Thursday, May 19, 2022

Call the Dogs off the Lions

Why do we hate lions? For reasons that are beyond any logic I can see, we have been convinced that dandelions are posies non grata in our landscapes. Yet they are a critical food source for native pollinators, vitamin-packed culinary delights, and multi-purpose herbal remedies. I’d say that’s not bad for a “weed.”

In fact, dandelion is so well-respected that it bears the Latin name Taraxicum officinale, roughly meaning “the official remedy for all disorders.” It has many reported health benefits, including as a liver support, for alleviating kidney and bladder stones, and as a poultice for boils. I don’t pretend to know every past and present medicinal use of the plant, and I recommend consulting an herbalist, as well as your doctor, before trying to treat yourself.

That said, the University of Maryland Medical School website says this about dandelions: “Preliminary animal studies suggest that dandelion may help normalize blood sugar levels and lower total cholesterol and triglycerides while raising HDL (good) cholesterol in diabetic mice. Researchers need to see if dandelion will work in people. A few animal studies also suggest that dandelion might help fight inflammation.”

You can buy dried and chopped dandelion root in bulk or in capsule form at most health-food stores or you can get it for free in your back yard, providing you don’t use lawn chemicals. Dandelion’s common English name comes from the French dent de lion, or lion’s tooth, referring to the robust serrations along their leaves. Leaves vary widely in appearance, though, and aside from their yellow mane, not every dandelion is as leonid as the next. The French common name, pis en lit, reflects the diuretic action of the roots, which probably shouldn’t be taken at night.

Dandelion greens are best in early spring before they’re done flowering. Harvesting late in the season is kind of like picking lettuce and spinach after they have bolted—edible, but not at their best. If you had a few dandelions take root in your garden last year, they are probably ready to uproot and eat right now. Sort of a new twist on the phrase “weed-and-feed.” Young greens can be blanched and served in salad, or else boiled, but I like them best when chopped and sautéed. They go well in omelets, stir-fry, soup, casserole, or any savory dish for that matter. Fresh roots can be peeled, thinly sliced and sautéed. A real treat is dandelion crowns.

The reason they flower so early is that fully-formed flower bud clusters are tucked into the center of the root crowns, whereas most flowers bloom on new growth. After cutting off the leaves, take a paring knife and excise the crowns, which can be steamed and served with butter. Roasted dandelion roots make the best coffee substitute I’ve ever tasted, and that’s saying something because I really love coffee. Scrub fresh roots and spread them out on an oven rack so they don’t touch, and then roast them at about 250 F until they’re crispy and dark brown throughout.

Honestly I can’t say how long it takes; between 2 and 3 hours. I always roast them when I have to be in the house anyway, and check frequently after the two-hour mark. Use a food processor or mortar and pestle to grind them. Compared to coffee, you use less of the ground root per cup. The beverage tastes dandy, but as mentioned above, it’s more diuretic than coffee or black tea. I’ve never found this a problem, but if your morning commute involves traffic snarls, choose your breakfast drink accordingly.

I haven’t tried dandelion wine, a tradition that dates back centuries in Europe, and so have no first-hand experience to report, but scads of recipes populate the Internet. Friends and family members have tried it, with negative and positive reviews pretty well split. Given all the virtues of dandelions, it’s amazing how much time and treasure our culture puts into eradicating them. It seems to verge on an obsession with some people, who drench their lawn with selective broadleaf herbicides like 2,4-D, dicamba and mecoprop. These all come with serious health risks, not to mention price tags.

For those who perhaps take the whole lion connection too far and can’t sleep at night if there are dandelions lurking on the premises, I’ll share a secret to getting them out of the landscape. Set the mower to cut at 10 cm. This will vastly reduce the number of weeds, and will lessen disease pressure and grub damage as well. I say we give tax breaks to lawns full of dandelions, and criminalise the use of herbicides for cosmetic purposes.

It’s the least we can do for pollinators. Let’s stop trying to kill the only North American lion not in danger of extinction, and learn to appreciate it more.

Paul Hetzler is a naturalist and ISA-Certified Arborist. He lives with his wife in Val-des-Monts, Québec.

Photo at top: Butterfly on dandelions. Wikipedia Commons photo. 

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Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World


14 Responses

  1. Nathan says:

    I love dandelions, deliciousness similiar to broccolli rabe, best before blooming. I never use any chemical herbicide/pesticide/fungicide on lawn in 45 years, never pick within 50 feet of road, leaded gasoline left high lead along roads for many more decades to go. I proudly grown a biodiverse lawn with nature and barefeet are safe

  2. Nathan says:

    btw Dandilion wine, i used to get some from an old farmer i knew back in the 1980’s who also made tomato wine. Both were actually quite good, you would not know what they were made of. where i grew up, it used to be very small agricultural area in NY with limited access/travel and many old timers knew how to make mood altering substances from many things and were quite good at it. from moonshine, to wine from many things. Country people knew how to survive on what was around them and make it.

