Burdock; Arctium sp.

Burdock to coin a much used phrase… I would say, over used phrase, does what it says on the tin. It has a seed head which is a bur, covered with hooks and it has great big dock shaped leaves. The leaves of Burdock though are soft and hairy and not shiny and hairless like true dock but the shape is similar.

There are several species of Burdock and there are also hybrids. They are all in the genus Arctium.

From the most robust to the more frail we have Greater Burdock, Intermediate Burdock, Lesser Burdock and Wood Burdock.

The photograph above is of Greater Burdock (Arctium lappa) and apart from its ‘greaterness’ it can be distinguished because the flowering area (purple bit) is flat, it does not dome up as it does in the next Photograph.


This is probably Lesser Burdock (Arctium minus), I have to confess that apart from Greater Burdock I do have trouble differentiating between the other three. They are all biennials and all have the burr flowers which are purple and they flower from mid summer onwards. They grow in a variety of places, hedgerows, field margins,rough ground and woodland edges and rides. The Greater Burdock was photographed on the edge of a field of Maize and the other one was in a woodland but at the intersection of two fairly wide rides.

The difference between Greater and Lesser Burdock is the size but a big Lesser Burdock could be larger than a poor specimen of Greater Burdock! Better is that  the leaf stems (petioles) are solid in Greater Burdock and hollow in Lesser Burdock. Also the flower stalks vary in length, they are  shorter in Lesser Burdock (0-2 cm), in Greater Burdock they are 2.5cm or more, so not that much in it. You can see  in my two photographs the flower stalks are quite long in the first photograph. and a bit shorter in the second one so maybe that is  Intermediate Burdock which is a hybrid and many botanists do not bother to try to differentiate.

Finally there is Wood burdock (Arctium nemorosum) which resembles tall-growing lesser burdock and is more likely to be encountered in a woodland. In both the flower heads (capitula) are arranged in the same fashion in loose racemose clusters rather than an even-topped corymb such as in Yarrow . Wood burdock’s inflorescence branches curve downwards however, rather than rigidly spreading like lesser burdock. Wood burdock flowers are also larger than average and egg-shaped. The individual florets that make up each composite flower or capitulum are roughly the same length as the surrounding bracts, while on lesser burdock they are longer.

It could ‘do your head in’ as they say.

Dandelion and Burdock, is a drink which most people over 60 will remember, although it is evidently making a come back. I recall the lorry bringing various flavour fizzy drinks, ‘pop’ as it was known, you took the empty bottle out as there was a deposit on them and selected the flavours you wanted for the next week. I remember Cream Soda, Cherryade, Lemonade and of course Dandelion and Burdock. This was in the 1960’s in Chelmsford Essex, what I cannot remember is the name of the supplier. Was it Corona or was it R Whites or someone else? Probably R Whites as they were London based they started in 1845 making Ginger Beer, they survived through two world wars, despite the hardship of the blitz and rationing. The company was taken over by Whitbread in the 1960’s where the portfolio expanded with Orangeade, Dandelion & Burdock and Cream Soda, and was later absorbed by Britvic in 1986.

Anyway back to Dandelion and Burdock, the pop I was drinking back in the 1960’s probably did not contain any Dandelion or Burdock, just chemicals. The reason was that the flavour of burdock was similar to a volatile oil found in a plant called Sassafras ( used in America to make Sarsaparilla) and this replaced the burdock root then in the 1960’s  Safrole, the major component of the volatile oil of sassafras, was found to be carcinogenic in rats when administered in relatively large doses. So artificial flavours were employed. Now we again have some producers making Dandelion and Burdock which once more contains the proper ingredients.

The drink goes back a long way and was originally a brew made using the stewed up roots of the burdock and dandelion mixed with a little honey and then fermented.This resulted in a mildly alcoholic brew with a bit of fizz, similar to Ginger beer.

Burdock roots are now grown commercially, especially in Japan where it is known as  gobō  It is the Greater Burdock (Arctium lappa) which is grown and it has both culinary and medicinal uses, it is an ingredient in Pork miso soup. Some even gets incorporated into Dandelion and Burdock fizzy pop!..

Here are a few more photographs


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