These authors show that the concept of an alterative action for greater burdock can be traced back as far as Quincy, but the plant was known to the Ancients, so what does Culpeper have to report on its medicinal virtues if the term ‘alterative’ was unknown to him? Actually, Culpeper does write of cleansing medicines. In his Key to Galen and Hypocrates, their Method of Physic (1669) he contrasts the more gentle Greek ‘rhytics’ (actually misspelled from the Greek ‘rhyptikos’) for external use with the internally administered cathartics. These topical cleansers are of an earthy quality, although they may be hot or cold, and sweet, salty or bitter to the taste. Taken orally, the cathartics purge certain humours from the body as they themselves are voided. Similarly, when applied topically, the rhyptics cleanse foul ulcers by carrying away discharge or thick matter as they themselves are removed. Culpeper distinguishes this cleansing action from the effect of topical discussive medicines which, by their heat when laid on, attempt to thin and disperse an aggregation of matter such as fluid or blood. Other cleansing medicines are designed to remove damaged flesh to facilitate healing. Before the application of cleansing medicines, internal cathartics are prescribed in cases of plethora or cachexy, and generally the need for remedies to reduce inflammation or ease pain is assessed for concomitant administration.
Burdock, however, does not seem to be one of these external cleansers. In his translation of the dispensatory of the London College of Physicians, Culpeper has to append the indications of root and leaf in different sections according to the original layout of the list of medicines by the college authors. Thus the root is temperately hot and dry in the first degree and Culpeper cites Dioscorides and Apuleius on its indications for internal administration: for spitting blood, the bites of mad dogs and toothache, for wind, leucorrhoea (the Myddfai physicians mention lesser burdock for excessive menstruation) and incontinence, and to strengthen the back. The leaves are cold and dry in the first degree and are diuretic and help bladder and joint pains. These indications appear unchanged in his herbal, for Culpeper reproduces Parkinson’s list of uses for Bardana or burdock in both texts, adding only the mention of his special application of the leaf for the womb and its associated astrological ruler, Venus.
Dioscorides (IV 106) calls burdock ‘arkion’, sometimes ‘prosopis or prosopion’ (from ‘prosopon’, meaning face). He describes it as having leaves similar to those of the round gourd but larger, tougher darker and rough. The plant is without a stalk and the root is large and white. The root may be taken internally at a dose of one drachm (4 g) together with pine nuts for those who spit blood or suffer from abscesses. Externally the ground root is plastered onto twisted joints to ease pain, while the leaves are used with benefit on old ulcers. The previous entry in Dioscorides (IV 105) describes ‘arction’, which Beck identifies as bearwort (Inula Candida, Celsia orientalis or Celsia acaulis). It is described as having leaves like those of mullein except rougher and rounder, a soft, white, sweet root, a long, soft stem and seed like small cumin (thus presumably ridged or ribbed). The root and fruit boiled in wine eases toothache when held in the mouth, and heals burns and chilblains when the part is washed with it. The decoction is also drunk for hip disease and difficult urination.
If Beck is right that these are quite different plants – and the very bitter taste of burdock leaves should allow no mistake, although the inulin-laden root may taste bittersweet – then it appears that they have been confused in the later interpretation of Dioscorides. Our Renaissance version of Galen is clearly referring to bearwort when it is stated that the root and seed of ‘arctium’ boiled in wine mitigates toothache and heals burns and chilblains. This arctium is also named Lappa minor, and a Lappa major, ‘the other Arctium’ or bardana, also called prosopis, is then discussed in the same chapter, its leaves being used to heal old ulcers because of a dry quality and mildly astringent and digesting action. Thus an entirely different plant, the bearwort of Beck, becomes the lesser burdock or Lappa minor in an interpretation of Galen. Culpeper is thus mistaken in listing toothache among the indications of true burdock root. Even the Linnaean binomials Arctium lappa and Arctium minus for the greater and lesser burdocks seem to reflect a lack of clarity over the Dioscoridean statements on burdock, although Grieve attempts to rationalize the binomial: Arctium lappa comes from Arktos, a bear in Greek, which is a reference to the roughness of the burrs, she says, while Lappa is from a Latin verb meaning to seize, or else from the Celtic Llap meaning a hand. The English name unites dock, meaning large-leaved, with burr (Latin burra, a lock of wool), for sheep wool can often be found tangled in the hooked burrs, and this is how the seed is dispersed, by hitching a ride on animals or humans.
Apuleius discusses the uses of ‘prosepis’ or ‘personatia’ (from the Latin persona meaning face): the juice in wine drunk counters snake bites and the leaves rubbed into the skin of a febrile patient drives away the fever; the leaves steeped in warm water then rubbed with salt and fat, a little pitch and vinegar is applied on a cloth to a suppurating or cancerous wound. The root with salt is rubbed into a mad dog bite to speedily heal it, or roots and stems from a plant growing in a dry place treats an old wound full of humours when applied. For burns to the skin and for internal pains 1 cyathos (45 mL) of the juice with 2 cyathi of honey is drunk. Finally, an elaboration on Dioscorides, a drachm (4 g) mixed with pine nuts and a head of mulberries is mixed with wine to form pastilles used for healing those who bring up blood. It is clear that Apuleius is relating the indications of the arkion of Dioscorides and in so doing he extends the indications for the herb. Treating burns, as we have seen, is an indication of bearwort but the instruction of Apuleius is to drink the juice with honey rather than apply it, although the latter makes more sense. Moreover, when these recommendations pass into the Old English Herbarium, there is no mention there of treating burns, and the juice of ‘personacia’ or burdock with honey is indicated for pain in the abdomen only. The wound full of humours is now described as a wound ‘still wet’ and treatment is with the root only, mixed with hawthorn leaves Crataegm monogyna and applied. Finally, there is no mention of the use from Dioscorides in those who bring up blood.
From these sources is obtained the use of burdock in fevers that appears in Coffin and later texts as a diaphoretic action. Miller recounts that the common people apply the leaves to the feet and wrists in fevers, while physicians and apothecaries specify the root as sudorific and alexipharmic (protecting the heart from poison) and make it an ingredient of the official ‘aqua theriacalis’. Burdock leaf is also included, he says, in the unguentum populeum for burns and inflammations.