Dandelion

Dandelions are so much more than just a pretty face. Love 'em or hate 'em, dandelions may prove to be one of the most important herbs grown today.
Photo credit Maria Li on stock.xchng

Photo credit Maria Li on stock.xchng

I suspect most folks don’t realize that dandelions are much more than weeds that can turn an otherwise beautiful lawn into the blight of the neighborhood.

Yes, those lovely yellow flowering uhm, weeds that are public enemy number one to most gardeners are actually an herb. They’re an herb with a rich history and have been prized as both a medicinal and tasty crop.

Dandelions have a rich and tasty history but a World War II era idea for dealing with a material shortage may lead to dandelions becoming one of the world’s most important cash crops.

 

Overview

Drawing by Renate Kalloch from Stock.xchng.

Drawing by Renate Kalloch from Stock.xchng.

Did you know that dandelion, taraxacum officinale, is actually an herb? Yes, those lovely yellow flowers that produce those fly-away seeds that are the bane of most gardeners are herbs.

In fact, its seeds were once so highly treasured that they were carried on the Mayflower to the new world for its medicinal properties. Other settlers and explorers also brought dandelion seeds to California, Canada and Mexico. While I don’t plan on adding dandelion to my guide to companion planting with herbs, its taproot does loosen the soil and provide nutrients for other plants.

Dandelions might have also played a strategic role in World War II.

It gives one a sudden start in going down a barren, stony street, to see upon a narrow strip of grass, just within the iron fence, the radiant dandelion, shining in the grass, like a spark dropped from the sun.

~ Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887)

Dandelion Varieties

True, Summer & Russian

There are at least 60 different species of dandelion. (Like so many things in botany, there’s disagreement as to the number of macrospecies and microspecies…I have no idea what that means other than there are thought to be 34 macrospecies and around 2000 microspecies.)

Anyway, for the rest of us and this conversation, there are three primary dandelion plants that we are interested in.

True Dandelion

True dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, goes to seed in the fall. The plant needs to be overwintered and optimum harvest is in the early spring, before the plant flowers. The leaves are fairly small and harvesting true dandelion is more labor intensive because the shorter plants get dirtier and require more cleaning.

Taraxacum officinale is often referred to as ‘common dandelion’. It is the species most commonly found growing in lawns and gardens.

Summer Dandelion

Summer dandelion (my sources didn’t name a particular variety) is generally planted in the spring, when true dandelion is being harvested. It grows more upright and therefore requires less cleaning before consuming. The leaves are also larger – 12 to 14 inches.

Russian Dandelion

Taraxacum kok-saghyz was first discovered in the Soviet Union in 1932. We’ll discuss this plant and its importance later.

Grocery Store Dandelion Greens

The dandelion greens most commonly found in grocery stores are chicory hybrids, San Pasquale and Catalogna.

Dandelions Rule!

Dandelion field photo credit Vit Smolek on stock.xchang.

Dandelion field photo credit Vit Smolek on stock.xchang.

Dandelion Capital of the World

Vineland, New Jersey is the birthplace of Welch’s grape juice and the mason jar. Yet, it is more famous for growing dandelions. In Vineland, dandelions are a cash crop and home to one of many annual dandelion festivals. They started holding the ‘National Dandelion Festival’ in 1973. One former mayor proclaimed Vineland was the Dandelion Capital of the World. (No word if anyone has since disputed this claim, though, I suspect there are several cities and towns who might.)

Farmers in Vineland supply restaurants and markets in Baltimore, New York City and Philadelphia. Dandelions are used in Amish, French, Greek, Italian and Polish cuisine. They are most well-known as an ingredient in wine. And, dandelions are believed to be one of the original bitter herbs of Passover.

Ironically, Vineland’s dandelion farmers report the biggest threat to dandelion production is grass.

Dandelion Festivals Sprouting Up Everywhere

Who knew? I certainly didn’t. There are places that hold celebrations in honor of mosquitoes in a ironic homage to the bugs we all despise. Why should those pretty yellow flowers that those seeking the perfect lawn hate so much, not have their own celebrations?

Googling for “Dandelion Festival” surprisingly led to quite a few communities which celebrate the lovely, sunny flowers. There’s probably more, but here’s a few that Google identified.

