Part used: root, seed, leaf
Arctium lappa L. is a robust biennial, found throughout Europe on roadsides, verges and scrub land. The Flora of Turkey gives three Arctium species, not including Arctium lappa but including Arctium minus.
Stout, downy, striated, branched stems (to 1 m) bear alternate, entire leaves which are large (to 50 cm long) and wide with a heart-shaped base and white down underneath. The petioles (leaf-stalks) are solid. The spherical, purple flowerheads are stalked and surrounded by dense clusters of scale-like hooked bracts. The egg-shaped seeds are achenes and surrounded by a pappus of yellowish free hairs and characteristic stiff hooked scales derived from the bracts. The ribbed seeds are dispersed by animals as the scales stick firmly to fur.
Lesser burdock Arctium minus Bernh. is very similar but smaller (to 50 cm). Basal leaves are smaller and narrower with hollow leaf stalks. The purple flowerheads occur in clusters and project beyond the surrounding spiny bracts. The seed is not ribbed. Arctium minus has three subspecies and a fertile cross with Arctium lappa and there are many variants. The photographed specimen may be a cross as it as over 1 m tall but had hollow petioles.
Both species are used interchangeably. Greater burdock seeds are widely used in traditional Chinese medicine (WHO 1989). The root is cultivated in Japan and Taiwan as a vegetable cv. Gobo and sold in large pieces, 80 cm long. Inulin content decreases with storage.
The root is harvested in autumn or spring, and should be sliced and dried quickly as it is prone to spoiling.
A third of commercial seed samples purchased in China were adulterated with fruits of four other Asteracea species, e.g. Arctium tomentosum and one Leguminosae. De Smet et al (1993) include Arctium tomentosum as acceptable for medicinal use.
When collecting the seed, care should be taken to avoid contact with the eyes as tiny barbed needles in the burs can injure the cornea.
Cases have occurred in the 1970s of contamination of burdock root with root of Atropa belladonna, which led to anticholinergic poisoning.
Burdock is a name familiar to me since my childhood, not that I was able to recognize the plant as I passed it, which would be often, since in England burdock grows freely in the wild almost everywhere today, and observed by Culpeper; and with a preference for damp earth and waste ground like ditches, by old buildings and roadsides and about towns and villages; so common in fact, says Grieve, that it was not often considered worth cultivating. No, for me it was the strange but pleasant, bitter-sweet taste of a dandelion and burdock drink that I remember. Only later have I come to learn that both dandelion and burdock are herbal alternatives, bitter and diuretic with a cooling effect according to Galenic pharmacological classification. In this regard they complement each other very well.
Burdock was once considered one of the best blood purifiers, according to Grieve. The British Pharmaceutical Codex (1934), however, states that burdock is rarely used in medicine but was formerly employed as a diuretic and diaphoretic (at a dose of 1-6 g, in a 1:20 decoction). In its pharmacological index among the appendices there is no listing of an ‘alterative’ action (although emmenogogue and tonic actions are there), a term which herbalists still use today, as Bartram notes, and interchangeable with ‘blood cleanser’ or ‘depurative’. But what do they mean? What does an alterative alter? One definition is ‘those medicines which in particular doses effect a gradual cure by correcting the general diseased habit of body without producing a very visible effect – such as purging, vomiting, or sweating – are generally called alteratives, such as bitter teas and aperient draughts’. This statement is from the pen of WJ Simmonite, a Victorian herbalist and astrologer, rather than from Culpeper since the word ‘alterative’ is not used by him. The therapeutic strategy of gradual resolution of the patient’s condition through a cleansing action suggested by this definition is often the mode of treatment offered today by many professional herbalists: a gentler approach which has replaced the vomits and cathartics of the Galenic tradition, and their more modern counterparts such as lobelia, Lobelia inflata, and mountain flax, Linum catharticum, which were used by some herbalists until as recently as 50 years ago.
