Digging for dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) was still a spring ritual in the late 1960s in northern Vermont. In regions where winter is severe, this ritual satisfied the longing to bring fresh greens to the table after a prolonged diet of stored vegetables. Each spring, women could be seen bending over the newly green fields to harvest the leaves, which they carried home in paper bags to boil with a piece of salt pork, a dish savored by country folk.
Although this rustic tradition, with its roots buried deep in the past, has largely vanished with the availability of fresh foods year round, dandelion greens have taken on new glamour as a desirable gourmet green, available in the fresh produce section of most supermarkets throughout the winter and spring months. Even where I live, in the Champlain Valley at the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains in New York, where supermarkets are largely devoted to unsophisticated everyday fare, bunched dandelion greens—deep-green, crisp and fresh—have been popular with customers for at least 10 years, according to a local grocer’s produce manager, Mel Hyatt. “People want fresh greens to use in stir-fry dishes and salads,” he says.
This love affair with a despised lawn weed reflects a general trend toward fresh foods—especially healthful leafy greens—that are quick to prepare in interesting ways. The dandelion revolution also owes much of its success to the general revolution in food production that gets food from the field to customers in the shortest possible time and in prime condition, in this case from California to New York’s remote north country.
Health Benefits of Dandelion Greens
Dandelions have a long history as a valued medicine and as a nutritious food. It is also a ubiquitous weed. Whether we want them or not, dandelions turn up in disturbed ground throughout the entire Northern Hemisphere, most obviously in enriched garden soil and lawns, but also in pastures, roadsides and wild open spaces. The perennial plants grow from a tenacious, hard taproot, white inside and brown without, from which sprout jagged, dark-green basal foliage, tangy and refreshingly bitter at first, aging to a decidedly bitter taste. By late spring, bright, fluffy yellow flowers bloom from hollow stems, 4 to 8 inches tall, followed by fluffy fruits dispersed by the wind over vast areas, thus assuring the establishment of ever more plants wherever seeds find encouragement. The genus name may be based on the Greek word taraxo, meaning “I have cause,” and achos, meaning “pain,” a reference to the plant’s long history as a healing herb. The species name, officinale, attests to its role as an approved herb of the apothecary (or drugstore, in modern parlance). The common name dandelion is a corruption of the Old French for “tooth of a lion,” a fanciful description of the plant’s jagged-edge leaves.
Bitter properties, dispersed throughout the plant but most powerfully present in its roots, are responsible for the vast curative powers of the humble dandelion, first recorded by an Arabian doctor in the 10th century. Dandelions make a potent diuretic, for which they earned the country name “piddley bed.”
Preparations in the form of decoctions, tinctures and teas from the plant’s roots and leafy tops are used to treat kidney and liver disorders, as well as to increase mobility and reduce stiffness from degenerative joint diseases. By removing poisons from the body—as in their proven role as a diuretic—dandelion preparations also act as a tonic and stimulant. Low in water content but rich in protein, sugar, vitamins A and C, calcium and minerals, dandelion greens are at the top of any list of valued edible weeds. In a recent study of their comparative nutritional value dandelion greens rank higher than lettuce (cos or romaine) in protein, carbohydrates, calcium and iron, and much higher in nearly all vitamins and minerals. When compared to crisp head lettuces, the differences in both flavor and nutrition are even more striking.
Nearly every part of the dandelion plant is edible. A coffee substitute can be made from its roots (it is similar to that made from chicory roots), and the flowers are used to make dandelion wine. The flowers also can be dipped in a batter and deep fried, like fritters. But dandelion’s main use is as a green, eaten fresh or wilted in its early growth stage, or boiled as a potherb when more mature. Dandelion greens are traditional in Italian cooking, where they are featured in pasta dishes. In contemporary cooking, dandelion greens mainly are used in salads and stir-fry dishes in the same way as broccoli rabe or rapini (a mustard-like, sweet form of turnip green).
Buying & Harvesting Dandelion Greens
In our considerable experience with this common weed, my husband and I look forward to dandelion season not, we must admit, for health reasons, but because we associate eating dandelion greens with spring renewal. To us, their flavor is synonymous with the fresh things that come from the earth when the snow melts, the soil warms and we once again are connected to the living land. I would characterize dandelion greens’ flavor as refreshing and tangy rather than bitter, if they’re well prepared.
In our supermarket, two types of bunched dandelion greens are available. In one type the leaves are long, 2 to 18 inches; the other type is a 6-inch head recommended for salad. There are alternatives to buying dandelion greens in the supermarket: You can grow them in the garden, just like lettuce. There are two strains most readily available: Thick-leaved ‘Improved’, 95 days to maturity, grows 18 inches by 24 inches and is reported to be slower to bolt than other types. It may be marketed as Dandelion Ameliore, which means “improved dandelion.” French Dandelion (Vert de Montmagny), 92 days to maturity, is more compact, with finely cut dark-green leaves and large hearts.
If you forage for wild greens, you need never worry about a crop failure, and there is always an abundant supply. Look for the most edible dandelion greens not in lawns or fields, but in rich soil, wherever the ground is deep, porous and rich in hummus, as in the vegetable garden before it is prepared for planting, or between the rows of established crops like raspberries. The desirable bunches are those that have not yet developed buds deep down within the basal foliage (these can still be used but are stronger in flavor). If you find a good patch, cover it with a basket or board to produce blanched hearts with a blander flavor. In any case, bunches growing in the deepest, loosest soil are self-blanching to some extent. Caution: Never harvest dandelions from a lawn unless you know it’s chemical free.
To harvest: Use a stout, sharp knife and plunge it straight down next to the young green leaves until you reach the plant’s crown. Cut across, slicing the crown from the root, but leave the dandelion bunch intact to facilitate cleaning. Shake out each bunch as you cut it to loosen dirt and debris and pull off the outside damaged or yellow leaves. Swish the bunch through several buckets of cold water until no dirt is apparent in the water. Then bring the bunch indoors to finish preparing it for use.
Once you know where to hunt for the best greens, it should not take more than 10 or 15 minutes to dig and clean them. To prepare them for eating fresh or cooked, trim off each leaf stem end, squeeze and shake handfuls of leaves to extract all the water, and cut the leaves into bite-size pieces. Don’t be afraid to squeeze them hard; dandelion leaves are quite resilient. You may want to remove the prominent midrib in long-leaved supermarket greens.
Jo Ann Gardner writes, gardens and cooks from her home in Essex, New York. Her most recent project was serving as a contributing editor to Flora: A Gardener’s Encyclopedia.
Weeds in my Garden by Charles B. Heiser (Timber Press, 2003)
“A comparison of nutritional properties of edible weeds” by A.D. Gonzales, R. Janke and E.H. Rapoport (Kansas State University Press, 2001)
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