  • The Old Town Keptville Dandelion Festival (Ontario, CA – end of May)
  • Dandelion Fest (Borculo, MI – annual event for over 20 years, at the beginning of May includes a parade)
  • Breitenbach Dandelion Festival and Great Dandelion Cookoff (Dover, OH – early part of May, includes a picking contest where all those freshly harvested dandelions are turned into jelly, a celebration of numerous dandelion-based food stuffs and of course since Breitenbach is a winery…dandelion wine)
  • White Sulfer Springs, WV (usually held around Memorial Day)
  • Fond du Lac, WI
  • Northern Vermont (in and around Derby, Holland and Morgan)
  • Napa Valley (held an inaugural event in 2011)
  • Durango, CO

I found references to dandelions being cultivated as a cash crop in New Jersey, Texas, Florida, Kansas, Ohio and Pennsylvania. They are also being grown as a cash crop in Canada and Australia. (I suspect the list is quite longer and would also include numerous small-scale herb farmers.) One article mentioned the Japanese greatly honor the lowly dandelion and their gardens are full of their golden blooms.

Nutritional Properties of Dandelion

Photo credit Maria Li on stock.xchng.

Photo credit Maria Li on stock.xchng.

Dandelions pack a punch when it comes to vitamins and minerals. They are full of all sorts of good things.

Peter Gail, an economic botany professor at Cleveland State University has found that dandelion greens have 50% more vitamin C than tomatoes, twice as much protein as eggplant and double the fiber of asparagus. They have as much iron as spinach and more potassium than bananas.

The University of Maryland Medical Center website listed dandelion as being a rich source of vitamins A, B complex, C, and D, as well as minerals such as iron, potassium, and zinc.

Cooking with Dandelions

Kitchen photo credit Roger Kirby on stock.xchng.

Kitchen photo credit Roger Kirby on stock.xchng.

The leaves, if picked before the plant flowers, are often incorporated into salads with other greens. A number of people suggested using the greens like one would use spinach and a sweet, hot, bacon dressing was mentioned in several sources.

The Swiss make a sweet honey-like treat with dandelion flowers. They soak the flowers in water over night. They filter out the flowers and mix the water with sugar, in equal parts, and cook the water/sugar mixture slowly, until it thickens.

I’ve found mentions of dandelion leaves being used in tomato sauces, specialty breads (often as a compliment to cranberries), pizza (alternative to spinach), and spicy sausages.

The flowers are used as garnishes but they can also be baked, fried, or sauteed. They can be found in soups, stews and jellies.

Are Dandelions Bitter?

It’s a matter of taste…

Photo credit Eric Lumis on stock.xchng.

Photo credit Eric Lumis on stock.xchng.

It’s always interesting when I come across a food item people may not be familiar with. Opinions vary greatly as to whether or not it is spicy, mild, tart, sweet, bitter or whatever. While many proclaim dandelion leaves are not bitter there are others who report, even young, spring leaves are extremely bitter.

A number of the recipes I found mention using the natural bitterness of dandelion leaves as a seasoning, much like we use vinegar to provide a bitter/tart flavor to foods. Oddly enough, I also found references to using dandelion as a natural sweetener.

Others add fat to perhaps coat the taste buds a bit to mask the bitter flavor.

One edible food expert provided a fun and informative look at dealing with the bitterness and ways to mask it – including ways to cultivate this herb to minimize its natural bitterness. One interesting point he made was that he has found about 1 in 25 of his students has no ability to taste bitter things. Then there’s folks like me who seem to have a heightened taste for bitter foods – meaning what is slightly bitter to some is supremely bitter to me. You can read his article here…BackWoodsHome

Dandelion Coffee

…or is it dandelion tea?

Dandelion roots photo credit Wikipedia user LinguistAtLarge on Wikipedia.

Dandelion roots photo credit Wikipedia user LinguistAtLarge on Wikipedia.

Dandelion coffee is actually made by brewing the roots of the dandelion plant; in other words, it’s a tea. But since the resulting brew resembles coffee in both taste and appearance, you’ll most likely see it referred to as dandelion coffee. The roots are harvested, dried and roasted. An online search revealed several techniques on preparing your own dandelion roots for brewing purposes. Most are time consuming and you might be surprised just how much dandelion root you’ll need.

While I suspect the history of dandelion tea is older than Wikipedia says it is, they document it back to an article from the 1830s.

