Foraging in winter has its obvious challenges — freezing temperatures, dying flora, and scarce edible greens save for hearty garlic mustard and field garlic. But even in the hard frost-bitten ground, it’s still possible to find wild burdock poking its gigantic leaves out from the remnants of fall foliage, reminding us of root-vegetable deliciousness underfoot.
Burdock, in the Arctium genus, which includes greater burdock (A. lappa) and the smaller common burdock (A. minus) is also known as gobo or wild gobo, beggar’s button, or wild rhubarb. A biennial, it sports a basal rosette in its first year with large, woolly, heart-shaped leaves and reddish stems that hug the ground, giving it a superficial resemblance to rhubarb. In its second year, burdock shoots up several feet, producing purple prickly-headed burrs in the warm summer months (these seedheads were the inspiration for Velcro).
Native to Asia and Europe, common burdock is found throughout the country and considered a noxious weed in Colorado and Wyoming. Here, it thrives in playgrounds, parks, and neighbor’s yards.
I was introduced to burdock at a macrobiotic restaurant, where it was listed as gobo on the menu and was a sweet and crunchy addition to my bibimbop. My friends said it was like tasting the earth and I was eager to try it. I later learned it was a basis for the British soft drink dandelion and burdock, which allegedly traces its burdock-deep roots back hundreds of years.
Euell Gibbons recommends digging up first-year burdock roots in June to early July before the plant starts to flower (the roots are rather woody in wintertime), but I don’t mind a little extra cooking time to make my root vegetables more palatable. (Note: the young leaves and leaf stalks are edible when cooked, and the blooming pith of second-year great burdock, characterized by its height and flower stalk, was a favorite of Gibbons in the summertime). The root contains decent amounts of vitamin B6 and manganese.
I recently dug up my burdock roots from a wooded area on the College of Staten Island, where the wild burdock was growing among smaller dandelion rosettes and mulch. Burdock tap roots grow deep and long, and after about five minutes of rather impatient trowel-digging, I pulled out a root about as long as my hand (it would have been longer if I hadn’t been in such a rush to get out of the cold). I spied another close by and dug that up as well.
Back at home, I washed and peeled my roots, which were whitish-beige underneath and smelled a little like carrots. I chopped them as if they were parsnips and boiled them for about fifteen minutes before sautéing in butter to brown along the edges, with a sprinkle of salt and pepper. The result: sweet, savory vegetables that tasted like a cross between parsnips and carrots, with just a hint of muddy goodness to remind you where they came from.