American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wasn't totally correct when she wrote in her poem, "From a Very Little Sphinx,"
"Everybody but just me
Despises burdocks. Mother, she
Despises 'em the most because
They stick so to my socks and drawers."
There is perhaps one other person who doesn't despise those prickly seed containers from the burdock plant that cling to our clothing from a simple walk through a field on a summer day.
That person is Swiss inventor George de Mestral who, after taking his dog on a nature hike through the mountains in 1948, became curious about those seed-sacs that clung to both him and his dog after their walk. Mestral decided to take a closer look at the prickly pods and see if he could figure out why they hung on to his clothing and his dog's fur. While studying the burr under his microscope, he noticed it was made up of small hooks that grabbed onto whatever happened to brush by. This hitch-hiking method of travel enables the plant to spread its seeds to new fields by way of birds and woodland animals.
Mestral's curiosity led to his invention of a two-sided fastener that everyone today uses in one way or another. Mestral decided to name his fastener "Velcro," from the words velour and crochet. His fastener design was perfected and patented in 1955. Unable to find a manufacturer, Mestral formed his own company, Velcro Industries, which today is a multi-million dollar industry.
All because of a walk in the woods.
I remembered this story recently after the husband suffered an injury requiring the use of an arm sling for several weeks. The sling and all of its components, including the shoulder strap, the waist strap, the thumb protector and even the neck pad were held together by hook and loop fasteners of some sort. Now a household name, we often joke that we should have named one of our dogs, "Velcro," because her thick, long hair usually contains odds and ends she's picked up outside, including leaves, grass and on several occasions, pruned rose canes.
So what about this so-called weed that was the basis of Mestral's invention?
Burdock has many common nicknames, including Beggar's Buttons, Burrseed, Harebur, Thorny Burr and even Love Leaves. When I told this story to the husband, not that it would make wearing the annoying sling any more pleasant, he remembered his own father calling the seed-sacs Cockle-burrs.
The plant's botanic name, Arctium lappa, is derived from the Latin word for bear (arctos) or north, which indicates the plants growing region of north of the equator.
The plant itself is a biennial, which means the first year it sends up leaves and the second year it produces flowers and seeds. Growing from a center crown, the first year of its growth, the leaves seem to form a rosette shape from the center. Leaves are heart-shaped and quite large and stay compact and low.
But in its second year, the plant grows tall, as much as six feet in ideal conditions. Leaves grow on large stalks and also along the plant's stem, although those leaves are smaller. Bristly, purple flowers are formed at the ends of branches or where the leaves meet the stems (leaf axils).
Anyone who has tried to dig this weed from their garden soon learns it has a thick, large taproot. Spreading its seeds is the only way burdock propagates. It does not send out underground runners.
Like many annoying garden pests, burdock wasn't always classified as a weed. In many countries it has been cultivated as a medicinal plant and was used as a blood purifier, a remedy for skin diseases and to aid in the treatment of arthritis, sciatica and gout.
As a culinary herb, burdock root, also called gobo root in Japan, is used to make many dishes, including a recipe I found on the Internet called Gobo Root Fries. In fact, there were several recipes for burdock root and although I haven't seen any local sources, I have seen it mentioned online at large outdoor markets in some cities, including Westside Market in Cleveland.