If I told you that you had dollar bills sprouting furiously from your lawn, how long would it take you to harvest them? Most of us would be out the door in an instant. Well, the “cash crop” in question isn’t really cash, but dandelions. This weed is as good as money because it offers something most of us spend good money on: nutritious food and medicine.
The first mention of dandelions as medicine dates to medieval Persian writings that refer to the plant by its Latin name, Taraxacum. The English name evolved later from the French dent de lion, meaning “lion’s tooth,” referring to its jagged-toothed leaves. The French now use the word pissenlit, meaning “wet the bed,” a reference to its diuretic quality. The Latin officinale was later tacked on to denote the plant’s health virtues.
From its humble beginnings, the dandelion has gone on to become one of the world’s most successful plants. Part of this is due to its prolific nature. A single plant can produce more than 5,000 seeds—all perfectly engineered to take flight on the slightest breeze. But dandelion’s expansion is also because traditional cultures recognized it as useful and took its seeds in their travels. Over the course of history, one of its primary medicinal uses has been as a spring tonic. Early American settlers used all parts of the plant, believing they could stimulate digestion, purify blood, cure scurvy, combat rheumatism and repel kidney stones.
A Clean Start
Recent studies lend scientific credibility to many of these beliefs. Dandelion leaves owe their bitterness to organic compounds known as sesquiterpene lactones, which have been demonstrated to have diuretic and cleansing effects. Herbalists swear by these compounds’ ability to isolate toxins in the body and flush them out. Dandelions also pack a punch in terms of vitamins and minerals, with more vitamin A than spinach and significant amounts of potassium.
Settlers used the roots, leaves and flowers in teas, tinctures, soups, salads, stews and wines not just for their health effects but also their culinary benefits. We’ve grown used to eating foods regardless of the season or origin, but our ancestors ate what their local forests, soils, waters and climate offered them. Dandelions’ bitter taste provided earlier civilizations a refreshing change after a winter’s worth of smoked meats and dried beans. Foraging for them also got their bodies outside and moving after months spent indoors hunched close to a fire. While much has changed since then, there’s still a good case to be made for dandelions. Despite the availability of every kind of food year-round, winter can often be a time of heavy, rich foods. Come spring, our bodies and our whole diet could use a good cleaning, and dandelion greens are an easy way to start.
Harvesting Dandelion Greens
The easiest place for most of us to harvest dandelion greens is from our own yards, where we know they are free of chemicals. If you’re harvesting greens from a public place, make sure to research the location so you’re certain it hasn’t been sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. Start by calling your city and asking about pesticide spraying policies, and reach out to your local extension agent. You can also often find dandelion greens for sale in your local farmers’ market, grocery or health-food store.
I have more than my share of dandelions growing in my lawn, but I find the greens easier to identify and harvest when they’re not surrounded by grass. Part of my yard is under the canopy of a neighbor’s pine trees and I look there first, where the vibrant greens stand out from the pine needles. For salads, stick with the smallest leaves, which are most tender in the spring. I find wild dandelions taking root in my vegetable garden in the summer and often leave them until they begin to flower, in order to use the flowers. I feel like I’m really getting away with something when I add free prolific “weeds,” including dandelion greens, purslane and lamb’s quarters, to a salad of mixed lettuces. (To read more about edible weeds, read Eat Your Weeds.)
If you’re cutting greens for cooking, you can harvest larger leaves, which tend to be tougher and more bitter. Cooking softens their texture and taste. You can harvest dandelion roots during any frost-free period and eat them raw, steamed, or even dried, roasted and ground into a coffee substitute. And if you would like to experiment with an adult beverage, make wine with its bright yellow flowers (see “Serving Suggestions” below). For the less ambitious, start with a dandelion greens salad topped with a fruity dressing. Once you’re beyond that first bitter bite, you’ll begin tasting what millions who came before us knew: In the spring, it feels good to get a clean start.
Serving Suggestions for Dandelion Greens
■ Combine greens with walnuts, apples and goat cheese, and dress with olive oil (5 parts), apple cider vinegar (3 parts), Dijon mustard (1 part), honey, salt and pepper (to taste).
■ Steam greens 5 to 10 minutes and add butter, salt and pepper. Serve on toasted peasant bread topped with a fried egg.
■ Make a calzone: Sauté greens and mushrooms and season with salt and pepper. Roll out homemade or store-bought pizza dough and cut into 10-inch circles. Spoon greens onto half, top with cheddar, fold over to form a half-moon and seal edge. Bake at 500 degrees until golden, about 10 minutes.
■ Bake a dandelion greens quiche by swapping out the spinach in a spinach quiche recipe.
■ Make a wilted salad: Fry a few slices of bacon until crisp. Remove bacon, pat dry and crumble. Sauté chopped red onion in bacon fat for a couple minutes and whisk in a dash of olive oil, red wine vinegar and maple syrup. Toss the warm dressing with the dandelion greens and bacon.
■ Make dandelion wine: Boil flowers in a mix of water, orange juice, orange zest and grated ginger. Strain, cool to below 100 degrees and add brewer’s yeast. Pour into bottles, poke a few holes in a balloon and place over bottles to create an airlock. Store in a dark place for at least three weeks. For exact proportions and timing, check out this Dandelion Wine recipe.
■ Brew dandelion root tea: Dig up the root of a large dandelion plant, wash it, chop it into small pieces, boil it and let it steep for an hour. Strain and serve with honey.