Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Burdock Disgrace

Burdock blossoms

I've been enjoying Ada E. Georgia's 1914 handbook, Manual of Weeds, subtitled With Descriptions of All of the Most Pernicious and Troublesome Plants In the United States and Canada, Their Habits of Growth and Distribution, With Methods of Control. It's part of a series edited by Liberty Hyde Bailey, Cornell University's Uberbotanist, entitled The Rural Manuals. Bailey's Manual of Cultivated Plants, a reference I use frequently, was evidently conceived as part of this series.

Ms. Georgia and Dr. Bailey both bristle with that old Yankee urge to set the world straight on how Things Should Be Done, and I was particularly taken with Georgia's account of Burdock (Arctium sp.), the plant I photographed by our woodpile last week.

The presence of one of these huge weeds in flower and fruit should be considered a disgrace to the owner of the soil so occupied, for it must have remained in undisturbed possession of the ground for the necessary second year of growth before reproduction.

The root is enormous; often three inches thick, driving straight downward for a foot or more and then branching in all directions, taking strong hold on the soil and grossly robbing it....

Burdock roots and seeds are used in medicine and the destruction of the weeds may sometimes be made profitable; roots should be collected in autumn of the first year of growth, cleaned, sliced lengthwise, and carefully dried; the price is three to eight cents a pound; ripe seeds bring five to ten cents a pound.

I shudder to think what she would say about Pocahontas County, for every local fleece I've tried to work up and spin has been riddled with burdock seed heads. No sane spinner would ever buy a second fleece in such a condition. The sheep farmers hereabout sell their wool in a wool pool, which means that there's no incentive to keep their fields burdock-free if the other farmers don't. All the wool brings the same price, and the West Virginia Department of Agriculture reports that our wool is exported to Europe, where it is used to make felt for industrial machinery. One local handspinner I met raised and sheared her own sheep, and spent much time every year digging the burdock out of her fields. A life-long sheep farmer, spinner, and weaver, she told me she threw away fleeces with burdock contamination.

Burdock plant, a favorite meal of some animals

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