A diverse thistle we should salute

Lesser burdock isn't just a nuisance.
Lesser burdock isn't just a nuisance.
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Written by Heather Elvidge

Thistles aren’t popular with gardeners or farmers, although they can be fascinating, even beautiful. They are a diverse lot but all have one thing in common, their purple flower heads.

Perhaps the most handsome is the spear thistle. Over a metre tall, its straight stem has thorny leaves all the way up, topped by a silvery ball with a purple crown. This is probably the one chosen as the badge of the Stuart kings.

The dwarf thistle is a curiosity. Hugging the ground among the cropped grass it favours, its rosette of sharp thorns has surprised many a picnicker. On the other hand, some thistles have relatively soft leaves.

One of these is lesser burdock. This biennial thistle grows on roadsides, waste ground and in woodland, everywhere except the Highlands of Scotland.

While most thistle seeds float away on the air, burdock has a different method of dispersal. The dried flower heads cling by means of little hooks, so passing animals carry them well away from the parent plant. Dog owners will be familiar with burdock’s wily ways, as the prickly brown balls often have to be cut out. In fact the burrs stick things together so well that they came to be known as beggar’s buttons.

But rather than cursing the burdock, we should salute it. Those annoying burrs inspired the inventor of something we’ve all used at some time: Velcro.

There’s more to burdock than you’d think. In spring people pickled the young stems in vinegar; or peeled, boiled, and ate them as a vegetable, said to taste like asparagus. The long heart-shaped leaves were wrapped as a poultice around wounds, bruises and burns.

In August, when other plants have finished flowering, those purple tufts on thistle, knapweed and teasel provide a good source of nectar for butterflies and bees. Later, goldfinches will visit to pick out any remaining seeds.

Cheers

Those of a certain vintage will have fond memories of that darkly mysterious beverage, Clark’s Dandelion and Burdock. While some of the stuff sold today is a pale imitation, fifty years ago the drink contained real plant extracts.

Although we didn’t know it then, our favourite soft drink started out as a herbal remedy. A decoction of burdock root was known as a cleanser and purifier, said to be good for the liver. Dandelion root improved digestion and was used to treat kidney complaints. The two in combination made a tonic in use since the fourteenth century.

Much later, Dandelion and Burdock became popular with teetotallers in the northern temperance bars. These began to open in the 1830s, offering an alternative to the pubs for thirsty workers from the textile mills and factories.

Amazingly, one original alcohol-free bar is still in business, in Rawtenstall, Lancashire. Fitzpatrick’s Temperance Bar looks much as it always did, with ceramic tap barrels and shelves stacked with jars of medicinal herbs. Naturally it serves Dandelion and Burdock, made to the original 116-year-old recipe. If you can’t make it there, cordials to mix with water are available online from www.mrfitzpatricks.com

A botanical brewer from Hexham also makes D&B in the traditional way. Look out for Fentiman’s Dandelion and Burdock, available in some supermarkets and specialist shops.