Harvesting Dandelion Greens

Add dandelion greens, or Taraxacum officinale, to your cooking for flavor and nutrients.


| February/March 2004


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.





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