For the past two weeks, we’ve concentrated on “firsts” – the first observation of a natural phenomena in its annual cycle. This is only reasonable, for the appearance of something new draws attention. More effort is required to notice “lasts” – the last cricket to sing in fall, the last hummingbird to migrate, the last aster to bloom. On March 17, I noticed the end of a cycle that I’ve been photographing for months, the life of burdock.
You already know this plant, if not its name or natural history. It is the plant with burs!
Here is a seed head attached to my coat. My earliest memory of this species traces back to the day that my long hair met these burs . . . and my mother’s attempts to brush them out. For years, I hated this plant, perhaps because I could not recognize it until it was too late.
At the stage when the burs are mature, the plant can blend into the scenery. Here’s a burdock growing among goldenrods in early January. A passerby might not notice it until after the burs hitched a ride.
Like many of our common weeds, burdock is a biennial, that is, a plant that completes its life cycle in two years. It is similar, in that regard, to our old friend mullein. In its first year, the plant forms a basal rosette of large – two-foot large! – leaves with wooly undersides. At this stage, burdock somewhat resembles rhubarb.
During its second year, the plant produces a tall stem bearing smaller leaves and flower heads at the tips. Here are some specimens along the library’s intermittent brook on June 29, 2021. The stem is still growing. At its peak, it can stand an impressive 3 - 6 feet high. In summer, burdock is a bold, conspicuous plant.
Burdock at the Ames Free Library, June 29, 2021
Unfortunately, I missed the opportunity to photograph its purple-pink flowers, which are quite remarkable. Here’s a closeup by a photographer who was attentive at the right moment.
hedera.baltica from Wrocław, Poland, CC BY-SA 2.0
As you can see, the glorious flower is complex and lovely, one that should be appreciated with a hand lens. Burdock will bloom again starting in mid-summer. In the meantime, visit this fine photo essay from Microscopy UK for great images and a clear description of the flower’s anatomy.
The thistle-like blossoms are composed of tubular disc flowers like those in the center of a daisy or sunflower. Hooked bracts surround the flower. They will remain long after the flower fades and the plant’s seeds develop; hopefully, long enough to come into contact with an animal that will carry and disperse the seeds elsewhere.
Burdock, October 14, 2021
Countless animals have unwittingly facilitated this process of seed dispersal, including George de Mestral’s dog. Upon observing the burs’ attachment to his dog’s fur, de Mestral, a Swiss inventor, designed the popular hook-and-loop fastener called Velcro. After some delays, his product reached the market in 1955.
Burdock has other faunal associations that are not connected to seed dispersal. Bees, for example, pollinate its flowers, and, according to Illinois Wildflowers, painted lady caterpillars feed on its leaves. Who doesn’t like butterflies? People feed on the plant as well, especially its young roots. A related species, greater burdock or “gobo,” is popular in Asian dishes. I have infrequently eaten burdock, both wild and cultivated, and found it to be plain and a little hard. I admit, though, that I haven’t done it justice by cooking it well. Here is a recipe for “Kinpira Gobo,” a burdock and carrot stir fry with Japanese seasonings, that sounds very tasty.
By the time the plant has flowered, its substantial taproot would be too fibrous for us to eat, but its journey isn’t over.The plant’s skeleton persists through the winter, still bearing those seed-filled burs. Despite snow and wind, this burdock is intact on January 8. Notice its streamside location. Apparently, stream banks and ditch banks are suitable habitats for this species. Often it grows in “waste places,” roadsides, and field edges where its preferences for sun/part shade, moisture, and fertile soil can be met.
By March 17, all that remained of the plant was a few bare branches and two burs. Additional burs littered the ground where the patch had grown during the previous two years. Behind the plant, you can see some young, green shoots of grass.
Nearby, still along the brook, a tiny plant is peaking through the mud. Smaller than an oak leaf, and with a downy white underside, a small rosette has broken its winter dormancy. This burdock is starting its second year of growth.
The juxtaposition impressed me. I was witnessing a transition, the exact point when one plant ended its mission as another individual resumed its growth, a botanical version of Father Time and Baby New Year!
This humble plant – coarse, non-native, difficult to eradicate, annoying, and sometimes invasive – has, nevertheless, earned some human respect as a favorite food, as a source of medicine, and for its structure and interesting details. British nature writer, Richard Mabey, considers burdock’s cultural value in his book, Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants. Mabey describes the special significance of burdock to early landscape painters, and he cites a 2008 book of fine photography that focused solely on burdock leaves! Perhaps we should take a better look at the library’s patch this year.
Thanks to all who attended “Trees in Early Spring” on Monday. It was great to share a common interest together.
Next week, I will summarize the observations that have been submitted to our “Nature’s Rhythms'' activity. Report any spring sightings for the week of March 26 to April 6 here. With enough observations, we’ll be able to create a spring calendar for the library!