Burdock: Inspiration for Tolstoy and Velcro

Photo by Rubber Slippers in Italy


Arctium lappa and other species

Leo Tolstoy was pretty impressed with the hardiness of burdock. George de Mestral, a Swiss inventor, also found inspiration in burdock. Fascinated with how the burs always stuck to his clothes, he inspected them under a microscope, discovering the hook-and-loop arrangement of the bristles. Inspired by the plants anatomy, he invented Velcro.  

“…black from dust but still alive and red in the center … It makes me want to write. It asserts life to the end, and alone in the midst of the whole field, somehow or other had asserted it.” Leo Tolstoy on burdock

I stuck a grocery-purchased taproot into the ground once a few years ago: the plant grew, bloomed, made seeds, and for a few years after that I was planting burdock. I have always been a bit astounded at how well it does here, with so little care.

For as big as these plants get, you can actually plant them fairly close together. They will tend to grow long and straight down when somewhat crowded. Plant from seed in spring or late fall (many people assert the taste of fall-sown crops are better). Space about 4-5 inches apart. Protect seedlings sown in late fall.

Average garden soil is all that is required, though a nice sandy loam is preferred over clay soil. Leaves will die back in the winter at around 34 degrees, but the roots will be just fine.

Harvest immature flower shoots and eat like artichoke.

Harvest roots when they are tender and thin. People tend to go toward the larger roots, even in the grocery store, which have less flavor. Leaves are also eaten, lightly cooked. In addition immature flower stalks are collected in late spring and eaten like artichokes (which are related to burdock). Make sure to harvest them before the flowers emerge for this purpose and eat raw or boiled. Delicious sprouts are made form the seeds.

In Asia and Europe, burdock is made into soft drinks. And for all you beer freaks, burdock is sometimes used like hops as a bittering agent. In fact, before the regular use of hops for this purpose, burdock was often used.

Kitazawa (of course) has seed of varieties grown for roots or for the foliage.


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