It grows wild; seed pods catch at our clothing or pets' fur, and most of us regard the plant as a nuisance weed. We see its roots in some grocery stores and walk on by, but we should reconsider.
It's burdock (Arctium lappa), much used in China and Japan, but used mainly by knowledgeable vegetarians in Europe and America. The Chinese introduced it to Japan as a medicinal plant about 1,000 years ago. The Japanese, who call it gobo, quickly found all parts were edible, especially the roots. Its roots are sweet, meaty and rich.
The roots may grow quite long, depending on the depth of loose soil they encounter. Years ago, when Boisean Kirin Ward was a vegetarian, he made outstanding miso soups with burdock roots and tofu. Lindarose Curtis-Bruce, Kirin's mother, said he simmered seaweed, sliced burdock and garlic until tender, then added miso, tofu and chopped green onions. It was an excellent soup, healthwise and tastewise.
It also may be boiled, roasted or stewed with other root vegetables. Japanese often pickle it or market it wrapped in perilla leaves. It is a vegetable worth familiarizing yourself with for taste variety, healthful attributes and usable wild food if necessity arises.
Burdock in the wild probably won't have long straight roots, and those may be old and fibrous. You could gather seeds and grow young roots. Young burdock leaves and stems may be eaten in spring, requiring little cooking. Very young roots may be peeled and eaten raw, but they're more often cooked.
Seed pods are burs, and were the real inspiration for the development of Velcro. Be careful to not inhale the tiny hairs from seed pods.
Medicinal uses are still intact, too. Burdock is used for sore throats, colds and skin problems as well as a diuretic and for other maladies. Nutritionally it is low in calories and rich in inulin, vitamin B, potassium, calcium, phosphorus and magnesium.
Curtis-Bruce grew burdock years ago, and she said the roots were almost 2 feet long. The mature plant had very large leaves, resembling rhubarb.
For harvest, you may need to dig a trench beside the roots to get them out intact.
The roots taste best when they're young and brittle. Flavor is said to be mild, sweet or strong, depending on the age of the plant. The best flavor is immediately under the skin, so don't pare the root. Instead, brush it clean of soil, then slice into acidulated water (vinegar or lemon juice added) to prevent browning. The water may turn green, and that's okay. The root begins to deteriorate when washed, so it's sold with dirt intact.
Slice into coins or sections up to about two inches long or shave pieces as you'd sharpen a pencil. Burdock's long roots are not tapered like parsnips or carrots.
Burdock may be planted in spring or autumn. Before planting, work the soil loose to a considerable depth, at least two feet, even though roots may grow as long as four feet. A large amount of sand helps in growing this root. Even though the above-ground plants will be large, you can plant burdock fairly close together, about four inches apart. Japanese breeders have worked on developing small-leaved burdock plants that can be planted even closer together. Close planting ensures each will grow a single long root instead of forking roots.
To plant in fall, plant around Oct. 1 so plants don't grow too large before weather turns cold and sunlight hours diminish. In early spring, they'll jolt into fast growth.
Seeds are carried by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Kitazawa Seed Co., Nichols Garden Nursery and Bountiful Gardens.
Send garden questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.