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Dandelions: A Weed or Wonder?

By Adeena Hires

Okanogan Living

The sun is shining, the days are warm and lovely; we have waited all year, and summer is here at last. With it comes gardening, watering, mowing and yardwork to stay ahead of weeds to keep our gardens and lawns picturesque.

Weeds are often dismissed as noxious nuisances ­— to be pulled out at the earliest opportunity. It's worth noting, however, that many weeds are edible as well as medicinal and can benefit your health.

In general, a weed is defined a plant growing where it is not waned, and for many, the weed war doesn’t stop until frost comes to claim them. We arm ourselves with gloves, shovels, and sprays, yet the battle always seems to reach an impasse. We pull, starve, suppress, scald, spray and still the weeds persist. However, nature is incredible and although it may seem like we are constantly fighting against it, frequently it is on our side we just need to “dig a little deeper” (pun intended) to find out how.

The one weed that we tend to fight with the most (that we spend a lot of money on to eradicate ­— that perhaps defines the term “weed”), is the dandelion— the flower no one wants.

It is from the daisy family and we tend to have a love/hate relationship them. We are constantly trying to rid them from our lawns, yet we consider them a symbol of growth, hope and healing.

The plant got its name from the French word "dent de lion", meaning lion's tooth because the leaves are jagged and rough resembling a lion's tooth. The entire plant is considered edible except for the fluffy seed head.

They are prolific and a single plant can produce up to 20,000 seeds. The fluffy seed head (called the pappus) acts as a parachute for the seeds to ride the wind, allowing them to travel up to five miles from the source. It also takes only an inch of dandelion root to reproduce a whole new plant. They are fast growers and go from flower to seed in a matter of days. If undisturbed, the plant can live for up to 10 years.

Throughout its lifetime, the roots continue to sink deeper in the ground and can reach depths of up to 15 feet. Because of their wide-spreading roots, they are actually good for your lawn.

The roots help to aerate the ground and loosen hard packed soil. The taproot also pulls nutrients (such as calcium) from deep in the soil and makes them available to other plants, thus essentially fertilizing the grass. Despite this, sometime in the 20th century it was decided a lush green lawn without dandelions symbolized wealth and status because only the wealthy could afford to have weed-free grass lawns.

Since dandelions are photosensitive, they bloom with the sun in the morning and close with the sunset in the evening. Likewise, they seem dull when conditions are cloudy and gloomy.

There are many myths, legends and folklore surrounding the dandelion.

Greek mythology says that Theseus prepared for his fight with the minotaur by eating dandelions for 30 days to fortify himself for battle. He then defeated the half man-half bull creature. If you blow on a dandelion and all the seeds fly away, it is believed that your wish will come true. Also, remember the childhood game of holding a dandelion under your chin, and if there is a yellow reflection, you supposedly like butter? Another version is if you hold the flower up to a child’s chin and it reflects golden, then they would be rich as an adult.

Despite trying to “weed them out”, dandelions are one of the most widespread plants on earth and can be found in all fifty states as well as in every continent other than Antarctica. This is partially because as settlers moved and colonized new areas, they took the dandelion with them as it was considered an important food source.

It arrived in the Americas by way of pilgrims during the time of the Mayflower and was brought on purpose, not as a stowaway.

It is native to Asia and Europe and has a rich history. The plants have been used in medicine by Arabian physicians since the 10th and 11th centuries. Native Americans and Chinese have treated liver diseases and digestive problems with dandelions for hundreds of years.

Throughout history there are many excerpts that mention the plant, one being from the book The Herball by John Gerard, published in 1630. It stated “Boiled, it strengthens the weake stomacke, and eaten raw it stops the bellie and helps the Dysentery, especially being boyled with Lentils; The juice drunke is good against the involuntary effusion of seed; boyled in vinegar, it is good against the paine that troubles some in making of water [urinating];”

In the Victorian era, people considered dandelions as a delicacy and ate them in sandwiches and salads, they were often purposely grown in their gardens and they weeded out the grass to make room for the dandelion.

The dandelion was believed to heal many ailments from hair conditions like dandruff and baldness to tooth issues like rotting gums and toothaches as well as sores, fevers, lethargy and depression. It was later discovered that the underlying cause of these ailments was a vitamin deficiency, as many suffered from scurvy during this time. There are more nutrients in dandelions than most garden vegetables that we grow. They are an excellent source of vitamins as well as iron, calcium and potassium. They contain more vitamin A than spinach and more vitamin C than tomatoes. They are thought to be one of the most nutritionally-dense greens you can eat. The overall plant has many health benefits like providing antioxidants, reducing inflammation, controlling Type 2 diabetes, lowering cholesterol, and is a natural diuretic.

Dandelions are still revered by herbalists today as the perfect plant medicine because they are gentle diuretics that provide nutrients and support digestion. A study found on the National Librabry of Medicine state: “Dandelions (Taraxacum spp) have been used for centuries for the treatment of various ailments; surprisingly enough, they have received little research attention. Some scientific studies report anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidative and diuretic activities of varius parts of this plant. Recent studies from our lab show a strong anti-cancer activity of an aqueous dandelion root extract." However, its effects are still being studied by scientist and the University of Maryland Medical Center states that: “Preliminary animal studies suggest that dandelion may help normalize blood sugar levels and lower total cholesterol and triglycerides while raising HDL (good) cholesterol in diabetic mice. Researchers need to see if dandelion will work in people. A few animal studies also suggest that dandelion might help fight inflammation.”

During World War II, dandelions were used to help provided rubber during shortages of Havea rubber. Today, as the demand for rubber grows, there is renewed interest in using dandelions as the roots contain natural rubber latex.

There are many different ways to use and process the plant. Paul Hetzler, and ISA-certified arborist, shares his way of making coffee.

“Roasted dandelion roots make the best coffee substitute I have ever tasted, and that’s saying something because I really love coffee. Scrub fresh roots and spread them out on an oven rack so they are not touching each other. You can experiment with higher settings, but I roast them at about 250 (degrees) until they are crispy and dark brown throughout," he said.

"Honestly, I can’t say just how long it takes, somewhere between two and three hours. At any rate I always roast them when I have to be in the house anyway, and check them frequently after the two-hour mark. Grind them using a food processor or mortar and pestle. Compared to coffee, you use a bit less of the ground root per cup.”

As unlikely as it may seem, dandelions are some of the most expensive products in the grocery. At $30-plus per-pound for ground dandelion root, you pay more for this “weed” than you do for prime rib per pound.

Early spring is the best time to pick dandelion greens before they are done flowering. When you pick late in the season, it's kind of like picking lettuce or spinach after they have bolted, you can eat it but it's usually bitter.

Between all the parts of the dandelion, you can enjoy a complete meal from using the leaves as salad greens to the flowers for dandelion ice cream, syrup, jelly or wine. And remember, dandelions help the liver with toxins, so if you find you’ve overindulged, just drink a cup of dandelion tea.

When foraging, make sure to collect dandelions that have not been sprayed with any sort of chemicals or pesticides. It is recommended to consult a respected herbalist, as well as your health care provider, before trying to treat yourself.

It is amazing how our culture spends so much time and effort weeding out the dandelions when they have so many advantages. Perhaps we have forgotten how to take notice of natures attempt to nurture us.

(Editor’s note: You should not use the information contained in this story for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease. Many natural products are not recommended for people who are pregnant, nursing, have a medical condition, or are taking other medications. Please consult your physician or naturopath prior to using).



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