Dandelion and Stinging Nettle: Common Weeds with Healing Properties

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
This tough opponent of backyard lawn tender is also a healing herb for over a dozen ailments.

Dandelions are Good for Your Health

Early each spring, as soon as the frost
left the ground in my childhood home of Maine, dandelion
greens began to sprout, and before their early spring
blooms appeared, my grandmother would be out in the yard
harvesting the tender young greens.

“A spring cleanser,” she said.

She let the greens soak in water overnight to remove the
bitterness, then boiled them like spinach. A complement of
vinegar, sprinkled over the steaming hot greens, made them
a perfect addition to dinner for a week or two each spring.
As soon as the flower buds began to form at the crown of
the root, she stopped harvesting them.

“Too bitter now,” she would always say.

Dandelion is difficult to categorize. We think of it as a
weed, sometimes a vegetable, but dandelion an herb?
Certainly. What is an herb? Any plant used for culinary,
fragrant, or medicinal purposes, according to my
Webster’s . Of course, it is so common, so
pervasive, and so familiar, our association of dandelion is
mostly that of weed. But while best known as something to
rid from a lawn, it is used for both food and medicine and,
therefore, is an herb.

Dandelion is known to botanists as Taraxacum
officinale
, an extremely variable biennial or
perennial herb species. Over 100 different variations of
this simple herb have been described by European botanists.
Probably native to Europe, it is widespread throughout the
northern hemisphere. Wherever humans find home, so does the
dandelion. The stemless leaves arise from the crown of the
root in a rosette. The flower heads, those crowded familiar
yellow blooms, are actually a “composite” of hundreds of
tiny flowers packed together, rather than a “single
flower.” It is a member of the aster or composite family.

Leaves are best harvested when they are still tender and
sweet, and are at their best during the first year of
growth. Leaves harvested after the plant buds tend to be
bitter and tough. Like her mother before her, my
grandmother was right. If you harvest dandelion leaves from
your lawn or yard, you will want them early in the spring
before the flower buds. Dandelion leaf growing is actually
a small commercial industry. As a specialty crop for fresh
leaf production, three to four million dollars worth of
leaves are grown each in Texas, Florida, Arizona,
California, and especially, New Jersey. Who would have
thought?

What can you do with dandelion in the kitchen? For the
freshly harvested leaves consider dandelion boiled greens,
dandelion spaghetti, dandelion quiche, dandelion lasagna,
dandelion bread, and dandelion pizza, to name a few. The
flowers also offer an interesting array of possibilities
from wine to jams. These are just a few of the gastronomic
possibilities to be found in, yes, you guessed it, a
cookbook devoted to the subject. Interested in more? See:
Peter Gail’s Dandelion Celebration : A Guide
to Unexpected Cuisine
(Goosefoot Acres Press, P.O. Box
18016, Cleveland Heights, OH 44118).

How about nutritional value? Dandelion fresh leaves contain
protein, fiber, calcium, phosphorus, iron, potassium,
thiamine, riboflavin, vitamin C, and are especially high in
vitamin A. The dried leaf is high in potassium (about 4%).
According to Dr. Gail, dandelion leaves rank ahead of both
broccoli and spinach in overall nutritional value.

Both the leaves and roots of dandelion are used in herbal
medicine. Traditionally, both dandelion leaf and root have
been used for liver, gallbladder, and kidney ailments, and
as a tonic for weak or impaired digestion. They are also
considered mildly laxative. The dried root is believed to
have weaker activity than the fresh root or its
preparations. In modern European herbal medicine (called
“phytomedicine”), the leaves are used for conditions
involving water retention resulting from various causes.
Experimental data confirm that the leaf has a significant
diuretic action, and because of its high potassium content,
the leaf replaces this mineral lost through the urine.

Traditionally, the root has been used for the treatment of
rheumatism. It has been shown to possess anti-inflammatory
activity, perhaps providing a rational scientific basis for
its historical use in treating rheumatism. Its primary
modern use is for conditions associated with bile secretion
in the liver, as well as dyspepsia and loss of appetite.
Alcoholic extracts of the root increase bile secretion in
animal models by over 40% according to a scientific review
on dandelion produced by the European Scientific
Cooperative for Phytotherapy. They also note that the root
has experimental weight-loss activity due to its diuretic
actions and is weakly antibiotic against Candida
albicans
.

