Dandelions tell us that spring is here! Often among the first flowers to emerge, especially in northern climates, dandelions bring important early nectar to honeybees and lift the hearts of all who anticipate longer days and warmer temperatures. The golden orbs fill lawns and meadows and even appear between the cracks in concrete. Dandelion is both tenacious and generous and is one of our most-needed plant medicines.
Dandelion is an opportunistic plant that originated in Eurasia and spread to all temperate climate zones of the world. Europeans have long loved the plant as both food and medicine and most likely intentionally (and unintentionally) brought the seeds with them to North America, where dandelion quickly spread. Anita Sanchez, author of The Teeth of the Lion, reports that a 1672 New England botanical survey listed dandelions as well-established. Sanchez also says that the plants were introduced to Canada by the French and to the West Coast by the Spanish.
It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the desire for the perfect lawn engendered a common disdain for this beautiful plant. Today consumers spend billions of dollars on ecologically harmful herbicides for their lawns, mostly to eradicate dandelions.
This plant is so well known that it may seem unnecessary to provide a description. However, people often mistake other yellow-flowered plants for dandelions, so it is useful to go over the details.
Dandelions have a dense basal rosette of lanceolate or oblong leaves that are 2 to 14 inches long and 0.5 to 3 inches wide. Each leaf has deeply lobed, irregular teeth and is generally broader at the tip. When broken, the leaves and stems exude a milky sap.
From the center of the rosette arises one or more flowering stalks. Each stalk is hollow and leafless and has a solitary yellow flower head. The composite flower head is 1 to 2 inches in diameter, cupped by pointy green bracts, and composed of numerous yellow ray florets. (It has no disk florets.)
The fruit is a dry brown or gray seed with a tuft of silvery white hairs, which gives the mature flower head its round, furry appearance and helps disperse the seeds in the wind.
Many species of moth caterpillars eat the foliage of the dandelion, as do mammals, including rabbits, groundhogs, pocket gophers, deer, elk, and bears.
The flowers provide nectar and pollen to insects such as honeybees, native bees, bee flies, and hoverflies. Small birds, including goldfinches and English sparrows, eat the seeds.
Leaves and flowers can be gathered by hand or with scissors throughout the growing season. The leaves are best when young, as they become more bitter and tough as they age. There’s no set rule as to when they are tasty and when they’re not. Look for visibly young leaves then nibble some to let your palate decide.
Flowers and buds can be used whenever they are available. The flowers will readily go to seed, so it’s best to harvest them and then use them immediately. When harvesting flowers, keep in mind that they provide early spring food for bees and other insects.
Dandelions tend to thrive on their own, but you can help keep a stand going by maintaining some of the roots or letting the flowers go to seed.
Every year billions of dollars are spent on herbicides attempting to eradicate the dandelion. Harvest dandelions in an area that hasn’t been poisoned for at least three years and is free of heavy metals.
Makes a 9-inch round cake (about 8 medium servings).
Here’s a delicious way to enjoy sunny dandelion blooms. Serve this cake as part of a brunch or as an after-dinner dessert. To make this recipe, harvest about two cups of flower heads just before you begin to bake; otherwise, they may turn into puff balls on your counter. Process the flower heads by removing all the sepals and bracts, basically separating out the yellow flowers from all the green bits.
Makes about 1 serving.
This rich, earthy, and nutritious decoction is the perfect pairing, both in spirit and flavor, to the sweet treat above. Serve them together at your next garden party for a whole-plant wildcrafted menu.
(The above article, recipes, and credited photos were adapted from Wild Remedies: How to Forage Healing Foods and Craft Your Own Herbal Medicine by Rosalee de la Foret and Emily Han and reprinted with permission from the authors.
This is brilliant! Thank you!
I once grew 'cultivated dandelions. They were much bigger than the wild kind. Of course, they spread all over the place through time and we had HUGE dandelions all over the yard. This was when I was in high school. I;m considering doing it again in the back garden.