Many people think of the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) as a weed, but herbalists consider it a valuable herb with many culinary and medicinal uses. Dandelion is a rich source of vitamin A, B complex, vitamin C, and vitamin D, as well as minerals such as iron, potassium, and zinc. Its leaves are often used to add flavour to salads, sandwiches, and teas. The roots can be found in some coffee substitutes, and the flowers are used to make certain wines.
Folk names include lion's tooth, bitterwort, wild endive, priest's crown, doonheadclock, piss-a-bed, Irish daisy, blow ball, yellow gowan, puffball, clock flower, swine snout, Pu gong ying, fortune-teller, and cankerwort.
The dandelion is a perennial, herbaceous plant with long, lance-shaped leaves. Although not occurring in the Southern Hemisphere, it is at home in all parts of the north temperate zone, in pastures, meadows and on waste ground, and is so plentiful that farmers everywhere find it a troublesome weed, for though its flowers are more conspicuous in the earlier months of the summer, it may be found in bloom, and consequently also prolifically dispersing its seeds, almost throughout the year.
Unlike most other seeds, dandelion can germinate without long periods of dormancy. To further increase reproductive efficiency, the plant has given up sex: The seeds can develop without cross-fertilization, so a flower can fertilize itself. This lets it foil the gardener by dispersing seeds as early as the day after the flower opens.
From its thick tap root, dark brown, almost black on the outside though white and milky within, the long jagged leaves rise directly, radiating from it to form a rosette. The leaves are 3 to 12" long, and 1/2 to 2-1/2" wide, always growing in a basal rosette. They are so deeply toothed, that the French called it “Dent-de-lion” meaning ‘Lion's Tooth’, later becoming Dandelion. Lying close upon the ground, each leaf being grooved and constructed so that all the rain falling on it is conducted straight to the centre of the rosette and thus to the root which is, therefore, always kept well watered. The maximum amount of water is in this manner directed towards the proper region for utilization by the root, which but for this arrangement would not obtain sufficient moisture, the leaves being spread too close to the ground for the water to penetrate.
Dandelion flowers are sensitive to light, so they open with the sun in the morning and close in the evening or during gloomy weather. The dark brown roots are fleshy and brittle and are filled with a white milky substance that is bitter and slightly odorous. The flower head can change into the familiar, white, globular seed head overnight. Each seed has a tiny parachute, to spread far and wide in the wind.
The thick, brittle, beige, branching taproot grows up to 10" long. All parts of this plant exude a white milky sap when broken.
Collect dandelion leaves in early spring, when they're the tastiest, before the flowers appear. Harvest again in late fall. After a frost, their protective bitterness disappears. Dandelions growing in rich, moist soil, with the broadest leaves and largest roots, are the best. Select the youngest individuals, and avoid all plants with flowers. Some people eat the greens from spring to fall, when they're very bitter. Others boil out the summer bitterness (and water-soluble vitamins) out in two changes of water. Itís all a matter of preference.
Dandelion greens are wonderful in salads, sauted or steamed. They taste like chicory and endive, with an intense heartiness overlying a bitter tinge. People today shun bitter flavors they're so conditioned by overly sweet or salty processed food. But in earlier times, we distinguished between good and bad bitterness. Mixed with other flavors, as in a salad, dandelions improve the flavor. Try sautéing them for about 20 minutes with onions and garlic in olive oil, adding a little home-made wine before they're done. If you're not used to the slight bitterness, cook them with sweet vegetables, especially sliced carrots and parsnips. Boiling dandelions in one or more changes of water makes them milder, a good introduction if you're new to natural foods.
You can also eat dandelion flowers, or use them to make wine. Collect them in a sunny meadow, just before mid-spring, when the most flowers bloom. Some continue to flower right into the fall. Use only the flowerís yellow parts. The green sepals at the flowerís base are bitter. See also Danedelion Coffee.
