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Flavor 15: Dandelion

April 14, 2015
BY CARLA SEIDL

As I look up from the mailbox, my gaze catches on the bright yellow splotches dotting the front lawn. A deep recognition flashes through me and I stop. I know this plant. And I can eat it.

Katrina Blair, author of The Wild Wisdom of Weeds, refers to dandelions as "the royalty of weeds" and describes how pioneers came to North America with dandelion seeds in their pockets, knowing the plant could help provide the health and sustenance they would need to survive in unknown territory.

As a child, I knew nothing of the dandelion's health or nutritional benefits. But when the season was right, I'd ruminate gravely on just the right wish and blow, hoping a seed from the wondrous, fluffy globe would somehow land in the right spot to fill my request.

Now, after some research, I marvel once again at the dandelion. Far from the lawn nuisance it's often considered in our culture, the dandelion has actually been celebrated since ancient times as one of the world's top health-promoting herbs. As early as 77AD, for instance, Pling the Elder included the plant's remarkable healing properties in his famous Naturalis Historia.

Dandelions are nutrient dense, loaded with vitamins A and C and calcium, as well as many other minerals. In Chinese medicine, they're said to have a cooling effect on the blood, clearing heat and toxicity from excess fire in the body. Herbalists consider dandelion one of the world's top detoxifying plants. A diuretic, it helps to remove toxins from the body through the urine and has traditionally been used by many peoples in spring tonics.

Inspired by my reading and having stumbled upon some recipes for fried dandelion flowers on the Internet, I start gathering flowers and leaves from the unsprayed lawn. My two-year-old daughter helps, the bright yellow flower hard to confuse with the surrounding grass and clover. For hours afterward, my picking hand retains the smell of our bounty, a musky, green yet floral scent between cut grass and lavender.

I rinse the yellow blooms with their green bases still attached, coat them in beaten egg, and roll them in seasoned flour before frying (I use vegetable oil, but would choose coconut oil next time). They're a hit—comparable to fried gumbo, yet floral and melt-in-your-mouth with a slight bite. The fried blossoms smell, I kid you not, like oatmeal cookies.

Chris Smith, Marketing and Communications Manager at Asheville seed company Sow True Seed, has eaten dandelions in many different forms. He made an especially memorable dandelion mead not long ago, the last bottle of which he saved up to celebrate the birth of his daughter. "I got a whole load of friends over," he recounts, "and we just spent the whole evening plucking out the yellow flowers." He mixed the flower petals, wild yeasts still on the blooms, with honey and water, and let the mixture go for 6 weeks, at which time he tasted it, bottled it, and let it rest for another year.

For a beginning forager, says Smith, the dandelion is a great starting point, since it's easy for most people to identify, and all parts of the plant are edible. Many use the long deep taproot of the dandelion roasted as a kind of coffee, but Smith's favorite way to use the root is to pickle it with some hot spices in a natural ferment and use it as a crunchy condiment.

The leaves are perhaps the most obviously edible—and nutritious—part of the dandelion. You can easily throw them in dishes like salads, stir-fries, or smoothies. As I am about to add some to a sandwich, though, I take a nibble of a raw leaf, and recoil. "Bitter!" yells the back of my tongue. The unpleasant sensation takes a while to pass.

"Bitter is one of the food types that we've probably lost in our eating palettes," says Smith. "I'm trying to teach myself to appreciate bitters more. I think it would be healthy for everyone to attempt a few more bitters in their diet."

The earlier in the season you pick them, the less bitter dandelion leaves are. Smith also suggests putting the leaves in with other foods to balance out the flavor profile. The day after our talk, I add some lightly pre-boiled dandelion greens to a stir-fry with turnip greens and kale from my winter garden, and wasn't bothered by bitterness at all.

Wild weed pesto is another great way to use and appreciate dandelion leaves, says Smith. Use the foraged leaves instead of your standard basil and blend with nuts, oil, garlic or wild onion, and cheese. He suggests not limiting yourself to dandelion, but also adding wild spring greens like chickweed, wild mustard, and lambsquarter.

Smith also likes to use the bounty of spring wild edibles to make a health-promoting infused vinegar. He gathers greens and flowers, including dandelion and violet, and packs a mason jar full of them, covering them with apple cider vinegar. He lets the mixture steep for a few weeks and then discards the plant material to use the vinegar as a delicious and nutritious salad dressing throughout the year.

Smith's enthusiasm about wild edibles is contagious. Nutritionally, he says, they are often superior to our common vegetable varieties, which have been selectively bred for things like taste (think: sugar), rather than vitamin or mineral content. He explains that so many of our commonly eaten vegetables, like kale, cabbage, collards, and broccoli, are all from the same family, the Brassicas. So by eating a mix of these, we're only getting a certain nutrient profile. Going into the woods to forage, in contrast, you can hit 10 different plant families just by picking 10 different things. It stands to reason that if we're eating a wider range of things, we'll be assimilating a broader array of nutrients.

There are other advantages, too. "We spend so much effort and resources into cultivating landscapes, when in reality there's an abundance of uncultivated landscapes that already have great foods in them," notes Smith. Foraging saves a lot of time and resources, and has the added benefit of connecting us to our environments.

Smith learned a lot of what he knows about wild edibles from local "mushroom man" Alan Muskat, who runs the Asheville-based forage-to-table tour company No Taste Like Home and is the creator of the wild foods education program the Afikomen Project.

Going out with a skilled teacher who can tell you the stories behind the plants is the best way to learn to identify wild edibles, says Smith. And Southern Appalachia is a fantastic place for this, as the Katuah bioregion, as it's known, is one of the most diverse temperate ecosystems in the world.

Another way to learn to safely identify the wild edibles in your area, Smith explains, is to grow them in your garden from seed. That way, you can observe the plants in all stages of growth and be able to accurately recognize them on a walk in the woods. In addition to dandelion seeds, Sow True Seed also sells seeds of regional wild edibles like chickweed, creasy greens, and lambsquarter.

My limited experiences picking and cooking with dandelion this week have only whetted my interest in seeking out wild edibles. In addition to being an economical, health promoting, ecologically sustainable activity, foraging embodies an empowering philosophy of engagement that stands in stark contrast to the shackling consumerist attitude of never having enough.

Forage and feel healthy and capable. Forage and feel blessed. In the case of dandelions, you might not even have to venture farther than your own backyard.