An Ode to Dandelion
Materia Medica from Rooted In
I have a distinct memory from childhood of being in my backyard with a butter knife, trying to pry dandelions from the lawn. It was one of the few times my parents actually got me to help with yard work, and since I’d made such a scene about getting my hands dirty (oh how times have changed), my dad offered me a butter knife.
I’d only pulled out a few dandelions before unearthing what could only be described as the largest, grossest beetle I’ve ever seen. It sat on the roots moving its beetly appendages. I screamed, dropped the knife, and thus ended my very short dandelion picking career. Unsurprisingly, I haven’t dug up many dandelions since—although they also don’t grow as abundantly in our arid Colorado climate as they tend to on the east coast.
But my love of dandelions has only grown since studying herbalism—and this summer, I won’t be flinging them into the woods or cursing the beetle gods (maybe just a little). Instead, I’ll be ever-so-gently lifting them from the ground, separating leaves and roots, and taking them inside to rinse away the soil, chop them up, and make some medicine.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) has been used in natural medicine for thousands of years. But the main reason I’m writing about it now, is that it’s often one of the first “weeds” to pop up in spring—and as such, becomes a ripe target for murder by garden spade, chemicals, or both.
As herbalists, it’s essential to change the way we view ‘weeds’. Especially when it’s a weed with as many medicinal applications as dandelion.
In yards and gardens all over the country, dandelion will soon start appearing as a small round cluster of leaves called a basal rosette (pictured above). Without the flower, it can be hard to identify, but once that bright sunny bloom reveals itself, you’ll know for certain what you’re looking at.
Besides its bright color and prolific spreading abilities, dandelion is also an amazing liver and kidney tonic known for its capacity to “get things moving” in our body.
“The energetic qualities of dandelion leaves and flowers are like spring itself: fresh, moving, and stimulating. […] Consider dandelion leaves and flowers for any type of sluggishness, whether it’s the winter blues or stagnant fluids in the body such as edema or lymph.”
-Rosalee de la Floret, Wild Remedies: How to Forage Healing Foods and Craft Your Own Herbal Medicine
Beyond these energetic qualities, dandelion is also a powerful diuretic, and as such, can be an effective blood cleanser. I’ve successfully used it with friends and family to help clear up skin infections and allergic reactions. By combining it with other herbal remedies, drinking dandelion tea can work to eliminate toxins in the bloodstream by increasing how much we pee (hence the French name ‘pis-en-lis’, aka ‘wet the bed’).
But dandelion doesn’t just cleanse the systems of our body, it also replenishes them. The leaves are rich in minerals and nutrients like fiber, calcium, potassium, Vitamin C, and magnesium (among others). They also have an abundance of inulin, which is a powerful prebiotic that helps build healthy intestinal flora and has even been shown to reduce blood glucose and insulin levels1.
Good for your garden
Here’s where things really get interesting: Dandelion isn’t just good for your body, it’s also an amazing food herb ally to have growing in your garden. That’s because dandelions are actually a key member in a group of plants known as Dynamic accumulators, which mine nutrients deep within the soil and make them more bioavailable to the plants around them.
They do this in several ways, but primarily in the release of nutrients from their leaves at the end of their life cycle. Translation? Even if you don’t feel inspired to harvest dandelions for medicine, they’re an important part of your garden’s ecosystem.
Besides this glittering medicinal resume, dandelion leaves also just really tastes good. As a digestive bitter, the leaves make for a wonderful green salad to enjoy before a meal. You can also blend them up into a green smoothie, flowers and all.
In the fall, when it’s time to harvest roots, dandelion roots can be plucked from the earth, chopped, and roasted in your oven to make a delicious tea. Some people have even used Dandelion Root Tea as a coffee substitute, although true coffee snobs (myself and Michael Moore included) wouldn’t necessarily describe it that way.
“The ground roots can be lightly roasted in a frying pan or browned in the oven on a cookie sheet to make ‘Dandelion coffee’; I personally find this a mild insult to both Dandelion and coffee, but some people are quite fond of it.”
- Michael Moore, Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West
Whether you choose to roast it or consume the root fresh (or a combination, as many herbalists prefer), you really can’t go wrong. Dandelion has virtually no toxicity in its leaves, flowers or roots— so you can munch it, mix it, and drink it freely. Besides acting as a ‘coffee substitute’ for some, the root is also incredibly anti-inflammatory, and has been used to assist with ailments involving chronic inflammation, such as arthritis, gout, and leaky gut syndrome.
Correctly identifying dandelion
Since it’s unlikely you ever cultivate dandelion intentionally, you’ll need to adopt some basic foraging skills in order to add this sunny little weed into your herbal repertoire2. If you’ve never foraged anything before, I highly recommend you read our Wildharvesting 101 Guide.
Here are a few additional tips to help you get started:
Beware of dandelion lookalikes and avoid harvesting the leaves until you can see the flowers (which makes the plants much easier to properly ID).
Remember: Dandelions don’t have multiple stems. The flower grows from one hollow root stock. If you see a plant with branching stems, it isn’t dandelion.
Never harvest in polluted places, ie. gardens or yards that use chemical fertilizers and pesticides, or near roadsides.
Spread the word! There are still a lot of dandelion-haters out there—and friends don’t let friends hate medicinal herbs (just made that up, but it sounds pretty good, no?)
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Lightowler H, Thondre S, Holz A, Theis S. Replacement of glycaemic carbohydrates by inulin-type fructans from chicory (oligofructose, inulin) reduces the postprandial blood glucose and insulin response to foods: report of two double-blind, randomized, controlled trials. Eur J Nutr. 2018 Apr;57(3):1259-1268. doi: 10.1007/s00394-017-1409-z. Epub 2017 Mar 3. PMID: 28255654.