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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Dandelions: Gardener’s scourge or chef’s delight

‘Dandelions’ photo by Petr Kratochvil

“If dandelions were hard to grow, they would be most welcome on any lawn.” ~ Andrew V. Mason ~


Whether a few seeds hitchhiked on some gentleman’s three-cornered hat or were purposely tucked inside a lady’s apron, dandelions took root in the New World as quickly as the settlers themselves, and were prized for a number of uses that are still popular today.

One of the most prolific flowers on the planet, the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) carries only a brief historical mention as being brought over to the New World by “settlers.”

In my humble opinion, I think I know why - anyone who would have proclaimed propagation fame for a plant that provides continuous and intrusive coverage to every lawn, sidewalk crack, and garden would be forever doomed and relegated to non-stop cursing on a hot summer day by homeowners everywhere.

The dandelion is considered the most recognized flowering plant world-wide, and takes it’s naming from French “dent de lion” (meaning “the tooth of the lion”) a phrase that aptly describes the plant’s saw-toothed, smooth, ground-hugging leaves.

It is no wonder that the dandelion has flourished in our country and everywhere else; dandelion seeds develop without cross-fertilization and are capable of traveling many miles on a gentle breeze.

Once established, they enjoy one of the longest growing seasons of any plant, appearing in early in spring and continuously populating anywhere until the first frost.

Dandelions were prized by the early settlers because the leaves, roots and flowers were used for various medicinal purposes - treating everything from rheumatism, gastrointestinal disorders, warts and the gout, and are today still considered important in Western herbal medicine for their nutritional value, immune enhancing capability and energy balancing properties.

It is believed that when refined as a tincture and added to water, the dandelion essence purportedly staves off or shortens the common cold, helps people listen and focus more, and assists with releasing grief. Whether this is the placebo effect or wishful thinking, one thing for certain is that dandelion greens (by themselves) are indeed a very healthy food, packed with vitamins A, C, D, and B-complex as well as minerals boron, calcium, choline, copper, iron, manganese, magnesium, potassium, silicon, and zinc. When you stop and think about it, they virtually rival off-the-shelf supplements.

If you’ve never tasted dandelion greens, they have a flavor a bit sharper in taste than arugula – more like endive, somewhat spicier and bitterer.

Small, new dandelion greens can be mixed directly with salads, but the larger, tougher, older leaves are best sautéed in olive oil with garlic, and then enhanced with a bit of lemon juice and salt to taste.

Other uses for dandelions have been as a coffee substitute (using primarily the root of the plant) and as a luscious jam or jelly by combining the flowers (minus the bitter bracts) with pectin, sugar, lemon juice and a little fresh grated ginger.

The flower heads, when prepared almost the same way as you would jelly or jam (minus the pectin and ginger and adding yeast and finely shaved lemon and orange rind) makes a lovely light wine, which ages well in the bottle.

Because the dandelion is known to have a slight diuretic property, individuals who are pregnant or taking any medications should always talk to their doctor or pharmacist before introducing anything new into their diet.

So what do you do if you don’t want to start raising dandelions, which interestingly enough were cultivated (to the exclusion of grasses) up until the 19th century? You can pull them out before they flower and go to seed, or use an herbicide.

IMHO, I prefer the natural method; it’s a little more difficult on your spinal column and knees, but it provides good exercise and promotes a healthier environment for all.

Below is an interesting video that was captured with time-lapse photography, and covers the complete cycle of the dandelion, flower to seed head.

Filmed by Neil Bromhall, with music by Debbie Wiseman, the photos were taken utilizing a Nikon D200 with 55mm lens that included a grow light and studio flash.

The pictures were snapped in intervals between five to 45 minutes over a period of one month. The camera even captures aphids that continue to feed on the flower as its seeds mature. 

Even though the dandelion is considered a weed, the almost miraculous transition of the bud, golden bloom, and finally snowy seeds mirrors the passage of human years.