This post is definitely of the gathering origin. While burdock grows in our garden, it does so only because we selectively allow a few plants to reach maturity each year, harvesting the root, and taking advantage of the incredible green mass the plant produces. Burdock is an aggressively spreading biennial, whose velcro-like seed attaches itself to the fur of animals, or the muck boots and hair of wandering humanfolk. The burrs themselves are not to be trifled with; With sharp, stiff-spiked, non-nonsense rounded claws made for snagging, burdock burrs attach themselves to any host that is near, clinging until an opportune time to drop to the earth presents itself. They are painfully unpleasant to remove.
Burdock generally appears in an area that has been recently disturbed. It would follow that while we generally get a couple burdock plants throughout the berms of our permaculture project among our perennials, we always get two or three in our more stereotypical garden space for annuals, which we turn each year. The first year, large leaves will sprout and form a basil rosette, without a stem. If you have many of these and/or if you have limited space, cull these, and leave just a few for your garden.
The following year, the burdock will grow. They can be massive plants, growing anywhere from 1-2 meters tall, with enormous leaves. They are an excellent pioneer plant, as they can grow in varied conditions, and as they amass huge bulk and die back into the soil, they create mulch to support life in subsequent years.
If you would like to cook the stem, peel off the outer layer, and boil for 20 minutes before seasoning. Burdock rosette roots can actually be cooked in the same way, but in their case, you need to scrub the roots. In Japan, the Japanese will even cook the leaves when they are young and still small. Additionally, young flower stalks can be harvested and eaten, before the flower appears. These are meant to have a taste similar to artichokes, though I’ve never tried them.
We try to harvest the root when the plant is large, but before it goes to blossom, as that’s when the plant begins to send most of its nutrients to the flowers, depleting the nutrients present in the root. And believe me, you don’t want to mess with those burrs.
To harvest, lean entire plant to one side to get down to a workable area. Burdock roots are very deep, so first loosen the soil all the way around a plant with a shovel. Once the soil is loose on all sides, dig deep and wide from one side, attempting to get underneath the entire root as much as possible. One you feel it give, use both hands to help guide the root out of the ground. Cut off the root form the rest of the plant with the tip of your shovel or a hatchet, and decide where you are going to leave all of that bulk for delicious garden mulch!
*Note, if you do let the burdock flowers go the blossom, they do become and incredible haven for pollinators – you’ll be astounded at the number of bees and butterflies that will abound on your plant. Just make sure to collect the burrs toward the end of the season – use thick gloves and cover your hair… for real.