The History of Burdock

This article was originally published in Natural Herbal Living Magazine.  If you haven’t taken the time to check out that publication, you should.  Each issue is dedicated to the study of one plant and written by practicing herbal clinicians.  It is a great resource.  

History of Burdock

The first recorded name of Arctium lappa is thought to be Arcion, as used by the Greeks, which Dioscorides proposed was called personacea or lappa by the Romans. In the past some questioned whether Dioscorides was referring to greater burdock in this entry, but historians have come to believe that the other entry Arction is that of lesser burdock or A. minus.

Burdock’s alternate name shows up frequently enough as some sort of variation of personacea, that it is convincing evidence. For example, in the 1st century C.E., the Roman physician Celsus called the herb Personina planta and recommended that the root of the plant be smashed and taken in wine and applied to venomous bites. Another clue to the puzzle was that 17th century apothecarist and herbalist Nicholas Culpeper writes of greater burdock and shares a similar recommendation saying, “A dram of the Roots taken with Pine Kernels, helpeth them that spit foul, •••tery, and bloudy Flegm.”[1]

Clate was the name that historians believe Anglo Saxons used specifically refer to A. lappa. (Again they used A. minus as well, possibly referring to that as clive, or clife, although those names have also been associated with Galium aparine.)

There were many Gaelic names for the plant. Leadan liosda meaning, “a head of stiff hair,” being perhaps the most “official.” Carmichael mentions meac-an-dogh and searcan. “Mar cheosan air sgiathan fior-eun,” is an old Irish adage by Ossian meaning, “Like bur clinging to the eagle’s wing.”[2]

John Uri Lloyd cites examples of many early US publications which mention the herb by its Spanish name of bardana.[3] Some older herbals refer to the herb as Bardana major.[4] Scudder refers  to burdock as Lappa officinalis.

Burdock in Legend and Lore

Burdock being a somewhat ungainly plant with little to speak of in the department of blooms and fragrance, hasn’t gained a lot of fame in lore or folk traditions. It is mentioned in an ancient land-remedy ritual said to improve the crops from the field and remove any sorcery cast upon the land.

“At night, before daybreak, take four sods from four sides of the land, and note how they previously stood. Then take oil and honey and barm, and milk of all cattle on the land, and part of every kind of tree growing on the land, except hard trees, and part of every known herb except burdock alone; and put holy water thereon, and then sprinkle [holy water] thrice on the bottom of the sods, and then say these words: ‘Crescite, et multiplicamini, et replete terram.’” (Grow, and multiply, and replenish, the earth.)[5]

Anglo Saxon historians believe that perhaps that burdock had an association with evil spirits and was consequently excluded from the ritual.[6]

The only other traditional use that has been shared seems to be that during a harvest festival in eastern Berwickshire: Young people would pelt everyone with bundles of burrs until they were covered in “sediments of white hairs, which gave the appearance of having been wrapt in a woolen blanket.”[7]

Burdock for Fevers

The 12th Century medical compendium, The Trotula, mentions burdock root as an ingredient in a preparation called populeon, an unguent useful “against the heat of an acute fever,” and for provoking sweating.[8]  Gabrielle Hatfield also mentions the herb as being a diaphoretic used by Scottish women in the eighteenth century.[9]

This is a story I found when studying the popular use of healing herbs in the Mormon culture that is probably the most detailed description I have ever found of this particular historical use of burdock:

When she would have a fever, my mother used to take burdock leaves and put them around her feet to reduce the fever. She would peel back the outer layer over some of the veins. Every here and there, there would be a hard vein, something like the stem of the leaf. Mother was gentle. She didn’t want the leaves to hurt my sister. But she would take the green leaves, and after peeling them back, would wrap them around her feet, and tie them with a string, up toward the ankle.[10]

While this is not necessarily in keeping with the traditional western application of the herb, these uses are very much in keeping with the TCM uses in formulas meant to expel the poisons of flus and colds.

 Unique Uses of the Root

The historical use of burdock root is quite different from how we think of it today. For example, 1st century Greek physician Dioscorides recommended it for consumption and coughs, saying:

The root is large, white within, but black on the outside. One teaspoon of a decoction (taken as a drink with pine kernels) helps spitters of blood and corrupt matter.[11]

As mentioned above, this recommendation was repeated by Culpeper centuries later; consequently, it has shown up frequently in British folk remedies for colds. In the US, in the 19th century, Dr. John Milton Scudder agreed, saying “it is also a remedy of corrective power in bronchial irritation, and in coughs it exerts a checking influence.” Reference?

