The Burry Man, The Burry Dog, and Burdock

The Burry Man sips whiskey through a straw. Photo by Homer Sykes, 1971

Starting in late August, burrs rank high on the Official List of Naturally Occurring Seasonal Aggravations. A recent light-hearted walk along Riverside Park’s upper path turned suddenly burry when Esau, in hot pursuit of temptation-in-a-squirrel-suit, dived into a low tangle of underbrush and emerged looking like the Burry Man of the British Isles.

The Burry Man and his attendants

For more about the Burry Man, including his origins and family relations (among them,  The Green Man, Poison Ivy, Robin Hood, army snipers and Sasquatch) click here.

But first, the Burry Dog … and his burrs.

A few remaining eyebrow burrs

In a matter of seconds, Esau had amassed at least 50 burrs from his ears to his tail. While some burrs operated alone, many clumped together into giant burry conglomerates.

Burr cartel takes hind leg by storm

I de-burred the pads of Esau’s little hairy feet, but the corporate burrs either resisted removal or broke apart into tiny spiked seedlets that clung to my fingertips and buried themselves beneath Esau’s fur.  We abandoned our walk and headed home, where Esau submitted reluctantly to scissors.

Elvis's Army buzz is in Esau's future.

The experience left me wondering: what’s the deal with burrs, anyway? Why do they cling with such persistence to pants legs, hair, fur and shoes?  Where do they come from and what do they want?

Burdock in bloom

Riverside Park’s burrs are seeds of the burdock plant, a non-native – some might say, invasive – species of thistle from across the pond.  Do not be fooled by the pretty purple flower. Burdock has an evil plan, and you and your dog are part of it.

What burdock wants is to populate new territory with its progeny.  But how?

Think about it.  You’re a burdock seed. You need to get away from your overcrowded home and make your own way in the world.  But you have no legs. You have no wings.  You have no car, and no money for a Greyhound ticket.  How are you going to get out of Dodge?

The answer is simple: Hitchhike.

Going my way?

“But how?” you protest. “I didn’t evolve a thumb.”

True. But you did evolve nasty little hooks that allow you to attach yourself to any furry, woolly or hairy animal that happens to brush by you.  You will use that poor sucker’s mobility to move yourself out into the world.

Traveling on an animal’s exterior is  called epizoochory and is a fairly unusual method of seed dispersal, used by only 5% of plants.  Far more common is endozoochory, in which seeds travel inside an animal by being eaten and excreted. This is, in my nonscientific opinion, a much more harmonious method that benefits both plant and animal.  I pity wild animals with massive burrs entangled in their fur and no fingers or scissors to free themselves.

Other common methods of seed dispersal include wind, water and – I kid you not – “ballistics,” in which the plant itself expels the seed.  That’s for a future post.  But before we look at exploding plants, be sure to click below for facts, lore and video on …

THE BURRY MAN.

The Burry Man, The Burry Dog and Burdock is part of the Carnival of Evolution #29. Visit the C of E for wonderful posts on evolution by real live scientists. (We’re not sure how Out Walking the Dog slipped into the carnival, but we like the company.)

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18 Comments on “The Burry Man, The Burry Dog, and Burdock”


  1. [...] written at some length about burdock and its progeny, the burr, as well as about wonderfully bizarre ancient celebrations like the burry man.  So I’m [...]


  2. [...] more on plants and evolution at Out Walking the Dog, read The Burry Man, The Burry Dog and Burdock. For a monthly round-up of up-to-the-minute evolutionary science blogs, check out The Carnival of [...]

  3. p hoey Says:

    Witty, wonderful blog reminding those of us who love dogs but don’t have one at the moment that sometimes it’s best to enjoy other people’s burry pooches.

  4. Bill Says:

    Burrs are wonderful hitch hikers that, although annoying, are tenaciously wonderful at finding new territory. One of man’s great inventions “Velcro” was actually not an invention at all but a copy of one of nature’s most successful seed disprsents-the burdock.

    Enjoyed the post, very witty and thoroughly enjoyable.

  5. Barbara Says:

    Wow – what a terrific post! Funny and informative – and since I live in the country a reminder to watch out for my dogs when we’re walking in unknown territory.

    When I had horses, burrs were the biggest threat to manes and tails. One year, I didn’t realize the burdock had gone to seed since it was in a hollow in the pasture – the two mares and the pony were a mess. It took forever to unwind long tail hair and manes – each one an itchy mess…

    I discovered that peanut butter or some salad oils make removing burrs easier from long hair… but then of course you need to bathe the animal afterwards…

    Thanks for the great story about the Burry Man – hope Esau stays out of the burr patch… will keep watching for more stories! Well done.


  6. Funny post! I didn’t know there was burdock growing in the park…I usually only see them on Japanese restaurant menus.

  7. nellie Says:

    Fun blog entry. while my husband unplugged our RV, recently, I took a quick last look up on the Mississippi river dike trail. Once the van was started I ran through a thin strip of weeds, planning to hop into it and leave. Wrong move. Twenty minutes later we actually left

  8. Kurt Mantooth Says:

    wonderful burr blog

  9. mthew Says:

    Burry Man looks like the Green Man’s drunken English cousin.

    I was walking through Prospect Park recently. My camera was inside my cargo pants pocket, the big one on the thigh, with the wrist strap hanging out. Burrs found the strap. I’m not so sure they don’t do the (reputed) tick thing, which is to leap wildly from the plant itself when they smell warm blood.

  10. Charlotte Says:

    Well, this is totally off subject but you must see this article about “Moss” man who robbed a museum and then hid in the woods in a moss suit. He reminds me of your Burry man, or of poor Esau covered in burrs. Moss man was found when a police dog bit a big lump of moss on the ground: http://articles.sfgate.com/2010-10-15/news/24138524_1_rock-museum-bites-dog.

    loved the post!

  11. Katrinka Says:

    Somewhere in my more and more haphazard memory banks is the info that the guy who invented velcro was inspired by looking at the shapes of the little burr hooks and the way they snag everything. Also, aren’t the roots roasted as a coffee substitute, along with chicory and a few other similar taproots?
    After a huge extravaganza burr war on our street when we were kids my mother spent hours with tweezers removing all those tiny little hooks from our skin. The big boys had been shoving handfulls of them down our T-shirts. The glories of childhood.


    • Yes, the velcro man was indeed inspired by burrs. And yes, the roots can be eaten or roasted and drunk. I think I’ll have to do Part Two on the burdock plant as well as the upcoming Burry Man post. Those big boys were NASTY! Ouch.

  12. daddy0 Says:

    A joy to read and learn so much. Keep it up.

    Daddy-O

  13. Rebecca Says:

    You think burrs are bad, move to the beach and try sand spurs. Sand spurs are smaller and more painful and have this trick of finding their way INSIDE your shoes. It’s horrible. (Your poor dog, though, I wouldn’t want the job of picking all those burrs out of dog fur.)


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