Foraging Dandelion for food and medicine
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg). Asteraceae family
Not only is dandelion one of our most commonly found flowers here in Britain, it is one of the most useful. They will be easily recognised by almost everyone, which makes them one of the best plants to start your foraging adventures.
Its dented or deeply-toothed leaves, bright yellow flowers and spherical fairy seed clocks are as much ingrained in childhood memories as they are embedded in our countryside.
Dandelion is one of our most accessible and highly esteemed medicinal plants. It has been used for centuries to treat the urinary system and the liver.
Some writers have discussed the possibility that the Arab alchemist-apothecary physicians are likely candidates to have introduced this plant’s medicinal virtues (along with many others) to the famed Welsh herbal healers of the 13th century, the ‘Myddfai’ physicians of Glamorgan.
The ‘Myddfai’ tradition of traditional herb-lore drew its name and emanated from a small village in Glamorgan, South Wales, where a physician during the 13th century called Rhiwallon became famed for his prowess with herbs, honey, roots, and waters.
Rhiwallon is said to have passed on his knowledge only to his
sons, and thereby a word of mouth lineage began which is reported to have finally ended with the last known descendent dying in Aberystwyth in 1842.
Dandelion is thought to have originated in Asia. The generic name Taraxacum is believed to have come from the Persian name – ‘Tarakhsaqun’, a name reportedly bestowed on its close relative chicory (Chicorium intybus). The specific name officinale points to its use as an official apothecary herb.
Dandelion is but one of 60 or so species within the genus of perennial plants found mostly in the northern temperate zones, as well as some temperate climates in South America. The plant prefers moist soils in pastures, meadows, lawns, waysides and waste places up and down the land. It grows happily as far north as the arctic regions at altitudes up to around 1200 metres.
Dandelion is such a common plant it hardly needs a description here. However, it can often be mistaken for some of its almost look-a-like close relatives that also grow in Britain. These include the ‘hawkweeds’ and the ‘hawkbits’ which often have similar, indented leaves on them, although these plants are usually more hairy with smaller yellow flowers.
Dandelion is technically another aggregate species, (group of closely related sub species) and the variability in leaf shape testifies to this. It can change from almost fully lanceolate, having mere ripples rather than dents at the leaf edge, to what is classed as deeply pinnatifid, with 3-6 often backwards pointing lobes likened to lions teeth. It is this shape that is recognised by most of us as the classic dandelion leaf shape, and gives rise to one of its French common names ‘dent-de-lion’.
Dandelions are perennial plants with deep tap-roots, always growing as a ground level rosette of leaves, right the way through flowering. From the centre of the rosette comes it’s single, hairless, terminal flowering stem, upon which sits the well-known golden yellow flower. The smooth, hollow stem is a specific feature for you to distinguish dandelion from some of its look-a-likes. The stem and leaves exude a bitter tasting milky-white sap when broken.
The inflorescence is made up of 200 or more individual, strap-like, yellow,ray florets, each giving way in turn to the spherical mass of the familiar ‘fairy clock’ pappus holding the seeds. We’ve all seen the seeds fly on the wind and know how they travel far and wide.
Dandelion’s long tapering taproot enables it to successfully mine for nutrients in the sub-soil, especially for potassium. It can accumulate nearly five times more potassium within its root storage cells than most other plants!
Parts used: Leaves, roots, flower buds, flowers
Harvest: Roots are best in autumn for medicine; spring for food. Leaves best young from late winter-early spring and in the late summer months. Small Leaves are less bitter, as are leaves from specimens with red mid-veins. Flower buds when they appear and are tight. Flowers as and when.
Key constituents: Carotenoids; sesquiterpene lactones; tri-terpenes; tannins; volatile oil; phyto-sterols; Vitamins A, B, C, D; taraxcoside; calcium; potassium (approx 4%).
Diuretic, cholertic, saluretic, bitter, aperient, mild laxative, liver-tonic.
