Healing Properties of Burdock

By Lise Wolff

The chill of winter leaves me craving burdock root tea. Perhaps it is the desire to retreat and burrow inward for the season. Or possibly we northern-types are programmed to eat hearty root vegetables to instill strength to get through another long, cold winter.

Arcticum lappa is burdock’s botanical name. Arcto is the Greek root word referring to the bear. It’s associated with some Native American traditions. Once again, hibernation comes to mind. Lappa means ‘to hold fast’ as anyone who is familiar with the burrs of this plant’s clever seed spreading method will attest. Burdock’s seed heads were in fact so brilliantly designed that Velcro was modeled after it. I have heard of utilizing its clinging qualities to enhance the memory. Makes things stick in your mind.

Burdock root has been popular with the macrobiotic community for many years, sold as ‘wild gobo’ in co-ops. Burdock is biennial, having a two-year life cycle. As an edible, it is much easier to harvest the stalk of the second year plant as it shoots up in hopes of sending offspring into the world. The stalk, cut off before it flowers and peeled, is similar to celery in texture while carrying many of the roots nutritional virtues.

A relative of the artichoke, burdock is its mineral packed grandfather. Its list of nutrients reads like a who’s who of the supplement world. Chromium, iron, silicon, thiamine, inulin (a precursor to insulin, also providing a sweet quality to the tea), cobalt, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, tin, aluminum, calcium, zinc, carotene (vitamin A), manganese, selenium, as well as a bit of protein, fiber and mucilage.

Burdock is considered an adaptogen which helps the body to function well under the stresses of everyday life. Burdock is also listed as an alterative, meaning it alters longstanding, chronic conditions. The roots itself burrows straight down, sometimes three feet deep, heading toward the core of the earth as it aims to heal the core of chronic conditions so seemingly deep rooted in the body.

The Herbal community used to classify burdock roots and seed (although I almost exclusively use the root both for ease in harvesting and taste) as a blood purifier. This is a bit antiquated conceptually as blood is purified thought the two main organ systems which filter and consequently clean the blood: the liver and kidneys. The liver alone has over 300 functions. Burdock tones and strengthens these hard working organs.

Oftentimes skin conditions are best addressed with liver remedies. The leaf of burdock has a large surface area, covered with little hairs, like human skin. Thus, according to the doctrine of signatures, burdock would be used to treat skin conditions. For many years, burdock has been used to treat hot, red, inflamed conditions of the skin. Leaf poultices were used to heal bedsores, herpetic eruptions, fever blisters, poison ivy, boils, burns, heat rashes and measles, although the tincture of burdock root would probably work just as well. Burdock has also been used to treat acne when the pimples manifest as “large, red and nasty,” without coming to a head, according to 7 Song, an herbalist in Ithaca, New York. I have also used it in a few cases of weeping eczema and psoriasis, although I prefer flower essences which work on the emotions as oftentimes these conditions are stress-activated.

Years ago, I worked with a client who had developed an unusual form of lupus, manifesting as open, concave depressions, filled with yellow pus on the skin. This developed within months of a car accident two years before, which bruised her liver area. In Chinese medicine, if there is an imbalance or stagnation in the liver, the emotion that is ‘ruled’ by that organ also goes out of balance. Irritability and anger are associated with liver imbalance. The client had come to see me because of extreme anger, impatience and depression which also developed after the car accident.

I expected to work with flower essences to help stabilize her emotionally, but threw in burdock root to address the skin. Her husband had counted fifty pustules the day of her first visit to see me. On her follow-up one month later, the client told me she now had only seven open pustules. I was surprised, but that was the beginning of my lessons that what conventional western medicine considers a forever condition is not forever. Once again, it is merely an imbalance in the body which plants can reteach the body to balance if the individual’s particular pattern is addressed.