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The Versatile Burdock Plant
Photo Dennis Kunkel / Visuals Unlimited/Corbis

The Versatile Burdock Plant

Burdock plant is famous for its variety nutrients and versatility in cooking – but it has also a useful, hidden “weapon” for our wardrobes.

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Who knows why such a humble weed as burdock plant has managed to excite the imaginations of cooks and artists for so long, a plant that has been “sung” by poets since the 1600s. As the English author, art critic and essayist John Ruskin (1819-1900) wrote, «When a leaf is to be spread wide, like the burdock, it is supported by a framework of extending ribs like a Gothic roof. The supporting function of these is geometrical; every one is constructed like the girders of a bridge or the beams of a floor.» Burdock is not just edible, but it’s also architecturally magnificent.

How to use burdock in your recipes

As a “poor” food – generated by a weed – when boiled, burdock leaves enrich croquettes (enjoy here a tasty recipe), mousses, and vegetable dishes. When peeled and eaten raw, the stems of a burdock make a delicate salad. Its roots are used for tisanes, tinctures and infusions with calming, anti-inflammatory and antiglycemic properties. In Japan, it’s called Gobo, and the fibre-rich roots are considered a particular delicacy; according to tradition, it’s eaten on New Year’s Eve, served with a spicy, red and white Kinpira (which means “simmer and sauté”), made from auspiciously coloured vegetables. But as we all know, Mother Nature is both wise and surprising, and has endowed a wild plant like Xantium strumarium (burdock’s Latin name), not only with a variety nutrients and versatility in cooking – but a useful, hidden “weapon”.

In the mountains of Switzerland, one particular dog came into contact with this prickly plant and its “weapon”, and as luck would have it, the dog belonged to Georges de Mestral, an agricultural engineer who had a passion for the wilderness. This incident, which occurred in the Thirties, had an unexpected effect on the burdock plant and our everyday lives – and this effect continues even today.

Burdock produces, in fact, a truly odd-looking fruit: prickly puffs that stick to anything furry it comes in contact with: a sock, a sweater, or – in this case – an animal belonging to this Swiss agronomist. Tired from cleaning his pet who came back from all their walks with these thorny burdock flowers in his fur, de Mestral decided to examine one of them under his microscope. He found that the myriad, tiny hooks that made up these flowers were actually elastic and stretchy.

Once they were plucked from the fur or fabric, they return to their original shape. This discovery fired up de Mestral’s imagination.The engineer decided to apply the adhesive principle of the curly burdock blossoms to the tried-and-true button-and-hole closure.

He transported both of the burdock flower’s functions – the ability to easily attach and detach – to two, equally-sized pieces of Nylon. The “male” side of the closure was composed of thousands of miniscule, elastic hooks – like the spines of the burdock – and the “female” side of the closure was made from a texture similar to that of his dog’s fur, whose tiny harpoons could attach with just the slightest pressure.

And this is how, in 1941, Velcro was born. (It’s patent, however, was only registered in 1952, because of the war.) Velcro, the man-made, technical cousin of the burdock flower, has been put to infinite use and in all kinds of contexts, formats and environments – including space ships.

But the adventurous story of the burdock doesn’t end here. One day in 2008, this rather lowly weed, which seemed appreciated merely as an addition to soups, once again fired up the creative imagination of a great, though, unconventional thinker.

The photographer, writer, and New Yorker journalist, Janet Malcolm, noticed the abundance of these “weeds” in many of the abandoned areas of the Berkshire mountains in Massachussetts, and fell in love immediately. She gathered them and brought them back into her studio where she then began to photograph them against a white background, as though they were celebrity portraits.

These burdock plants became sublime “sculptures”, rich with personality, that paid a kind of witty, but respectful tribute to the botanists and illustrators of the past. As Janet Malcolm explains: «As Avedon sought out faces on which life had left its mark, so I prefer older, flawed leaves to young, unblemished specimens — leaves to which something has happened.»

If these leaves are such worthy subjects, so geometrically perfect, so inspirational for artists, poets and naturalists, why in the world should they be boiled and eaten? Perhaps Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was right when he said, «What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered.»

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