Everybody knows the ubiquitous, perennial dandelion, but not everybody appreciates dandelions if they take up residency in their yard. Becoming familiar with dandelion’s uses might lead someone to think twice before taking a dandelion’s life.
In the most jovial of uses, dandelion flowers are a favorite childhood material for necklace making, and the geometric seed-globes provide an endless source for blowing wishes.
Used as food and medicine for thousands of years, dandelions are a standby for herbalists and wild food foragers. Originally native to Eurasia, common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) was introduced to North America in the mid-17th century. Due to dandelion’s skill in self-propagation, its introduction to the New World was likely an intention of the human and of the plant.
Medicinal actions of dandelion could be summed up as simply cleansing. The leaf and root are considered an alterative, meaning they cleanse the blood of waste debris produced by our immune system and metabolism. Back when doctors used plants for medicine, they utilized dandelion for treating cases of “autointoxication,” a self-poisoning condition resulting from sedentary lifestyles, and diets of refined flour and high saturated fat.
Recent research demonstrates dandelion leaf and root protect the liver from heavy toxins, such as carbon tetrachloride, also known as Freon. My auto mechanic explained how he digs dandelion roots from his yard to brew, which he learned from his grandmother. As an auto mechanic, exposed to toxins, his dandelion brew is great for his liver.
Dandelion’s saw-toothed leaves are diuretic and high in potassium salts, supporting kidney health. The vitamin-rich leaf is higher in vitamin A than carrots, and also contains vitamins B, C and D.
Spring greens are tasty in salads, tossed with dandelion flowers for a splash of color. From late summer into fall, leaves grow bitter, which fosters good digestion. Add bitter fall leaves to sweet vegetables like beets, parsnips and sweet potatoes to balance the flavor.
Dandelion roots stimulate the release of bile from the gallbladder, which helps to prevent gallstone formation, and has historically been used to treat existing gallstones. The taproot also is a gentle liver tonic used in chronic hepatitis. Current research demonstrated dandelion root induces apoptosis, or cell death, in leukemia cell lines.
Dandelion roots contain inulin, a nonstarch polysaccharide fiber technically called fructo-oligosaccharide, which prevents fluctuations in blood sugar levels, while also feeding the good flora bacteria in the gut. Good intestinal bacteria play a significant role in a healthy immune system.
Fall is the best time for dandelion root digging due to the significantly higher inulin content. Fresh roots are best, and can either be boiled, also called decocted, or roasted and used as a coffee substitute or additive. An herbal colleague makes dandelion root ice cream, which is surprisingly delicious.
After a cost-benefit analysis of herbicidal consequences versus dandelion’s virtues, hopefully one will concede that it’s better to round them up with trowels and spades, and eat them, rather than using chemicals.
This article originally appeared in the Urban Forager Column of the Athens Banner-Herald, Sunday, November 21, 2010.
Roasted Dandelion Coffee: Roast cleaned dandelion roots on a cookie sheet for 4 hours until the roots easily snap and the insides are brown. Use a coffee grinder to grind the roots. For interest, add cardamon before brewing the dandelion coffee.
Euell Gibbons’ Dandelion Wine: “Gather 1 gallon of dandelion flowers on a dry day. Put these in a 2-gallon crock and pour 1 gallon of boiling water over them. Cover the jar and allow the flowers to steep for 3 days. Strain through a jelly cloth so you can squeeze all the liquid from the flowers. Put the liquid in a kettle, add 1 small ginger root, the thinly pared peels and the juice of 3 oranges and 1 lemon. Stir in 3 pounds of sugar and boil gently for 20 minutes. Return the liquid to the crock and allow it to cool until barely lukewarm. Spread 1/2 cake of yeast on a piece of toasted rye bread and float it on top. Cover the crock with a cloth and keep in a worm room for 6 days. Then strain off the wine into a gallon jug, corking it loosely with a wad of cotton. Keep in a dark place for 3 weeks, then carefully decant into a bottle and cap or cork tightly. Don’t touch it until Christmas or later” (pp. 81-82).
Gibbons, E. (1962). Stalking the wild asparagus. Chambersburg, PA: Alan C. Hood & Co.