Using Dandelions for Food and Medicine04. March 2019
If you follow me on Instagram, you know I post quite a bit about dandelions. I’ve had a love affair with them since I was a kid. I mean, most kids “play” with dandelions. But how many kids had parents awesome enough to make them EAT them? Granted, it helps if you are poor or Italian!
It’s interesting recalling how much play time we had with dandelions. My sister and I would pick bouquets for my mom or tuck them in our hair. We’d split the stems up the center and tie around our finger to wear as a ring. Blowing the seed head poof balls was endless fun. And in a not very PC game, we’d pop the flower heads off and recite some chant about a baby’s head popping off. Wowzers!!! That last one seems a bit creepy, albeit harmless fun.
It still boggles my mind that many folks don’t know dandelions ARE edible. Years of propaganda from lawn chemical companies are perhaps to blame. Ironically, dandelions can cleanse your bodies of those very nasty chemicals. Or maybe it’s just a disconnect from nature and the “old” ways (ya know, like when “prepping" was just a way of life and people didn’t think you were crazy)?
Every year millions of dollars are spent trying to eradicate “lawn enemy number one.” But believe it or not, in the 19th century, growing and showing dandelions at horticultural shows were common. Dandelions would win first prize in shows. Seeds were sold in many prominent seed catalogs. Who wouldn’t want thousands of tiny sunbursts growing in their yard? Resist the peer pressure to convert your yard into a plain green carpet! Perspective and publicity are important in establishing perceived value. So help spread the word that "lawn enemy # 1" is actually an amazing food source (for pollinators AND humans)!
Even if you don’t want to eat your weeds, please appreciate the fact that dandelions are great for the environment. Animals and insects forage them. They are one of the first flowers to bloom in spring, so they are often the first food source for bees. They also exude ethylene which helps assist orchard fruit to ripen. Their long roots can deplete the soil of nutrients, so you don’t necessarily want them growing alongside your garden. However, dead dandelions are full of nutrients making them a great soil enhancer and fertilizer. You can make liquid fertilizer by boiling a handful of leaves in a pint of water. Once cooled and strained, dilute with four parts water and add a spoon of liquid soap (not detergent). Use immediately as a leaf spray. You can also make a tea fertilizer to pour around your plants.
Why eat dandelions?
Well for starters, they are FREE and often in abundance around us. They are also incredibly nutritious, a true superfood! The leaves are nutritionally comparable to other green vegetables such as spinach and broccoli. They have more iron, riboflavin, and vitamin E than spinach. The greens also boast more calcium and vitamin A than broccoli with almost as much vitamin K.
Dandelions have been used in herbal medicine for thousands of years to treat ailments such as anemia, scurvy, skin problems, blood disorders, and depression. All parts of the plant are edible and used in medicine. Dandelion greens may offer benefits as a diuretic, laxative, and to reduce inflammation. There have even been studies on Dandelion Root Extract treating leukemia, melanoma, and breast and prostate cancer.
How do you eat dandelion?
First off, EVERY part of the plant is edible. You can add the leaves to stir-fried meals, soups, and raw salads. Use dried roots to make a coffee or tea substitute. Flowers makes great jelly and wine and can even be fried. And you can eat the stems like noodles or ferment them. My favorite way to eat the greens is to add them to an egg frittata topped with fresh avocado. I also add them to soup made from my homemade bone broth. You can read my other dandelion blog post for my frittata recipe and see how I preserve the leaves.
I’ve heard people say they tried eating dandelion greens, but they were too bitter. If you tried eating them and had that same opinion, you probably collected and prepared the leaves wrong. When picked at the right stage, they taste mild like spinach. Interestingly, dandelion’s proper name is Taraxacum officinale. Taraxacum means "bitter herb” which references the plant's flavor and health qualities. There are ways to eat dandelion and not leave that bitter taste in your mouth. Pick them in early spring before they flower. After they flower, the greens are too bitter to eat (unless you prepare them in a different manner).
If you missed your window of opportunity and the plant has just flowered, fear not. Some folks cut the dead flower and stem off, then harvest the greens before the second round of flowers come back. The leaves are a little more bitter, but still edible, especially if prepared properly. After a few hard frosts in the fall, the bitterness also disappears from the leaves. If you know how to cook the greens properly, you can enjoy them year round.
I harvest my leaves by cutting the plant just above the root under the soil. This allows the leaves to all stay together which makes them easier to clean. Peel off any badly broken and dead leaves too. Wash the greens thoroughly by soaking in a large pot of water. Drain the pot and wash again to remove all the sand and soil. Once the leaves are clean, you can eat them raw or cooked.
How do you cook dandelion greens?
To cook the greens, cover them in water and boil in a covered pot or steamer until tender (5-10 minutes). Drain them, reserving the water for a plant fertilizer, and chop up the leaves to eat. If your greens are still a little bitter, you can boil again (this will remove more of the nutrients though). Alternatively, you can mask any remaining bitterness by cooking with some additives. Add pork or pork fat, olive oil, garlic, vinegar, lemon juice, brown sugar or maple syrup, or salt and pepper. Basically, any recipe calling for spinach, swiss chard, or other greens can use dandelion as a substitute. I love glazing onions in bacon grease, then making a dandelion greens egg frittata.
