Saturday, August 02, 2008


Burdock, St. Joesph County, Indiana, August 2, 2008

Until recently, my only knowledge of burdock (Arctium lappa and other species) came from a box of burdock root teabags that has sat in our pantry for years. The blurb on the side of the box extols its health benefits without specifically saying what those benefits are. On a few occasions, during my doomed attempts to get off caffeine, I drank burdock root tea when there was no other herb tea in the house. People have to believe that burdock root tea is healthful, because I can't imagine they would drink it for the taste.

The box of what by now must be unbelievably stale burdock root tea informs me that the plant is native to Europe and Asia, and if allowed, will grow in almost any uncultivated space. In addition to its health benefits, whatever they may be, the stalks can be boiled like asparagus or eaten raw with vinegar. In Japan it is known at gobo and the root is used in everyday cooking.

According to Wayne Bethard's book, Lotions, Potions, and Deadly Elixirs: Frontier Medicine in America, "many folk remedies contained burdock and were said to 'purify the blood' and cure everything from head colds and acne, to cancer and a leaning chimney." He doesn't explain how burdock was supposed to cure a leaning chimney, but he states that burdock extracts contain arctiopiricin, which has antibacterial properties, and he says burdock extracts also have some antitumor and antimutagenic activity.

What got me thinking about burdock recently is an article by Janet Malcolm, entitled "Burdock," in the August 14, 2008 edition of the New York Review of Books. She writes of photographing burdock leaves in a house in the Berkshires for three successive summers. She doesn't specify if this is her occupation or avocation. I assume it is a hobby, as it's hard to imagine there's a huge market for pictures of burdock leaves. She goes on to write about how "photography is naively believed to reproduce visual actuality," and decontextualization, and other things that tend to make my eyes glaze over.

But the thing I found interesting was her observation that burdock is a "rank weed that grows along roadsides and in waste places and around derelict buildings," and "writers have used it to denote ruin and desolation." Specifically, she cites Hawthorne and Chekhov.

The Hawthorne passage to which Ms. Malcolm refers in her article comes from Chapter 1 of The House of the Seven Gables:

On either side extended a ruinous wooden fence of open lattice-work, through which could be seen a grassy yard, and, especially in the angles of the building, an enormous fertility of burdocks, with leaves, it is hardly an exaggeration to say, two or three feet long.
Hawthorne mentioned burdocks again in Chapter 19:

A person of imaginative temperament, while passing by the house, would turn, once and again, and peruse it well: its many peaks, consenting together in the clustered chimney; the deep projection over its basement-story; the arched window, imparting a look, if not of grandeur, yet of antique gentility, to the broken portal over which it opened; the luxuriance of gigantic burdocks, near the threshold; he would note all these characteristics, and be conscious of something deeper than he saw. He would conceive the mansion to have been the residence of the stubborn old Puritan, Integrity, who, dying in some forgotten generation, had left a blessing in all its rooms and chambers, the efficacy of which was to be seen in the religion, honesty, moderate competence, or upright poverty and solid happiness, of his descendants, to this day.

And still later in Chapter 19, in in a scene involving the young Italian organ grinder I have mentioned in previous posts:

He entered the neglected yard (now wilder than ever with its growth of hog-weed and burdock), stationed himself at the doorstep of the main entrance, and, opening his show-box, began to play.

No Text
He persisted in his melodious appeals

Illustration by Maude and Genevieve Cowles, from 1899 edition of The House of the Seven Gables

Chekhov wrote in his short story, "Ward 6":

In the hospital yard there stands a small lodge surrounded by a perfect forest of burdocks, nettles, and wild hemp. Its roof is rusty, the chimney is tumbling down, the steps at the front-door are rotting away and overgrown with grass, and there are only traces left of the stucco.

If one imagined some spirit flying by the earthly globe in space in a million years he would see nothing but clay and bare rocks. Everything -- culture and the moral law -- would pass away and not even a burdock would grow out of them.
If that ain't ruin and desolation,I don't know what is. But not all writers focused on the negative aspects of burdock.

In his journal entry for July 19, 1896, Tolstoy recorded seeing, in the middle of a plowed field, a clump of burdock with one living shoot "black from dust, but still alive and red in the centre....It makes me want to write. It asserts life to the end, and alone in the midst of the whole field, somehow or other has asserted it."

Long live the lowly burdock.

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