Even though we now live near a food market after years in the remote countryside, we still strive to grow as much of our food as we can and we enjoy the thrill of harvesting it from the wild. We look forward to dandelion season, not only because we crave something fresh after a winter of stored vegetables, but because we associate collecting their edible leaves with spring renewal. To us, their tangy flavor in raw, wilted, and cooked dishes is synonymous with the fresh things that come from the earth when the snow melts, the soil warms, and we are reconnected to the living land.
Taraxacum officinale has a long history as a valued medicinal and a nutritious food. It is also a ubiquitous weed, turning up in lawns, pastures, roadsides, and in the proverbial waste places. Perennial plants grow from a tenacious, hard taproot, white inside and brown without, from which sprout jagged, dark green basal foliage, tangy and refreshingly bitter at first, aging to decidedly bitter. Buy late spring bright, yellow flowers bloom atop hollow stems, followed by fluffy fruits dispersed by the wind over vast areas, thus assuring the establishment of ever more plants.
Bitter properties throughout the plant, but most powerfully present in its roots, are responsible for claims of its vast curative powers, first recorded by an Arabian doctor in the tenth century. Preparations from the plants roots and leafy tops were used to treat kidney and liver disorders, and to increase mobility from stiffness in cases of degenerative joint diseases. A potent diuretic, it earned the country name “piddle bed.”
Nutritionally, dandelions are a powerhouse plant. Low in water content but rich in protein, sugar, vitamins A and C, calcium, and minerals, their leafy greens are at the top of the list of valued edible weeds. They rank higher than lettuce (cos or romine) in protein, carbohydrates, calcium, and iron, and much higher in nearly all vitamins and minerals.*
Look for harvestable dandelion greens, not in lawns or fields where they are crowded and small, but in rich soil where the ground is deep, porous, and humusy and in your own garden.
To harvest take a stout sharp knife and plunge it straight down next to the young green leaves until you reach the plant’s crown. Cut across, slicing the crown from the root, but leaving the top growth intact to facilitate cleaning. Shake out each bunch as you cut it to loosen the dirt and debris, then pull of the outside damaged or yellow leaves. Swish the bunch through several buckets of cold water until no dirt is apparent in the water, then bring the bunches indoors to finish preparing them for use. Once you know where to hunt for the best greens it should not take more than 10 or 15 minutes to dig and clean them.
To prepare them for eating fresh or cooked, trim off stem ends, wash leaves in fresh, cold water, squeeze dry (don’t be afraid to squeeze them hard-they are quite resilient), then either leave whole or cut into bit-sized pieces, depending on how you want to use them.
To use early in the season, add them to salads. Later use them in stir fry dishes, where they can take the place of broccoli rabe or rapini, a mustardy turnip green.
*”A comparison of nutritional properties of edible weed,” A. D. Gonzales, R. Janke, and E. H. Rapoport, Kansas State University, 2001.
Photo by Wikimedia Commons
Jo Ann Gardner is a noted plantswoman, lecturer, and author of 7 books on fruits, herbs, the cottage garden, and most recently Seeds of Transcendence: Understanding the Hebrew Bible Through Plants. She and her husband live in the Adirondacks where they maintain a small farm with extensive gardens. She may be reached through her website, www.JoAnnGardnerBooks.com.
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