Every spring I collect and boil the greens. Once tender, I drain and squeeze all the water out. After the greens cool, I roll them into single serving balls and freeze. I eat dandelion greens well into the winter by thawing one of my precious green balls. I can toss a few balls into a soup or cook into an egg frittata.
How do you harvest dandelions?
When harvesting dandelions, pick ones not treated with pesticides or lawn fertilizers. Avoid flowers in yards where pets may go to the bathroom as well. Forage for dandelions in the woods or abandoned lots, but stay away from ones close to roads. Heavy metal pollution is heavier in plants close to roads. You can plant your own from collected seed or even buy dandelion seed too. Don’t be too greedy, make sure to leave some flowers behind! And a very important rule to keep in mind when foraging: Make sure to positively identify any wild plant before eating it or using it for medicine.
How can you learn MORE about dandelions?
The Ultimate Dandelion Medicine Book by Kristina Seleshanko is a great place to learn more about the health benefits of dandelions. This book shows ways to use this common weed for medicine. I love that the book chapters detail each part of the dandelion (leaves, flowers, buds, roots, and even stems). Kristina breaks down which part of the plant helps medically with various ailments. There are recipes for dandelion tinctures, teas, capsules, decoctions, salves, oils, baths, poultices, vinegars, and more.
Kristina also details how to properly dose dandelion medicine. This includes an important chapter on contraindications and general warnings for using them. Dandelion is usually considered safe in food and medicine. Yet there are people who are allergic to dandelions. Don't consume it if you are allergic to ragweed and related plants (chrysanthemum, marigolds, chamomile, yarrow, or daisies). The stems contain a natural latex, so they can cause contact dermatitis in some sensitive people. If you are taking medication, it’s best to speak with your doctor before consuming dandelion since it may interact with drugs or antibiotics. For professional advice on dandelions, speak with a Master Herbalists, naturopath, or Chinese Medicine practitioner.
Also included in this book are 40 dandelion recipes to try. The final book chapter references scientific studies that support the use of dandelions as medicine. This will help with further research into the healing properties of this remarkable plant.
Kristina also wrote The Ultimate Dandelion Cookbook. There are 148 recipes in this cookbook separated by the part of the dandelion used (leaves, flowers, buds, roots, and even stems). So if you want to eat this superfood, this recipe book is a great place to start. From basic beans and greens to pasta, pizza, and sorbet, this cookbook has many ideas. The first chapter covers nutrition, harvesting, and food preparation information too.
Fun things I learned from The Ultimate Dandelion Medicine Book
I don’t want to give away everything in this book! I hope that you are interested enough to purchase a copy online. But I did learn a few new things about my beloved yellow flower. I had no idea dandelion stems could be used to heal warts! Did you?!? And while I know a lot about how to properly harvest greens, I didn’t know much about the roots. The roots are sweeter in the spring and better for eating. But if you plan to use the roots medicinally, harvest them in the fall when they are the most nutritious. Knowledge is power. Word.
Other Fun Dandelion Facts
What’s in a name?
The Chinese refer to dandelions as Yellow-Flowered Earth Nails and consider them to be one of the six most important herbal plants around. Italians revere the dandelion under the name "Ciccoria" and it's practically their national dish! The French call dandelions "Pissenlit" due to their diuretic properties. And in England, a common name for them is "piss-a-bed" and they warn heavy sleepers not to eat too many dandelions before bed. Oh, and the uneducated call my beloved flower "weeds.”
Survival of the Fittest?
A dandelion's defense mechanism is that it grows and spreads rapidly! They can produce millions of seeds without requiring pollination through a process called apomixis (asexual reproduction). And the root system takes over and spreads even more. You can yank one up, but if part of the root remains, it'll come back. So this wonderful plant "protects" itself by reproducing faster than it can be consumed or destroyed. So for those of us who EAT dandelions, how awesome is that?!?!
History and Folklore
During World War II, farm wives in Italian villages kept pots of dandelion soup on windowsills. Those strolling by could eat the soup to improve their blood since anemia was widespread at the time. That’s gotta be better than a pie on a windowsill, right?
Dandelions helped save the Minorcans from starvation during and after World War II when locusts destroyed their crops. People supplemented their thin soups with nutritious wild greens including dandelion.
Dandelions almost became extinct during the 1950’s in the British Isles. A "Save the Dandelion" society was formed. Similar clubs were started in the United States too.
I read an interesting story of a woman in Denver at the turn of the century. She called police to report that neighborhood boys were in her yard trampling on her dandelions!! I WANT this woman for my neighbor.
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of The Ultimate Dandelion Medicine Book to review. I had already purchased Kristina’s first book The Ultimate Dandelion Cookbook and thought it was amazing. Also, I’m NOT a doctor and encourage you to thoroughly research dandelions to know if they are right for YOU to eat and use medicinally.
Do you harvest and eat dandelions? Have you ever used any part of the plant medicinally? Let me know in the comments below.