The Sticky, Prickly Cocklebur Plant

by AngelaJohnson

Have you ever walked through a field and then found prickly seed pods sticking all over your clothes?

The common cocklebur (Xanthium strumarium) is one of several weed species that have prickly bur seed pods. When humans or mammals pass by, the burs attach themselves to clothing and fur. When the bur is picked or brushed off, the seeds can sprout in a new area.

Cockleburs can be found in all the contiguous states in the U.S. This weed can grow in most soil types and in most environments. It often sprouts up when ground is disturbed - its seeds can grow even after being buried in the ground for over a decade!

Farmers, gardeners and ranchers all want to get rid of this weed. Besides taking over crops, the young plants have been known to poison livestock.

This photo is of a cocklebur plant with dried seed pods. ~~ photo by Angela Johnson

About Cocklebur Weeds

cocklebur leavesCocklebur plants (Xanthium strumarium) is a noxious weed in North America. Cockleburs usually grow two to four feet tall and can spread rapidly. Besides that, the plant is toxic to animals.

The flowers are small and bloom in late summer. They're not showy and are easy to overlook. They later produce oval burs covered with stiff, hooked spines about an inch long. Each one contains two seeds.  

When you or an animal brush by a plant, the prickly burs hook into clothing or fur and become tightly attached. Most people don't think to destroy the burs when they pull them off; they just toss them into the ground where they can germinate.  That's how the cocklebur plant crops up everywhere.

If gardeners and farmers don't recognize the plant and bury it when cultivating the land, the seeds can germinate when brought to the surface again. 

My sister and brother-in-law had a new house built out in the country. After the house was finished, they used a tractor to rake and level the dirt that was dug out for their foundation so they could plant grass. Well, when the grass began to grow, so did dozens of cocklebur plants! Those seeds had been in the ground for years and sprouted when brought to the surface.


Cocklebur plant with seeds

The plant is easy to overlook because it blends in with other weeds
Cocklebur plant with seeds
Cocklebur plant with seeds
photo by Angela Johnson

Pulling off the Burs

You can get cocklebur seed pods on your clothes whether they're green or brown.

I pull them off by hand, although maybe you can brush them off.  But don't throw the burs on the ground, or new plants will sprout up! 

If your animals get burs in their coats, use a mixture of coconut or other oil and a silicon based detangler that you can buy at a pet or feed store.  Squirt the mixture on a bur and the oil will soak it and loosen the bur so it will fall out.

Or you can use a small comb to comb the hair away from the bur. With the hair combed out of the way, the bur comes out easier.  This process takes a little more time, though.


Dried cocklebur seeds

Dried cocklebur seeds
Dried cocklebur seeds
photo by Angela Johnson

Learn About Weeds - there are guides for all areas of the U.S.

You can learn so much from the internet, but I like to take a field guide with me when I walk around outdoors
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The Invention Of Velcro®

Velcro® was invented in 1948 by a George de Mestral from Switzerland. He had come back from a walk in the fields with his dog and noticed all the burs stuck to his clothes and his dog's fur.

After removing them, he noticed how they had tiny little hooks on them.  After studying them under a microscope, he thought he could develop a two-sided fastener to work similar to a zipper.  One side would have hooks similar to a bur on it and the other side would have soft loops, like the fabric on his pants. 

It was a long process to create the product, but he finally filed a patent in 1955 and Velcro® became a success.  

I've read different stories on which bur actually inspired George de Mestral.  It could have been the cocklebur (Xanthium), burdock (Arctium), bur clover (Medicago hispida), or even another species.  But it goes to show we can always learn from nature.


Cocklebur growing in dirt dug for a sewer pipe

Seed burs haven't formed yet
cocklebur plant growing in disturbed ground
cocklebur plant growing in disturbed ground
photo by Angela Johnson

To Get Rid of Cocklebur Plants

cocklebur plantIf you learn to identify the cocklebur plant, you can get rid of it before it grows too tall and produces seed burs.  It's a good idea to walk through your fields early in the spring to look for the plants.

As long as there is moisture in the ground and the plants are still short, they are easy to pull up by hand; that's what I did when plants sprouted up in my sister's yard.  

You can also chop them out of the ground or mow them. If you mow, they'll grow back, so make sure you mow again before they reseed. It can take a couple of years to get rid of them this way, but you won't have to put chemicals into your ground.

After you pull up or chop down the plants, don’t use the cocklebur weed for animal feed – it’s poisonous.

If you aren’t able to get rid of the plants before they make seeds, make sure you bag or burn them.  Even unripe seeds can mature after a plant has been cut or pulled. And of course, don’t put plants with seeds in a compost pile.

If your land is infested with cocklebur plants, you can also burn the field, but be sure to have spotters (people watching the fire) to make sure it doesn't spread and get out of control.

Herbicides can also be used, but remember that herbicides kill other plants as well, and the herbicide will stay in your soil. 

NOTE:  Many weeds have some sort of redeeming factor such as being food for wildlife or livestock, but so far I haven't found anything good about the cocklebur plant.

Updated: 05/17/2015, AngelaJohnson
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AngelaJohnson on 07/20/2018

These cocklebur plants were in my sister and brother-in-law's 10 acre hay field. I stayed with them several weeks in the spring three years ago and walked through the field many times pulling up the young plants. They don't mow their field because they let it grow wild to use for hay. This spring when I walked through the field when the weeds were short, I didn't see a single cocklebur plant growing.

frankbeswick on 07/14/2018

This plant has naturalised in the Mediterranean, but not in Britain. We are free of it, thankfully.

DerdriuMarriner on 07/14/2018

AngelaJohnson, Thank you for the cocklebur and Velcro information. The arborist rule is that any combination of controlled burn, extreme cutting and non-organic/organic treatment eliminates pesty plants within 1-3 years. I find that severe cuts, mows, prunes and trims often work on their own.

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