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Anna B. Comstock


A successful life.

The Burdock

Teacher's Story

Psychologists say that all young things are selfish, and the young burdock is a shining example of this principle. Its first leaves are broad and long, with long petioles by means of which they sprawl out from the growing stem in every direction, covering up and choking out all the lesser plants near them. In fact, the burdock remains selfish in this respect always, for its great basal leaves see to it that no other plants shall get the good from the soil near its own roots. One wonders at first how a plant with such large leaves can avoid shading itself; but there are some people very selfish toward the world who are very thoughtful of their own families, and the burdock belongs to this class. We must study carefully the arrangement of its leaves in order to understand its cleverness. The long basal leaves are stretched out flat; the next higher, somewhat smaller ones are lifted at a polite angle so as not to stand in their light. This courtesy characterizes all the leaves of the plant, for each higher leaf is smaller and has a shorter petiole, which is lifted at a narrower angle from the stalk; and all the leaves are so nicely adjusted as to form a pyramid, allowing the sunlight to sift down to each part. While some of the uppermost leaves may be scarcely more than an inch long, the lower ones are very large. They are pointed at the tip and wide at the base; where the leaf joins the petiole it is irregular, bordered for a short distance on each side with a vein, and then finished with a "flounce," which is so full that it even reaches around the main stem—another device for getting more sunlight for itself and shutting it off from plants below. On the lower side, the leaf is whitish and feltlike to the touch; above it is a raw green, often somewhat smooth and shining. The leaf is in quality poor, coarse and flimsy, and it hangs—a web of shoddy—on its strong supporting ribs; lucky for it that its edges are slightly notched and much ruffled, else they would be torn and tattered. The petiole and stems are felty in texture; the petiole is grooved, and expands at its base to grasp the stems on both sides with a certain vicious pertinacity which characterizes the whole plant.

The flower-heads come off at the axils of the upper leaves, and are often so crowded that the leaf is almost lost to sight. It is amazing to behold the number of flower-heads which develop on one thrifty plant. The main stem and the pyramid of lower branching stems, are often crowded with the green balls beset with bracts which are hooked, spiny, and which hold safe the flowers. This composite flower-house is a fortress bristling with spears which are not changed to peaceful pruning-hooks, although they are hooked at the sharp end, every hook turning toward the flowers at the center; the lower bracts are shorter and stand out at right angles, while the others come off at lesser angles, graded so as to form a globular involucre—a veritable block-house. The flower might be a tidbit for the grazing animal; but, if so, he has never discovered it, for these protective hooks have kept him from ever enjoying a taste. The bracts protect, not only by hooks at the tip, but by spreading out at the bases so as to make a thickly battened dwelling for the flower-family.


A burdock floret with hooked bract.

But if we tear open one of these little fortresses, we are well repaid in seeing the quite pretty florets. The corollas are long, slender, pink tubes, with five, pointed lobes. The anther-tubes are purple, the pistils and the stigmas white; the stigmas are broad and feathery when they are dusting out the pollen from the anther-tubes, but later they change to very delicate pairs of curly Y's. The young seed is shining white, and the pappus forms a short, white fluff at the upper margin; but this is simply a family trait, for the burdock seeds never need to be ballooned to their destination; they have a surer method of travel. When in full bloom, the burdock flower-heads are very pretty and the skillful child weaver makes them into beautiful baskets. When I was a small girl, I made whole sets of furniture from these flowers; and then, becoming more ambitious, wove some into a coronet which I wore proudly for a few short hours, only to discover later, from my own experience, that great truth which Shakespeare voiced,—"uneasy lies the head that wears the crown."

In winter, the tough, gray stalks of the burdock still stand; although they may partially break, if they can thus better accomplish their purpose,—always falling toward the path. In this way, they may be sure of inserting the hooks of their seed storehouses into the clothing or covering of the passer-by; and when one gets a hold, mayhap a dozen others will hold hands and follow. If they catch the tail of horse or cow, then indeed they must feel their destiny fulfilled; for the animal, switching about with its uneasy appendage, threshes out the seeds, and unheedingly plants them by trampling them into the ground. Probably some of the livestock of our Pilgrim Fathers came to America thus burdened; for the burdock is a European weed, although now it flourishes too successfully in America. The leaves of the burdock are bitter, and are avoided by grazing animals. Fortunately for us, certain flies and other insects like their bitter taste, and lay eggs upon them, which hatch into larvæ that live all their lives between the upper and lower surfaces of the leaf. Often the leaves are entirely destroyed by the minute larvæ of a fly, which live together cozily between these leaf blankets, giving the leaves the appearance of being afflicted with large blisters.

The burdocks have long vigorous taproots, and it is therefore difficult to eradicate them without much labor. But persistent cutting off the plant at the root will, if the cut be deep, finally discourage this determined weed.


Baskets made from the burdock flower-heads.

Lesson CXLI

The Burdock

Leading thought—The burdock wins because its great leaves shade down plants in its vicinity, and also by having taproots. It scatters its seed by hooking its seed-heads fast to the passer-by.

Method—Study a healthy burdock plant in the field, to show how it shades down other plants and does not shade itself. The flowers and the seed-heads may be brought into the schoolroom for detailed study.


1. Note a young plant. How much space do its leaves cover? Is anything growing beneath them? How are its leaves arranged to cover so much space? Of what advantage is this to the plant?

2. Study the full-grown plant. How are the lower leaves arranged? At what angles to the stalks do the petioles lie? Are the upper leaves as large as the lower ones? Do they stand at different angles to the stalk?

3. Study the arrangement of leaves on a burdock plant, to discover how it manages to shade down other plants with its leaves and yet does not let its own upper leaves shade those below.

4. Study a lower and an upper leaf. What is the general shape? What peculiarity where it joins the petiole? What is the texture of the leaf above and below? The color? Describe the petiole and how it joins the stem.

5. Where do the flowers appear on the stem? Are there many flowers developed? Count all the flower-heads on a thrifty burdock.

6. The burdock has its flowers gathered into families, like the sunflower and thistle. Describe the burdock flower-family according to Lesson CXXXV.

7. What insects visit the burdock flowers? Can you make baskets from the flower-heads?

8. Study the burdock again in winter, and see what has happened to it. Describe the seed and the seed-heads. How are the seed-heads carried far away from the parent plant? How many seeds in a single "house?" How do they escape?

9. Write the biography of a burdock plant which came to America as a seed, attached to the tail of a Shetland pony.


Burdock blossoming.