bee forage

Under cover of darkness, I watered my neighbor’s weed

No, not that kind of weed. It was just a regular old pasture pest, common burdock. But here’s the thing: it was attracting an impressive assortment of photogenic insects. A few days ago I noticed the lower leaves getting crispy, so last night, with the bluish glow of a television flickering in her window, I crept past the neighbor’s house and dumped a half gallon of water on the struggling plant.

Let me clarify that it’s not even her plant. It belongs to someone who couldn’t care less. But the woman has a mean streak a mile wide. Over the past twenty years, every time I’ve said I liked something, like a tree or shrub or flower, it has disappeared the next day. She’d cut off her right arm if I said I liked it, so I don’t say much of anything when she’s around.

On the lookout for autumn forage

In this area, anything that blooms during the summer dearth gets my attention. In spring, flowers are everywhere, but late flowers are hard to come by. This plant is growing close to a pasture gate, too close to the post to reach with a riding mower, which is why it’s still alive.

Common burdock, Arctium minus, is actually an introduced biennial herb with thistle-like flowers but decidedly unthistle-like leaves. It crops up in pastures and barnyards, along roadsides, and in other disturbed (and disturbing) areas.

The plant is known as an “annoying weed” by anyone having to deal with large quantities of it. Apparently the burrs become firmly embedded in clothes and animal fur and are difficult to remove.

Common burdock: a model for Velcro

Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast (Pojar & Mackinnon) explains that the set of bracts beneath the flower head are inwardly hooked and served as the inspiration for Velcro. Nectar and Pollen Plants of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest (Burgett et al.) says that common burdock is attractive to honey bees, providing both nectar and pollen, but does not occur frequently enough to provide reliable forage.

“My” plant, which doesn’t belong to me, the neighbor, or the pasture owner (it belongs to the absentee road easement owner) is a playground for iridescent beetles, wasps with egregiously long ovipositors, furry flies, skippers with tongues like garden hoses, and an assortment of nervous bees that flit from bloom to bloom.

Just for the record, the water didn’t do any good: too little, too late.

Honey Bee Suite

A bumble bee on common burdock.

A bumble bee on common burdock. © Rusty Burlew.

Agapostemon on a dried common burdock leaf.

This Agapostemon (green metallic sweat bee) was resting on one of the shriveled burdock leaves near the ground. © Rusty Burlew.

The ends of the burdock bracts are curled into a hook.

If you look carefully at the bracts, you can see the ends are curled in “Velcro” fashion. © Rusty Burlew.


  • You are so funny! I used to trash the burdock as well until I realized the bees liked it, now I have it everywhere, with the thistle, goldenrod, milkweed, and other weedies. Everyone that comes to my house tells me to ‘pull them weeds, we can’t see the house anymore’, and I say, “Don’t you dare touch my weeds, the animals and the bees love them”. Things change when you’re a beekeeper. Yep, they sure do! I even went out on the roads and brought home plants from along the roadside, put them in my ravine to flourish for the bees, like the chicory and queen anne’s lace and I love them purple ones, that I just cannot think of the name right at this minute. But the bees love that purple flower. Great fall nectar. If more people would take to growing natural weeds that are so beautiful instead of flowers which have no value, all the bees would flourish. This is always my main topic at garden clubs, want to help the bees, then PLANT WEEDS!

  • Hallo Rusty,

    I have two large burdock ‘bushes’ in my garden. They do attract many pollinators all through their blooming time which is now over in my part of the world. I want to let you know that those gigantic leaves have use too in the treatment of burn wounds. On internet there is some contradictory information regarding medicinal use. Basically, a scalded leaf covers the ointment used on the wound. When the dressing has to be changed the new skin has not attached itself to the leaf which means that trauma of dressing change is minimal or non existent….. Oh yes you can make a drink out of the root too.. Dandelion and Burdock. When I was young it was sold in bottles at grocery stores, these days you would have to make it yourself I think.

  • You are so funny, I can see you sneaking out in darkness to water what most people would think of a nuisance weed.

    This year I have burdock growing like crazy. Like “Debbie” above, I left it all grow for my honeybees and anyone else that uses the nectar / pollen. Actually I plan to harvest the root come fall — which has wonderful medicinal value.

    I love my weeds (thistle, milkweed, dandelion, clover!)! My yard is so alive and vibrant with life, not like the “lifeless green deserts” that surround me. SAVE the WEEDS!

