I enjoy tasks that let me to two things at once. With today’s plant I’m not only foraging for a delicious wild root, but also getting rid of future problems on my property. This is the much-maligned Burdock (Arctium minus, Photo 1).
Pretty well everyone has had a run-in with this plant. Its bristly seed heads cling firmly to our hair and clothes, as well as to pets and livestock. Back in the days when I had sheep, if there were a single Burdock plant anywhere on the farm, they’d find it; today, my dogs are the same. It’s not hard to figure out how this plant inspired the creation of Velcro!
In addition to being an annoying weed, Burdock has been prized for both food and medicine for thousands of years. It was one of the first plants early settlers brought with them and was already well-established in New England by the mid-1600s (and here on the Island by the 1800s). While all parts of this plant are edible, the root is by far the best part. It’s grown commercially in some regions and is a popular vegetable in Japan, where it’s known as ‘gobo’.
Burdock is a biennial, and it’s the first-year or early second-year roots you want. Once the plant has started to flower in its second year, much of the energy stored in the root has been used up and there’s not much food value left. This isn’t a vegetable you’ll be able to dig by hand. Burdock puts down tap roots that are often as deep as (or deeper than) the leaves are tall (Photo 2). It takes a good shovel and careful digging to get the whole thing.
Once you’ve got your roots, wash them thoroughly and cut away the top few inches that are wider than the rest (this part will be tough). Burdock can sometimes regrow from cut roots, so take care how you dispose of this material. You can burn it, but I just toss any unused roots or root parts in a pot and boil for 10-15 minutes to kill them.
Younger roots can be eaten raw, and have a nice crunch with a mild, slightly radish-y flavour. Older roots are best peeled and cooked. I usually roast them (Photo 3), but they can also be boiled, fried, or stir-fried. The taste is a bit like a nutty potato, and worth the effort of digging them up in my opinion. You can find my tips for preparing Burdock root in the Wild Food Recipes section of this blog.
You may hate Burdock as a weed around your property but give its root a try. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at this tasty part of PEI untamed!