applies: “Weeds are our friends too, once you get to know them.”