Many wild plants and “weeds” are some of the most nutrient-dense greens you can eat. It is only in the past 100 or so years, as our food system became more and more industrialized, that wild superfoods dropped out of our diet. So I try to include them in mine when I can.
And if that weren’t delicious enough, this week, my CSA box had two bunches of dandelion greens, which are very easy to grow, medicinal, and very, very good for you.
The dandelion is so much more than a bothersome weed in your lawn. Dandelion is thought to be originally native to the Central Asian region, but has become naturalized in many parts of the world, including North America because it literally “grows like a weed” in almost any soil and climate.
Throughout history, it has been known as food, medicine and drink. Once known in France as Dent de Lion (lion’s tooth), the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is mostly now known as a weed. Yet, at one time, the dandelion was so prized as a food and medicinal plant that it was intentionally brought to America by European settlers.
Dandelions rank in the USDA’s top 4 green vegetables for overall nutritional value. Dandelions are nature’s richest green vegetable source of beta-carotene, and the third richest source of Vitamin A of all foods, after cod-liver oil and beef liver!
Dandelions also are particularly rich in fiber, potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and the B vitamins, thiamine and riboflavin, and are a good source of protein.
In addition to their incredible nutrient density, dandelions contain active chemical constituents which may have specific therapeutic effects on the body. These include:
- Tof-CFr, a glucose polymer which Japanese researchers have found to act against cancer cells in laboratory mice;
- Pectin, which is anti-diarrheal and also forms ionic complexes with metal ions, which probably contributes to dandelion’s reputation as a blood and gastrointestinal detoxifying herb. Pectin is prescribed regularly in Russia to remove heavy metals and radioactive elements from body tissues. Pectin can also lower cholesterol and, combined with Vitamin C, can lower it even more. Dandelion is a good source of both Pectin and Vitamin C;
- Coumestrol, an estrogen mimic which possibly is responsible, at least in part, for stimulating milk flow and altering hormones;
- Apigenin and Luteolin, two flavonoids which have diuretic, anti-spasmodic, anti-oxidant and liver protecting properties, and also to strengthen the heart and blood vessels. They also have anti-bacterial and anti-hypoglycemic properties, and, as estrogen mimics, may also stimulate milk production and alter hormones;
- Gallic Acid, which is anti-diarrheal and anti-bacterial;
- Linoleic and Linolenic Acid, which are two essential fatty acids required by the body to produce prostaglandins, which can regulate blood pressure, lower chronic inflammation, and prevent platelet aggregation;
- Choline, which has been shown to help improve memory;
- Sesquiterpene compounds, which are what make dandelions bitter. These may partly account for dandelions tonic effects on digestion, liver, spleen and gall bladder, and are highly anti-fungal;
- Triterpenes, which may contribute to bile or liver stimulation;
- Taraxasterol, which may contribute to liver and gall bladder health or to hormone altering.
These chemicals, individually, are not unique to dandelions, but the combination of them all in one plant, along with high levels of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, makes dandelion an extremely valuable—yet free—superfood.
Dandelion Uses in Herbal Medicine
The dandelion is part of Asian, Middle Eastern, European and Native American traditional healing practices as well as contemporary herbal medicine. Historically, dandelion had a diverse range of therapeutic uses but today’s herbalists mainly use it as an appetite stimulant and digestive aid.
The modern French name for dandelion is pissenlit, which pretty much means “wet the bed.” That is because the leaves can be a mild diuretic, helping your body remove excess water.
Dandelion leaves can be concentrated in teas and tinctures, and used to treat conditions affecting the liver, kidneys and gallbladder, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Some research suggests that it may play a role in improving immune system function and promoting gastrointestinal health.
Dandelion seeds can be taken regularly as a preventative measure to help keep the liver healthy. They can also be used to help lower acidity and inflammation in the body, as well as purify the blood and regenerate healthy cells. Dandelion seeds are said to help stimulate digestion through the production of stomach acids and enzymes, making it easier to digest fats and oils.
Dandelion Selection and Storage
While dandelion greens can be found at health food stores, co-ops and farmers markets, they are probably widely available during the spring and early summer months in your own backyard. Because dandelion is so easy to grow, the dandelion greens that you find in the store are typically organic.
