Thursday, May 14, 2020

Dandelions: The incredible, edible weed

Dandelions: Landscape Weed or Beneficial Backyard Herb?

Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are probably the most recognized of all broadleaf ‘weeds’. Many people consider them a curse; a plant that can establish quickly, by seed, in a well-kept lawn and become extremely difficult to eradicate. Homeowners and groundskeepers spend tremendous amounts of time and enormous amounts of money annually, persistently trying to exterminate the tenacious, opportunistic, perennial wildflowers, which will re-grow vegetatively, if the taproot is not entirely removed, often even after being treated with herbicides.

Others value dandelions as one of the least-recognized of all multi-purpose herbs. They view them as nutritious, free food that can be easily added to most-anyone’s diet. They delight in collecting dandelion greens to add to soups or salads, and/or take pleasure in picking the flower heads (and digging roots) for a pot of tea or a crock of dandelion wine. I have a friend who remembers when, as a boy, he was paid a penny apiece for dandelion heads (blossoms), by an enthusiastic wine-making neighbor.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Center for Complementary and Integrated Health maintains that “The use of dandelion as a food is generally considered safe. However, some people are allergic to dandelion; allergic reactions are especially likely in people who are allergic to related plants such as ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds, and daisies. The safety of using dandelion supplements for health-related purposes is uncertain.”

The name dandelion comes from the French ‘dent de lion’ or ‘tooth of the lion’; a reference to the serrations on the plant’s leaves. Dandelions prefer sunlight to shade, but can grow just about anywhere, and are commonly found in highly disturbed ecosystems (e.g. lawns, overgrazed pastures, burn sites, avalanche sites).

dandelionsThe blossoms are used by pollinators, including butterflies and honeybees. But real dandelion honey (honey made from the flower nectar and pollen of dandelions) has such a high sucrose content that it often crystallizes right in the honeycomb, making it extremely difficult to harvest. Many products sold as dandelion honey are not honey, at all. They’re dandelion infused syrups: made from dandelion flower-heads and sugar.

Generally believed to be native only to Eurasia, dandelions are now widely established throughout North America; so much so that they are often overlooked as naturalized non-natives. (They now grow widely, as a weed, in nearly all temperate climates.) The Puritans brought them to North America to be used mostly as medicine for treating fevers, boils, diarrhea, eye problems, fluid retention, heartburn, liver congestion, and skin ailments.

Their use as food and medicine can be traced back to ancient Rome and has also been noted in writings of the Anglo Saxon tribes of Britain and the Normans of France. And dandelions have been used, as well, in traditional Native American, Chinese, Arabic, and Russian medicine to treat upset stomach, skin problems, heartburn, swelling and inflammation, fever, boils, diarrhea, digestive problems, and ailments of the liver, bile ducts, gallbladder, kidneys, and urinary tract. From 1831 to 1926 dandelions were officially listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia.

dandelionAccording to the University of Maryland Medical Center “Dandelion leaves act as a diuretic, increasing the amount of urine the body produces. The leaves are used to stimulate the appetite and help digestion. Dandelion flower has antioxidant properties. Dandelion may help improve the immune system.”

Herbalists value dandelion leaves because they’re rich in vitamins (e.g. A, Bcomplex, C, E, K), minerals (e.g. calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, zinc), and beneficial flavonoids. They’re a practical source of dietary fiber, as well. The blossoms are regarded as high in Vitamins A and B-12. The roots contain inulin and levulin, carbohydrates which may help balance blood sugar and have beneficial effect on gut flora; and taraxacin, which stimulates digestion.

Many herbalists use dandelion leaves to support kidney function, and dandelion root to detoxify the liver and gallbladder. Dandelion is widely cultivated today in India, where it’s used in treating liver problems.

In 2009, the University of Windsor, in Ontario, Canada, initiated the ‘Dandelion Root Project’; aimed at showcasing scientific evidence for the safe and effective use of dandelion root extract and other natural health products for cancer therapy. They have been testing dandelion extract in the lab against various cancer cells and are currently in Phase 1 clinical trials for drug refractory (resistant) blood cancers.


Simple Dandelion Recipes

Be sure that your dandelion flowers are free of pesticides, herbicides, or other contaminants!


Dandelion Tea

– Steep one tablespoon of flower-heads (removing as much of the green as possible to avoid excess bitterness) for 30 minutes in five ounces of boiling water

– add sugar, honey, or maple syrup and lemon to taste


Dandelion Jelly

– Measure out 2 cups of flower-heads (removing as much of the green as possible to avoid excess bitterness)

– Pour 2 cups of boiling water over the flower-heads and let steep until it cools down

– Strain well squeezing out as much liquid as possible

– Cover and place in the refrigerator overnight

– Pour the cold liquid into a large saucepan

– Add 2 tablespoons of lemon juice and 1 box of powdered pectin

– Bring to a boil

– Add 3 cups of (your favorite) sugar and bring back to a boil for 1 to 2 minutes

– Remove from the heat

– Pour into hot canning jars leaving 1/4 inch of space

– Wipe the edges of the jars clean and place the lids and rings on finger tight

– Place jars in a water bath canner and process for 10 minutes

– Remove the jars and place on a towel. Allow them to sit undisturbed for 24 hours to let the seal harden.


Dandelion Wine

– Place one gallon of dandelion flower-heads in a two gallon or larger open crock and pour boiling water over them

– Cover the crock with cheesecloth and let it sit at room temperature for three days

– Strain well squeezing out as much liquid as possible

– Put the liquid into a big pot

– Add 3 lbs. of your preferred sugar or sweetener; 3 or 4 lemons chopped, and 3 or 4 oranges, chopped

– Bring to a boil

– Cover and simmer for 30 minutes

– Cool to lukewarm

– Pour into a crock and add 1 1/2 – 2 packages or tablespoons of yeast

– Cover with cheesecloth and let sit (work) until the bubbling stops (2–3 weeks)

– Filter through cheesecloth

– Bottle


Other ideas for the greens

  • Tossed salad with dandelion greens: Pick young greens (they’re less bitter) and add to your tossed salad
  • Sautéed dandelion greens: Boil young greens for 5 minutes, then sauté in hot olive oil and garlic for 3-5 minutes and top with lemon juice or add to eggs, pasta, etc.
  • Dandelion Pesto (Use greens in place of basil)
Sweat Bee on Dandelion – Scott Bauer; USDA Agricultural Research Service;
Dandelion Plant – Michigan State Plant and Pest Diagnostics
Dandelions in a Field – Kevin W. Frank – Ph.D., Extension Turf Specialist, Michigan State University

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Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.

4 Responses

  1. Betty73 says:

    Great article. Can’t wait to make the wine. Thanks.

  2. Boreasfisher says:

    A very useful supplement evidently…thank you!

  3. John says:

    When I lived near Rt. 17 in Northern N.J. 70 years ago, the road had broad median strips that ran for miles.They were covered with dandelions, and each weekend dozens of extended families would park in the median to spend the day harvesting bushel upon bushel of dandelions — heads for wine, greens for the table. They would eat their lunch amid the crop, and sometimes they would share the salad and a drop of last year’s wine with a curious kid. Wonderful!

  4. Charlie S says:

    A few days ago I stepped into my yard to see a woodchuck had found a new haven there. He took off upon my approach then stuck his head out from beneath the deck in the rear of the restaurant behind my yard…with a bright yellow dandelion in his mouth. I looked around my yard to see fresh dandelions were popped up in about half a dozen places. I let this woodchuck be after a few photos. I stepped out later on that day, walked into my yard, and all of those dandelions were gone. Woodchucks like dandelions too!

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