Plant Profile: Dandelion
“Dandelion don’t tell no lies, dandelion will make you wise, tell you if she laughs or cries, blow away dandelion”…Rolling Stones
Leaf, root, and flower
No instructions are needed to grow dandelion; it just grows. Everywhere. Everywhere, that is, in the Northern Hemisphere. One of the hardiest plants ever is not much found in the South because of its dislike for extreme hot temperatures. The perennial dandelion shows up on lawns, in meadows, fields, and disturbed areas. It is a wonderful plant to have in your yard to support at risk pollinators needing nectar. From a botanical perspective, dandelion leaves sprout directly from their taproot staying close to the ground in a crown formation. Each yellow petal is actually its own flower, together growing on a stalk that may remain low or reach up high. Inside the stem is a milky white substance called latex. The time for dandelion flowers is the spring, my lawn is covered with them then, but by mid June they are few and far between. Depending on the weather, they reappear in the fall as a welcome bit of sunshine. Flowers open in the morning, close at dusk, but after a few days will shut forever and the seeds arise in a fluffy globe that the wind will carry for future planting. A dandelion plant will live for 5 to 10 years birthing new generations along the way. Clean dandelions, exposed to no pesticide or chemical, can be harvested any time, even if in flower. Tender, slightly bitter spring leaves are most desirable for eating. Harvesting roots is reserved for the late autumn when the energy is strongest there. If a root looks very woody, it will likely also be highly bitter.
In the spring, occasionally fresh dandelion greens appear at the supermarket. More likely they will be sold at farmer’s markets. I always get a few bunches in one or two of my CSA boxes. Truly if you do not spray your grass or yard, it is easiest to cut leaves to use, but don’t pull the whole plant. Really the only way to get flowers is to use the ones you pick on your own. The best time to pick them is a sunny morning after the dew has dried. In England, dandelion flower picking traditionally is associated with St. George’s Day, which is April 23rd for making dandelion wine that will be ready for Christmas. If unable to locate growing dandelion or if unsure about its freedom from chemicals, buying organically grown or wild crafted dried dandelion leaf or root provides a convenient alternative. The shelf life is approximately one year, so buy smaller quantities and store away from light in jars rather than plastic bags. The marketing of dandelion is mainstream and products can be found in supermarkets as well as specialty food stores. Several tea brands include dandelion leaf or root tea bags. Prepared dandelion products make using it convenient all year long or if short on time to prepare your own. Dandelion honey, syrup, oil, extracts and even the coveted dandelion wine are all available to purchase online.
Dandelion is a poster child of herbalism, the epitome of the use of weeds as medicine. The transforming what is abundant around us into something so useful and diverse. Maybe that is why it is called lion’s ear, it is like the king of the jungle, roaring throughout the land. Tenacious it is, no matter what is done to eradicate it, come springtime, dandelion appears, first the green of the leaves, then the bright buttery flowers. Dandelion grows and flourishes no matter what. But the amazing side to dandelion is it quietly moonlights as a soil doctor. The root system has the ability to break up soil, enriching it and improving its condition. Dandelion is highly nutritious for humans as well, filled with vitamins concentrated in the leaves such as vitamin A with many carotenoids and vitamin C, B-vitamins, vitamin D and hard to get minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium, silicon, zinc, and potassium. The root is a source of inulin, a prebiotic that stimulates healthy intestinal flora growth and works in conjunction with probiotics. To obtain this benefit, the roots can either be juiced with other fruits and vegetables or powdered and added to oatmeal, yogurt, or applesauce. Capsules can be made from the powder and taken as a supplement as well. While dandelion may not have been the subject of scientific studies to confirm its many uses, it has an unspoiled safety record. The only precautions are for people with blockage in the gallbladder or bile ducts and in large amounts it can be troublesome to sensitive and cold individuals causing a bit of an upset stomach.
Many Americans don’t readily crave bitter foods and even shun them. Despite the bad reputation, bitter aspects of plants heal many digestion issues that people struggle with every day. Both the leaf and the root of dandelion predominantly taste bitter. Both have an earthy and bit of a salty mineral tang. The flavor from the root hints the slightest sweetness and obviously not the greenness of leaf. Bitter sometimes referred to as peppery in an attempt to make it more acceptable, quite honestly, if tempered with other taste sensations is not a monster. It feels clean, fresh, and easy to digest. Preparing dandelion with a nod to the bitter can be totally transformative and delicious.