An alterative medicine is elsewhere defined as a herb which promotes the elimination of metabolic waste products, for example uric acid (Priest & Priest). Chevallier writes of a depurative action found with herbs such as burdock, which encourages removal of waste products. Bartram in his entry for alteratives cites Blakiston’s Medical Dictionary: ‘medicines that alter the process of nutrition, restoring in some unknown way the normal functions of an organ or system … re-establishing healthy nutritive processes’. This definition seems to hark back to concepts of tissue nourishment found in physiomedicalism. Bartram continues ‘they are blood cleansers that favourably change the character of the blood and lymph to detoxify and promote renewal of body tissue. The term has been superseded by the word ‘adaptogen’. Bartram seems to recognize the problematic nature of claims of detoxification of body fluids in a time when physiomedical or humoral concepts of disease are no longer current. Elsewhere he defines adaptogen as ‘a substance that helps the body to adapt to a new strain or stress by stimulating the body’s own defensive mechanism. Natural substances in the form of plant medicines offer a gentle alternative to fast-acting synthetic chemical medicine in releasing the body’s own source of energy to sustain the immune system’. Can a herbal alterative be restyled an adaptogen? Does a herb which works on elimination via the bile, urine or sweat stimulate an immune response in so doing? Mention of the immune system adds a modern gloss to a much older therapeutic idea, but it is worth adding that species of Echinacea now have an evidence base for managing the common cold and viral infections, but were once classified as ‘stimulating alteratives’ before being restyled ‘immunomodulators’.
Hoffmann states that alterative herbs ‘gradually restore proper function to the body and increase overall health and vitality … alteratives seem to alter the body’s metabolic processes to improve tissues’ ability to deal with a range of body functions from nutrition to elimination’. This action is not understood and appears unclear, he says, citing the concept of blood cleansing as meaningless, but is undeniably of value in the holistic approach to health. Such herbs may work on elimination of wastes via kidneys, liver, lungs or skin; by stimulating digestive function; or as immunomodulators. ‘Others simply work!’ He lists a number of alteratives for each system of the body, and their secondary actions, which probably make more sense to those sceptical of the concept of an alterative action. Thus, whether or not burdock is a primary alterative herb targeting the digestion and skin, it has bitter, hepatic and diuretic actions.
In their post on skin diseases, Mills & Bone (2000) prefer to list burdock as ‘one of the plant remedies traditionally used as alteratives’. Indications for such herbs are dermatological: furunculosis, eczema, some cases of acne and urticaria, and most other skin diseases, as part of a wider prescription. The use of alterative herbs for joint disease, connective tissue disease and detoxification regimes constitute other ‘traditional indications’. Under diuretics, Mills & Bone classify herbs which remove uric acid from the body separately from those possessing a purely diuretic action (although this term has been challenged by Tyler (1999) who prefers the term ‘aquaretic’ since research has not established the equivalence of these herbal medicines to chemical diuretics) but may share the indications of the latter, including dysuria and oliguria linked to infections and stones, nocturnal enuresis and other functional disturbances of urination, arthritis and skin disorders. Burdock is specifically cited by Mills & Bone as one of five herbs which research has shown to produce, when given internally as infusions, a moderate solvent action on stones formed from urates. An alkalinizing effect on the urine or a possible urinary antiseptic action is proposed as the underlying cause of this benefit.
Burdock is also included in a herbal formula used in a small-scale survey concerning the management of osteoarthritis. The fact that alterative herbs are used in the herbal treatment of skin and rheumatic problems implies a belief that this action promotes improvement and healing by flushing out a range of metabolic waste products from joint spaces and stimulating the drainage of lymph and the removal of extracellular materials from skin lesions. A positive statement to this effect is made by Quincy, who affirms that all authors consider burdock seeds to be extremely diuretic and that ‘some reckon them effectual in carrying off by those discharges what is very much the occasion of arthritic pains, when ’tis once deposited upon the joints’. Miller from the same period wants the root to be taken internally for pains in the limbs and for gout, while the leaves boiled in milk are applied topically as a cataplasm at the same time.
