Robins and dandelions are among the very first signs of spring here in western Pennsylvania. This past winter, mild temperatures even encouraged them to flower in unusual months. But certainly by March, they are showing up as the first pollen providers for the growing season ahead. They are an amazing plant and definitely not the maligned “weed” that so many see them as. During these uncertain times, they can provide uplifting color AND food and medicine for their human neighbors…including YOU!
Dandelions are members of the daisy family, Asteraceae. The name “dandelion” is a mispronunciation of the French name “dent de lion” (“tooth of the lion”), referring to the dandelion’s serrated, tooth-like leaves. Dandelions are thought to have originated in Europe and Asia where humans have cultivated them for hundreds of years. The typical “wild type” dandelion has a rosette of toothed leaves originating from a central growing point or crown at the ground level of the soil. From this crown, buds numbering from one to five will emerge on tall stems of ten to twenty inches tall. These buds open up into the unmistakable golden yellow aster-like flowers which will then transform into the characteristic seed head puff ball. The average size of the dandelion plants can be from six inches wide and tall to 24 inches wide and tall – or more – if growing conditions permit large growth. European cultivars of dandelions will have even larger leaves as these selections are used as cutting greens.
HISTORY OF DANDELIONS
It is estimated that dandelions have been in cultivation since the Roman times. For the last thousand years, dandelions have been used as remedies for illnesses including liver problems, gastrointestinal distress, fluid retention, and skin ailments.
The dandelion was regarded as a staple in early North American colonial life. During the 17th century, dandelions were heavily used as food and medicine. They were intentionally imported to the Americas on the Mayflower as a food crop and a cure-all and were quickly incorporated into Native medicine. The dandelion has been an official medicine all over the world. It was part of the United States Pharmacopea from 1831-1926 and the National Formulareae from 1888-1965.
BEFORE YOU START HARVESTING
- Identify properly. Many look-alike plants have similar leaves, but dandelion leaves are hairless.
- Leaves and hollow flower stems grow directly from the rootstock. There is only one flower per stem, verses other branching look-alike plants. Root, leaves, and stem all exude a milky white sap.
- Leave some for the bees and other pollinators early in the growing/flowering season.
- Be sure that you are gathering flowers and plants from areas that have not been chemically sprayed or treated.
HOW TO HARVEST AND PRESERVE
Every part of dandelion is useful. Be sure to harvest leaves, flowers, and roots in the season when they are most vital. In early spring, leaves quickly shoot up and gather sunlight. This is when they are most tender and can be eaten fresh, cooked, or dried for tea. As the leaves age and are exposed to sunlight, they can become intensely bitter.
To preserve leaves for tea, harvest on a dry day. Use a rubber band to bundle small bunches then hang to dry, or dry leaves in single layers in baskets. Store in a glass jar for up to a year.
Buds appear at the base of the leaves in early spring. These can be eaten fresh, cooked or pickled. Buds open into flowering heads. These are best gathered for food or medicine on sunny days when they are dry and fully open, usually in April or early May. Drying the flowers is nearly impossible since they go to seed quickly.
You can preserve dandelion flowers for later use by immersing them in local raw honey in a glass jar with a tight fitting 2-part lid and storing them in a cool dry place.
To dry dandelion roots, dig up in spring through fall. Wash thoroughly. With a long piece of string, wrap each root a couple times, let out 6 inches of string and wrap another root, making a long dandelion chain. Hang until completely dry (do not dry the roots in a basket, as they can get moldy). Use clippers to cut into small pieces and store in a glass jar. Drying the roots whole prevents you from losing the white sap called inulin.
USE AS MEDICINE
For such a little plant, dandelions are loaded with vitamins and minerals such as A, B1, B2, B6, E, K, calcium, potassium, iron, and magnesium.
Root medicinal properties vary a little from season to season. In spring, they are more bitter and have optimal medicine as a digestive stimulant. In the fall, they are sweeter and higher in a carbohydrate called inulin, which is excellent for diabetics.
If you are looking for dandelion root’s anti-inflammatory and liver cooling properties, use it fresh by eating it, tincturing it, or making vinegar. The dry root tea is nutritive, good for digestion and detoxifying.
According to http://wildfoodsandmedicines.com/dandelion/:
If I could sum up the medicine of dandelion, I would say that it helps to break up congestion and to support eliminative function throughout the body. It can be safely used over a long period of time. If used consistently, it has the ability to shift long-standing imbalances.