The flowers add color, texture, and an unusual bittersweet flavor to salads. You can also sauté them, dip them in batter and fry them into fritters, or steam them with other vegetables. They have a meaty texture that contrasts with other lighter vegetables in a stir-fry dish or a casserole.
The taproot is edible all year, but is best from late autumn to early spring. Use it as a cooked vegetable, especially in soups. Pre-boiling and changing the water, or long, slow simmering mellows this root. Sweet vegetables best complement dandelion roots. Sautéing the roots in olive oil also improves them, creating a robust flavor. A little Tamari soy sauce and onions complete this unusual vegetable side dish.
The leaves are more nutritious than anything you can buy. They're higher in beta-carotene than carrots. The iron and calcium content is phenomenal, greater than spinach. You also get vitamins B-1, B-2, B-5, B-6, B-12, C, E, P, and D, biotin, inositol, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and zinc by using a tasty, free vegetable that grows on virtually every lawn. The root contains the sugar inulin, plus many medicinal substances.
Dandelion and Burdock shares a historical origin with a number of drinks originally made from lightly fermented root extracts, such as root beer and sarsaparilla. They were included for a supposed health benefit. The dominant flavour in these other drinks is usually sassafras or wintergreen, both now derived artificially rather than from the plant itself, in part because during the 1960s safrole, the major component of the volatile oil of sassafras, was found to be carcinogenic. All of these drinks, while tasting similar, do have their own distinct flavour. Dandelion and burdock is most similar in flavour to sarsaparilla. The drink has recently seen an increase in popularity after previously poor sales. The "dandelion and burdock" drink for sale in many retail outlets rarely contains either plant. The retail drink is often carbonated, containing artificial sweeteners and flavourings.
The name of the genus, Taraxacum, is derived from the Greek taraxos (disorder), and akos (remedy), on account of the curative action of the plant. A possible alternative derivation of Taraxacum is suggested in The Treasury of Botany written by John Lindley, Thomas Moore in 1866:
'The generic name is possibly derived from the Greek taraxo ("I have excited" or "caused") and achos (pain), in allusion to the medicinal effects of the plant.'
In traditional medicine, dandelion roots and leaves were used to treat liver problems. Native Americans also used dandelion decoctions (liquid made by boiling down the herb in water) to treat kidney disease, swelling, skin problems, heartburn, and stomach upset. Chinese medicinal practitioners traditionally used dandelion to treat digestive disorders, appendicitis, and breast problems (such as inflammation or lack of milk flow). In Europe, herbalists incorporated it into remedies for fever, boils, eye problems, diabetes, and diarrhea.
Dandelion leaves produce a diuretic effect while the roots act as an antiviral agent, appetite stimulant, digestive aid, and may help promote gastrointestinal health. Dandelion flower has antioxidant properties. Dandelion may also help improve the immune system.Health care providers clinically use dandelion root to promote liver detoxification and dandelion leaves to support kidney function.
Dandelion is a natural diuretic that increases urine production by promoting the excretion of salts and water from the kidney. Dandelion may be used for a wide range of conditions requiring mild diuretic treatment, such as poor digestion, liver disorders, and high blood pressure. Dandelion is a source of potassium, a nutrient often lost through the use of other natural and synthetic diuretics.
The common French name for this plant is Pissenlit (wet the bed) because as mentioned above, the root and leaf tea act on the kidneys as a gentle diuretic, improving the way they cleanse the blood and recycle nutrients. Unlike pharmaceuticals diuretics, this doesn't leach potassium, a vital mineral, from the body. Improved general health and clear skin result from improved kidney function.
Dandelion root is one of the safest and most popular herbal remedies. The specific name, officinale, means that It's used medicinally. The decoction is a traditional tonic. Itís supposed to strengthen the entire body, especially the liver and gallbladder, where it promotes the flow of bile, reduces inflammation of the bile duct, and helps get rid of gall stones. This is due to its taraxacin. Itís good for chronic hepatitis, it reduces liver swelling and jaundice, and it helps indigestion caused by insufficient bile. Don't use it with irritable stomach or bowel, or if you have an acute inflammation.