Pharmacology and uses
Dandelion has surprisingly not been subjected to much pharmacological research by drug companies. Notwithstanding the lack of scientific evidence; this plant remains a cornerstone of western herbal medicine. You will often find dandelion in health food stores and herbal shops as an ingredient in a number of patent medicines.
Together with the elder tree and nettles, dandelions are the wild herbs most popularly employed in folk medicines in Britain.
This plant (leaf) has been chiefly employed as a diuretic. The French and English common names ‘piss-en-lit’ and ‘piss-a-bed’ gives us a clue to dandelion’s efficacy!
Dandelion’s specific diuretic action is known as saluretic. These types of diuretics are medicinally valuable because potassium salts are always lost in urine.
Many prescribed diuretic herbs will deplete reserves of this important nutrient in the body. Yet because of the large amounts of potassium dandelion contains, levels in the body actually increase when taking it.
Compare this to taking pharmaceutical diuretic drugs which often require the taking of potassium supplements or worse, potassium blocking drugs!
So-called ‘potassium sparing’ pharmaceutical diuretics act either by antagonising the hormone aldosterone (which stimulates sodium reabsorption in the kidneys) or by blocking sodium channels (thereby reducing potassium secretion).
An example of an aldosterone antagonist is ‘spironolactone’, the use of which is now limited due to carcinogenicity in rats. ‘Amiloride’ is a sodium channel blocker. Both of these drugs may cause severe hyperkalemia (high blood potassium levels).
Dandelion root is much used as a bitter tonic in a-tonic dyspepsia, and as a mild laxative in habitual constipation. Tests have repeatedly shown the root to increase bile secretion. It has also traditionally been used as a treatment for jaundice and rheumatism.
The German Commission E approved use of the root for disturbance of bile flow, stimulation of diuresis, loss of appetite and dyspepsia.
Dandelion’s milky white sap can be used to treat veruca’s and warts. Simply snap a flowering stem and topically apply the latex.
As a preventative measure, all people who suffer from allergic hypersensitivity are advised to undergo consultation with someone who knows about these things.
Caution should also be exercised if you are thinking of taking dandelion in cases where gallstones are thought to be present, because the action of this plant in increasing bile secretion may aggravate.
Dandelion has been contra-indicated by herbalists in conditions such as acute stomach inflammation as well as bile duct closure.
More reasons to go foraging dandelion… Traditional & contemporary culinary uses.
The leaves are increasingly popular as a salad vegetable. Usually this will be ‘red-ribbed dandelion’, which is in fact a variety of chicory (Chicorium intybus). You can also sometimes find blanched dandelion leaves that have been forced (grown without light). Both of these salad plants taste much less bitter than wild dandelion.
In the Eastern mediterranean sea area, especially Greece, Dandelion greens are loved. Traditionally, int he Spring months people will go out foraging dandelions and other wild spring greens, then cook them by boiling, and toss in with some other aromatic herbs, such as Parsley and Basil.
When cooked like this and dressed in olive oil, salt, and lemon juice, dandelions are refreshingly tasty. Many restaurants and regions have their own twist on the dish they call ‘horta greens’, but dandelion seems to
One of the most popularly advised food uses is as a coffee substitute. This can be made from roasted, ground roots and is seemingly much liked, judging by its appearance in almost every health food store.
Dandelion also has documented use as a famine vegetable; whereby the roots were boiled and or roasted. I think this is massively underplaying its uses as a food. Most of the bitterness of the root can be leached out by soaking in cold water for 24 hours or so, beore parboiling and then roasting in oil or butter.
Treated like this, the outer skin will caramelise, and the inner flesh should turn gloopy and sweet, as the inulin converts to fructose, just like the flesh of its relative – jerusalem artichokes. A really good root to eat.
The flower buds can be picked when young and made into a caper substitute. Flowers have long been used in making country wines. They are also a good garnish, offering little thin ribbons of colour in salads.