Dandelion – Taraxacum officinale
Eat Here Now is a manifesto of not only eating wild and local foods, but of cultivating awareness and connection to the place one inhabits. We all inhabit different places on this fine earth, and almost anywhere we travel across it, we are bound to run into our long lost friend and ally: the Dandelion. That’s why the Dandelion is in many ways Eat Here Now’s “mascot”. It pops up in peculiar places, where we think we don’t want or need it, and always shows off with an attitude of resilience, sunny-bright yellow flowers and an almost indestructible head of wind blown seed. In cracks, lawns, sidewalks, parking lots, driveways and more—it’s one of the most well adapted species in the wild world, and more than likely you already know Dandelion, for better or worse. Let’s make this relationship one for the better.
Dandelion is probably the best plant to start with when learning about wild food and medicine: It is easy to identify, is versatile in its’ consumption, and is a truly powerful plant for repairing those places that need a little or a lot of love—inside as well as out.
Dandelion is member to the Asteraceae family—the second largest plant family in the world—the family of lettuce, sunflowers, daisies, and so on. This family was once called the Compositae family; that’s because plants in this family have flowers that are composed of many small flowers, called ray flowers. Each ray flower makes one seed, and if we recall the seed heads of a dandelion, we can see visually how each ray flower is pollinated to form each seed, the total of which we call the plants seed head. The widely distributed species most know, especially in N. American, is Taraxacum officinale. Officinale is the species name devoted to plant species used historically in medicinal preparations.
Dandelion is an herbaceous perennial. It grows as a basal rossette, forming no true stem. Its’ leaves range from 3 to 16 inches long with toothed edges which are, depending on the microclimate it is found in, deeply to mildy lobed (this is where it gets its’ name Dande Lion—derived from the Latin phrase Dens leonis—lion’s tooth). I often find that leaves growing in moist or shaded conditions will have shallow lobes and more tender characteristics, while those growing in harsh or dry environments will be deeply lobed and generally more tough. Each leaf has a central rib that is often a lighter shade than the leaves, and sometimes tinted with a reddish hue. All parts of the plant exude a white, milky sap when broken.
Flower stalks—the penducles—shoot 3 to 14 inches up from the root crown from early to mid spring. These are hollow, unbranched and leafless.The surface of the stalk can be smooth or covered in a very fine white wool, and sometimes, but not always, tinged by a reddish color. Atop of each flower stalk is born one composite flowerhead, made of the many previously mentioned ray flowers. And what a beautiful flowerhead she is. After the flowers are a memory, the ubiquitous downy white seed heads form, each tiny seed equipped with a sail-of-sorts, carrying it on the winds to its new home.
*Interesting tidbit* A group of enthusiastic botanists in Britain have created a subset of field botany called taraxacology, appropriately dubbing themselves taraxacologists. They’ve identified around 253 unique species in the British Isles alone. Imagine the possibilities for North America![nbcite refID=”8″ refName=”7″]
Dandelions are found growing all across N. America, Europe, and Asia. It grows commonly on roadsides, in ditches, parking lots, cracks, farm fields, vegetable gardens, disturbed forests, meadows, old fields and of course, lawns—a poignant ecosystem we’ll touch on in a moment. Dandelions are a pioneer species. Pioneers are a whole class of plants whose characteristics and niches are such that they can colonize and grow on degraded lands and effectively prepare the soil and ecosystem for further iterations of succession. For these reasons and more, dandelion is easily found in ecosystems where repair is necessary or where disturbance is evident (or often times not evident due to succession).
Of the pioneer species, Dandelion is a markedly useful and important indicator plant, being that is is a dynamic accumulator. Dynamic accumulators “mine” minerals and substances from deep soil layers of subsoil or weathered bedrock and transport them to the plant parts to be deposited on the soil surface. Dandelions accumulate significant levels of Potassium, Calcium, Phosphorus, Copper and Iron. For these reasons, dandelions are used in Biodynamic compost preparations and in Permaculture systems extensively. It can be grown in gardens to “chop and drop” as a mulch and fertilizer, or fed to livestock as a nutrient dense fodder—which increases milk flow in cows (and humans alike).
You might guess, or know from observation, that the dandelion’s taproot is strong and grows deep. With this quality, it is capable of breaking up compacted soils, clay, and hardpans. It can be used in land reclamation and repair. A study conducted in urban Montreal demonstrates dandelion’s ability to take up the elements zinc, copper, manganese, lead, and cadmium. It was also observed growing in soils with high concentrations of various metals—leading researchers to believe that it is an effective remediator, having the ability to phytochelate metals out of contaminated soils.[nbcite refID=”1″ refName=”1″](1)
Those little yellow flowers are like sign posts that read “Regeneration in Process”. Wherever we see dandelion, we can now associate the ideas of healing, repair and clean-up—the noble act of cleaning up the messes and mistakes of our very own making. Dandelions’ ecological associations and functions interestingly enough, translate to its nutritional and medicinal qualities. Lets check those out…
The lovely, lavish, green lawn. Right… Each year millions of dollars are patriotically spent on herbicides and weed killers in attempts to kill dandelions growing in America’s most coveted form of waste, the lawn. Because dandelions are relatively indestructible plant, this is a either a fruitless or expensive ritual, but often it is both. These same artificial ecosystems are then pampered by another billion dollar industry of lawn fertilizers and life support programs from multinational chemical companies. Lawn owners go on to spend more of their hard earned money on trucked in, nutrient-less, flabby, flavorless salad greens. Imagine that!
