Updated: Apr 30, 2021
If you’re looking to dip your toes into herbal medicine, allow me to introduce you to my friend, the very humble and very abundant Dandelion. Dandelion has an affinity for blurring the lines between food and medicine, which makes it a great foundational plant for beginners. Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is native to Eurasia and is now naturalized to every continent except Antarctica. It is widely believed to have been introduced to Turtle Island in the early 17th century as a food and medicine crop and as a reminder of ancestral homelands. There are also several species of native Dandelions which may have traveled across the Bering Strait several millennia ago, including the Alpine Dandelion (Taraxacum ceratophorum), and the endemic and critically endangered California Dandelion (Taraxacum californicum), which was historically utilized by the now dispersed Cahuilla tribe of California.
Common Dandelion; Lion's Tooth; Pissinlit; Telltime; Milkwitch
From pickled dandelion buds to dandelion wine to spring greens quiche, it’s hard to tap out all the creative ways to prepare them. It’s also relatively easy to identify, even before it flowers, and it’s in most people’s backyards.
Early spring is a great time to harvest dandelion roots, before they’ve shunted all their energy up out of the roots into the aerial parts. Roasted dandelion root “coffee” is one of my all time favorites. Dandelion roots are great for supporting the liver, kidneys, and colon to promote elimination and detoxification. They also contain inulin, a prebiotic oligosaccharide that feeds your microbiome.
Lightly roasted roots, decocted (covered & simmered) for 10-15 minutes, then strained and combined with a little bit of milk (I like to use oat milk) and maple syrup. It’s such a treat on these still-slightly-chilly spring mornings, and its just bitter enough to work its magic while being mild enough for kids and bitterphobes. You can also grind these up and run them through an ordinary coffee percolator or brew them in a French press.
The tender young greens are also up, and daring yellow blossoms, which are chock full of antioxidants and flavonoids, are beginning to poke their heads out to test the weather. One of my favorite ways to eat dandelion blossoms is as buds-right as they’re just beginning to open up.
Dandelions are in the Asteraceae or Aster family, and asters are notoriously bitter. Most Americans haven’t acquired the palate for bitter taste, but bitters are a wonderful addition to our diets nutritionally and can balance other flavors as well. Many people are aware that bitters can stimulate digestion, but did you know that they can help curb appetite as well? That’s because the bitter flavor signals our brains to balance our appetite and satiety hormones, ghrelin and leptin respectively. In the short term, around 15-30 minutes in, bitters stimulate digestive secretions and improve nutrient assimilation, but the long term effects lead to more sustained feelings of fullness after a meal.
This time of year is a great time to gently ease into bitter foods and medicines. Dandelion greens are less bitter now than they are in the heat of the summer and make a great addition to raw salads or sautéed with other early spring greens. A little goes a long way; I find one moderate bunch of bitter greens (like a 1-2 good sized spring dandelions) as a first course to a meal is often plenty to stimulate digestion without overdoing it.
If you want to start incorporating dandelions into your diet, they’re pretty easy to find (that’s an understatement- these are ubiquitous sidewalk-protesters with an adversarial multimillion dollar herbicide industry and tools designed specifically for their removal as their unworthy foes)- just make sure you’re harvesting in an area free of herbicides and other contaminates. Look for hairless leaves that are jaggedly pinnatifid to pinnatisect (deeply divided edges resulting a broadly toothed-like appearance), which grow in a basal rosette (all the leaves emerging from a single point on the ground), and yellow flowerhead that emerge from a solitary unbranching hollow stem, which exudes white latex when broken.
Dandelions are determined little plants, sometimes almost seeming to prefer growing defiantly out of cracks in the sidewalk, to speckle otherwise bare rock faces, and flourish incidentally in various corners of your garden. Dandelions are resilient, but in spite of being labeled as pesky weeds, they are not invasive in that they don't outcompete native species. So channel your inner Dandelion, and drink some dandelion tea; it can help move stagnant liver Qi, making you more resilient and less crabby too!
While they’re are a few plants that look similar to dandelions, don’t be surprised if you see some variation in different specimens of dandelion leaves. Dandelions can be prone to hybridization. Here in North America, most dandelions are labeled as Taraxacum officinale, regardless of their diverse variation in morphological presentation. However, in the UK there are over 2,000 cataloged microspecies of dandelion. It is speculated that this discrepancy is due to North American dandelions being apomictic polyploids (asexual reproducers), while those from Europe being sexual diploids (more promiscuous and prone to genetic diversification), though this is still currently being debated. In any case, they are difficult to confuse with non-dandelion look-alikes such as Cat's Ear (Hypochaeris radicata), Yellow Hawkweed (Hieracium caespitosum) Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) if you follow the ID description above.
It is often the simplest of plants that have the most to offer. Never underestimate the humbles ones, the ones who remain small and meek, and in their abundance blend into the background after the excitement of spring fades. There’s a saying in the herbal world... “If a plant grows in abundance, there’s a good chance the people need it’s medicine.” And goodness knows most of us could use a little Dandelion medicine in our lives.