One balmy spring day the peace garden was invaded by alien dandelions. They dropped in on a southerly breeze, their parachute canopies glinting in the sun. They forced the earthly dandelions into the meditation area and then one stern alien stepped forward with a menacing look and demanded, ‘Take me to your weeder’.
It’s true that we see the dandelion as an invader, the gardener’s bane, a noxious weed. As a child, I remember picking a bright bouquet of dandelion flowers for me mam, I don’t think she was best pleased but she hid it well.
Of course we also blew off the seeds, made wishes and tried to tell the time by the dandelion clock. We fed the rabbit and hens with the leaves making sure they hadn’t been sprayed with weed killer. Later experimenting, I spayed the seed heads with mam’s hairspray, they were magically captured for a while, just like her curls, stiff, fragile and beautiful. Now is the time of year that the dandelion is prolific in the garden and I find out it has so much more to offer!
It is hard to believe but at one time there were no dandelions in the UK. Native to Eurasia, this humble member of the aster family has traveled far and wide. People around the world have used every part of the dandelion to good effect. Clearly this plant was not always thought of as a weed; it used to be known as a “common herb” and was certainly grown by the Victorians for medicinal and culinary purposes. They liked them in their sarnies!
It was the Normans who called this plant “dent de lion, tooth of the lion, named for their sharp, serrated leaves that resemble lion’s teeth. Anglo-Saxons corrupted this name into dandelion. The dandelion is also known in Italian as dente di leone.
The Chinese call it “nail in the earth” for its long taproot which draws nutrients and moisture from deep in the ground. And one of the plant’s common nicknames in French, pissenlit (pee-the-bed) attests to the dandelion’s use in traditional healing cultures as a valuable diuretic agent, rich in potassium). We used to call out ‘wetty bed’ when we picked dandelions. The belief that picking dandelions will cause the picker to wet their bed is widespread in the UK, leading to such names as mess-a-bed, pee-a-bed and pish-th’-bed.
In medieval times, dandelions gathered on St. John’s Eve, June 24th, were believed to repel witches. The milky sap, given the name “devil’s milk pail”, was used to cure warts and pimples.
Dandelions are more nutritious than spinach, have 25 times the vitamin A of tomato juice, and are a good source of calcium, potassium, magnesium, iron, lecithin, and vitamins C, B, and E. For many early gardeners dandelions made a life-saving spring tonic.
The dandelion was a standard medicinal plant used by herbalists for generations. Its Latin name, Taraxacum officinale, means a remedy for disorders. The leaves are a powerful diuretic and as they do not flush potassium from the body they are actually safer than pharmaceutical diuretics. The roots are slightly laxative and a tea made from ground fresh or dried roots is reported to improve digestion and may ease rheumatism or liver problems.
When mother earth gives us plentiful lemons we make lemonade but what should we do with so many dandelions? Since dandelions are closely related to epicurean greens: – endive, chicory, escarole, and radicchio, you could harvest the free, rampant growing dandelion greens and put them to good use.
• The young leaves are tasty in salad if you pick them before the flowers appear to avoid too much bitterness.
• The plants can be blanched like endive by covering them with a large flower pot to exclude sunlight.
• Older leaves can be boiled, with a bit of bacon, stir-fried with garlic and onions, or cut up and added to risotto or pasta.
• Try dipping the flower heads in a light batter then deep fry.
• Like chicory, dandelion roots can be roasted until they are dark brown inside and out, ground into a powder and used as a coffee substitute
The dandelion has been cast as public enemy No. 1. An estimated 80 million pounds of pesticides are used each year on home lawns to eradicate them. For me, letting my dandelions grow is not just about frugality (they’re free) and gastronomy but also ecology. The bright yellow dandelion flowers attract pollinators to the spring garden and provide an important early nectar source for many butterflies and bees.
The First Dandelion
Simple and fresh and fair from winter’s close emerging,
As if no artifice of fashion, business, politics, had ever been,
Forth from its sunny nook of shelter’d grass–innocent, golden, calm as the dawn,
The spring’s first dandelion shows its trustful face.
Source: “Leaves of Grass,” by Walt Whitman
You can curse dandelions all you want but, what is now considered a noxious weed has fed and healed us for thousands of years. So why not try your hand at making some dandelion wine and raise your glass to salute the spring.