A Weed or a Wonder
by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator
I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!
Much to the chagrin of my wife and my neighbors, I believe in biodiversity even down to the backyard vegetation. My lawn consists of a bit of grass, much clover and an abundance of dandelion. Dandelions are the bane of so many grass enthusiasts, but I contend they are misunderstood components of our landscapes. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will explore the complexity and uniqueness that is the hated dandelion.
Allow me to begin this defense of the dandelion by acknowledging this species is a non-native. My personal stance on non-native plants consists of two categories. The species that displace our native species (stilt grass, garlic mustard) and those that fill niches created by the disturbance of man-made landscapes such as yards. Dandelions fit into the later category. It needs full sun and generally only becomes widespread in disturbed sites featuring a host of non-native species such as yards.
My soft spot for the dandelion is based around its status as a super food. I am a big fan of plants that can serve multiple purposes and dandelion offers both a splash of yellow flowers and nutrients galore. Dandelions rank as one of the most nutritionally dense greens you can eat. It blows kale and spinach out of the water from a nutritional standpoint and yet it grows freely in most lawns around the world. One cup of dandelion greens contains twice as much iron as spinach. It is super rich in vitamin A, B2, C and K.
The way to eat greens is simple. The first option is to harvest the leaves and eat them raw in a mixed salad. Be sure to harvest young leaves and mix with other greens due to bitterness. The second way is to harvest greens and sauté them with olive oil and garlic. When sauteed, the greens lose their bitterness. These sautéed greens can be combined nicely with pasta.
The flowers and roots are also edible and wonderfully nutritious. Flowers can be harvested and used as salad toppings or in fritter form. Make your favorite flour-based batter and cook in hot oil. Add a bit of honey and you have a nutritious snack. The roots of dandelion are the most labor-intensive portion to harvest but offer a great health benefit. The main use of dandelion roots is in tea or coffee. Harvest the root system and clean thoroughly. Chop the roots and dry in a dehydrator or the oven. Then roast in the oven until brown. Put roots and water in a pan and bring to a boil. Simmer for 20 minutes, strain and serve. Add honey to decrease the bitterness. Dandelion root extract has been used to fight certain types of cancer.
Dandelions have been a traditional medicinal plant for a variety of people groups. Chinese used the plant to treat stomach and breast issues as well as appendicitis. In Europe, it has been used for fever, boils, eye problems, diabetes, and diarrhea. Modern scientific studies have focused on its ability to normalize blood sugar and fight inflammation.
Please be thoughtful before harvesting any plant. First, make sure when you pick a dandelion or any other edible plant that it is not in an area treated with herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers. Also, make sure to avoid picking dandelions along roadsides. Be sure you wash off any thing you pick as a precaution.
To many it is sacrilege to be fond of a non-native plant. To others it is an abomination to not have a perfect, monocultured front lawn. To me, dandelions are an afterthought that can do marvelous things for our health all the while providing wonderful color to our landscape. I encourage you to pick up the nearest dandelion puff ball and spread the seeds of this wonder plant.