In defense of dandelions: edible and medicinal weeds

I know, they are everywhere, they muck up your nice even lawn monoculture, and they’re disastrously hard to get rid of.  Dandelions are also excellent herbal medicine, a good vitamin and mineral packed spring and fall salad addition, a reasonable coffee substitute, and a “hyper-accumulator” helping improve your soil.  You can even batter and fry the flowers.

Dandelions in Herbal Medicine

The botanical name for the common dandelion is Taraxacum officinale; that species name, officinale, was given to plants commonly used for medicine back when all the naming of plants was going on. The herbalist terminology says dandelions have “tonic” and “diuretic” effects.  This translates to clearing the blood, which it does with its namesake, taraxin, reducing inflammation in the liver and stimulating the secretion of bile in the gall bladder, and then eliminating any problems via urine.

Strengthened bile secretions can help break up gall and kidney stones. Hepatitis and jaundice are helped by dandelion tea (especially that made from the raw root), as are folks chronically stressed or angry.  People feeling listless or like they’ve indulged in a little too much processed sugary food recently can drink dandelion tea or, if the flavor is too much, take the herb in pill form.

Important note: anyone with Irritable Bowel Syndrome will want to steer clear. Y’all don’t seem to need the extra help with the bile.

The milky white substance that comes out when you pick the stem was used to treat warts and pimples and to soothe bee stings and blisters.

Dandelions for Dinner

The leaves are tastiest in the early spring before the flowers come out and in the late fall after the first frost.  In between those two periods, dandelions develop a fairly strong bitter flavor that modern tongues are unaccustomed to.  This bitterness can be boiled out or sautéed for a good 20 minutes, but save the water you boil them in: your houseplants will appreciate all the nutrients you just boiled out. (once the water is cool)

Dandelion leaves are packed with vitamin A, higher in beta carotene than carrots, and have more iron and calcium than spinach.  They are also high in the B vitamins (1, 2, 5, 6, and 12) and vitamins C, D, and E, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, biotin, and inositol.

The yellow parts of the flowers add a colorful, zesty-bitterness to salad, or the yellow flower can be dipped in batter and then fried.  Use the green stem as a handle to bite off the resulting delicacy, but you’ll probably find the stem itself too potent to be tasty.

Though it is the raw roots that are used medicinally, slow roasting the roots until they are a rich brown, grinding and perking like one does commercial coffee, was a common coffee substitute once upon a time.  Read the labels of the coffee replacement drinks in the store: I bet you see chicory and dandelion in that ingredients list.

Dandelions in the Garden

dandelions as salad greens

Look at that horrible soil. No wonder only dandelions grow here.

Let’s start with those huge taproots.  “Weeding the yard” usually means digging up dandelions, which usually means stabbing at the roots with those prong tongued dandelion pullers.  This breaks the taproot, encouraging it to fork and grow two where you had one.

If you really must get them out, stab around the dandelion root until the whole circle is loosened and then try to pry it out from fairly deep.

As much as you might dislike them, however, those roots are doing work breaking up hard packed soils.  Taprooted plants in general thrive in really hostile spots, in part because no other plant wants to compete with them.

In addition to breaking up the hard pan, dandelions are amongst the group permaculturalists refer to as “hyper-accumulators”.  Comfrey is another top notch hyper-accumulator.  What this means is that the plant is a heavy feeder, drawing minerals from deep within the earth.  Those minerals wind up in the leaves and roots.  When the leaves and roots die back and decompose, the minerals are released into the upper soil layers to be used by other plants.

As it happens, about 2.5 inches (8 cm) of grass is enough to shade out dandelion seeds, making it impossible for them to grow.  A mower set at 3 inches and then run over the yard to take out any yellow flowers you aren’t going to eat, will not only cut off the heads before they seed but create a lawn too tall for any of your neighbor’s seeds to germinate.

As the patch where the dandelions are gets looser, richer soil, aggressively competitive grass will move in and the alleged problem should solve itself.

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3 responses to “In defense of dandelions: edible and medicinal weeds

  1. I am trying to get used to bitter tastes such as dandelion because I think a lot of the medicines in our food has been bred out of it. We pick a lot of wild greens and have those. Man, some are really strong tasting!

  2. Yay, I love these little buggers now.

  3. I make dandelion wine just about every year. The flavor would surprise most people. Very tasty. It comes out a beautiful golden color. A little darker if I add raisins.

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