Dandelion is reminiscent of springtime, maybe childhood lying in the grass blowing on fluffy seed globes and rubbing flowers on your chin. The smell of dandelion is a bit non-descript, with a green, plant-like, clean scent.
The name dandelion likely evolved from the mispronunciation of the French dent de lion, meaning tooth of the lion, so called as a reference to the tooth-like serrations of the leaves. From that emerges its most popular nickname lion’s tooth. Many others exist such as priest’s crown, Irish daisy, puffball, wet-a-bed, blowball, and wild endive. When the flower turns from yellow to a globe of seeds it is time for the dandelion to take its place in the line of flowers that predict love. Part of the reason dandelion grows so everywhere is the ease that the seeds blow from the globe into the air. Blow on a dandelion globe with your breath, though and the seeds may not come off so easily, this has folkloric meaning indicating a lack of love in your life. But if they all disperse, love’s passion abounds. If you are not happy with the answer, pick another dandelion, make a wish and blow again. Lore also tells that thoughts and dreams will be carried with the seeds and help make them come true. The number of times needed to blow off all the seeds once told farmers the hour of the day. Not only does dandelion tell time, it reports the weather for it is only in fair weather that the full fluffy seed globe will extend up from the grass, in rain it stays closed tight in a ball, only opening when the stormy weather is past. Astrologically, dandelion is associated with Jupiter with the significance of opening passages and cleansing.
Culinary and Cooking
Plant used as botanical medicines are not always edible and care must be taken as one part may be edible or medicinal another part toxic. Not so with dandelion, the whole plant is safe for both nutrition and remedy. Beginning with the first sprouting of leaves, so tender and just slightly bitter. These can be used in the same way as any leafy green, in salads, on a sandwich, steamed or blanched. Flowers are used for their decoration or they can be made into fritters, syrup or jelly. I have seen dandelion flower recipes for burgers, pancakes, soups, and breads. Most famously though dandelion flowers equate to dandelion wine, boiled then steeped with sugar, ginger, citrus peels and when cooled fermented. Roasted roots have been used as a coffee substitute, but the taste is not the same, nor is the stimulating effect present. I drink dandelion root tea and have come to crave the earthy taste, but it is even better as chai with added cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, and black pepper sweetened with a bit of honey and cream. Both dandelion greens and roots can be juiced and combined with other vegetable or fruit juices. To temper some of the bitterness, add a pinch of salt or a splash of olive or avocado oil to any dandelion dish. The Flavor Bible, by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg suggests either vinaigrette, especially if made with anchovies, or toasted nuts as the perfect companions for palatability.
The traditional therapeutic uses for dandelion spread out over systems of digestion, absorption, and elimination. Ironically, the contrast between those who consider dandelion a weed and those who value it as a precious medicine delineates it either as a pest to eradicate or a treasure. In folk traditions it is often labeled a liver or kidney tonic due to its restorative abilities. Energetically, dandelion is a cooling plant used to release excess heat conditions in the body. The leaf is neutral and the root is moistening. For both, the action is primarily a result of bitterness. It is a stimulant especially for the kidneys and urinary tract as well as liver and digestion. While there is some overlap, the uses of dandelion leaves differ from that of the root.
*dandelion leaf: the stimulating effect of the greens of dandelion effects the kidneys and urinary tract where it acts like a diuretic increasing urine production and elimination. Clinically, using therapeutic doses of dandelion leaf can drain fluid retention that creates edema. Traditional uses include premenstrual bloating from water retention and mild hypertension. Unlike some pharmaceutical diuretics that create need for increased potassium intake, dandelion leaf is such a good source that this is not an issue. Young dandelion leaves, gathered from spring to early summer, are mildly bitter and dense with vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. The bitter quality enhances the absorption of these nutrients making dandelion leaf a powerful food. The dried and powdered greens can be combined with other mineral rich herb powders and used to support healing of bone fractures and as osteoporosis prevention. As summer continues, the leaves get more and more bitter so they may not be particularly palatable to eat, but again if dried and powdered or taken as a liquid extract, the bitter quality enhances absorption of nutrients, supports liver function, and may have a positive impact on a lipid profile, lowering triglyceride and LDL levels. There is a milk-like fluid called latex that is found in the whiter parts of the leaf stalks that may diminish warts if applied topically. This latex can cause an allergic skin reaction in sensitive people, so a small amount should be tested first.