Timing of harvest affects root quality. Summer-harvested
roots (June–August) produce a less uniform product
with lower content of biologically active bitter
principles. Late September–October harvest is
preferred. If an extract is made from the roots, the
fall-harvested roots make an opaque extract.

Spring-harvested roots (lower in inulin and other bitter
principles) produce a clear extract. In Germany, where
herbal medicine reaches its highest scientific state of
development in a Western industrialized country, dandelion
root (with herb) and dandelion leaves are allowed by the
German health authorities to be labeled for medicinal
purposes. Use is allowed as a diuretic, for treatment of
loss of appetite, dyspeptic problems, and disturbances in
bile flow. Dandelion products are contraindicated in the
treatment of obstruction of bile ducts and certain
gallbladder conditions. However, they may be used for
supportive treatment of gallstones, under a physician’s
supervision. Incidentally, all medical students in modern
Germany are required to take a certain number of course
hours on herbal medicine, and a section on the subject is
now part of Germany’s licensing exam for physicians.

Stinging Nettle for Inflammation

Another neglected weed that becomes a springtime herb of
choice is stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). Stinging nettle
is native to Europe, Asia, as well as North America.But the
North American material differs from the typical European
Urtica dioica by possessing male and female
flowers on the same plant. Here in the US., we have four
species of stinging nettles (with two subspecies and six
varieties). The typical European form has been introduced
here and is sporadically naturalized in North America.

I didn’t know how to identify the plant when I first
encountered it, but soon learned the hard way. With shorts
on one Maine summer I was walking through a pasture and the
leaves, loaded with nettle. Their stinging hairs, grazed my
legs, creating tiny stings much like an ant bite. The leaf
and stem hairs are like tiny syringes. When they come into
contact with the skin, the tips break off, injecting their
chemical mix containing histamine, small amounts of formic
acid, and other chemicals into the skin. The resulting
burning sting can last for an hour or more.

Upon drying or cooking, the stinging compounds dissipate,
and freshly cooked nettles make a delicious and nutritious
spring green. The fresh plants should, of course, be
handled with gloves. Harvest the spring shoots in May or
June, before nettles begin flowering, for a tasty pot herb.
The dried herb can be sprinkled in salads, soups,
vegetables, and other foods for a subtle salt flavor and a
rich supply of iron, magnesium, potassium, calcium, vitamin
A, protein, as well as dietary fiber. In fact, nettles were
once grown as a fiber plant in Europe. They contain about
15% fiber by weight that can be processed into a soft,
flexible textile said to feel much like silk.

Herbal traditions hold that the leaves have mild diuretic
properties and are “blood building.” Experimentally, the
dried leaf tea reportedly increases blood hemoglobin.
Diuretic activity has been confirmed by both laboratory
studies and a human clinical study. Nettles are also
thought to help stimulate blood circulation and have been
used as a spring tonic to clear chronic skin ailments. In
Europe, nettle leaf tea or extracts have also been used for
the treatment of skin eruptions such as eczema.

In modern German herbal medicine, an average daily dose of
about one-third ounce of the dried herb is used for
supportive treatment of rheumatic conditions, and
inflammation of the lower urinary tract. A recent
double-blind study also showed that freeze-dried nettle
extract produced positive, though limited, results in the
treatment of allergic inflammation of the nasal cavity.

The root is also the subject of modern research. An alcohol
extract from nettle roots was recently reported to lessen
the number of times that men over of the age of 60
suffering from benign prostatic enlargement (benign
prostatic hyperplasia) had to urinate during the night. The
treatment was found to be most effective in mild cases.
Therefore, the German government allows preparations of the
root for symptomatic relief of urinary difficulties
associated with prostate enlargement.

So, think twice when you see the lowly weeds. Perhaps we
should think of them as “herbs,” rather than plants to be
eliminated by herbicides.