Can we as a society please rebrand dandelion’s image?

May 2023 Herb of the Month (Taraxacum officinale)

5/3/20236 min read

I know, I know, I’m so predictable. Nettles in April and now dandelions in May? What can I say, I like to be seasonally appropriate. It’s not my fault every other forager and herbalist is also talking about dandelions right now. And rightfully so! If you’ve been following my writing, you may have realized by now that I can go on and on about eating dark, wild, bitter, leafy greens (read, “weeds”). Dandelions fit right into this category. In my opinion, the concept of a “weed” is ridiculous. I prefer to call them what they are: invasive, naturalized, or native. Dandelions are naturalized in North America, not invasive. Why are so many people ripping plants out of their gardens that are actually beneficial to the soil? And then not even eating them when they’re edible? It’s free, nutritious food. The war against dandelions is ridiculous and benefits no one.

Just like nettles, humans and dandelions have thousands of years of history together. Remember when I talked about nettle deficiency syndrome? That applies to dandelions too. It’s thought that dandelions arrived in North America on the Mayflower - not as a stowaway, but brought on purpose, as they were highly valued as both food and medicine. Think about that - dandelions were so important and are so versatile that their seeds were saved and brought on purpose. And now the descendants of those seeds are found all across the continent. Dandelion is incredibly hardy and will grow seemingly anywhere, but she’s not really the nuisance that people think she is. She is food for wildlife and people, and an important spring nectar source for pollinators. Her deep tap root areates and loosens the soil and helps pull nutrients to the surface, making them accessible to other plants. Dandelions benefit the entire ecosystem.

A concept in herbalism is the doctrine of signatures, which is a centuries-old idea that the characteristic, properties, and energy of a plant is imprinted on the way it physically appears to the eye, giving us clues on how to best work with them. It follows then, that cheerful-looking dandelion flowers are well-known as mood boosters. Not surprisingly, dandelion flowers are associated with the sun - not only do they look the part, but they act like it too. They return in the spring when the days get longer, and they open their flowers in the morning and close them at night, following the rhythm of the sun. Unlike their leaf and root counterparts, dandelion flowers are mildly floral and can pair nicely with just about anything. If you really don’t want any bitter flavor, remove the green underside and pull off only the yellow petals. The flowers are high in carotenoids, which are sun-protective and antioxidant.

For the leaves, the doctrine of signatures is imprinted in the name itself, too. The word dandelion comes from the French “Dent de Lion” or, “Lion’s teeth.” This refers to the jagged teeth of the leaves, and also hints at the way dandelion leaves go to bat for your health. As a diuretic, they gently stimulate the kidneys and the lymph to drain out excess water (and toxins along with it). Through this action, dandelion leaves support your body’s detox pathways and blood pressure. Another nickname that dandelion has in French is “piss-en-lit” or, “pee in the bed.” This is because it’s so profoundly diuretic, so this is something you probably want to stay away from a few hours before bedtime. It’s more of a breakfast and lunch food, not a dinner one. Dandelion leaves are so rich in nutrients that they replace more than your body loses in urine. Consuming the leaves can be helpful as part of a well-rounded plan during a urinary tract infection (along with anti-bacterials and soothing herbs) to help encourage flushing of the bladder.

Dandelion is incredibly resilient, and gives some of this strength to us when we ingest it. Just like the taproot reaches deep into the ground and brings up nourishment for other plants, she brings that nourishment to you when ingested. For this reason, it’s more beneficial to dig the taproot in the fall, after dandelion has had the summer to accumulate nutrients. Historically, dandelion root decoctions were drunk to “purify the blood,” which sounds like outdated pseudoscience, but is really just an older (but accurate) way of communicating that the nutrient-rich plant supports detox and healthy levels of nutrients in the blood. Dandelion root has long been known to support the liver, which is a major component of our body’s detox pathways. We know that dandelion gently stimulates the kidneys as well, and the kidneys are responsible for cleaning the blood. So, by providing a big dose of nutrients and supporting the detox organs, the blood really is being “purified.” People turn(ed) to dandelion root for all sorts of problems: anemia, liver spots, edema, and more. This all tracks, as we know that nutrient-rich dandelion delivers iron to the body, stimulates detox pathways, and relieves bloating and water retention through diuretic action. For more information about dandelions, both historical and modern, the American Botanical Council offers a good overview.