*dandelion root: the stimulating effect of the thick, dark brown taproot targets digestion and metabolism especially in the liver. Known by herbalists as a liver tonic, dandelion root normalizes and supports this vital organs work. For example, if there is too much fat in a person’s intake or if their ability to digest it is limited and creates slight nausea, fullness or constipation, dandelion root will stimulate bile flow and digestive enzymes to enhance metabolism. It can assist other digestive processes such as achlorhydria causing reflux or mildly elevated blood sugar. It is often found as a main ingredient in Bitters formulas. Traditionally, in relation to the liver and gallbladder, herbalists have used dandelion root as part of treatment for hepatitis, jaundice, bile duct inflammation, and liver congestion. Symptoms such as constipation, high cholesterol, eczema, and varicose veins have improved with therapeutic doses. Dandelion root contains inulin, a prebiotic that supports a healthy intestinal environment, again improving digestion and absorption. Animal studies have linked dandelion root to prevention of liver damage from toxic substances.
*dandelion flowers: as a rich source of carotenoids, bright yellow dandelion flowers are nourishing to eyes and also provide support to the liver for digestion.
Leaves are best gathered in the spring when they are young, but wait to harvest roots until autumn. Dried leaves and roots can be powdered in a coffee grinder.
The delicate leaf is prepared as an infusion using 2 teaspoons of dried leaves and 8 ounces of hot water, combined in a glass jar or French coffee press and allowed to steep for 30-40 minutes.
Roots, being harder, must be prepared as a decoction where they are first gently simmered in water and then allowed to steep. Use 2 teaspoons of dried and powdered root combined in a small saucepan with 8 ounces of water, bring to gentle boil over medium heat and then reduce to simmer. Cover with lid just slightly ajar and simmer for 10 minutes. Turn off heat, cover pan tightly with lid and steep for 30-40 minutes.
Dandelion flowers and olive oil combine as a topical application. It is moisturizing for skin and a good massage oil, but the most common use I know is on the breasts to relieve tension and fullness. Fill a jar with wilted dandelion flower petals, cover with olive oil and infuse for 2-4 weeks.
Dandelion wine is more than a standard infusion of herb and wine. It is sold prepared as a light, summer white wine, similar to Chardonnay and recipes are written in cookbooks and posted online if making your own is preferred. True dandelion wine is made with the yellow flower petals, about one hundred per bottle. The method of preparation involves several steps. First is the gathering of petals, all green parts removed. Second the petals are soaked in boiling water over night, strained and then mixed again with a sugar syrup, boiling water, lemon or orange zest and juice, dried apricots, dates, or raisins, and wine yeast and yeast nutrient. The liquid from this mixture is strained after about 5 days and then fermented for 6 months to a year before bottling. There are different recipe varieties and methods, but it is far more complex than infusing in sherry or port. The standard for herbal wine made with dried roots is 1 part powdered dandelion root with 5 parts wine. This type of alcohol extraction is nice to use in cooking or baking, not for drinking.
The preparation of syrups involves first preparing a strong tea, either by infusion for leaf or decoction for root (see above). Measure equal parts tea and sweetener, sugar or honey, and heat gently with lid covering slightly ajar to reduce and thicken.
Using the simpler method, fill a jar three quarters full with dandelion leaf, fresh or dry or chopped dandelion root, cover and fill to top with vodka or grain alcohol, cover and store in cool dry place for at least 6 weeks. The precise method is 1:2 parts for fresh and 1:5 parts for dried using 30% alcohol. Tincturing can be technical and exacting or it can be looser, whatever you choose to do, make sure to write down everything that you do and label your tinctures with details.
- Green, James: The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook. Crossing Press, Berkeley CA, 2000.
- Grieve M: A Modern Herbal. Barnes and Noble Books, New York; 1996.
- Wood M: The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley California; 2008.
- Gladstar R: Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide. Storey Publishing, Massachusetts; 2012.