These 18th century statements provide a foundation for the development of burdock as an alterative diuretic with particular use in arthritic conditions among herbalists and herbal physicians of the 19th century. Coffin writes of an antiscorbutic rather than alterative action of burdock, along with slight aperient and tonic effects. He advises burdock seed as a diuretic and, given in an infusion with the leaves of raspberry Rubus idaeus to children, it soothes and tranquillizes the system. The leaves are used for rheumatism and gout, leprosy (presumably copied from older texts – the word lepra in Greek means a scaly condition of the skin), kidney obstructions (which may mean oliguria rather than parenchymal disease) and to cleanse the system after mercury treatment for venereal disease. Externally, the leaves are applied to burns, scalds, and scrofulous swellings – uses also mentioned in Quincy – or wrapped about the feet to reduce a fever. Cook, on the other hand, emphasizes the root, as a relaxant and demulcent alterative medicine producing a slow and mild effect on the kidneys, skin and bowels especially where there is irritability. A mixture of 2 oz of the root decocted in 2 pints of water boiled down to 1 pint and given freely but in small doses, for ‘half a pint taken three times a day as some advise would be ridiculous’, requires several weeks to produce beneficial effects. A compound syrup of the root is also used. The crushed seeds, Cook continues, are more prompt but also more temporary in their diuretic action, soothing dysuria accompanied by mucus and grey sediment in the urine and irritation of the bladder. The seed is also good for the skin, restoring its natural oils where eruptions cause dryness. Cook relates his own use of a warm infusion of the seeds in typhoid cases and to abate the nausea of lobelia. Fox equates burdock with sarsaparilla in the treatment of rheumatism, skin conditions and enlarged glands and lumps in the neck. The root may be combined variously with dock Rumex crispus, slippery elm Ulmus fulva, fumitory Fumaria officinalis, bittersweet Solarium dulcamara, sanicle Sanicula europaea and cleavers Galium aparine in the treatment of enlarged glands, with marshmallow ointment applied topically. He advises a strong decoction of the seed as a nervine for convulsions, fits, spasms and epilepsy, and as a diuretic for inflammations of the kidneys and bladder. Hool provides the measures for such a decoction: 1 oz burdock seed in 1 ½ pints of water reduced to 1 pint and given in half-teacup doses before meals. He recommends this for all affections of the kidneys and adds a laxative effect to its diuretic and tonic actions. He affirms that burdock has cured many cases of eczema and he recommends an excellent mixture of 1 oz each of burdock and centaury Centaurium erythraea, ½ oz each of dock Rumex crispus and fumitory Fumaria officinalis and 1 teaspoon of cayenne pepper Capsicum annuum, the total to be simmered in 3 pints of water for 10 minutes. A wineglassful (60 mL) of the cooled, strained liquid is taken three times daily. A second formula for eczema is also included by Hool as a change, in which 1 oz meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria replaces the centaury and ½ oz bogbean Menyanthes trifoliata substitutes for dock, using 1 oz burdock seed and no cayenne.
Wren maintains burdock’s reputation as a great blood cleanser, an alterative with diuretic and diaphoretic actions, which can be used on its own or in combination, as a decoction of root or seed in the measure provided by Hool. The National Botanic Pharmacopoeia of the same period omits the diaphoretic action, recommends an infusion of the seeds instead, especially in cases of dropsy with co-existing derangement of the nervous system, and includes use of the leaves internally as a tonic for the stomach and externally for inflammations of the skin. Grieve presents a collection of these various indications from her Victorian and Edwardian forebears but adds little that is new. She cites Culpeper’s entry on burdock, and Henslow on the mixing of burdock seed with saxifrage (literally, ‘stone-breaker’ in Latin) and stony seeds or fruit such as ivy berries, gromel seed or crushed date-stones as a remedy for urinary stones seemingly based on the doctrine of signatures. Finally she draws on Gerard for the suggestion of burdock for the table, as a delicate vegetable composed of the stalks of the plant, cut before the flower is open and with the rind stripped off, to be eaten raw in salad or boiled like asparagus. It will have a slight laxative effect, she tells us, while omitting Gerard’s observations that it affords pleasant and good nourishment, stirs up lust and increases seed. Fluid extracts of the root and seed are available, she records, with dosage ranges of ½-2 drachms (2-7 mL) and 10-30 drops, respectively.
- As herbal alterative (however viable that term may be considered) for chronic skin conditions such as eczema, dermatitis, psoriasis and furunculosis. (A specific picture of a chronic skin condition combined with impaired nutrition and weak circulation, as stated by Bone (2003), is not unreasonable.)
- As a component of treatment for arthritic or rheumatic complaints.