Plants can be valuable teachers if we pay attention and listen. Dandelion demonstrates that the best of friends always come back and will volunteer their allyship readily, asking nothing in return. Some plants need a reciprocal relationship to thrive; dandelion requires nothing of the sort. Dandelion wants to be your friend so badly, she keeps returning with a bright and sunny disposition and a positive attitude, despite the fact that you have probably tried to kick her out. She deserves respect and appreciation for tolerating such mistreatment. Dandelion takes care of herself, and she’ll also take care of you. She is an incredible ally and if you don’t like it, it’s well worth developing a taste for.

A monograph of Taraxacum officinale (dandelion)

Parts used: Every part is edible, but the leaves, roots, flowers are considered the medicinal parts.

Notable compounds: Sesquiterpene lactones, triterpenes, minerals (potassium,

calcium); leaf: coumarins, carotenoids; root: phenolic acids, taraxacoside (This extensive monograph is an excellent deep dive into the various constituents found in dandelion).

Energetics: Cool, dry, tonifying

Actions: Stimulating, draining, drying alterative; hepatic, digestive, aperient; nutritive, diuretic (leaves); cholagogue, choleretic, mild laxative (roots); exhilarant (flowers)

Origin: Europe and Asia, and considered naturalized (not invasive) in every continent except Antarctica.

Preparation suggestions: Decoct the roots for a nutritious coffee-adjacent beverage. Add dried or fresh flowers to a tea. Add the flowers and the leaves to salad or saute them. Fritter the flowers. Soak the unopened dandelion buds in brine to make a caper-like pickle. Pull the petals off the flowers and turn them into a thick, honey-like syrup, or sprinkle them into cornbread batter. Try making dandelion wine.

Stories: The name dandelion comes from the French name, “Dent de Lion” or “Lion’s Teeth.” This doctrine of signatures is visible in the “teeth” of the leaves, but also in the idea that dandelion fights for you.

Notes and cautions: As a nutritive food, dandelion is generally safe for most people, but if you’re already on diuretics or blood thinners, talk to your doctor. As a hepatic (liver stimulating) herb, dandelion can hasten the detox of anything from your body, including pharmaceuticals, so when taking medication, wait at least an hour before consuming dandelion.

Harvest: Places that haven’t been sprayed, places that aren’t receiving runoff, and away from roadsides. The leaves are most palatable when they are young, and the taproot is most nutritious at the end of the growing season.

What I’m sipping on: I bet you can guess.

Plant projects this week: Picking, eating and preserving the dandelions that are in danger of being tossed out like garbage in my parent’s yard. Also, preserving onion grass (again). I have so much of it and it’s delicious.

This is the second Herb of the Month. Every month I’ll feature a seasonally appropriate plant and wax poetic about it. Whether you are a serious herbal student or you just want to casually learn about plants, I encourage you to incorporate an Herb of the Month practice into your life. If it’s the herb I profile, great, but if you feel drawn towards some other plant, then by all means, follow that. The practice of selecting an herb of the month is a popular learning tool in herbal schools. If you decide to do this practice, then try consuming your selected herb every day of the month, in different ways. Make tea, decoctions, long overnight infusions, tinctures, mineral infusions, incorporate it into your food, and do all of this with the different edible parts of the plant. When it comes to incorporating a new plant into your life, the best knowledge of how it's going to make you feel will come from your own observations. We’re all different and we won’t all react the same way to plants - knowing what an herb can do for you ultimately has to come from your own experimentation and lived experience.