 The Anglo Saxons included clate as one of the many ingredients in “the green salve” of the Lacnunga, known for its healing properties. It was also said that clate was useful “against a sudden sickness,” boiled in ale with wenwort, bishopwort, fennel, and radish.

Culpeper also wrote that “the Root beaten with a little Salt and laid on the place, suddenly easeth the pain thereof, and helpeth those that are bit with a mad-Dog.” K’Eogh repeated this advice in the early Irish herbal Botanologia Universalis,[12] which was said to be his account of the herbs he encountered being used in Ireland at the time the book was written.

What is intriguing about this statement that herbs that were said to address rabies often did so because of their anti-spasmodic properties. Skullcap being the classic example. So, I went digging for other indications that the herb had some sort of action in the nervous system. British ethnobotanist Gabrielle Hatfield shares that the root was used in the Isle of Man for “allaying nervousness.”[13]

The Anglo Saxons were quite specific about how it was to be harvested and prepared, as is illustrated by their cure for hemorrhoids:

If the fig [hemorrhoids] become established on a man’s backside, then take the roots of Clate…three or four and smoke them in hot embers and then pull one out from the hearth and pound it and make a sort of little cake and lay on the backside as hot as it can be borne; when the cake cools then make more and lay on and let him be quiet for a day or two. When you do this (it is an approved remedy) let no one dig up the roots with iron, and do not wash with water, but wipe them clean with a cloth, and put a very thin cloth between the backside and the cake’… Lacnunga 44[14]

There is also an Anglo Saxon remedy against “a pock of the eye” (assumed to be a sty) which recommends boiling the root with ale and drinking this decoction.

By the early 19th century, British medical botanists, Barton and Castle, wrote that use of A. lappa had gone out of style in that country, but offered a very thorough history of its use, including an interesting story of how King Henry III of France was cured of lues venerea (syphilis) by root decoctions given to him by a healer named Petrus Pena.[15]

It is unclear if burdock’s use was actually in decline amongst the common folk. In the 1923 translation of Rosa Anglica, the introduction states that a decoction of burdock root and bogbean was still used in common use as a blood purifier.[16] It has also been reported that drinking the root decoction was effective against baldness.

At some point, physicians started interchanging the part of the plant they recommended or using both the seeds and the root in a preparation. In 1833, Wooster Beach recommended the root or seed of the herb made into a decoction for “ulcers, rheumatism and in all disease of the skin.” He also used the roots in a “medical beer” beverage aimed at purifying the blood, which is a use that held on for a long time in Southern folk medicine.[17] Homeopathic physician Edwin Hale suggested that the official preparation was a tincture of the root and seeds.[18]

 The Neglected Uses of Burdock Leaves

The leaves are one part of the plant that herbal practitioners really have all but forgotten about, which is odd, given their long history of use. Dioscorides only mentioned that the leaves of the plant could be applied to old ulcers to heal them, which is the use repeated most frequently in later literature.[19] But, Culpeper wrote of that and many other uses.The following use as a poultice for burns still turns up in modern folk medicine.:

The Leavs 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.[20]

Culpeper also recommended the leaves as a diuretic, which isn’t really in keeping with the modern thought that inulin from the roots is responsible for that action.

The Juyce of the Leavs taken with Honey provoketh Urin, and remedieth the pain of the Bladder.[21]

At some point around the beginning of the 19th century, the use of the leaves seemed to be phased out in “professional” practice, but it continued in the common folks’ self-care practices.

 In Maine, at the turn of the 20th century, the leaves were used for relieving fevers and headache.[22] The Mormons also used poultices made of burdock leaves for rheumatism and arthritis for generations after settling in Utah.[23]

An interesting folk use of the herb in Ireland and Britain was to make a poultice of the bruised leaves and apply them to the soles of the feet to treat hysteria, convulsions, and epileptic seizures.[24]

 Burdock Seed Posset

The idea that decoctions of the seeds are useful for removing stones goes back a long way, also Hildegard wrote of making a wine decoction of burdock root to “wear down stones”. [25] This use has been recommended by many practitioners over the years.

My favorite recommendation comes from an Irish herbal: “The seed is celebrated for breaking the stone in a Poſſet drink.”[26]  This intrigued me, but unfortunately there are no directions for preparing a posset in the herbal as they were so common in the day.

The name posset is now incorrectly assigned to a pudding that resembles what was once called syllabub. In the past, though, it was actually a fairly potent alcoholic drink. Making a posset involved pouring a mixture of curdled cream over a sweetened mixture of sack (sherry) and ale:

Put a pint of good [by “good,” they likely mean milk that has already thickened a bit after sitting out as whole non-homogenized milk does] Milk to boil; as soon as it doth so, take it from the fire, to let the great heat of it cool a little; for doing so, the curd will be the tenderer, and the whole of a more uniform consistence. When it is prettily cooled, pour it into your pot, wherein is about two spoonfuls of Sack, and about four of Ale, with sufficient Sugar dissolved in them. So let it stand a while near the fire, till you eat it.[27]

Image of an English posset cup  from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.

