When looking for wild food sources we ideally want ones that can provide more bang for our buck – a reasonable return for the work we put into harvesting. When it comes to edible roots and tubers the first one that usually springs to mind is burdock. So how do we find the roots that are worth our effort?
In the right conditions, Burdock will grow a large taproot. This provides us with something similar to a long, fibrous potato. It can be used in a similar way to spuds for baking, roasting, boiling, and frying. It’s used a lot in Japanese cookery. The rest of the plant can in theory be eaten but in my experience, it’s more of an acquired taste!
As always, consult a good guide or ask someone who knows so that you’re 100% sure of your identification before you think about eating anything. I’ve seen people mistake young burdock for foxglove which is highly toxic. It’s a schoolboy error but easier than you may think. Also, don’t forget the legalities and moralities.
Once certain of your ID, you need some idea when and where it’s worth harvesting.
First, we’ll deal with where: Plants growing in sandy, light soils will generally find it easier to form a large taproot. It’ll also be easier to dig up. Stony or hard compact soil will have the opposite effect.
And when: Burdock is biennial. This means it grows in a two-year cycle. In year one the young plant emerges and extends often huge leaves which act just like big solar panels. They gather the sunlight which is used in the magic of photosynthesis to produce sugars that are stored in the taproot.
The bigger the leaves, generally the bigger the root. In its first year, the plant is usually fairly squat – wider than it is tall. As summer turns to autumn the process slows down and gradually the leaves die back. By winter you may not even know that burdock is resting beneath your feet – all that’s left is some composted leaf and stalk.
In the second year, the sugars are pumped up from the root to produce large leaves once again. During the second summer, the plant will also shoot rapidly upwards and you’ll see the spiny burrs containing the seed by the end of summer. Of course, in doing all this, the plant has pretty much used up all the energy it stored in its root.
As you’ve probably already worked out, the ideal time to harvest burdock root is at the end of the first year’s growth when the root is packed with energy. Too early or too far into the second year and all you’ll find is a tough, woody root.
The skill comes in keeping a note of where the burdock is growing. Once the leaves have died back it’s difficult to find the plant even though you walked past it all summer!