Rachel Lambert: forager, author, guide
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Roots of our labour
Burdock Arctium lappa, Arctium minus

When the cold starts to hit and autumn is on the cusp of winter I go in search of burdock roots. Long tap roots that help detox the body. After all, it's roots time of year isn't it. Wild burdock roots are a good addition to the potatoes and nourishing root veg that are in season.

Here I share;

  • How to identify burdocks
  • Why harvest them
  • Where burdocks grow
  • When to harvest them
  • Which parts are edible
  • How to harvest them
  • How to use burdock roots

If you'd like some burdock recipe ideas, do also take a look at my 3 simple recipes for burdock roots.

Pile of freshly dug up burdock roots

How to identify burdock

There are about ten different types of burdock across the world, though only two types are widely cultivated. Here in the UK there are 4 types of burdock, all share a few distinct features.

underside of a burdock leave

Burdock has large, broad leaves and purple flowers with a furry, pale underside. The plant grows between 20 cm and over 1 metre tall and can grow up to 2 metres tall in the shade.

Burdock is a biennial (has a 2 year life cycle) and only flowers in the second year, then disperses its seeds/fruits and dies.

Oh those seeds! Softly and persistently they cling to clothing, hair and fur and often travel far before de-entanglement is naturally or forcefully attempted. A burdock badge is often an unwanted accessory.

Flowering burdock

All burdocks as the name suggests have burs. The burs of burdock look like thistles, but instead of being covered with spikes they are covered in tiny hooks. These hooks give burdock the nickname 'velcro plant', as apparently it inspired the creation of velcro.

Greater burdock (Arctium lappa) and Lesser Burdock (Arctium minus) are the main two burdocks growing in the UK. Lesser burdock is the most common.

Where do burdocks grow?

Burdock is native to Europe and Asia though has naturalised in many places across the world including North America.

They love stony, nitrogen-rich ground and can be found in waysides, woods, waste ground and the edge of fields.

Freshly growing burdock leaves

Why eat burdock roots

Burdock has long been considered a valuable food and medicinal plant. Renowned as a superb cleanser for the skin (applied externally to eczema, acne, rashes, dermatitis and psoriasis) and kidneys. Studies also show it has antibiotic, antifungal and antibacterial properties.

Burdock is also a vital ingredient in the traditional dandelion and burdock drink. Which, it turns out, variations of, have been made in the British isles for hundreds of years. 

The roots have a mild, earthy nutty flavour and can be eaten raw or cooked and can be dried. The roots are a slow releasing carbohydrate; great for countering blood sugar dips and ideal for diabetics. It is also a sources of calcium, potassium and protein.

Freshly dug up burdock roots

Which parts are edible?

The roots, leaves and young stems are all edible. However the leaves are incredibly bitter. The best tasting part is by far the roots.

When and how to harvest the roots?

The roots are best dug up in autumn and winter. This ensures the energy and goodness is stored in the roots and not feeding the rest of the plant.

First you'll need to find the plant (see above). You'll need to find burdock that hasn't flowered yet (doesn't have burs). Burdock that hasn't flowered will live another year, and the roots won't now be decomposing underground!

Digging a hole to dig up burdock roots

Burdock roots are long tap roots that require a fair amount of effort to dig up; think sleeves pulled up and a good spade. The tip of wild roots is rarely reached, though not to worry, you’ll have plenty to use.

How to use burdock roots

Burdock roots can be grated raw into salads or into homemade veggie burgers. Can be simmered or roasted with other root veg. In a previous blog I've shared three simple recipes for burdock roots. It can also be simmered to flavour soft drinks or beer.

Cleaning up burdock roots

Burdock is one of the plants I teach on my foraging courses and bespoke foraging experiences.

**Please note you need permission from the land owner to dig up roots here in the UK.**

Roasted Dandelion Coffee

Ever thought of using your weeds to made a tasty coffee-substitute?