- As a bitter tonic for poor appetite and dyspeptic symptoms including mild colic, flatulence and irregular bowel habit (infectious diarrhoea or constipation).
- As a diuretic and antilithic for cystitis, urinary gravel and stones and resulting oliguria, and functional problems of urination such as enuresis.
- As an astringent for cases of leucorrhoea and laxity of the womb, and possibly for haemoptysis, where the diagnosis is established and the cause understood.
- For topical use, especially of the leaf. The fresh leaf itself, or an ointment made from it, could be used on sprained or painful joints, wounds, ulcers and boils.
- More research is required before prolapse or threatened miscarriage could be added to the list, but since the former is considered to need surgical intervention and the latter a preposterous suggestion, it is unlikely that further evidence will be forthcoming.
- Pharmacological and in vitro evidence for preferred use of the seed in cancers would need both further human trials to establish real effects, although the seed was traditionally used alongside root and leaf, and the availability of Arctium lappa semen from suppliers to the profession.
Dosage: strong decoction: 500 mL per day of the 1:20 decoction of the root.
For non-acute conditions, the smaller dose recommended in the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia of 2-6 g three times a day of dred root, in decoction or as equivalent liquid preparations, can be advised, although the habit of many practitioners is to give much smaller amounts for fear of a healing crisis through excessive ‘detoxification’.
Root, total 5.2%: mainly inulin-type fructofuranan (cv Herkules, commercial, Slovakia). Inulin is a storage polysaccharide mainly composed of fructose and extracted commercially from tubers of Jerusalem artichoke, Helianthus tuberosus. It is not absorbed and would be insignificant in dried root as concentration falls with storage. Leaf, neutral polysaccharide 0.9%.
Total 0.1 %: sesquiterpenes and sesquiterpene lactones (root, leaf).
Root, total 2.9%: caffeic acid, chlorogenic acid (caffeoylquinic acid), cynarin; Leaf, total 1 5.3%; Seeds, total 45.8% (organic cultivation, Italy).
Root, total 0.2 to 0.8%: chlorogenic acid and two caffeoylquinic acid derivatives (13 cultivars and fresh roots, Japan).
Root, hydroxycinnamoylquinic acids; dicaffeoylquinic acid; three dicaffeoylsuccinoylquinic acids; tricaffeoylsuccinoylquinic acid derivatives (fresh cv Gobo, market, Japan).
Root, 24 hydroxycinnamoylquinic acids; four monocaffeoylchlorogenic acids; six dicaffeoylquinic acids; two tricaffeoylquinic acids; di- and trisuccinoylquinic acids (fresh, market, USA).
Peeling the root reduces the content of phenolic compounds, in particular chlorogenic acid.
Root, flavone: luteolin; flavonol: quercetin and glycoside: quercitrin (organic cultivation, Italy) (Ferracane et al 2009). Leaf, flavone: luteolin; flavonol: quercetin and glycosides: quercitrin, rutin (organic cultivation, Italy).
Fruits (seeds), arctiin 49% (aglycone: arctigenin) (glucoside arctiin): (commercial, China) (note that this concentration is 10 times higher than those given below).
Seeds: arctiin, arctigenin, lappaol A & C & F, matareisinol, arctignan E (organic cultivation, Italy).
Seeds, arctiin 5.5%, arctigenin 2.6%.
Seeds, diarctigenin, lappaol C & D & F, isolappaol C (commercial, Korea).
Seeds, arctigenin, nordihydroguariaretic acid, secoisolariciresinol, sesamin (commercial, Japan).
Root, leaf: very little arctigenin (organic cultivation, Italy).
Leaf, very little lignans (cultivated, China.
Root, two polyacetylenes (fresh, cv Shirohada-sakigake, Japan).
Recommendations On Safety
1. Do not use burdock externally if the patient has a history of allergic contact dermatitis or allergy to Asteraceae (Compositae). (See elecampane, Inula helenium.)
A report from Spain found that three people developed red exudative dermatitis after using burdock root plasters.
2. The use of Essiac in patients with cancer has not been shown to pose any risks.
3. There is no evidence against the use of burdock in pregnancy and it is considered compatible with breastfeeding.