  • I kind of know what you mean, undercover of darkness. I too am guilty of spreading plants and seeds that honey bees like around my neighbor hood. My neighbor had a beautiful heather sprout up in their front yard, with a little help from me. When she saw it she wondered where it came from. I told her that nature has a way with plants, then I said to her, that if up to me, I would leave it, it’s so pretty. She did. 🙂

  • Machias, WA

    Reading these posts, it feels good to know that I am not uniquely weird, I am in delightful company. Thank you all!


  • My yard has also changed dramatically with my eye towards the plants that bees like. There is now a swath of un-mowed lawn about a third of the width of the yard because I noticed the bumblebees collecting pollen from the plantains. I still have no idea where my girls go. All the weeds I have left only have bumbles on them. Viva la weeds!

  • Funny. Reminds me of a friend of mine that used to complain to his neighbor his lawn looks like crap. Nothing ever changed so he started watering and fertilizing it late at night. He said the only comment the neighbor made was now he has to mow his lawn all the time. Mike

  • Rusty,

    I have one of these plants growing under my deck it is starting to bloom through the steps. I did notice my honeybees like it, so it has stayed.

    My wife and I went to a theme park in northern Idaho this week and we just keep checking out the flowers and landscape gave some great ideas for our bees.

  • Perhaps you could try collecting some seed from this plant, or any future ones that pop up & try propagating some for yourself? Even if you just scatter some in the garden…

  • Ah, I too worked under cover of darkness but not for bee benefits! My neighbor first had a boat and then a pool that he neglected and left to become a mosquito breeding ground. I would buy Mosquito Dunks and lob them over the fence into the pool as I took cover behind a large shrub, dodging his windows and any potential peering eyes…

    Definitely tell her you like her hair, hahaha

  • Ah a shame your efforts didn’t save it! But it’s a tough cookie so hopefully will come back. It grows wild in large patches of my local park along with other ‘weeds’ such as nettles, ragwort and knapweed. All beautiful to me and the local pollinators.

      • Debra,

        That question was from my husband. He can often tell right where people come from based on speech patterns. He picked up on your phrase, “I left it all grow for” and said you must be from PA. You see, that’s exactly how I would say it because I grew up in the foothills of the Appalachians. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to “weed out” those phrases, but when I’m not on guard they come spilling out. Anyway, it’s cool. He probably thought you and I were kin!

  • Hey, Rusty!
    Beautiful closeup.
    Burdock makes a good transition forage from summer to Goidenrod and Aster.
    Your neighbor’s plant will not come back. Burdock is called a “monocarpic” perennial, meaning it lives for 3 to 5 years but only fruits once, then dies. Therein lies a weed control tip, for gardeners who find it competing with their crop plants.
    Immature plants make only a sprawling rosette of coarse grey-green leaves. If you try to pull or dig it, the roots break off and you’ll have 12 plants instead of one. The only thing to do is cut it back, which won’t kill it but will keep it from shading garden plants.
    The year it matures, the seed stalk will flower and then produce those copious burrs. Then the entire plant dies, including that tough 18 to 24-inch root. The root will wither, and can be pulled whole with slight effort. Gone!
    Perhaps needless to say Don’t compost it – unless you really want your garden taken over. if you don’t want to burn it, lay the dead plant on a frequently-mowed grassy area to deteriorate. Any seedlings that emerge will be suppressed by the grass & clover. In garden soil, newly sprouted seedlings can be pulled with the root whole, but be sure to do this the first year!
    Surprised that no one else mentioned this: the root is edible, and considered very healthy. It’s “Gobo” in Japanese cuisine. It’s crunchy, with an earthy flavor, and is good in an Asian slaw.
    Happy weeds, everyone!
    Shady Grove Farm’
    Corinth, KY
    “The miracle is not walking on water. The miracle is walking on the green Earth”
    – Thich Nhat Hanh

    • Thanks for this, Nancy. I didn’t pick up any of this in the references I checked, so I do appreciate it. Burdock turns out to be an interesting plant.

  • I loved this post. I use to wear a headlight and plant in my garden at my condo in Florida because I wasn’t ‘allowed’ to plant anything. Once established the gardeners would maintain anything that I planted. The city of Toronto (my real home) has a ‘Pollinator garden initiative’ going on and everyone on our street has naturalized spaces. I could sit all day watching the butterflies. It’s so great.

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