Pesky weed or amazing super food?
Those early blooming plants known as dandelions are absolutely everywhere this time of year. Prolific carpets of yellow flower heads appear in farmers’ fields and in your lawn and garden despite your best efforts to eradicate them.
As a child, I remember making “necklaces” from the hollow stems or picking them once they had gone to seed and “blowing bubbles” to watch the hundreds of fluffy seed heads scattering into the wind. I also remember my grandfather waging war on them in his garden and surrounding property. He used to lament that many of the hayfields were becoming infested with these plants and it seemed to be losing battle.
I recall a day many years later when we went for a drive together and the conversation about the dandelions came up yet once again. While I did sympathize with crop farmers who have had to deal with this notoriously invasive plant, I explained to him how late May and early June was a favorite time of year for me because of the amazing yellow and green contrasting colors in the fields when these plants are in full bloom. Set against a deep blue sky it seemed a painting would never be able to do the scene before us sufficient justice.
He pondered this as he studied the view again for a while and then he finally said, “You know, they really ARE beautiful in their own way after all.”
This weed was no longer the bane of his existence, but a thing of beauty to behold. To this day I can’t pass a field of green and yellow without thinking of him and smiling to myself.
A few years later I developed a new respect for this common plant that went beyond admiring their simple beauty in a spring landscape. I had discovered they were actually useful and beneficial to our wellbeing.
In my holistic nutrition studies I learned about the health benefits of this plant as a green food and as a detoxification aid. I was more recently inspired to write this article after attending a workshop held by Hermit Hill Herbs at Pause Wellness Centre. The workshop focused on making various spring tonics with herbs and edible flowers. You can use a variety of plants for making tonics or simply just use dandelion leaves and flowers, which are in abundance for picking this time of year.
I decided to make my tonic with dandelion as the key ingredient. I had been looking for additional uses of this plant and discovered this would be a convenient and easy way to incorporate the nutrients from this plant into my diet later in the winter months when fresh, local, nutrient rich foods aren’t available. But before I give you the specifics how you can make your own dandelion tonic, I’d like to first give you a little background info on this humble plant.
The dandelion has been used since ancient times for its medicinal properties as a diuretic and liver stimulant, and as a food. It isn’t originally native to North America and actually originated in Eurasia. It’s thought the first colonists from Europe introduced it here because it was extensively cultivated as a food source back home. The root can be eaten as a vegetable or dried and roasted to make dandelion “coffee” or taken as a tea. The flowers are also edible and are the star ingredient in homemade dandelion wine. The leaves in particular are very nutritious and can be eaten raw in salads or cooked as a green.
In fact, they actually have a greater nutrient value than many vegetables. They’re richer in beta carotene (used to make vitamin A) than carrots and also contain nutrients such as iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc, vitamins B, C and D, phosphorous and potassium. I was surprised to learn they’re one of the richest sources of potassium known to man.
They contain a bitter substance called taraxacin that stimulates digestion and helps to create sufficient levels of hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes needed to properly digest our meals and absorb the nutrients from our food. Dandelion also stimulates bile production, which helps to strengthen the liver and gall bladder, and facilitates the removal of toxins and wastes from the body, as well as aiding in the digestion of fat. It has a diuretic effect on the kidneys, which also helps to eliminate wastes more efficiently.
So as we can see, the dandelion is an ideal food to help provide us with nutrients that we may be lacking after a long winter when we tend to eat more frozen or dried foods because fresh foods with high nutrient content aren’t as widely available. Springtime has long been associated with the liver and the need to cleanse and purify our bodies after the winter months when we may be feeling a bit sluggish due to a more sedentary lifestyle. So besides providing needed nutrients after a long winter, the dandelion can also strengthen and increase vitality in the body.
So what’s the best way to use dandelions in our diets? One of the easiest is to use the greens chopped up in a salad or as a cooked green, either sautéed or steamed. They’re available commercially in supermarkets or, better still, you can pick your own. The leaves are less bitter if picked before the plant flowers or in the fall after the first frost. If collecting your own make sure they haven’t been exposed to fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals, such as car exhaust near heavily travelled roads.
For more inspiration, just do an Internet search and you’ll find a treasure trove of cooking tips and recipes using this nutrient dense plant. However, a word of caution: according to the Natural Standard Database, dandelion should be avoided if you have a known allergy to honey, chamomile, chrysanthemums, yarrow, feverfew or any of the members of the Asteraceae/Compositae plant families (ragweed, sunflower, daisies). If you have a health condition, are taking prescription drugs or other types of remedies, you should always consult with a health care professional before introducing a plant with medicinal properties into your healthcare regime.
Now back to the spring tonic I previously mentioned and my reason for attending the workshop. I wondered if there was something I could make to preserve the health benefits of this plant for use during the winter months. As it turned out, there is and it’s super easy to do. Starting in April or May, begin gathering leaves and flowers and add them to a large sterilized glass jar. Make sure they’re clean and dry (afternoon picking is best after the dew has evaporated) and then cover them with unpasteurized, unfiltered organic apple cider vinegar.
Besides acting as a preservative for your tonic, apple cider vinegar has a multitude of well-known health benefits, such as improving digestion due to the many nutrients and enzymes it contains. You may add more leaves and flowers as time goes on, making sure the plant material is covered in vinegar. Cover and store in a cool, dark place — such as a cupboard — until October.
Then take it out, strain and pour into a bottle. One with a narrow neck for ease of use with a swing top or locking ceramic cap is best. Adding one to two teaspoons once or twice daily in a glass of water is recommended as a general tonic throughout the winter .You may also use the vinegar as a base in your homemade salad dressings.
I later discovered you can also make a tonic to use right away during the spring and summer months using eight ounces of apple cider vinegar and four ounces of fresh dandelion flowers. Let these “steep” for seven days then strain and bottle.
I hope this article will encourage you to reflect on nature and how, in her infinite wisdom, she provides us with what we need according to the seasons. So put down your shovels and start picking. Who knows… you may never look at a dandelion the same way again!
Dawn E. Sutherland Dort, RHN, NNCP is a holistic health practitioner located in the Stewiacke area. She can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at 902-639-2925 or you can visit her on the web at www.dawnsutherlanddort.com.