Fancy posset cups had a spout for drinking the alcohol from the bottom. Given that older recipes recommend wine decoctions of the seed, it seems likely that the sherry in a recipe like the one above may have been a decoction. But as more complex posset recipes recommended adding spices to the milk, it is possible the seeds were simply ground finely and added to the drink.

[1] Culpeper, Nicholas. The English Physitian : OR AN Astrologo-Physical Discourse of the Vulgar Herbs of This Nation. London. England: Printed by Peter Cole, at the sign of the Printing-Press in Cornhil, near the Royal Exchange., 1652.

[2] Cameron, John. Gaelic Names of Plants, Scottish, Irish and Manx. New Revised. Glasgow, Scotland: John Mackay “Celtic Monthly” Office, 1900.

[3] Lloyd, John Uri. Origin and History of All the Pharmacopeial Vegetable Drugs, Chemicals and Preparations with Bibliography. Vol. 1. Cincinnati, OH: Caxton Press, 1921.

[4] Threlkeld, Caleb, and Thomas Molyneux. Synopsis Stirpium Hibernicarum. Dublin, Ireland: S. Powell, 1726.

[5] Grendon, Felix. “The Anglo-Saxon Charms.” The Journal of American Folklore 22, no. 84 (1909): 105–237.

[6] Cameron, M. L. “Anglo-Saxon Medicine and Magic.” Anglo-Saxon England 17 (1988): 191–215.

[7] Johnston, George. The Natural History of the Eastern Borders. Vol. I  The Botany. Vol. 1. London, England: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1853.

[8] Green, Monica, trans. Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

[9] Hatfield, Gabrielle. “Domestic Medicine in Eighteenth Century Scotland.” Ph.D., University of Edinburgh, 1980.

[10] Noall, Claire. “Superstitions, Customs, and Prescriptions of Mormon Midwives.” California Folklore Quarterly 3, no. 2 (April 1944): 102-114.

[11] Dioscorides. De Materia Medica. - Five Books in One Volume: A New English Translation. Translated by Osbaldeston, T. Johannesburg: IBIDIS Press, 60AD.

[12] K’Eogh, John. Botanalogia Universalis Hibernica: Cork, Ireland: George Harrison, 1735. pp. 20.

[13] Hatfield, Gabrielle. Encyclopedia of Folk Medicine: Old World and New World Traditions. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004.

[14] Storm, Gerhard. Anglo-Saxon Magic. Gravenhage, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1948. pp. 77.

[15] Barton, Benjamin, and Castle, Thomas. The British Flora Medica, Or, a History of the Medicinal Plants of Great Britain: Illustrated by a Coloured Figure of Each Plant. Vol. 1. London, England: E. Cox, 1837.

[16] Wulff, Winifred. Rosa Anglica Sev Rosa Medicinæ Johannis Anglici: An Early Modern Irish Translation of a Section of the Mediaeval Medical Text-Book of John of Gaddesden. London, England: Simpkin Marshall LTD., 1923.

[17] Wooster. The American Practice of Medicine. Vol. III. 3 vols. New York, NY: Reformed Medical School Society, 1833.

[18] Hale, Edwin Moses, and Whitman, F.S. The Characteristics of the New Remedies. 3rd ed. Detroit, Michigan: Lodges Homeopathic Pharmacy, 1874.

[19] Culpeper, Nicholas. The English Physitian : OR AN Astrologo-Physical Discourse of the Vulgar Herbs of This Nation. London. England: Printed by Peter Cole, at the sign of the Printing-Press in Cornhil, near the Royal Exchange., 1652.

[20] Ibid

[21] Ibid

[22] Morrell, Jennie MH. “Some Maine Plants and Their Uses ‘Wise and Otherwise.’” Rhodora 3, no. 29 (1901): 129–132.

[23] Fife, Austin E. “Pioneer Mormon Remedies.” Western Folklore 16, no. 3 (July 1957): 153-162.

[24] Allen, David Elliston, and Gabrielle Hatfield. Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain & Ireland. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2004.

[25] Bingen, Hildegard Von. Hildegard’s Healing Plants: From Her Medieval Classic Physica. Translated by Bruce W. Hozeski. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.

[26] Threlkeld, Caleb, and Thomas Molyneux. 1726.

[27] Digby, Kenelm. The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened. Edited by Anne Macdonell. London: H. Brome, 1669.