My mother, a horticulturalist, often reminds me that a “weed” is a plant growing in a place where you don’t want it to grow. By that definition, any plant could be a weed. For most people however, a weed is a valueless plant of which the perfect example is the dandelion. At best people consider it a “beneficial weed“. If we only knew – or at least remembered – what our ancestors knew about this herb, we might take a second look at what’s growing in the cracks of the sidewalk.
What our ancestors knew is that dandelions are powerful herbal medicine. The oldest mentions of the dandelion was in the 10th and 11th centuries by Arabian physicians. Traditionally, the dandelion leaf and root have been used to treat disorders of the liver, gall bladder and kidney. Preparations of dandelion were employed as a tonic for poor digestion and rheumatism.
What we know today is that the dandelion leaves are diuretic which can aid in kidney and urinary conditions, but at the same time are high in potassium which is a mineral that is eliminated by the kidneys especially with increased urination. The leaves and root have also been shown to increase bile production of the gall bladder by up to 40%. (One note of caution, because of this dandelion should not be used if bile ducts are blocked and should only be used under the supervision of a physician when gall stones are present.)
We also know that the dandelion root is a mild laxative which can help in sluggish digestion and is also anti-inflammatory which can help with the irritation of the connective tissue of rheumatism and fibromyalgia.
Dandelion leaves are rich in many vitamins and minerals – and with some minerals even out supply spinach in nutrients! For example, a cup of dandelion leaves provides 112% of the USDA recommended daily allowance of Vitamin A (more than carrots), 32% of Vitamin C, and 535% of Vitamin K.
The plant is a perennial – which means that the same root will produce a plant season after season. The entire plant is edible with its bitterness varying through out the season. For example, the leaves are best harvested early in the spring or when the first young leaves of the plant emerge, before the flowers appear. As the leaves get older during the summer, they are increasingly bitter which is a turn-off for the tastes of most people. Later in the fall, after a frost, the leaves again lose much of their bitterness and can be harvested again.
The leaves can be used raw to compliment salads or sauteed with other greens or vegetables. Boiling the leaves first will also help to make them more mild tasting, but will also leach out much of their nutrients.
The yellow flowers of the dandelion are also edible. Stick to the yellow leaves and remove any of the green parts of the base of the flower and the stem. Many people eat them raw in salads or saute them as with the leaves. But another variation is to batter them and fry them just as you might with a squash flower. The flower can also be brewed into an herbal tea or even fermented into a dandelion wine. In Japan, pickled dandelion flower is quite common.
The root is best harvested in the fall when it is at its highest nutrient content and the least bitter. It can be cooked much like any other root vegetable, in stews and soups as well as roasted. In fact, the roasted root can then be ground and brewed as a coffee substitute! It is said that the taste is nearly identical to coffee, without the caffeine.
From my mother’s perspective as a horticulturalist, the dandelion is a beneficial plant to other crops. First, the flowers are highly attractive to honey bees which use the pollen to make honey. Additionally, the strong tap root can help break up dense soil and aid more shallow rooted plants, like tomatoes, gain deeper purchase into the softened soil. Additionally, dandelions tend to increase surface soil fertility, not decrease it as the deep tap root draws nutrients up from the deeper layers of earth thereby benefiting neighboring plants, not competing with them.
So before you reach for the weed-killer the next time you step over a dandelion, take a second look at this amazing plant. Hopefully, you might instead reach for the scissors and harvest some leaves or flowers and try them during your next meal.
– Paul Kulpinski, LMT