The Ubiquitous Dandelion: medicine, food & wildlife forage

Wayne Weiseman
Wednesday, 4th February 2015

Wayne Weiseman is a prose plant poet. Here he explains why dandelion is both a diamond amongst nature's medicine chest and in the kitchen. Read this and you might never dig one up again!

Dandelion. The thesaurus does not list this word as a synonym for ubiquitous. I guess Roget did not have to mow his front lawn every week. Or maybe he did, but refused to allow this ubiquitous 'pest' into his treasure house of words and phrases. Dandelion. Dent-de-lion. 'Lion's tooth'. Bright little suns waking at springtime amongst the fresh green. A landscaper's nemesis. A homeowner's dilemma. A survivalist's dream. A wildcrafters boon. Probably the most infamous wildflower in America. But how wild can the dandelion be? It follows human habitation relentlessly, brings clovers, and sorrels, and plantains (referred to by Native Americans as the 'white man's footsteps') along for the ride.

The common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) does seem to grow everywhere. I have seen the familiar rosette of spear-shaped leaves peeping through the dry sands of the desert and at elevations where other plants could hardly breathe. A meadow of solid dandelions is one of nature's most pleasing sights. A saturated sheet of yellow gently rustling in the breeze. And after the delicate white puffball seed heads form, the fields take on an unearthly hue!

The yellow flowers of dandelion appear from March through September atop hollow, purplish stems that contain a milky, latex juice. At night and when it rains these flower heads close up and reopen at the first signs of clearing and sunlight. The bracts beneath the flower heads are reflexed. Leaves are deeply lobed and jagged, resembling spearheads.

Insect & animal forage

Many flies, bees, and insects come to languish in the blossoms' nectars. It is not unusual, when strolling through a field of dandelions on a warm summer day, to hear an incredibly loud drone rising from the thousands of bees swarming over the blossoms. I have picked my way carefully to the center of such fields on several occasions simply to listen and take it all in.

There are many birds, mammals, hoofed browsers, and domesticated farm animals that eat different parts of the dandelion. The grouse, partridge, pheasant, quail, and wild turkey enjoy the seed heads. Songbirds, such as blackbirds, goldfinches (who relish any downy seed!), sparrows, siskins, and towhees eat the seeds. Rabbits, porcupines, ground squirrels, mice, and prairie dogs eat seeds, foliage and root. Deer browse on dandelions from spring to fall. Pigs and goats, when left to pasture on the farm, find dandelions highly palatable.

Fritters & salad

Years ago, when I first read in a wild edible plant guide that the flower heads of dandelions could be made into fritters, I went straight to it. In the autumn, after a massive acorn hunt and gathering expedition, I ground some processed acorns into flour, added water, coated a few dandelion flowers with this batter, and deep-fried them in vegetable oil. Not only was I more than pleased, but it led me to a thorough investigation of all possible food and medicinal values of this feisty front lawn maverick.

A delicacy in France, the younger leaves of the common dandelion are an excellent salad ingredient or cooked green. In this country we lack the bitter taste in our meals, an important digestive and liver cleansing flavor. Dandelion greens fill this gap. The flower buds, when steamed or boiled, are especially good. They can also be turned into pickles and fermented with other vegetables. The root is baked until brown, ground, and perked into a coffee like beverage (it can be added to roasted chicory root for a richer flavor). Remember that this not a 'coffee' substitute, but a delicious brew in its own right.

The dandelion is high in protein, calcium, vitamin A, and other important nutrients. The entire plant can be dried, ground into flour, and used as an addition to recipes requiring flour.

Wine & tonic

When added to and processed with sugar, ginger, orange rind, lemon and yeast, the famous 'dandelion wine' is produced. This wine makes for a delicious spring tonic. The leaves and roots are a safe diuretic (the leaf being a bit more diuretic). Kidney inflammation and bladder infection respond to the diuretic and cleansing action of dandelion. As a general liver tonic, dandelion root breaks up liver congestion and restores liver function after a bout with hepatitis. It can be drunk freely in decoction to dissolve urinary stones and relieve some forms of constipation. It helps to lower blood pressure and has a positive affect on the heart. Dandelion clears obstructions in the gall bladder, pancreas and spleen. It treats anemia with its high mineral and vitamin content. As a blood purifier it aids in clearing skin diseases, psoriasis, and acne. Dandelion balances blood sugar levels whether one is suffering from hypo- or hyperglycemia. Dandelion is a diamond amongst nature's medicine chest.

Dandelion is a central plant in biodynamic gardening and farming, and because of its dynamic accumulating abilities, it is prized among gardeners and farmers for its ability to mine minerals from deep in the soil profile. It is readily applied to the garden as a mulch or fermented foliar spray.

How much food we have growing right in the front yard (and back)!!! In recent years the dandelion has been cultivated more frequently for its delectable greens. It can even be found now in many American produce markets. So why does this most wonderful plant still have to absorb the opprobrium of so many lawn doctors and perfectionists? What with the high prices we must pay at the checkout counter for days (and weeks) old produce it makes good, uncommon sense to harvest a few spring leaves, roots and flower heads to welcome the abundance of the sun's spring return and celebrate Mother Earth in all her vital immediacy.

Wayne Weiseman is an experienced permaculture teacher, designer, consultant and the co-author of Integrated Forest GardeningYou can read a review of his book HERE and purchase it in Europe saving £3.30 on the cover price HERE. For North American sales please visit his publishers at Chelsea Green.

Further resources

Mullein: plant medicine, scintillating flower and unexpected bushcraft companion

Amazing Moringa: medicinal, edible and easy to grow