Commercially cultivated dandelion greens may have whitish/green or red stems. The leaves are highly perishable. Store them in the fridge in a large plastic tub with a piece of paper towel to absorb excess moisture and condensation. If you store wet leaves in a produce bag, they will likely only last for a couple of days.
If you forage for dandelion, it is important to harvest wild dandelions in a natural setting, such as an open meadow, in order to avoid pesticide and lawn fertilizer exposure. Alternatively, you can sow dandelion seeds in your garden. In addition to simply picking a wild one for its seeds, there are many gourmet varieties of dandelion available through heirloom and specialty seed catalogs.
It’s best to pick dandelion greens (and all greens) in the morning when the sun is weak, as all greens tend to wilt if the sun is too intense. Tender, new leaves are sweetest; old leaves, midribs, and leaves growing with flowers are bitter.
To harvest, simply cut a clump of new leaves an inch or so above ground level, making sure there are no flower buds yet that would make the plant bitter. Dandelions will cut-and-come-again like some lettuces or celery if you leave an inch or two of the plant behind.
For the forager, there is not a part of the dandelion that needs to go to waste. In the early spring, before the flower buds have begun pushing up from the crown, dandelion greens make a special addition to meals, either raw in a salad or smoothie, or cooked in coconut oil, butter or bacon fat, like spinach. (The presence of the fat with cooked dandelions will make the nutrients in them even more bioavailable!)
Once the flowers begin to bloom and the leaves become bitter, you can pick them for eating or winemaking (recipe below). Dandelion flowers can be added fresh to salads and sautéed, fried or steamed with other vegetables.
The long taproot of the dandelion is generally dug when the plant enters its second year of life. Generally, roots are harvested in summer for medicinal purposes or in autumn for roasting and grinding into a chicory-flavored coffee substitute.
Dandelion seeds can be harvested throughout the year and are commonly taken as a supplement to heal the body of various ailments, as well as to grow next year’s crop.
Here are two great ways to enjoy the humble but nutritious dandelion; one recipe for the leaves, and one for the flowers…
- 2 large bunches young dandelion greens, tough stems discarded (harvest before flowering or greens will be bitter)
- 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, butter or refined coconut oil (refined doesn't taste like coconut)
- 4 stalks green garlic or 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup pecans, coarsely chopped (soaked and dehydrated ahead of time)
- 1-1/2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
- 1 tsp. sea salt
- 1/4 tsp. pepper
- Cut top 5 inches from greens and transfer to a large heatproof serving bowl.
- Cut remaining greens into 3/4 inch slices and add to bowl.
- Heat oil or butter in a small heavy skillet over moderate heat. Add garlic and nuts and cook, stirring, until garlic is golden.
- Stir in vinegar, salt, and pepper.
- Pour warm vinaigrette over greens and toss to combine.
- 1 package dried wine yeast (where to find online)
- 1/4 cup warm water
- 2 quarts dandelion petals
- 4 quarts water
- 1 cup fresh orange juice
- 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 8 whole cloves
- 1/2 tsp. powdered ginger
- 3 Tbsp. coarsely chopped orange peel, pith removed
- 1 Tbsp. coarsely chopped lemon peel, pith removed
- 6 cups Rapadura, panela, or whole cane sugar (where to find Rapadura online)
- Dissolve the yeast in the 1/4 cup of warm (not hot!) water. Set aside.
- Wash the dandelion blossoms well, then separate the flower petals from the base of the blooms (sepals) so there is no green left at all.
- Put the petals in a large pot with 4 quarts of water, and the orange, lemon and lime juices.
- Add the cloves, ginger, orange and lemon peel, and sugar.
- Bring to a boil and continue to gently boil for an hour, stirring occasionally.
- Transfer to a non-reactive container made of glass, enamel or ceramic.
- Cool to room temperature.
- Stir in the activated yeast.
- Let stand, covered in the dark, for three days, stirring often.
- Strain thoroughly into a 1-gallon airlock fermenting jar made of glass or ceramic.
- Set the fermenting jar in a darkened place for three or four weeks, or until wine clears.
- Decant into bottles and cork, or simply remove the airlock and seal the gallon jar.
- Allow the wine to age in a cool, dark place for at least 3 months; the longer, the better.
- Enjoy on a warm summer night or anytime you need a taste of summer.
- 1 gallon airlock fermenting jar (where to find online)