Burdock Root – When Should I Harvest?

Burdock LeavesWhen it comes to edible roots and tubers the first one that usually springs to mind is burdock root. We want wild food sources that can provide more bang for our buck and burdock root can fit the bill if we know when to harvest it and know how to find the burdock roots that are worth the effort.

Burdock Root Background

In the right conditions Burdock will grow a large taproot. This provides us with something similar to a long, fibrous potato. It can be used in a similar way to spuds for baking, roasting, boiling and frying. It’s used a lot in Japanese cookery. The rest of the plant can in theory be eaten but in my experience it’s more of an acquired taste (this is forager’s code for it tastes like crap).

Burdock end of first year or start of second

Burdock at end of year one or start of year two

Identifying Burdock Root

To be sure you’re digging a burdfock root, you must be sure you can identify burdock. As always, consult a good guide or ask someone who knows so that you’re 100% sure of your burdock identification before you think about eating anything at all. I’ve seen people mistake young burdock for foxglove which is highly toxic. It’s a basic error but probably easier than you think. Also don’t forget the legalities and moralities of gathering any wild plants.

Where Can I Find The Best Burdock Roots?

Plants growing in sandy, light soils will generally find it easier to form a large taproot. It’ll also be easier to dig up. Stony or hard compact soil will have the opposite effect.

OK. When Should I Harvest Them?

Burdock year 2

Burdock in its second year

The ideal time to harvest burdock root is at the end of the first years growth when the root is packed with energy.

Too early or too far into the second year and all you’ll find is a tough, woody root. The skill comes in keeping a note of where burdock is growing. Once the leaves have died back it’s difficult to find the plant even though you walked past it all summer!

Burdock is biennial. This means it grows in a two year cycle. In year one the young plant emerges and extends often huge leaves which act just like big solar panels. They gather the sunlight which is used in the magic of photosynthesis to produce sugars which are stored in the taproot. The bigger the leaves, generally the bigger the root. In it’s first year the plant is usually fairly squat – wider than it is tall. As summer turns to autumn the process slows down and gradually the leaves die back. By winter you may not even know that a burdock is resting beneath your feet – all that’s left is some composted leaf and stalk.

In the second year the sugars are pumped up from the root to produce large leaves once again. During the second summer the plant will also shoot rapidly upwards and you’ll see the spiny burrs containing the seed by the end of summer. Of course, in doing all this, the plant has pretty much used up all the energy it stored in its root.

Happy foraging!


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