It’s already common to see invasive animals being turned into food, like the signal crayfish. However, it’s less common to see the upcycling of invasive plants—they’re mainly burned and considered as hazardous waste.
So, the idea of turning a nastily competitive kind of weed into skin care is intriguing, not to mention exciting. And that is what new research has found: the potential of extracting antioxidant and anti-inflammatory components from the fruit of cocklebur plant and turn it into a skin protectant.
According to this research, the compounds found in the weed’s spiky fruits reduced damage from UVB exposure and sped wound healing in laboratory tests using cells and tissues. Moreover, the extracts appeared to influence the production of collagen—a well-sought compound in skin care products.
The researcher, Eunsu Song who conducted the research with Jinah Hwang said, “We found that cocklebur fruit has the potential to protect the skin and help enhance production of collagen.
“In this regard, it could be an attractive ingredient for creams or other cosmetic forms. It will likely show a synergistic effect if it is mixed with other effective compounds, such as hyaluronic acid or retinoic acid, against aging.”
The research was presented back in March at Discover BMB, the annual meeting of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
The invasive weed
Cocklebur is a type of weed related to sunflowers. The flowers of this plant are not in one cluster of a single flower head; the male and female flowers are found on the same plant.
So, when male flower clusters are produced at the top of the flowering stem, they dump mass quantities of pollen, which carried by the wind, into female flowers on the lower part of the stem.
After fertilization, the plant’s bracts swell to form the bur, which contains two large seeds. The top seed sits along the curved side of the bur, while the bottom seed is found along the inner flat surface of the bur.
Cocklebur only has one season to germinate, grow, flower, and produce the next generation. However, the seeds are tough. The bottom seed germinates in a year and maintains the plants presence when times are good. On the other hand, the top one has a much longer dormancy period.
These tough seeds can sit in the soil for decades before they decide to germinate. Other plants with less robust seeds might be killed off due to unfavorable conditions, but cocklebur’s seeds in the seed bank could pop up whenever or wherever the situations are optimum.
This strategy will guarantee that the plant can stick around in any area for a long time.
As we can see, cocklebur is an incredibly resilient and persistent species. The plant can easily adjust its growth habit to fit whatever conditions that come its way. It’s almost admirable if not for the fact that they destroy other species to thrive.
Troublesome plant with potentials
Now, cocklebur plant has distinctive fruits. And despite the invasive and pesky reputation, its fruit is one of the go-to materials for traditional medicines.
For centuries, it’s been used for centuries to treat health issues such as headache, stuffy nose, disorders of skin pigmentation, tuberculosis-related illness.
Recently, scientists have tried to make use of its fruits for treating rheumatoid arthritis and cancer. But this new study is the first to examine the fruit’s properties as a wound-healing agent and skin protectant.
The researchers firstly studied the molecular properties of cocklebur fruit extracts. They also isolated particular compounds that could contribute to anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
After, they used cell cultures and a 3D tissue model with properties similar to human skin. This experiment aimed to study how these compounds affect our skin.
Lab test results showed that extracts from cocklebur fruit encouraged collagen production, sped wound healing and exerted a protective effect against UVB radiation.
Different subspecies affect quality
Cocklebur is native to Southern Europe, Central Asia and China. Due to its biology, it has spread worldwide, and we can find them often in moist or sandy areas such as roadside ditches and riverbanks.
Scientists have described numerous subspecies, varieties, and types of this weed. But because the plant is dangerous to native species, most are not recognized in any serious fashion.
Nonetheless, the researchers also found that the bioactivity of cocklebur fruits grown in different places. According to them, fruits grown in South Korea had slightly higher anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and greater wound-healing activity than those grown in China.
Possibly fatally potent
The burs, while annoying because they can get tangled in hair and fur, can also be dangerous. Parts of the plant are extremely toxic to mammals. Cockleburs has also caused many a death in both livestock and humans.
On that note, in spite of the feasible benefits that we can reap from this plant, the researchers warned that high doses of cocklebur fruit extract can be harmful. in the future, there should be further research to determine how to use it safely in cosmetic or pharmaceutical applications.
“In its burrs, cocklebur fruit also has a toxic constituent, carboxyatractyloside, which can damage the liver. Cocklebur showed a potential as a cosmetic agent by increasing collagen synthesis; however, it showed negative results with higher concentrations,” Song said.
In the future, the researchers plan to further study the biological mechanisms involved. They also want to conduct experiments in animal alternatives to explore ways to safely adapt cocklebur fruit extracts for use in cosmetic products.
“Finding the proper concentration seems very important and would be key to commercializing cocklebur fruit extracts in cosmetics,” Song added.
It’s gonna take some time to turn the invasive weed into some skin creams we can get off the shelves. But I believe this research is a great start to that.
Because hey, who doesn’t wanna have skin care products with all that benefits and they’re made out of invasive weed? And have the ability to somehow help fighting the pesky weed? I certainly do.
What to do with cocklebur around you?
The truth of the matter is that, we still have years of development before we know for sure if we can just take out all cocklebur plants around us and send them all to be processed as cosmetics or other medicine.
But if you happen to find a cluster of cockleburs around your house, or even in your farm, there are some ways to prevent them. For one, the plant often establishes first on unmanaged areas, so get rid of it quickly from these areas before it can make its way to your field.
For farms, two of the few ways are 1) cultivate row crops early, close to the row, and repeat regularly until the crop is too large to tolerate tractor traffic and 2) eliminate a high proportion of cocklebur seeds using soil solarization.
Now, as for disposing of it, there are many ways you can do, such as drying it up or even composting it—under very strict conditions. You can read more about the ways to do it here.