The Benefits of Dandelions: From Cultivation to Cooking

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Dandelions may seem like a pesky weed, but the greens and roots are high in nutritional value.

Dandelion root is an herb in serious need of an image makeover. Cursed by those in search of perfect lawns, dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is frequently viewed as a pest. I prefer to let these resilient and prevalent flowers grow. That’s because, in addition to dandelion’s excellent nutritional benefits, it has scientifically proven medicinal properties and an extensive history of use. Dandelion is increasingly being shown in research to help fight cancer, prevent osteoporosis, treat Alzheimer’s disease and much more.

A Brief History of Dandelion

An Arabian doctor first recorded dandelion’s curative properties in the 10th century. Dandelion was once called “piddle bed” because of its ability to increase urine flow. The French call it a similar name: pissenlit. For those who don’t speak French, en lit means “in bed.” I’ll leave you to figure out the rest.

As far back as 1880, studies have shown that dandelion is an effective treatment for hepatitis and swelling of the liver. Another German study proved that dandelion root improved jaundice and reduced gallstones. Newer research shows that dandelion root protects the liver against some harmful toxins, such as the carbon tetrachloride that is used in cleaning products and building materials.

Growing Dandelion

I probably don’t have to give you any advice on how to grow dandelion, other than to stop using pesticides if you’re using them, and to cut your grass less often. By cutting your grass less frequently you’ll increase the likelihood that the yellow dandelion flowers will go to seed (the puff-ball type heads). When that happens the wind blows them and helps ensure they increase in numbers in your yard.

Harvesting and Using Dandelion

Due to potential pesticides and pollutants, I only recommend harvesting dandelion from your lawn if you live away from high traffic areas and are certain the lawn hasn’t been sprayed in several years. If that rules out eating dandelions from your yard, you can likely find the greens at farmers markets.

Dandelion greens taste best when using the small, young leaves—note that these leaves show up before the telltale flowers. By the time the yellow flowers have arrived, the leaves are large and bitter. Dandelion greens can be added raw to salads or sautéed with a little garlic and oil. Alternatively, they can be hung upside down until the leaves are dry and then stored for up to a year for use in tea.

On the other hand, if you’re after dandelion root, look for the largest plants. I’ve found it easiest to harvest the roots after a rainfall when the ground is still soft and the roots come out whole. To improve the flavor of the roots, roast them at 200 degrees for an hour or two, until they have browned. You may then grind them up using a high-powered blender or coffee grinder, and add them to smoothies. The roasted root tastes a bit like coffee and chocolate. I’m a huge fan and drink a daily smoothie made with almond milk, a handful of raw cashews and a tablespoon of roasted dandelion root powder.

To take purchased dandelion supplements for any of the conditions that follow, try 1 to 2 teaspoons of dandelion root extract or 500 to 2,000 mg via capsules daily. You can also make a decoction—a type of tea made by boiling (rather than steeping as you might with leaves or flowers) the roots, stems or seeds of herbs to extract their medicinal properties. Use 2 teaspoons of powdered, roasted dandelion root per cup of water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 45 minutes. Make a large enough batch that it won’t just evaporate during the cooking time, such as enough for three days (3⁄4 cup powdered root boiled in 9 cups of water), which is the maximum recommended storage time in the fridge. Drink 1 cup three times daily. A third option is to use 1 teaspoon of alcohol-based dandelion tincture three times daily. You need only take dandelion in one form, not all three at the same time.

Roasted Dandelion Root “Coffee” Recipe

Blood Sugar Balancer and Diabetes Support: Dandelion contains the natural substance alpha-glucosidase, which is nature’s blood sugar reducer. It has been used for many years to treat diabetes. People with diabetes should work with a physician to monitor blood sugar levels, as dandelion tea is so effective it often helps people reduce their medications.

Energizer: In a study published in the journal Molecules, researchers found that animals given dandelion had a reduction in fatigue and a boost in immunity.

Anti-Cancer Powerhouse: Dandelion might show the greatest promise in its ability to fight cancer. One of the most exciting studies about dandelion’s anti-cancer abilities was published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Canadian scientists found that after 48 hours of exposure to the dandelion extract, human cancer cells began to die off. The study also found that dandelion was effective on cancer cells that were resistant to chemotherapy. Other research published in the International Journal of Oncology found that a dandelion leaf tea decreased the growth of breast cancer cells, while a tea made from the root blocked the ability of cancer cells to invade healthy breast and prostate tissues. In another study published in the online medical journal PLoS One, researchers found that an extract of dandelion root was able to selectively and efficiently kill cancer cells without toxicity to healthy cells. They concluded that dandelion root has “great potential, as nontoxic and effective alternatives to conventional modes of chemotherapy available today.”

Osteoporosis Preventer: Next to cabbage, dandelion shoots (the stems, leaves and flowers) have the highest amount of the bone-building mineral boron. According to the renowned herbalist James Duke, 10 grams (just under 1⁄2 cup) of dried dandelion shoots, taken throughout the day, provides more than 1 mg boron, which most people do not get enough of, along with 200 mg calcium. While that might sound like a lot of dandelion, drinking it as a tea makes it easier to ingest. Plus, calcium in this form is better absorbed than from other sources such as dairy products.

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