Before you curse these so-called weeds in your garden, consider how you can put them to use in your kitchen. Dandelions are useful in food, homemade wine, and herbal medicines. The bright yellow blossom of the dandelion, its milky stem, its leafy greens, and even its root all possess special qualities that make the hardy plant handy. If you thought dandelions were just garden nuisances, you might be surprised how edibly indispensable they are. In fact, it is only in the last century that people began to see dandelions as weeds instead of vital herbs.
Dandelions come in many varieties, as the plant’s reproductive persistence ensures adequate genetic variations. The most familiar dandelions in the United States are variations of Taraxacum officiale. Dandelions owe their reputations as pesky weeds to their incredibly strong taproot which goes deeper into the ground than most plants. When gardeners rip out dandelions, they often break off the stem but never damage the tap root, thus allowing regrowth. The stem itself is hollow except for a milky sap that slowly flows through it. The leaves spread out from the center and cover nearby vegetation, blocking its sunlight while the root sucks up minerals from the ground. The grooves on the greens are also aimed at directing rainwater toward the center of the rosette. This triple usurpation of natural resources – sun, water, and soil – makes the dandelion a bullying plant but assures hardiness and potency. Of course, the most notable feature of a dandelion is the golden blossom which eventually ages into the fuzzy seed-bearing sphere that we all enjoyed blowing as kids.
The word dandelion morphed its way into English from an Old French term translating as “lion’s tooth,” a description of its somewhat pointed leaves. However, in vernacular French, the word for dandelion is actually pissenlit, which means “pee in the bed,” a graphic description of the plant’s diuretic quality. While consuming dandelions probably won’t make you wet the bed, the plant does contain minerals and vitamins that affect the human body’s processes – specifically digestion, urine production, and liver detoxification. The plant is high in iron, beta carotene, potassium, and vitamins A and E. Because the dandelion root runs so deep, sometimes two feet into the ground, it acts like a well, bringing up substances that its neighboring plants are not capable of mining.
Dandelions as Food
The famous short story writer O. Henry prominently uses dandelions in his tale, “Springtime a la Carte,” in which a woman who types menus makes a lucky error when typing the words “dandelion with hard-boiled egg.” The plant is symbolically significant in the story, so you’ll have to read it for full effect. But the menu may give you a hint about dandelions as food. The greens are frequently served as a salad with crumbled hard-boiled eggs or diced and dashed into omelets.
Dandelion greens, nutritious as they are, can sometimes be bitter. Accordingly, they are rarely served on their own without mollifying accoutrements. Besides mixing their way into salads, diced-up dandelion greens find their way into tomato sauces, where the slight bitterness complements tomato, basil, and sugar combinations. Some bakers will incorporate dandelion greens into specialty breads, especially accompanying tart cranberries. For an exotic pizza topping, dandelion greens make an interesting alternative to spinach. As for meat, spicy sausage and dandelion is a good match because the bitterness of the dandelion curiously softens the punch.
Dandelion blossoms are also used in cooking. As long as the stems are removed, leaving just the golden flower and the immediate green underpinning, they garnish dishes nicely. They can be fried, baked, and sauteed with various seasonings or (less frequently) incorporated into soups and stews alongside their greens. Dandelion blossoms are also the source of tart jellies.
Sadly, because so many people attempt, often in vain, to remove dandelions from their property, herbicides sometime taint dandelions and render them unsafe for consumption. Before picking dandelions to use as food, be sure that they are not growing in an area that was treated for “weeds.” Some grocery stores, particularly independent stores with more specialty items, will carry dandelion greens. The blossoms are harder to come by commercially.
Besides sharing the name of an acclaimed Ray Bradbury novel, dandelion wine is a popular homemade concoction. Made using dandelion blossoms, the wine typically employs fruit such as oranges or lemons – but surprisingly no grapes. The yellow tops are brewed in hot water for a day or two until a sort of tea-like juice is produced. Then a combination of sugar, yeast, and other fruits is added and the mixture is left to ferment. Most dandelion wine is aged for two months to two years, depending on the recipe.
Of course, wine isn’t the only beverage made from dandelions. The root can be used for coffee, and the blossoms and the root are both used for teas, particularly those aimed at detoxification.
Dandelions as Herbal Medicine
For centuries, dandelions were used as folk remedies and doctor-ordered medication, and this is reflected in their plant kingdom classification in Latin, Taraxacum officiale. translating loosely to “official treatment for disease.” Dandelion root in particular is used as a digestive aid to assist in colonic cleansing. Many over-the-counter digestive products, including the infomercial darling “Dual Action Cleanse” colonic health pill, employ dandelion root. The substance is also used to promote liver health, to stimulate kidney functions (as a diuretic), and to help clear skin. Although it is available in pill format, many tea drinkers prefer to infuse dandelion root, leaves, and blossom in hot water to extract the potential. Dandelion coffee made from the root is also an alternative to commercially produced pills.
The one part of the dandelion not used in cooking, the stem, has some supposed medicinal purposes as well. The milky sap encased by the hollow stem is sometimes used to treat skin irritations (rashes, blisters) and to prevent sunburn, although this has not gained as much acceptance as the use of dandelion root for liver, kidney, bladder, and blood health.