July 2016






Arctium is a genus of biennial plants commonly known as burdock, family Asteraceae. They are native to the Old World, and several species have been widely introduced worldwide. 

Plants of the genus Arctium have dark green leaves that can grow up to 70 centimetres long. They are generally large, coarse and ovate, with the lower ones being heart-shaped. They are woolly underneath. The leafstalks are generally hollow. Arctium species usually flower from July through October. Burdock flowers provide essential pollen and nectar for honey bees around August, when clover is on the wane and before the goldenrod starts to bloom. 

The prickly heads of these plants, or burrs, are noted for easily catching on to fur and clothing. In England, some birdwatchers have reported birds have become entangled in the burrs, leading to a slow death as they are unable to free themselves.

Burdock's clinging properties, in addition to providing an excellent mechanism for seed dispersal, led to the invention of the hook and loop fastener.

Burdock and Velcro

After taking his dog for a walk one day in 1948, George de Mestral, a Swiss inventor, became curious about the seeds of the burdock plant that had attached themselves to his clothes and to the dog's fur. Under a microscope, he looked at the hook system the seeds use to hitchhike on passing animals (aiding seed dispersal) and realized the same approach could be used to join other things together. The result of his studies was Velcro.

"Black from dust but still alive and red in the centre. It reminded me of Hadji Murad. It makes me want to write. It asserts life to the end, and alone in the midst of the whole field, somehow or other had asserted it."

– Russian author Leo Tolstoy, in his journal (July 1896) of a tiny shoot of burdock he saw in a ploughed field.

Serbian and Croatian languages use the same word, čičak, for burdock and Velcro. Turkish does the same with the name pitrak, while in Polish rzepmeans both burr and Velcro. The German word for burdock is Klette and Velcro is Klettverschluss (burdock fastener).


© 2014 by Hana Pinthus Rotchild

  • Twitter Classic
  • Facebook Classic