Ask Your Herbalist - Cocklebur  by J. Zane Walley

Brainchildren are birthed in unlikely ways and at unforeseen times. Unquestionably, this was true, when amateur Swiss mountaineer and inventor George de Mestral encountered the common and accursed cocklebur. In 1948, he took his dog for a nature hike in the meadows near his home. They returned home covered with burrs. Mestral neglected his matted friend, and microscopically inspected one of the many burrs sticking to his pants. He discovered tiny hooks that enabled seed-bearing burrs to tightly cling to the minute loops in the fabric. From this chance observation, he designed a two-sided fastener, one side with stiff hooks like the burrs, and the other with soft loops.

Cocklebur_WEB.jpg (15550 bytes)Mestral's idea was met with resistance and even laughter, but the inventor "stuck" by his invention and together with a weaver at a French textile plant, perfected the hook and loop fastener which was finally patented in 1955. He called his invention Velcro, a combination of the words, velour and crochet. Today it is a multimillion dollar industry, selling over 60 million yards of products each year. Not bad for an invention based on a brush with a common and much maligned weed.

The common Cocklebur (Xanthium spinosum) grows globally in most zones other than tropic or arctic. It favors overgrazed pastures, the eroded bottoms of arroyos and disturbed earth by roadsides and construction areas. As in Mestral's situation, take a hike and it will likely find you even when you aren't looking for it.

Cocklebur has a history as a curative among the Mahuna, Pima and Rappahannock Indians. Those tribes employed the plant as an aid in treating rheumatism, infected kidneys, tuberculosis, and skin eruptions. Anglo and Hispanic folk doctors historically used Xanthium as a styptic, (Checks bleeding by contracting skin tissues.) and in treating dysentery, rheumatism, arthritis and rabies.

Pharmacognosy studies on Xanthium's medical properties are sparse. This is another of those All-American weeds that deserves intense laboratory analysis, but all documented research has been accomplished in foreign countries. Those findings from abroad ditto some folk uses to destroy disease causing intracellular, intestinal, and blood dwelling parasites. Doctors Talakal, Dwivedi, and Sharma reported in the December, 1995 Journal Of Ethnopharmacology that chemicals in cocklebur are effective in treating some Protozoa (a one cell organism) that cause serious infections in humans and domestic animals, including the often fatal African sleeping sickness and leishmaniasis. The Journal of Biosciences reports that Xanthium contains seven substances that destroy bacterium (such as Lyme disease) or suppresses their growth or reproduction. Other research found an infusion of the burrs to be effective against many fungal infections of the skin such as athlete's foot.

The lack of comprehensive research to isolate the helpful constituents of cocklebur limits its safe use in treating serious diseases. Excessively used the whole plant is considered a cytotoxic. That is, the plant contains chemicals that are directly toxic to cells, preventing their reproduction or growth. Cytotoxic agents can, as a side effect, damage healthy, non-cancerous tissues or organs which have a high proportion of actively dividing cells, for example, bone marrow and hair follicles.

The 1700's English herbalist, Culpepper, advises on the internal use of Xanthium. "Cocklebur is collected in late summer or early fall when the spiny pods are dry and still contain the tiny black seeds. The pods alone are used internally. Two pods are boiled in a cup of water for fifteen minutes. One cup of the infusion is drank twice per day."

To use as a styptic powder, collect the entire plant when dry. Powder in a blender or grain mill. Apply directly to wounds, scrapes and cuts. The powder is sprinkled in shoes and socks to prevent and cure athlete's foot.

Because a "safe" dosage has not been established for Xanthium spinosum, this plant, if used at all, must be used with the greatest of care and under the supervision of an established herbal practitioner or Medical Doctor.


“He had had much experience of physicians, and said, "the only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and do what you'd druther not.”

Mark Twain


“Measure your health by your sympathy with morning and spring. If there is no response in you to the awakening of nature--if the prospect of an early morning walk does not banish sleep, if the warble of the first bluebird does not thrill you-know that the morning and spring of your life are past. Thus may you feel your pulse.”

Henry David Thoreau


“The best doctors in the world are Doctor Diet, Doctor Quiet, and Doctor Merryman.”

Jonathan Swift


“Son, there ain’t no weeds, just plants we ain't found a use for.”

Chester Alexander Walley