Dandelion root supports the liver, an organ that is responsible for breaking down dietary toxins, drugs and hormones. It is used for acne, psoriasis, hepatitis and other conditions where improved liver function is needed. Dandelion root supports elimination through stimulating bile, and therefore acts as a gentle laxative. It also stimulates peristalsis (the rhythmic contraction of the intestines).
Another remarkable quality of dandelion root is that it helps the liver to preferentially make high quality fats (HDL) verses poor quality fats (LDL and VLDL). These fats are building blocks for cells in our body, and their quality determines the integrity and resilience of our tissue. Good quality fats lead to healthy tissue, which leads to good overall health.
Dandelion root contains up to 25% inulin – a compound that the plant produces to store energy. Inulin has become a popular addition to foods and medicinal products for several reasons. It helps our bodies to absorb minerals including calcium and magnesium. It is a prebiotic that builds healthy flora in our guts. Inulin also helps to provide food energy without raising blood sugar. In other words, it provides some of the energy of carbohydrates without the need for insulin. This makes dandelion an ideal plant for diabetics. Also, diabetics are typically deficient in minerals and dandelion helps to replenish these.
The leaves of dandelion are used as a simple and safe diuretic, meaning that they help the kidneys to excrete excess water in the body. Dandelion root aids the body in excreting excess uric acid. High levels of uric acid cause tissues to become more inflamed and reactive, potentially leading to allergies, hay fever and gout. PMS, arthritis and hives can be greatly improved with dandelion for this reason.
Dandelion flower’s high nutrient content makes it a popular addition to facial cleansers and creams. The flower oil is used for inflammation, sore muscles and arthritic joints. The milky white sap from the plant is used to get rid of warts. Over the course of the last 5 years I have heard over a dozen first-hand success stories about dandelion helping warts to fall off. It is important to dab the wart with sap once or twice a day for a couple of weeks.
USE AS FOOD
Besides being a medicinal plant, the dandelion is a tasty and highly nutritious vegetable. All parts of the plant can be eaten, including the root and flowers.
Leaves – Dandelion leaves can be a gourmet green if you know when to harvest and how to prepare them. They are most delectable in the early spring before flowering. As they are exposed to more sunlight and growth slows, they become intensely bitter. Harvest tender young leaves from the inside of the plant for best flavor. I pick young leaves and add them to salads. While they taste a little bitter, they add flavor variety as well as dense nutrients. Dandelion leaves have three times more Calcium, Iron, and Vitamin A than spinach! Leaves can also be steamed, sautéed or boiled and then incorporated into dips, casseroles and soups. Boiling bitter leaves in a pot of water for about 5 minutes helps to remove some of the bitter taste.
Buds – The key to eating dandelion buds is getting them early when they are still tight little buttons close to the base of the plant. They taste best when the sepals have just unfolded (pinch off the sepals from the base of the bud because they are a little bitter). Buds can be pickled or added to sautés, soups, and other slow-cooking dishes with plenty of liquid.
Flowers – What most of us think of as a single dandelion flower is actually hundreds of flowers growing together on a single base. Dandelion flowers are high in Vitamin A and have a surprisingly sweet and mild flavor. The base of the flowering head and especially the green sepals (they look like tiny leaves) are bitter. You can easily pull the flowers off and use them straight or in recipes. The petals can be a little dry when sprinkled heavily on salads or other raw dishes, so try adding them to cooked foods like quiche, pancakes, muffins, and fritters. And don’t forget the wine!
Roots – The dandelion root can be boiled and steeped in a tea or roasted and made into a coffee substitute.
Dandelion pesto: https://www.growforagecookferment.com/dandelion-pesto/
Dandelion honey butter: https://www.askaprepper.com/how-to-make-dandelion-honey-butter
Dandelion wine: https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/162202/dandelion-wine/
BEST GROWING CONDITIONS
Dandelions grow best in full sun in areas that have been recently or constantly disturbed such as construction sites, flower beds, newly weeded gardens, and lawns. Although they are non-native, these plants are not considered a threat to existing flora as they are not able to compete in areas where native plants are well established. In fact, their roots break through hard-packed soil to help aerate the earth and help reduce erosion. Their deep taproots pull up calcium and other nutrients from the depths of the soil, making them available to other plants.
Be mindful that when you dig dandelions up, even the smallest piece of root left in the ground will grow into a new plant. If you like them, that is a free gift!
If you live in Pennsylvania, be sure to pick up a hard copy of Carol Wingert’s little book, “Pennsylvania’s Edible Plants: A fun way to learn 27 Edible Plants on the Trail and in your own Backyard!” Dandelions are only the doorway into a lifestyle of foraging delicious and nutritious wild plants.
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