"Natural Healing with Herbs for a Healthier You"
by Michelle D. Loftis
[History] [Location] [Chemical Constituents] [Medicinal Qualities] [Contra-Indications] [Known Herbal Formulas] [Dosages & Applications] [Personal Experiences] [Bibliography]

Throughout history, and up to the not-so-distant past, the availability of “qualified” medical professionals and facilities, limited funds, and distances between towns and cities, often dictated that families and homes stock herbal remedies and preparations for use when ailments would arise. The duties of caregiver, and healer often fell to the women. Curative uses of herbs, traditional healing practices, and other medicinal “family secrets” were cautiously guarded and passed down from one generation to the next. Of course, some of the past’s touted cures were not really cures at all. Superstition and myth “remedies,” without practical application, began to creep in and mingle with well known and established customs. “Little by little and through the years, suspicion as to the validity of any natural, herbal remedy began to take root.” (Natural Remedies…) Here is an example of using a remedy, that doesn’t seem to be very practical; ‘My brother twisted his foot and he couldn’t go to school. We had an old aunt that lived with us and she went out and got a big burdock leaf and piled fresh cow manure on it. She wrapped it around the ankle and tied it on with a rag. In no time, my brother was back in school. I don’t know if it was because he couldn’t stand the smell, or if it really worked.’ (Janos, p.18) With these types of “remedies” it’s no wonder that people had a hard time believing any valid claim that herbs had medicinal value.

Burdock is one plant that has the distinction of being used over a long period of time, and by many different cultures, obtaining along the way many different names. Names by which Burdock has been known by and/or associated with are; Bardana - a name used by the Native Americans; Beggar’s Buttons; Burr; Clot bur; Cockle Buttons; Common Burdock; Edible Burdock; Fox Clote; Great Bur; Great Burdock; Gobo - in Japan; Happy Major; Lappa; Love Leaves; Personata; Philanthropium(Grieve, 143); Niu Bang Zi - in China; and Thorny Bur. In many books, and on many websites, the common consensus that the Latin name, Arctium Lappa, is derived from the two sources. The first part seems to originate from the Greek word arktos or “a bear” referring to its rough-coated fruits. The second part is from the Latin word lappare or “to seize”, referring to the burs that cling to passersby in an attempt to propagate and spread its seed. (Bown, 127) Another explanation of its name origin is found in the book ‘A Modern Herbal’ by Mrs. M. Grieve, wherein she writes, “The plant gets its name of ‘Dock’ from its large leaves; the ‘Bur’ is supposed to be a contraction of the French bourre, from the Latin burra, a lock of wool, such is often found entangled with it when sheep have passed by the growing plants. An old English name for the Burdock was ‘Herrif,’ ‘Aireve,’ or ‘Airup,’ from the Anglo-Saxon hoeg, a hedge, and reafe, a robber - or from the Anglo-Saxon verb reafian, to seize. Culpepper gives as popular names in his time: Personata, Happy Major, and Clot-bur.”(Grieve, 144)

According to Peirce, Burdock root was once a prominent feature in the repertoires of European and American folk healers. Europeans began using it heavily in the middle ages. They and their predecessors were perhaps most committed to the herb’s role as a diuretic or “water pill” that could “purify blood” by flushing toxins out of the body, including the microorganism that causes Syphilis. Over the centuries, burdock root was also enlisted to alleviate constipation, ease childbirth, break up kidney and bladder stones, promote sweating, remedy stomach and intestinal disorders, and control arthritis and gout pains. Traditional Chinese and Indian doctors often selected this herb for treating colds, flu, and other throat and chest conditions.”(Peirce, 122) In her book, Grieve notes a passage from Culpepper wherein he describes his knowledge and application of the uses of Burdock: ‘The Burdock leaves are cooling and moderately drying, wherby 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 mad dog: …the seed being drunk in wine 40 days together doth wonderfully help the sciatica: the leaves bruised with the white of an egg and applied to any place burnt with fire, taketh out the fire, gives sudden ease and heals it up afterwards…The root may be preserved with sugar for consumption, stone and the lax. The seed is much commended to break the stone, and is often used with other seeds and things for that purpose.’ (Grieve, 145)
The Shaker community used Burdock as a remedy for gout and scorbutic, syphilitic, scrofulous, and leprous diseases. They would often use the leaves to make a cooling poultice. They learned through practice and application that the root should be dug in the fall or early spring, and that only year-old roots should be used as they were more potent and had the best effect. They also learned that it was very valuable, when used externally, in salves or as a wash for burns, wounds, and skin irritations. (Bess-Miller, 134)

The Native Americans knew Burdock very well too. They would use the whole plant as food, and would boil the stem in maple syrup, which would be like a candy that they could store for the winter. Medicinally the Delaware Indians would use burdock to treat rheumatism, the same as the Cherokee, who would also use it to purify the blood and aid circulation, as well as did the Iroquois. (Burdock.1) Some tribes honored its healing powers, while others seemed to curse it as a nuisance. The Cowlitz Indians call this herb ‘tcuktcu’k’, and the Skagit Indians call it xexe’bats saying it came with the whites in hayseed, thereby seeming to place its origin with early settlers.  Translated it seems to mean the same thing, which is; “sticks to everything”. The Cowlits Indians would administer and drink an infusion of Burdock root, for whooping cough, which they made by boiling the roots. The Swinomish Indians know it only as a “bad plant”. It is interesting to note that the Lummi Indians say the Chinese and Japanese eat the roots, and in so doing seem to establish knowledge of these Asiatic cultures. They also make a point of mentioning how the burrs stick to horses and wool; however, they have no name for it. The Snohomish Indians only say that “the plant is introduced. (Gunther, 50)

In the 1970’s, Burdock got a bad rap as some commercially packaged burdock-root tea was implicated in a number of atropine poisonings in the United States and Europe. Further investigation revealed that the herb had been adulterated with the similar-appearing but toxic Deadly Nightshade. (Peirce, 123) This helped to clear Burdock’s reputation as a valuable herb, and I’m very thankful that the FDA didn’t place a ban on the herb at that time.

Burdock burs were also the inspiration to the inventor of Velcro fasteners, who became curious about the burs after taking his dog for a walk one day, and finding them stuck in the dog’s fur afterward. By observing the hooked barbs on the burs, he was able to manufacture a product that replicated Burdock’s ‘seizing’ qualities. “…early 1940’s George de Mestral, a Swiss inventor, became curious about the seeds of the burdock plant that had attached themselves to his clothes and to the dog’s fur. Under a microscope, he looked closely at the hook-and-loop system that the seeds use to hitchhike on passing animals aiding seed dispersal, and he realized that the same approach could be used to join other things together. The result was Velcro.” (Burdock.3)