Collecting the folklore and uses of plants


Coarse perennial herbs with large floppy leaves and purple flowers, widespread on waysides, rough pastures and waste ground throughout lowland Britain.  The characteristic stiff hooks on burdock’s flower buds, flowers and seedheads, were, in the 1950s, the inspiration for Velcro.

Local names contributed to Plant-lore Archive include:

Bardog [Lerwick, Shetland, March 1994]
Beggar’s buttons in Dorset [Martinstown, May1991]
Clingers [Thorncombe, Dorset, April 1991]
Sticky buds [Martinstown, Dorset, May 1991].
Sticky willow [Glencruitten, Argyllshire, October 1990].

Folklore associated with burdock includes:

[Cornwall] ‘piskies’ or ‘pixies’ a race of fairies or ‘small people’ are said to amuse themselves at night by riding colts furiously around the fields and plaiting their manes, or tangling them with ‘Billy buttons’ [i.e. the burrs] of burdock [1].

As children in Essex we threw the burrs of burdock on to the backs of unsuspecting friends – if they stuck you had a sweetheart; if they fell off after a short while their affection would not be reciprocated.  I lived in the then countryside of Chigwell/Hainault area, but my children played the same game 20 years later at Witham, Essex [Yafforth, North Yorkshire, January 1990].

Burdock burrs are an essential decoration of the costume of the Burry Man who appears at South Queensferry, West Lothian, on the second Friday in August each year, when he ‘perambulates the town visiting the houses and receiving cheerful greeting and gifts of money from householders’ [2].
Burrs are collected in sacks the week before, dried and cleaned then assembled into square or rectangular patches each comprising around 500 burrs.  On the Bury Man’s Day, he starts dressing at 7 a.m., first putting on a set of long underwear and hood, then standing patiently while the patches are pressed on and individual burrs are carefully placed in sensitive areas, such as the oxters (armpits) and crotch.  It takes two hours until all the burrs, plus flowers at the shoulders, hips and knees and a flowery hat are in place.  Two men support the Burry Man, who walks slowly and stiffly around the town from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., able to see a little through peepholes in his face mask and drink through a straw, neat whisky being his traditional tipple [3].

Gypsies used burdock to prevent or cure rheumatism:
Infusion of leaves or flowers, or better still of crushed seeds, relieves and will cure rheumatism …  Some gypsies carry the seeds in a little bag slung round the neck as a preventative of rheumatism [4]

There are rare records of burdock being eaten as a vegetable:
I had a great-aunt who had done this in c.1895-1910 in the Chesham area of Buckinghamshire.  I have recollections of reading that burdock ‘greens’, which were unpleasantly glutinous, were one of the disadvantages of life in the workhouse [Union Mills, Isle of Man, February 1995].


1.  Davey, F.H., 1909.  Flora of Cornwall, Penryn, p.261.
2.  Hole, C., 1976.  British Folk Customs, London, p.39.
3.  Darwin, T., 1996.  The Scots Flora, Edinburgh, p.75
4.  Vesey-FitzGerald, B., Gypsy medicine, J. Gypsy Lore Soc. 23, pp.21-33,  p.23.

Images: main, greater burdock (Arctium lappa), Old Deer Park, London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, August 2015; inset, model of the Burry Man, South Queensferry Museum, August 2017.

Updated 12 August 2017.