Eating Weeds: Burdock

If we agree that weeds can be famous while simultaneously being infamous, a list of famous weeds must include burdock. Its fame largely comes from being an inspiration for the hook-and-loop fastener, Velcro. The idea for this revolutionary product came when Swiss inventor, George de Mestral, was removing burs – the dried inflorescences of burdock – from his dog in the early 1940’s. Most of us have experienced this, pulling out burs from animal hair or our own clothing, but few have felt inspired to develop a new product. Infamy reigns supreme.

But burdock’s fame isn’t tied to Velcro. Its tenacious, sticky burs, which house the seeds, have been attaching themselves to humans and other animals for centuries, frustrating those who have to remove them but finding new places to grow in the process. And what better way to pay tribute to this phenomenon than to dress oneself in hundreds of burs and parade around town calling yourself the Burry Man? Lest you think I’m crazy, just such a thing has been part of an annual celebration for over 300 years in a town outside of Edinburgh, Scotland.

burs of common burdock (Arctium minus)

Of course, burdock is more than its burs. Other, perhaps less celebrated features, are its edible roots and shoots. Its leaves are also edible, but most people find them too bitter to bother. Green Deane suggests wrapping the leaves around food to cook on a campfire. Both the roots and shoots can be eaten raw or cooked, and the fermented roots along with dandelion roots are traditional ingredients in the British beverage, dandelion and burdock. The roots, shoots, and leaves of burdock have also had a wide variety of medicinal uses.

Two species of burdock have become naturalized in North America – Arctium minus and Arctium lappa. Both species are biennials or short-lived perennials. They start out as rosettes of large leaves with woolly undersides. The leaves grow to a foot or more long and wide. At this stage burdock is similar in appearance to rhubarb. Burdock has a large taproot, which can extend down to three feet in the ground. The taproot continues to grow as the rosette expands. When the plant has reached a certain size it begins to put up a branching flower stalk. It is in the rosette stage, before the plant bolts, that the taproot should be harvested.

As the flower stalk grows, the plant takes on a pyramidal shape, with the leaves along the stalk getting increasingly smaller with height. The plant can reach several feet tall, with one source describing them as towering up to ten feet. The stalks should be harvested before the plants start flowering. Multiple flower heads are produced at the ends of the branching stalk. The inflorescences are composed of purple, tubular, disc florets that are encased and encircled in a series of hooked bracts. The flower heads resemble thistle flowers, but the plant is easy to distinguish from thistles due to its large, soft leaves. Speaking of the leaves, one photographer found them alluring enough to compile a series of photos of them.

Common burdock (Arctium minus): the woolly undersides of the leaves and the tops of the taproots

While burdock can be nuisance plant, it is not particularly noxious. In The Book of Field and Roadside, John Eastman writes, “Burdock cannot be labeled a truly invasive weed, for it rarely intrudes into cultivated fields. Tilling usually controls and eradicates burdock populations. Its favored havens are the disturbed soils of roadsides, railroads, fence rows, vacant lots, and around sheds and old buildings.” In Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, Peter Del Tredici also comments on burdock’s preference for minimally maintained locations including “vacant lots and rubble dump sites; the edges of emergent woodlands; the sunny borders of freshwater wetlands, ponds, and streams; and on unmowed highway banks and median strips with frequent salt applications.”

I harvested my burdock roots along an unmaintained fence line surrounding a series of raised flower beds. I chose a simple recipe for making burdock chips that involved peeling the roots, cutting them into thin slices, dressing them with olive oil and salt, and baking them in the oven. Since the author of this recipe mentioned buying burdock from a store, they were probably using Arctium lappa, or greater burdock, which is commonly cultivated, especially in Asian countries. Both species can be prepared in similar ways.

burdock roots

The burdock chips had a pleasant nutty flavor, but they were also a little stringy and tough to chew. If I were to do it again, I would probably use a recipe like this one that involves parboiling and then frying. Sierra suggested grating the roots and frying them in bacon grease, which would probably do the trick. There are also recipes for pickled burdock roots, which would be fun to try.

Because the plants I harvested were still in their rosette stage and there weren’t any other plants in the area that were bolting, I didn’t try the shoots. But I’ll keep my eye out, and when I find some I may have to write a part two.

Advertisements

Beavers and Water Lilies – An Introduction to Zoochory

Beavers are classic examples of ecosystem engineers. It is difficult to think of an animal – apart from humans – whose day-to-day activities have more impact on the landscape than beavers. Their dam building activities create wetlands that are used by numerous other species, and their selective harvesting of preferred trees affects species composition in riparian areas. And that’s just the start. Their extensive evolutionary history and once widespread distribution has made them major players in the landscape for millions of years.