All of this is to elude that Dandelions are one of the most nutrient dense vegetables available to human kind for FREE and literally everywhere. Dandelions are “superfoods” in all senses of the term. They’re rich in vitamins, minerals, and nutrients: beta-carotene (Vitamin A precursor), ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), Vitamin D, Vitamine E, Vitamin B6, phosphorous, potassium, calcium, iron, and manganese, to name literally a few. Herbalist Susun Weed calls dandelion the “bendover” vitamin, because one only need bendover, pick and chew two leaves, and will be filled with the daily requirements of vitamin C. About those vitamin supplements you’ve been buying…
Dandelions are notorious bitters. As a food plant, they rank among chicory or endive in bitterness— relatively mild and very enjoyable (and trust me, if you’ve tasted the skin on burdock stems you know disgusting bitter!). As a medicine they are much more mild than traditional bitters such as wormwod or yarrow. For this reason and many more, they are effective in aiding the kidneys, digestive organs, and as a diuretic. The whole plant has been used traditionally as a tonic and stimulant for the liver, kidneys, and urinary system. It has shown effectiveness in various scientific studies for its antimicrobial[nbcite refID=”2″ refName=”2″](2), anticancer[nbcite refID=”4″ refName=”3″](3), antioxidant [nbcite refID=”6″ refName=”4″](4), anti-inflammatory [nbcite refID=”7″ refName=”5″](5), and anti-obesity[nbcite refID=”5″ refName=”6″](6) actions.
The renowned 17th century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper describes dandelions medicinal qualities as such,
“It is of an opening and cleansing quality, and therefore very effectual for the obstructions of the liver, gall and spleen, and the diseases that arise from them, as the jaundice, and hypochondriac; it openeth the passages of the urine both in young and old; powerfully cleanseth imposthumes and inward ulcers in the urinary passages, and by its drying and temperate quality doth afterwards heal them; for which purpose the decoction of the roots or leaves in white whine, or the leaves chopped as pot-herbs, with a few alisanders (alexanders), and boiled in their broth, are very effectual.” (parenthese by me)
The whole plant is used to make tinctures, decoctions, and infusions. My favorite medicinal usage is as a tincture of the root, taken regularly to help tonify the kidneys and liver and promote the elimination of toxins from the blood. Along with burdock, dandelion is my go to blood cleanser—the advantage being that it can be consumed regularly and in large doses. I also enjoy the dried roasted roots steeped in hot water, which some considered the finest coffee substitute—more on this in a moment. Dry the leaves and use them in infusions and broths.
Dandelion is bar none my favorite spring green. The deep, dark bitter greens are welcomed to my spring salads, served steamed or sautéed with butter and garlic, cooked into hearty fall soups and stews, or served as the star in a wilted salad with bacon and honey! They’re presence defines spring for me, when I can go out and freely chomp on the leaves, taking in all of those nutrients winters’ diet deprived me of. Some folks get turned off by the cunning bitterness of dandelion greens, or bitter foods in general, but I think that with practice and proper preparation this turn off can be transformed into a turn on.
The herbalist Frank Cook said that while our culture is infatuated with sweet foods, we neglect those bitter things in both our diet and our life—we use phrases like “the bitter end”, “the bitter truth”, and in many ways downplay the importance of bitter things in both life and food. Bitters are those aspects that force us to grow, those challenging places that alter our perceptions and create change. When I taste a bitter food, I start to salavate, craving more, and on some level know that the bitterness denotes a food packed with nutrition. A very simple way to wean your palate is by starting small: spike a mixed salad with the subte bitterness of a sprinkle of nice, tender, young dandelion greens and a well made dressing. Baby steps…
When they start to flower, I pick them by the bowl full. I use the flowers to make wines, meads, and one of my favorite spring and early summer treats, dandelion fritters. I will also tear the flowers apart and liberally sprinkle the petals on top of salads.
In early spring and late autumn I dig every dandelion root I come across. I then scrub them, dry them, and roast them like coffee. This breaks down the polysaccharides in the root into fructose, imparting a delicious, roasted, creamy, and aromatic essence. I then grind the roasted roots and steep it in hot water to make a wonderful coffee-like drink. An absolute staple!
Dandelion’s are versatile friends—and they are, in my opinion and experience, truly our friends. They work to repair the landscape, following human “foot steps”, regenerating those places that are in disrepair. They want to reclaim manicured, artificial ecosystems, kept alive by the life support of a wasteful human era. And they work to nourish and heal our bodies. How many friends can we say all of that for? And even after being sprayed, ripped out, and bad mouthed, the dandelion still shows up for the job. For that matter, why fight the tide?
Dandelion’s are also the gateway into a world unseen, unthought, and untasted. That’s because they literally grow everywhere, are easily identified, and most folks already know of dandelions. It is the trip from knowing of to knowing about that alters our perception of this amazing plant. They are inescapable, indispensable, and indestructible plants that I believe we need not only for ecological health and personal wellness, but for the kitchen table. So get on. Let the lovely bitter linger on your palate, the dark mysterious diligence work through your internal organs, and the image of those debased yellow globes transmute in your mind. What a delightful experience.
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