Even Burdock Is Useful

Reader Contribution by Keba M Hitzeman
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A trip to the garden the other evening to harvest potatoes led to a learning experience that I wasn’t expecting. As I’m turning soil to bring the last rows of potatoes to the surface, I slowly process the hum coming from the perennial garden on the other side of the fence. Straightening up, all I see is a giant mess of weeds in the center part (the weather turned hot, and except for the area around each of the perennials, the maintenance stopped)  – chicory, aster, some jimson, ragweed. And burdock. Lots and lots of burdock.

Chances are, you’ve had an experience with this member of the Asteraceae family that was the inspiration for our modern hook-and-loop (brand name “Velcro”) fasteners. The plants (at least on my farm) can grow over five feet tall, and the leaves at the base can be three feet in diameter. After flowering, the heads turn into those horrible, clothes-grabbing, fur-tangling seedpots. I’m convinced that those burrs are magnetic and/or heat-seeking, especially when it comes to getting caught up in animal hair and wool. I’ve walked pastures over and over in a season, and just when I think I’ve found all the burdock plants and removed them, the dogs or sheep will walk by, and I’ll see burrs on them that weren’t there before. It’s completely maddening, and I cut them down or pull them out wherever I see them around the farm. It’s a never-ending job, but it beats pulling them out of wool and fur after they are already attached.

I looked around the weedy area, thinking about getting the machete out to cut everything down, and still hearing the humming. Then I saw them – pollinators!! Once I saw the first honeybee, I could see them everywhere, along with a variety of “bumble” bees, wasps, tiny bees and flies, butterflies (lots of Monarchs!), and moths. No wonder I could hear something with so many pollinators out there! There were some on the white and purple asters, but the vast majority were feeding on the burdock flowers. I stood there for at least five minutes just watching and learning that this much-disliked weed is a useful pollinator plant. There are many other flowers and plants blooming right now, but with so many options on one plant, the burdock certainly presents itself as a pollen and nectar buffet. The longer I watched, the more I was convinced that my “hack and slash” campaign against nature’s Velcro would have to wait until they finished blooming. That would only take a week or two at the most. And with no animals waiting on this area, nightmares of burr-laden wool evaporated into the cool evening air. This unintentional pollinator habitat was safe.

Later on that night I was thinking about how there got to be so much burdock in that pasture-turned-perennial-garden. We concluded that it was due to having pigs in that area for a few years. As they rooted, they stirred up the soil (and well-buried seeds of all the weeds that ended up growing), and with the lack of attention this year, well, the burdock and friends had free rein to shoot for the stars. I’m guessing next year will bring more burdock, but now that I know what can happen, I will be more intentional about where I let it grow. Our perennial bushes are around the perimeter of this garden and there will be a hugelkultur raised bed off to one side, leaving several areas in the center available for burdock to do its thing. Under careful supervision, of course!

I realize that burdock may not be a typical plant grown for pollinators, especially on a farm with wooly and furry beasts. Still, it seems to be quite useful as just that, and also fulfills one thing I love – it needs no fussing for germination and growth! With careful management, burdock might end up as a tended perennial around here. And those are words I never expected to say!

What plants that are regarded as weeds or nuisances have you left to grow around your farm/homestead? I’ve also read that burdock can be used as food – have you eaten any parts of burdock?

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