If You Can't Beat 'Em, Eat 'Em! Digging Dandelions
By Catherine Monahan
Edged in the asphalt cracks of city playgrounds and crowding the irrigation ditches beside rural roads, the dandelion thrives where most plants don't have a prayer. Acid or alkaline soil, sun or shade, dry slope or damp lowland—it makes little difference to the cheerful yellow perennial.
Hardscrabble cousin of daisies, asters and goldenrod, the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) likely originated in Europe and Asia. Its route is uncertain, but whether it stowed in the hold of a sailing ship or blew across the Bering Strait, the dandelion now flourishes throughout North America and in nearly every other temperate climate. And it's no wonder. The dandelion is built to last. Armed with a long, tough taproot, it easily survives bitter winters and determined gardeners alike. Its sturdy mat of toothy green leaves gamely ducks lawn mower blades and sends up fresh blooms after every new beheading. Each flower that misses the swing of the knife will live to release up to 200 silky, airborne seeds, ensuring its legacy.
Herbicides, step aside—like the coyote and the kudzu, the dandelion can't be killed. At best, it can be controlled. Maybe we should learn to live with the feisty herb instead, and spend our summers sipping pale, yellow dandelion wine.
An Appealing Aperitif
From France, Italy and Bulgaria to Pakistan, India and Tibet, dandelion leaves are the stuff of which crispy green salads and steamed side dishes are made. Prized for their dark color and edgy flavor, dandelions are not only tolerated, they're cultivated.
"In Europe, especially in Italy, they grow a garden variety of dandelion that is a little less bitter and grows larger," says Ed Smith, who harvests several hundred pounds of dandelions each year for his plant extract business in Williams, Ore.
That dandelions make good food is a universal fact. Wilderness survival often hinges on the plant that, from bloom to root, is a dependable year-round food source for anyone wandering far from a grocery. The venerable Joy of Cooking (Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc.) gives dandelions first mention in its wild salad greens section, while the equally respected Wyman's Gardening Encyclopedia (Macmillan Publishing Company), never shy about recommending herbicides, advises readers how to grow and gather dandelions for dinner. Dandelion roots can be slow-roasted and brewed like coffee and the flowers steeped to make homemade wine. Lightly steamed with vinegar and olive oil or tossed raw in a salad, the leaves are loaded with potassium, iron and more vitamin A than carrots. It's one reason herbalists consider them the ideal diuretic. Unlike most blood pressure drugs that leach important minerals from the body, dandelion replenishes potassium and magnesium as it gently eases fluid retention.
Europeans traditionally enjoy a salad after dinner, because, according to Joy of Cooking, "a green salad makes a clean break between meat and sweet." But there's more cause to wait. Dandelion leaves, as well as other bitter greens such as escarole, endive and chicory, may improve appetite and treat minor digestive problems. When your brain interprets a taste as bitter, it alerts the salivary glands and stomach to release extra digestive juices. Bitter aperitifs and liqueurs such as gentian have the same effect. Although dandelion leaves are considered digestive aids, the plant's root is more potent. Preliminary studies suggest the roots stimulate bile flow and contain a bitter substance called taraxacin that aids in the digestion process.
"Dandelion is one of those herbs called a cholagogue," says Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council in Austin, Texas. "That means it stimulates bile flow and increases the ability to digest rich, fatty foods like meats and cheese." Dandelion root is also purported to help relieve constipation, headaches and arthritis, but such uses haven't been studied.
Your Own Lion's Lair
Dandelion root, leaf and whole plant is available in extract, tablet and capsule form—or you can simply grow your own. As nearly anyone with a lawn knows, raising dandelions is easy. "Just like any other plant, with the proper water and fertilizer, they'll thrive," says Smith, whose farmed plants grow larger and more lush than the typical sidewalk variety.
If you'd prefer to harvest neighborhood dandelions, keep a few rules in mind. "Pick dandelion leaves early before they start to flower," advises Smith. "The older they get, the more bitter they get. They also start to get tougher. Harvest roots once the plants begin to die off in the fall, or very early in the spring when the leaves are just starting to emerge. Once the plant starts to die back, it sends a lot more of its energy down to the roots."
"Don't pick dandelions or any other herbs for consumption that grow by a roadside," adds Blumenthal. "They could be polluted by auto exhaust or runoff from the road. Also, don't pick dandelions from a lawn that may have been sprayed with chemicals or fertilizers."
Other than that, you'll have no problem. Dandelions are easy to identify, pick and prepare. And they're not only tasty, they're good for you. So don't wait until you're lost in the woods to sample one of spring's finest flowers.
Catherine Monahan is a health and science writer and a frequent contributor to Delicious Living.