Dandelion Coffee is Caffeine-Free

Dandelion coffee is touted as a coffee substitute for those looking for a caffeine-free alternative. Some pre-packaged blends of dandelion and other herbs claim their product has enough natural sweetness from the plants that it can be drunk without adding additional sugar.

Dandy Blend’s 2 pound size bag is the number one selling coffee substitute on Amazon and their blend of barley, rye, chicory root, dandelion root and sugar beet is said to be sweet enough to not require additional sweetener.

Dandelion Coffee – as a Hangover Cure?

One Australian newspaper mentioned dandelion root “coffee” as a good liver tonic to combat excessive Christmas holiday eating and adult beverage consumption.

Dandelion Coffee as a Cancer Treatment

Several studies have found dandelion coffee killed cancer cells in laboratory dishes and animals. Researchers at the Windsor Regional Cancer Centre in Ontario, Canada, are several months into a study of using dandelion tea/coffee as a treatment for chronic myelomonocytic leukemia. Two different articles mention patients, who after exhausting traditional treatment and sent home to basically die, tried dandelion tea. Both patients saw their blood counts return to normal and become cancer-free.

Personal Aside: I’ve come to believe cancer can be a very fickle and mercurial disease. My grandfather suffered terribly for several years before the disease finally ended his life. A neighbor, who quite simply refused to die, confounded her doctors as her cancer-ridden body somehow ridded itself of numerous tumors and she lived long-beyond her original diagnosis predicted. (We moved away but know she lived virtually disease-free for at least 10 years after she was diagnosed as terminal.)

The Canadian study is not the only one being conducted, just the one with the most recent press coverage. Doctors did suggest that anyone undergoing traditional cancer treatments for cancer should consult with their physician prior to adding the herbal brew to their diets. The two patients mentioned in the articles about the Windsor study were not actively treating their disease when they began drinking dandelion coffee.

Dandelion Wine

Ray Bradbury’s favorite beverage?

Wine photo credit user HybridSys on stock.xchng.

Wine photo credit user HybridSys on stock.xchng.

I have no idea whether Ray Bradbury liked dandelion wine. He did, however, name one of his books Dandelion Wine. There’s also a band with the same name. In this Lens, we’re going to discuss the adult beverage made from fermented dandelion flowers.

Dandelion wine is made by steeping the flowers in water – again, probably more accurately called a tea. Some people use the entire flower head, others use just the yellow petals. Recipes generally include an acid (usually, oranges or lemons), sugar and a variety of other flavors.

One winery described their dandelion wine as a dessert wine that tasted like a blend of a light chardonnay and corn on the cob. Gotta say, that is not a pairing I would have ever expected to see in a discussion about the flavor of any wine. The makers of NV Hidden Legend Dandelion Wine describe their wine as summer on a back porch in Montana with a “delicate” and “grassy” flavor.

While nothing I found explained the huge variance, dandelion wine is aged anywhere from two months to two years. It seems the duration may relate to local traditions more so than developing a particular flavor profile though several recipes did mention the flavor became stronger if left to age longer. However, it seems that most recommend aging dandelion wine for at least six months.

This site shares a trio of recipes and some dandelion wine-making advice – Jack Keller’s Wine Making Blog.

Dandelion Seeds

I had originally not planned on making suggestions on where to buy dandelion seeds. After all, this flowering, perennial herb is highly invasive. Yet, in recent weeks I have been seeing several visitors to Our Herb Garden who searched for dandelion seeds and seed dandelion. So, ask and you shall receive.

This seems to be the best deal for dandelion seeds that I could find, it’s also one of the only ones that specifically stated they were Taraxacum Officinale Seeds. They offer a package of 250 seeds and seem to have the happiest buyers among all of the folks selling dandelion seeds on Amazon.

If you are in the market for dandelion seeds, read the packaging carefully. A number of the varieties being sold as dandelion are actually chicory. Chicory is also a flowering herb that has a bitter green used as a coffee substitute.

From what I’ve read, people are growing dandelions like they do vegetables. They are harvesting the greens for themselves or to provide food for their chickens, lizards and tortoises.

Additional Dandelion Information

Don’t miss our article on Dandelion History, where you’ll learn how dandelions could have changed the outcome of World War II and how they may one day lead to a cure for cancer.