You’ve probably walked past burdock many times, wondering, “What is that GIANT plant?!” It’s a common roadside weed of impressive proportions: leaves can be 24 inches long, flower stalks may be five feet tall, and the root reaches two or three feet in length. It’s not bad looking, it’s a well known medicinal plant, and several parts are edible. Yet we still consider it a weed. Go figure.
In Japan, burdock root is sold as the vegetable gobo and served pickled, or slivered and sautéed in tamari sauce. When grown as a commercial crop, burdock is planted in sand, which makes digging it up much less challenging than harvesting it from the wild. Where I forage in Pennsylvania, our soil is rocky and hard; burdock root takes hold and won’t let go. Harvesting burdock root isn’t like pulling up a bunch of potatoes. It takes extended digging and cleaning (no smooth, easy-to-rinse surface here) to make this root edible.
Which is why I don’t do it any more. I don’t think it’s worth it.
Burdock flower stalks, on the other hand, are not only a much easier harvest, but are absolutely delicious, with a flavor reminiscent of artichokes. And if you come across a big patch of burdock at the right stage of development, it’s easy to gather a substantial number of flower stalks in a short time.
Burdock is a biennial. Its first year growth is entirely vegetative (roots, shoots, and leaves). If you’re after the burdock root, harvest it in fall of the first year or early spring of the second year, when the roots are plump and full of nutrition, and the plant is not in active growth, drawing on that nutrition.
If you’re after the burdock flower stalk, harvest in spring or early summer of the second year. Keep an eye on the plant and watch for the flower stalk forming at the center. You’ll want to harvest before it blooms; usually it will be 2-3 feet tall at this time. Cut it off as close to the ground as possible, and remove the leaves. The flower stem will be anywhere from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches thick.
Turn the stem upside down. If you notice a hollow at the center of the stem, it’s too tough to be delicious. In which case, trim the stem from the bottom up, until you reach solid stem. Next, you’ll need to peel it. Looking at the bottom of the stem, it’s easy to see the difference between the bitter, fibrous outer covering and the tender, pale interior (i.e., the tasty part). Use a sharp paring knife to peel off the outer skin.
I know. It sounds like a lot of work. The first time I cooked burdock flower stalks I muttered to myself something along the lines of, “This better be worth it.” And it was. I was almost sorry they were so delicious, because I knew I’d be harvesting and preparing them every year from now until I can no longer forage.
Burdock flower stalks can be cooked any way that artichokes can. They can be used in pasta, casseroles, or salads. I suggest you start with a simple preparation, so you get to know the flavor of the plant. Try chopping the peeled stalk into rough chunks, boiling until it’s easily pierced with a fork (this takes longer than you might expect: 20 – 30 minutes), then serving with butter, salt, and pepper. If you like what you taste, it might be time for some burdock flower stalk fritters.