My article on dandelion just ran in the local MS magazine, Catfish Alley, and I wanted to share it here with you!
There is no spring-time herb (well, almost year-round in Mississippi) that is better to talk about than dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). A member of the aster family, one of the largest botanical families in the plant kingdom, this yellow flowering delight is largely misunderstood. This plant came over to the US with European settlement, where it has a deep and long tradition of use, and has since become naturalized.
As an herbalist, it has baffled me to see the countless commercials and ads spraying this potent medicine with none other than RoundUp. (Pauses to collect myself.) One workshop at a time, one garden club at a time, one blog post at a time, one magazine article at a time, I hope to change this habit from spraying dandelions with chemicals to blowing dandelion seed-heads in lawns and gardens for all to enjoy.
Let me tell you why.
Dandelion or “dent de lion” as named by the French or “lion’s tooth,” refers to the jagged shaped leaves of the plant. I like to also think that the name refers to the ferocity of its medicine. Not only can you find it in the plush comforts of your well-tended garden, you can also find it growing in the cracks of sidewalks and the most inhospitable places. This shows you the kind of tenacity this plant has for life. And, by partaking of its nourishment and medicine, your own body takes on its spirited nature.
Further, dandelion greens are a superfood. Packed with Vitamin A, K, C, calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, and omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, the greens are a great food to slip into salads, braised greens, quiches, and other dishes requiring greens. Dandelion is also one of the key herbs used to support and boost glutathione levels of the liver (glutathione is a powerful intracellular antioxidant).
How’s that for a weed?
The dried leaves make a delightful, spring tonic tea and are commonly sipped on in countries across Europe and Asia for its health benefits. Add some dried orange peel, a touch of dried ginger, and some honey and you may hear yourself swoon. Dandelion leaves are also a great diuretic and actually provide the body with needed potassium that is lost with the extra loss of fluid. It is one of the safest diuretics in the herb world.
The entire plant, from flower to root, is both edible and medicinal. It is one of the best medicines for the liver and gallbladder and is even used for chronic conditions such as jaundice. The entire plant has a cooling effect on the body, and most specifically to the liver. It has a bitter taste of which the American diet is sorely lacking.
The bitter truth
I remember the late herbalist Frank Cook talking about the merits of dandelion. He pointed out that the American diet is chocked full of the sweet and salty taste as well as fats. What we are missing is the bitter taste. Why is that important? Well, the bitter taste gives the body a “healthy challenge” and we now know that bitter receptors on the tongue activate bitter receptors throughout the body.
So, what does that mean? Basically, the bitter flavor is important for balancing blood sugar and, especially, for proper digestion. It wakes up the digestive tract by secreting enzymes along the digestive tract, stimulating bile production, encouraging peristalsis, and supporting the liver in all its myriad functions. The roots are also known as an alterative herb or “blood builder” as well as host to a prebiotic called inulin, now known to feed the beneficial bacteria in your gut (your body has no use for inulin otherwise).
One good way to get the roots in your system is to sip on them. The roasted roots of dandelion are particularly tasty, and, in the old days, were commonly sipped on as a coffee substitute. You can even find a really delightful instant coffee substitute called Dandy Blend at certain health food stores. It has a wonderful, roasted flavor.
I remember telling a young woman inquiring about herbal medicine one day to nibble on a dandelion root next time she spotted one. This way she could become familiar with the bitter taste and have kind of a rite-of-passage experience with an herb. The next time I saw her, her eyes lit up and she told me her dandelion story. She said that she brushed the dirt off the root and decided to eat the whole thing! She felt her body flush with warmth shortly after consuming it. This speaks to the root’s ability to stimulate digestive or metabolic fire (a bit too much in this case).
The great thing about dandelion is that you don’t have to be a skillful forager or brave the wilds of the backwoods to find this nutrient-dense and medicinal plant. All you have to do is take a peek into your front yard (or your neighbors) and it is sure to be there, triumphantly parading its yellow flowers for all to see. And, next time you see that elegant tuft of seeds, make a wish and send those seeds sailing!
FOUR ways to utilize the medicine and nourishment of dandelion:
1. For digestive support and deep nourishment – Pick the leaves and toss them with other greens in a salad.
2. For mineral content – Pack a ball jar with coarsely chopped dandelion greens and/or roots, fill with apple cider vinegar, line the top with parchment paper and screw on the lid. Wait 6 weeks. Strain and take vinegar “shots” or combine this with olive oil to make a salad dressing.
3. For a spring tonic tea – Pick the leaves and put them in a paper bag. Shake when you think to so that the leaves don’t mold. When they are dry, grind them up in a food processor and store in an air-tight jar. You can pour boiling water over a hearty pinch of herb in a mug for tea.
4. For beauty and zing – Pick the yellow flowers and toss them whole into a salad or pluck the peals to use as a garnish on any dish.