Today, the beaver family (Castoridae) consists of just two extant species: Castor fiber (native to Eurasia) and Castor canadensis (native to North America). Both species were hunted by humans to the brink of extinction but, thanks to conservation efforts, enjoy stable populations despite having been eliminated from much of their historical ranges. Before the arrival of Europeans, North American beavers are estimated to have been anywhere from 60 million to 400 million strong. Extensive trapping reduced the population to less than half a million. Today, 10 million or more make their homes in rivers, streams, and wetlands across the continent.

North American beaver (Castor canadensis) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

North American beaver (Castor canadensis) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Beavers are herbivores, and they harvest trees and shrubs to build dams and lodges. Their interactions with plants are legion, and so what better way to introduce the concept of animal-mediated seed dispersal than beavers. Plants have several strategies for moving their seeds around. Wind and gravity are popular approaches, and water is commonly used by plants both aquatic and terrestrial. Partnering with animals, however, is by far the most compelling method. This strategy is called zoochory.

Zoochory has many facets. Two major distinctions are epizoochory and endozoochory. In epizoochory, seeds become attached in some form or fashion to the outside of an animal. The animal unwittingly picks up, transports, and deposits the seeds. The fruits of such seeds are equipped with hooks, spines, barbs, or stiff hairs that help facilitate attachment to an animal’s fur, feathers, or skin. A well known example of this is the genus Arctium. Commonly known as burdock, the fruits in this genus are called burs – essentially small, round balls covered in a series of hooks. Anyone who has walked through – or has had a pet walk through – a patch of burdocks with mature seed heads knows what a nuisance these plants can be. But their strategy is effective.

The burs of Arctium - photo credit: wikimedia commons

The burs of Arctium – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Endozoochory is less passive. Seeds that are dispersed this way are usually surrounded by fleshy, nutritious fruits desired by animals. The fruits are consumed, and the undigested seeds exit out the other end of the animal with a bit of fertilizer. Certain seeds require passage through an animal’s gut in order to germinate, relying on chemicals produced during the digestion process to help break dormancy. Other seeds contain mild laxatives in their seed coats, resulting in an unscathed passage through the animal and a quick deposit. Some plants have developed mutualistic relationships with specific groups of animals regarding seed dispersal by frugivory. When these animal species disappear, the plants are left without the means to disperse their seeds, which threatens their future survival.

Beavers rely on woody vegetation to get them through the winter, but in warmer months, when herbaceous aquatic vegetation is abundant, such plants become their preferred food source. Water lilies are one of their favorite foods, and through both consumption of the water lilies and construction of wetland habitats, beavers help support water lily populations. This is how John Eastman puts it in The Book of Swamp and Bog: “Beavers relish [water lilies], sometimes storing the rhizomes. Their damming activities create water lily habitat, and they widely disperse the plants by dropping rhizome fragments hither and yon.”

Fragrant water lily (Nympaea odorata) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Fragrant water lily (Nymphaea odorata) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

The seeds of water lilies (plants in the family Nymphaceae) are generally dispersed by water. Most species (except those in the genera Nuphar and Barclaya) have a fleshy growth around their seeds called an aril that helps them float. Over time the aril becomes waterlogged and begins to disintegrate. At that point, the seed sinks to the bottom of the lake or pond where it germinates in the sediment. The seeds are also eaten by birds and aquatic animals, including beavers. The aril is digestible, but the seed is not.

In her book, Once They Were Hats, Frances Backhouse writes about the relationship between beavers and water lilies. She visits a lake where beavers had long been absent, but were later reintroduced. She noted changes in the vegetation due to beaver activity – water lilies being only one of many plant species impacted.

Every year in late summer, the beavers devoured the seed capsules [of water lilies], digested their soft outer rinds and excreted the ripe undamaged seeds into the lake. Meanwhile, as they dredged mud from the botom of the lake for their construction projects, they were unintentionally preparing the seed bed. Seeing the lilies reminded me that beavers also inadvertantly propagate willows and certain other woody plants. When beavers imbed uneaten sticks into dams or lodges or leave them lying on moist soil, the cuttings sometimes sprout roots and grow.

Other facets of zoochory include animals hoarding fruits and seeds to be eaten later and then not getting back to them, or seeds producing fleshy growths that ants love called elaiosomes, resulting in seed dispersal by ants. Animals and plants are constantly interacting in so many ways. Zoochory is just one way plants use animals and animals use plants, passively or otherwise. These relationships have a long history, and each one of them is worth exploring and celebrating.