  3. Cosmetic herbicides are banned here in Upper Canada.

  4. Jan Irvin says:

    Thank you for this entertaining and informative post. I have long abhorred our push to maintain serene, tame, cultivated lawns and do my best to insinuate native, pollinating plants into our landscape in the suburban neighborhood in which I live, where not caring for your lawn is considered sacrilegious! I have often wanted to try using dandelion greens and appreciate your recipes. 🙂

  5. Mike says:

    For better information on dandelion check out local author Anita Sanchez
    “The Teeth of the Lion”.

  6. LeRoy Hogan says:

    I learned to accept the lions in my lawn.

  7. JB says:

    I don’t think there are any “officially” recognized native dandelions (Taraxacum) in NYS (though it’s always possible that there will be at one point). Still, spraying herbicide to kill them is not doing anyone any good. Eating them is a much safer form of weed control!

  8. Mary Ochsenschlager says:

    You might be interested in reading this article.

  9. Charles Stehlin says:

    “Why do we hate lions?”

    Ignorance Paul! Plain & simple!

  10. Charles Stehlin says:

    “You can buy dried and chopped dandelion root in bulk or in capsule form at most health-food stores or you can get it for free in your back yard, providing you don’t use lawn chemicals.”

    Or you can go to your nearest Co-op. or healthfood store (if they have them), and buy a bunch of dandelion leaves, which are generally $2.99 per, or $3.99, and eat them raw. I’ve been eating raw dandelion for at least 30 years. I don’t think I’ve ever picked them myself though, even off-trail wherever it was when I was in the woods, Catskills, etc., as I never have trusted them wherever man has been, or man and his dog. I generally eat them raw, and now and again chopped and sautéed as you suggest, depending on what meal I am fixing. In salads….raw always. A local Albany author wrote an interesting small book on this species titled, “The Teeth of the Lion……” some few years back.

    • JB says:

      Charlie, I can sympathize. Though Boreas’ aversion to eating dandelion is understandable, I enjoyed eating them during my early years living at an abandoned farm. What trendy “foraging” books won’t tell you, though, is that maintaining a steady supply of wild dandelions involves a lot of disturbance (and hence, man and maybe even his dog). If we’re being pragmatic, gardening makes much more sense.

      But if you do find yourself on the summit of a mountain (or maybe in a high-quality natural wetland) and you happen across some dandelions, I’d recommend letting them be. It’s always possible that it’s something rare that’s supposed to be there!

  11. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “…I’d recommend letting them be. It’s always possible that it’s something rare that’s supposed to be there!”

    There are many plants which should be left undisturbed JB, everywhere, not just in the wilds. In the wilds they are safer fortunately, but in the burbs…..boy do I have some horror stories to tell. I am of the mind that urbanites don’t like wildflowers or any ‘thing’ green, and then there’s our leaders who are into the cosmetic look versus the wild look, ie…..where I live they have the tendency to mow empty lots, even if they’re chock full of lovely flowers which the bees and butterflies ever seek, what few of them (bees and butterflies) there are that is. New York State is pro at mowing the sides of state roads so that passersby can appreciate the ‘flowerless’ look. The county folk the same! Group think! Kill every ‘thing’ which doesn’t have a say in the matter! Very strange but then this is the odd-fellow society.

    Trees too! The latest fad seems to be to chop large swaths of trees along county, and other, roads for no clear-cut (pun intended) reason to me. I’ve been seeing this often in many places in my travels…the lobbing-off of beautiful trees at their base off to the sides of roads. It seems very odd to me. I go up to some of these trees to look for signs of rot or disease and see none, so I cannot figure the logic in this practice, except that maybe there’s an aversion to trees in the psyche of those who have the power to do such. I’ve seen it in places in Clifton Park, in Colonie off of Rt. 20, in Washington County…. Even in Vermont they’re doing this, along Rt. 9 towards Brattleboro, the cutting of large swaths of trees along that corridor so that there is now the bare look in many places for ten to fifteen feet out from the road.

    I recently visited New Skete Monastery up in Washington County, a Buddhists retreat. The sides of the wooded road leading to that private facility have been clear cut away from the road probably twenty feet and more. Just ugly! Why this practice is beyond me except an aversion towards trees. Even the Buddhists don’t like trees, unless the road leading to their monastery is State-owned, and even then….why?
    Maybe they opened it up so that dandelions will grow? Questions!

  12. Diane Frye says:

    Great reading on dandelion
    I’ll try something new things my mother did

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