The History of Dandelions

Like many common weeds, dandelions are often vastly under-estimated, under-used and misunderstood. Despite being cultivated in parts of Britain, France and North America for over 150 years (1), they are still often considered just a 'weed' that needs eradicating. Similarly, coffee-substitutes are easily linked to events like the Second World War, when people resorted to roasting grains, acorns, cleaver seeds and dandelions roots instead of or to bulk up rationed coffee. Though in the 1900s it was also sold as an inexpensive coffee.

Dandelion roots can be used to create a caffeine-free coffee substitute, but dandelion coffee is also a drink in its own right. Made from roasting and grinding the roots, it gives off a pleasant aroma and has a slightly bitter after-taste, reminiscent of coffee or dark chocolate. Here I share step-by-step how to make homemade dandelion coffee.

 

1. Identify Dandelion Roots

How well do you know your dandelion roots? This might sound obvious to you, though I often see dandelions being misidentified. To complicate things (but only slightly), there are around 250 different types of dandelion. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) has toothed leaves, a hollow, branch-less stem with a milky sap and yellow flowers. Thankfully, this is also the most common dandelion.

 

Freshly dug up dandelion roots

2. When and How to Dig Up Dandelion Roots

The tooth-shaped leaves of spring and summer mark where I needed to dig. The roots of dandelions are long and thin and can be up to 25 cm in depth, not that I'm measuring. It is easy to snap them near the top if you don't carefully dig around the root, and even then, I normally have a few that mostly remain in the ground. So take your time. The slightly older ones are said to be the best, 1 or 2 years of age are a good size and not too bitter. If you’re digging on your own patch you might get to know your dandelions this intimately.

I find flower beds and vegetable patches the easiest to dig from, as the soil tends to be looser there. I've also made the mistake of accepting the offer of digging up a lot of dandelion roots from a friend's grass lawn. Yes, I did rid them of their dandelion roots, but I also left them with a lot of muddy holes. I wasn't invited back. In the UK you need permission from the landowner to dig up roots, though there’s always people who’ll happily let you do their weeding for you.

Autumn and Winter is the perfect time for digging up the roots. In the colder, darker months, the plant's energy is concentrated in the roots, making them sweeter and more nutritious. I like to time my digging with the waning moon too, when the pull towards the earth and those roots is strongest.

 

Drying dandelion roots for coffee

3. Preparing the Roots for Making Coffee

The roots need to washed well, then pat them dry and leave them in a warm place for 2-3 days to dry further. This will reduce the amount of time they need in the oven and concentrate the flavours. During this drying process the weight of the roots will halve. Next, finely chop the roots and preheat the oven to 180°C/fan 160°C and dry roast the roots for 30-40 minutes (turning halfway through). The roots are ready when they are dark brown. Leave to cool and store in a clean jar. Grind for drinks and other recipes as needed.

Chopped dandelion root ready for roastingThe roasted dandelion roots ready for grinding

Roasted Dandelion Root Coffee Recipe

Makes 50 g (7-8 tbsp)

Ingredients
280 g freshly dug up dandelion roots (tops removed)

Dig up the roots, wash well and leave to dry in a well-ventilated area for 2-3 days (this will reduce their weight by about half). Chop small and place on a large baking tray. Preheat the oven to 180°C/fan 160°C and dry roast the roots for 30-40 minutes (turning halfway through). The roots are ready when they are dark brown. Leave to cool and store in a clean jar. Grind for drinks and other recipes as needed.

To make 1 mug of roasted dandelion coffee, grind 1 and 1/2 tbsp roots and place in a small pan with 350 ml water. Bring to a simmer and allow to gently bubble for 10 minutes. Strain and drink (or flavour with milk and sweetener and drink).

 

The ground dandelion root coffee

I teach about seasonal, edible weeds on my monthly foraging courses, with lots of tips for recipes, identification and hands on learning. Follow me on instagram or facebook to see regular posts and information, or sign up to the newsletter, oh and do tag me if you try any making this, I'd love to hear from you! @rachellambertwildfoodforaging

References and Credits

  1. Irving, M. (2009) The Forager Handbook - A guide to the edible plants of Britain

Top photo by: Jamie Mills, the rest by Rachel Lambert (copyright).

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