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Burdock

BurdockBurdock

By Dyane Silvester

When someone says ‘burdock’, do you think of dandelion and a fizzy drink?

It's probably a generation thing. Greater burdock (which is the type we are familiar with) is part of the daisy family, grows up to 1.5 metres tall and you will see it along verges and hedgerows when walking throughout Cumbria and the Lake District. It's not fussy about soil type, so long as it's well-drained, but it does prefer full sunlight.

It is characterised by its huge heart-shaped leaves and the sticky burrs which appear in the later summer and which dog-owners so hate. These burrs allegedly inspired the creation of Velcro in the 1950's. These are actually the seedheads and their stickiness ensures efficient distribution by furry animals.

Despite its use in dandelion and burdock drinks, burdock actually has few culinary uses; its leaves can be eaten like cabbage but are apparently very glutinous and not very pleasant.

It is, however, part of traditional medicine lore in both east and west: traditionally, drinking an infusion of the leaves, flowers or crushed seeds was thought to be a cure for rheumatism. In modern herbal medicine it is used as a diuretic, and believed to purge the liver of accumulated toxins. It is also thought to help in controlling blood sugar because the root contains compounds which could alter the body's ability to metabolise carbohydrates.

On a cosmetic front burdock root oil has been used in the west as a cure for hair loss, itchy scalp and dandruff and as a treatment for many skin complaints, particularly acne. There might be some justification for this as it contains anti-fungal and anti-bacterial compounds.

Burdock flowers are an excellent source of nectar and pollen for foraging insects, and the roots are eaten by the larvae of several moth species, including the attractive ghost moth. Birds and animals however tend to avoid it; indeed if birds get caught by the burrs they can actually become entangled and die.

And to finish with a fascinating thought from across the border in the annual ‘Ferry Fair’, in Queensferry (Midlothian), there is a character called the Burry Man. He dresses in a full body costume which is then entirely covered with burrs (which he must collect himself) before spending the day parading around town visiting the pubs and factories at each of which he is given a drink of whiskey through a straw. Don't you just love the way Britain's Pagan traditions use the oddest things that nature provides us with?

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