Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz – If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that I enjoy tweaking people’s perceptions of the wilder parts of our world – especially those that we cannot completely control. That’s why this week’s article is all about dandelions – those pretty little yellow flowers folks either simply love or absolutely hate. But what is it about this non-native species that drives some people up the wall and how can we harness its potential to our advantage? If you’re tired of battling those little yellow flowers, perhaps it’s time to embrace them and use them to your benefit.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t necessarily like dandelions popping up all over my vegetable and flower gardens. In fact, I root out my fair share of them every year. But I also don’t hate them. In fact, I like them quite a lot.
Perhaps it is my passion as an herbalist, naturalist and wild edible forager that forces me to recognize how important dandelions are for humans, bees and butterflies. Or perhaps it’s because I have such intense memories of playing with them as a child that I just can’t get my dander up enough to hate them as an adult. I mean, who hasn’t picked a feathery dandelion seed head and cried out “Make a wish!” before blowing (sowing) them to the wind?
Identifying True Dandelions
Dandelions (Taraxacum officianalis) belong to the Aster Family (Asteraceae) of plants. While most people can positively identify dandelions when they see them in bloom, there are several plants that are often mistaken for dandelions. While these look-alikes are harmless, they also don’t have the medicinal properties or flavor of true dandelions.
The leaves of dandelions are always presented in a dense basal rosette of deeply serrated, smooth, stemless leaves that never have spines, prickles or down. All of dandelion’s leaves are attached directly to the root crown and never grow above the basal rosette. The flowers of dandelion are born singly atop each smooth, hollow, unbranched stem. All parts of dandelion exude a white milky sap (latex) that can stain the skin.
Using Dandelion as Food
As an edible, dandelion has many uses. In France (and gaining popularity in the US), the very young leaves are popular as a salad herb. The root, like that of its cousin chicory, is roasted and added to coffee or used as a coffee substitute, New Orleans-style. The blossoms make a nice wine or jelly and can be used as garnishes for fruit drinks, punches, tea, salads, and more. The flowers also add color and nutritive value to culinary vinegars and oils. If you want a real conversation starter at your next party, try serving candied dandelion blossoms!
Dandelion flowers are best when picked just as they open and can be used either fresh or dried. When I harvest dandelion flowers for drying, it’s usually because I want to use them in winter tea blends. For that purpose, I like to remove the green calyx at the base of the flower before drying, which helps to reduce the bitter flavor that the green parts of the plant naturally have.
The leaves of dandelion are best picked when very young and tender. This is especially true when the leaves are to be eaten raw in salads. And while some people, myself included, find even the very young leaves a bit bitter, as the plant ages, the leaves become even more bitter and unpalatable. So, if you plan to eat fresh leaves, pick them when they are very, very young. Older leaves can be lightly steamed or boiled before eating, which helps reduce their bitter nature.
Medicinal Uses of Dandelion
Due to their ability to replace potassium and trace minerals lost through diuresis (urination), dandelion roots are often referred to as a “blood tonic” and used to treat anemia. Dandelion roots are nutritive, diuretic and digestive. They have historically been used to treat digestive disorders (sluggish digestion and the resultant symptoms, such as chronic skin conditions) as well as in the treatment of bladder, liver, gallbladder and kidney ailments.
Dandelion is believed to balance blood-sugar levels, which can be helpful in the treatment of diabetes and other blood sugar disorders. The root is a weak antibiotic used to treat certain types of yeast infections such as (Candida albicans) and minor infections resulting from cuts and scrapes. While dandelion root is useful in many circumstances, it is most commonly used in combination with other herbs to help increase their effectiveness.
How to Gather and Store Dandelion Roots
The roots, leaves and flowers of dandelion are edible with a little preparation, but the roots are used primarily for medicinal purposes. Before harvesting dandelions from lawns, make sure the area hasn’t been treated with pesticides, chemical fertilizers or herbicides. And don’t ever gather dandelions from public spaces because you never know what’s been sprayed there! It’s also best to avoid harvesting from areas next to busy roads, which are often loaded with heavy metals and other toxic residues from automobiles.
Like most roots used for medicinal purposes, dandelion roots are most potent in the fall. Unfortunately, it’s also the most difficult time to find and properly identify the plants. So, unless you have a cultivated bed of dandelion, it is best (and easiest) to harvest the roots in the spring or early summer months when the plants are in flower.
Now, if you have ever tried to eradicate dandelions by digging you already know that their roots can grow down deep into the soil (which is why they are so good for the ground!) and even the big ones are extremely brittle and have a penchant for breaking at just the wrong time.
Here in the Ozarks, we are abundantly blessed with clay and rocks, which makes digging dandelion root quite the process. To make things just a bit easier, I like to wait until after we get a good soaking rain. Once the ground is softened, I use a dandelion weeding tool or a long, sturdy screwdriver to get down and under as much of the root as possible before trying to lift it. And if the root breaks, don’t worry – even root pieces can be dried and used. Once you’ve got all the roots you want, wash them well in clear water to remove any dirt and embedded grit. Don’t discard small side roots, they are just as medicinal as the main ones.
Many herbalists like to use fresh roots when making tinctures, but dried roots can also be used. I like to dry at least a portion of the roots I gather for making infusions and decoctions. Dried roots also store well for long periods of time. but keep in mind that if you plan on drying your roots, you will want to slice each root lengthwise and then chop them into small pieces first because dried dandelion roots are hard as a rock! After chopping, spread roots out evenly on a pan, plate or fine screen and dry in the shade until crisp. Store the root pieces in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid for up to a year.
Dandelions are generally considered safe to use for food and herbal medicines. However, due to their strong diuretic action, medicinal doses of dandelion should not be used in cases where inflammation of the urinary tract is present – such as during a urinary tract infection. Also, do not attempt to replace diuretic drugs prescribed to you for a heart condition without the supervision of a professional herbal practitioner and your primary care physician. If you are allergic or sensitive to natural forms of latex, or to other Asteraceae (daisy) family members, ascertain your sensitivity to dandelion before ingesting or handling.
Although dandelions are not native to North America, they have naturalized to such an extent that eradication is now completely impossible. So, instead of being frustrated by them, it is better to embrace them for what they truly are – a nutritious fodder for domestic and wild animals, an important and early source of pollen for bees, and an important nectar and food plant for several species of native butterflies. But just as importantly, dandelions are a valuable, abundant and reliable source of food and medicine for us humans – and of course, a very important component of childhood memories.
© 2016 Jill Henderson Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.
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Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.