Neglected and maligned by many, dandelions are a harbinger of spring, and a veritable harvest for those who use them
Pity the poor dandelions. Long considered a weed, dandelions are despised by many and often destroyed as soon as they dare mar the green perfection of our lawns with their sunny yellow flowers. Yet there are those who love them and see them for the neglected golden harvest they are.
In fact, every part of a dandelion has its use, as our ancestors already knew. History tells us that early settlers enjoyed the tender green leaves that appeared each spring to add a much-needed fresh vegetable to their diet, and records show the Mi’kmaq also ate the young leaves either raw or cooked. A serving of dandelion greens contains the same amount of calcium as half a cup of milk. They are also rich in other minerals and vitamins. The roots, so tenacious, can be dried and ground to make beverages, while the flowers, fermented, turn into a delicious golden wine. Both roots and flowers can be used to dye fabric.
Today, in the spring, bunches of dandelion greens can be found in the produce aisles of many supermarkets. According to a produce manager at one Atlantic Superstore, the greens they sell come from Quebec. The cost varies. Last spring they sold for about $3.49 a bunch. In the US total sales of the plant in various forms amounted to about two million dollars.
Uses and lore
While the leaves of dandelions are nutritionally rich, they also possess a diuretic property often used to treat kidney problems. This has led to the superstition that picking dandelions will make you wet the bed! Interestingly in France, the plant is known as piss-en-lit (piss-the-bed) and listed as such on menus when it is featured in salads, which might put-off some diners. (See sidebar on page 28 for more on dandelion botany.) Although homeowners may dislike them, countless generations of herbalists have loved dandelions, often referring to them as ‘the blessed herb.’ The Chinese claim to have used dandelions as medicines for at least 5,000 years. Arabic physicians in the 11th century wrote of their properties. Today many herbalists recommend dandelions to boost the general immune system and to treat medical problems ranging from skin conditions to cancer.
Here in our own country, Health Canada has approved a clinical trial of a concentrated dandelion root extract— created by Dr Siyaram Pandey, a biochemist at the University of Windsor—to treat 30 patients suffering from final-stage blood-related cancers. Dr. Pandey spent four years developing the concentrated dandelion root extract; it consistently killed cancer cells in the laboratory but did not harm normal cells.
Superstitions and traditions galore have grown up around dandelions. Everyone is familiar with blowing the seed head to tell the time. Some believe that including one or two dandelion flowers in a wedding bouquet will ensure happiness. Another says that if a woman blows a seed head, the number of seeds remaining will be the number of children she will have. My favourite, although I haven’t put it to the test, is that if you rub yourself all over with dandelion flowers, you will be welcome wherever you go and all your wishes will come true. (Either that or people will assume you have jaundice.)
Witches and believers in the occult claim that a tincture of ground dandelion root and alcohol enables the drinker to communicate with spirits and walk between this world and the next. Apparently the roots can also be formed into an alraun (a doll or poppet) to magically protect the owner from danger. In the wrong hands, alrauns are used to bring harm to others.
Bees, butterflies and birds love dandelions. As one of the first flowers to appear in the spring they are a vital source of nectar. Some birds, such as cormorants, line their nests with dandelion fuzz. Others, particularly finches, eat the seeds.
As well as wine made from the flowers, the whole plant can also be made into beer, the root apparently adding a hop-like flavour.
Although still neglected, there has been a gradual resurgence of interest in dandelions from the restaurant sector. Eight years ago, chef Alex Haun developed an interest in foraging for local wild foods, including berries, mushrooms, cattails and, not least, dandelions, for dishes he creates at Kingsbrae Garden Café and Savour in the Garden, in St. Andrews, NB.
The yellow flower heads make a delicious jelly; dandelion leaves, gathered in early spring when they are at their sweetest, are paired with other greens such as mâche (corn salad or lamb’s lettuce), or used to add relish to pesto.
When asked if diners were ever disconcerted to find they were eating a so-called weed, chef Haun replied that, on the contrary, his guests enjoy challenging their palettes with locally-foraged foods.
A few years ago, an organic farmer in PEI, Raymond Loo, recognised the possibilities of the golden crop brightening his fields and in 2008 obtained a contract to sell dandelion roots to a Japanese company making coffee and other products. Unhappily, he died in 2013 while in the process of developing a market for dandelion wine.
An artisanal distillery in Rollo Bay, PEI—Myriad View Artisan Distillery Inc.—makes Dandelion Shine, as a variation on its Strait Shine product, using hand-picked dandelion flowers that they age in used whisky barrels.
Celebrating the humble weed
For centuries people have celebrated the return of spring with festivals. Dandelions are one of the earliest flowers to appear. Wallace, a small picturesque town in Cumberland County, NS, holds a Dandelion Festival the last Saturday in May. People flock to the event, which features a flea market, barbecues, children’s games and as many foods containing dandelions that participants can come up with. To date they have enjoyed dandelion punch, dandelion and burdock root beer; dandelion cookies, jellies and burgers.
Doug Perry, president of the Wallace Area Development Association, has organized the festival for the last seven years and says he got the idea from his son who lived in a community near Ottawa, which hosted something similar. Events change from year to year but the flea market, always popular, is a constant and there will always be a variety of edible/drinkable dandelion delights.
Stratford, PEI is holding its tenth annual dandelion festival at the Stratford Town Hall on May 23 of this year. Activities include workshops on cooking with dandelions, pesticide-free lawn and garden care, and foods such as dandelion pancakes and syrup to sample.
Claude Monet, the artist, saw the beauty in the so-called weed, as did the buyer of his painting of fluffy dandelion seed heads. In 2011 the painting sold for $6 million at an auction in the Ukraine. More locally, in Hatchet Lake, NS, ceramic artist Anne Pryde creates a series of botanically-themed, functional pottery mugs, including a design featuring dandelions delicately painted onto the clay before glazing.
Given the amazing variety of uses dandelions can be put to, it seems we shouldn’t be so quick to destroy them. As Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th century American essayist and poet, once said, “What is a weed? Only a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”
Eat the leaves, drink the flowers
We need look no further than Marie Nightingale’s Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens to find recipes for using dandelions. The greens have long been considered a ‘spring tonic’ and a feed of fresh dandelion greens was often the first fresh green vegetable after a long winter of root vegetables. It’s important to dig dandelion greens before the flower buds open, so that the greens will be tender and not bitter.
Remove the brown leaves and roots of the dandelions, and wash in at least three waters. Let soak overnight in cold water. Cook in a small amount of boiling salted water, adding a pinch of baking soda water. Simmer greens about an hour; drain well and serve with lemon juice, vinegar, or the fat from fried salt pork.
Writer Syr Ruus of Crescent Beach, NS, says she has made dandelion wine for years and looked forward to the flowers blooming because she calls the cheery yellow flowers “the first useful crop of the new year…and the wine was strong, unique and delicious.” It’s very labour intensive, taking two pounds of petals only to make one gallon. She says it’s best bottled and aged for a year. As another friend says, the wine “is worth every petal!”