Fresh or dried dandelion herb is also used as a mild appetite stimulant and to improve upset stomach (such as feelings of fullness, flatulence, and constipation). The root of the dandelion plant is believed to have mild laxative effects and is often used to improve digestion. Research suggests that dandelion root may improve the health and function of natural bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. Studies have also reported that dandelion root may help improve liver and gallbladder function.
Some preliminary animal studies also suggest that dandelion may help normalize blood sugar levels and improve lipid profiles (lowering total cholesterol and triglycerides while increasing HDL, "good," cholesterol) in diabetic mice. However, not all animal studies have shown the same positive effect on blood sugar. In addition, research needs to be done on people to determine if this traditional use for diabetes has modern-day merit.
Dandelions are also good for the bladder, spleen, pancreas, stomach and intestines. It isrecommended for stressed, internally sluggish, and sedentary people. Anyone who's a victim of excessive fat, white flour, and concentrated sweeteners could benefit from a daily cup of dandelion tea.
Dandelion leaf infusion is also good at dinner time. Its bitter elements encourage the production of proper levels of hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes. All the digestive glands and organs respond to this herbís stimulation. Even after the plant gets bitter, a strong infusion, is rich in vitamins and minerals, and helps people who are run-down. Even at its most bitter (Taraxacum come from Arabic and Persian, meaning "bitter herb"), it never becomes intolerably so, like golden seal and gentian. The leaf's white, milky sap removes warts, moles, pimples, calluses, and sores, and soothes bee stings and blisters.
Dandelion may be used in a variety of available forms:
- Dried leaf infusion: 1 - 2 teaspoonfuls, 3 times daily. Pour hot water onto dried leaf and steep for 5 - 10 minutes. Drink as directed.
- Dried root decoction: 1/2 - 2 teaspoonfuls, 3 times daily. Place root into boiling water for 5 - 10 minutes. Strain and drink as directed.
- Leaf tincture (1:5) in 30% alcohol: 100 - 150 drops, 3 times daily
- Standardized powdered extract (4:1) leaf: 500 mg, 1 - 3 times daily
- Standardized powdered extract (4:1) root: 500 mg, 1 - 3 times daily
- Root tincture (1:2) fresh root in 45% alcohol: 100 - 150 drops, 3 times daily
Dandelion is generally considered safe. Some individuals, however, may develop an allergic reaction from touching dandelion, and others may develop mouth sores. If you have an allergy to ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigold, chamomile, yarrow, daisies, or iodine, you should avoid dandelion. In some people, dandelion can cause increased stomach acid and heartburn. It may also irritate the skin if applied topically.
People with gallbladder problems and gallstones should consult a health care professional before eating dandelion.
Dandelion leaf is a diuretic and may increase the excretion of drugs from the body. If you are taking prescription medications, ask your health care provider before taking dandelion leaf. If you are currently being treated with any of the following medications, you should not use dandelion preparations without first talking to your health care provider:
- Lithium -- Animal studies suggest that dandelion may worsen the side effects associated with lithium, a medication used to treat bipolar disorder.
- Antibiotics, quinolone -- One species of dandelion, Taraxacum mongolicum, also called Chinese dandelion, may decrease the absorption of quinolone antibiotics (such as ciprofloxacin, ofloxacin, and levofloxacin) from the digestive tract. It is not known whether Taraxacum officinale, also known as common dandelion, would interact with these antibiotics in the same way. As a precaution, dandelion should not be taken at the same time as these antibiotics.
- Antacids -- Avoid antacids and other medicines that lower stomach acid, such as Pepcid, Taganet, Zantac, and others.
The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, contain components that can trigger side effects and interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, you should take herbs with care, under the supervision of a health care professional.
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