They’re more than weeds


Let’s get a disclaimer out of the way. I’m not a cook. 

The height of my culinary skill is pretty much a peanut butter and honey sandwich. Readers must keep that caveat in mind as they follow this adventure about consuming dandelions. A more talented and knowledgeable cook can likely get different and better results.

Dandelions are edible, and early European settlers brought the plants to North America as a salad green.

Here is a major word of caution. Only gather dandelions where it is certain no herbicides were used, and the backyard may not be a good source if that’s where the family dog is let out to relieve itself.

I do not spray my yard, and my farming neighbors are considerate and only spray on calm days to minimize the risk of drift onto my property. I’m certain the abundant dandelions growing in the yard are free of noxious poisons, but I can’t say what happens at night when coyotes, raccoons, opossums and other varmints are roaming. Perhaps some things are best left unknown.

As noted, my yard is full of dandelions, and I don’t care. In the early spring when they start blooming, dandelion flowers provide an important, and sometimes only, food source for honeybees foraging after a winter of living on stored honey and pollen. That alone makes them valuable and worth leaving undisturbed and thriving.

My curiosity was piqued after coming across several sources touting the nutritional and health benefits of dandelions. Unlike others who write for this space, I’m not including recipes since there are ample online and printed sources for that. This is more about the experience and what was learned.

After gathering leaves and flowers, put them in a cold-water soak to wash off any dust and debris. This also encourages bugs accidentally collected to abandon their hiding places.

One source recommended a vinegar-water solution to eliminate tiny ants between the flower petals. That is probably good advice. I only used water and found miniscule ants roaming the drying paper when I returned several hours later to finish processing the blooms. Individual tolerances for fastidiousness may be a factor here.

Dandelions are considered an herb, and they are classified as a bitter. Several sources recommended eating only the fresh, young leaves from early spring growth. The older and larger leaves found at this time of year have a much stronger taste. 

A whole salad of large dandelion leaves may be too overpowering for some. Our pioneer ancestors mollified some of the bitterness by wilting the leaves with a drizzling of hot bacon grease. The same thing can be accomplished by sautéing them in butter.

Cutting the leaves into smaller pieces and tossing into a salad adds another level of taste without overwhelming the other greens.

Dandelion leaves are a source of vitamins K, A and C and also contribute calcium, iron and manganese to the diet. A cup of dandelion leaves is only 25 calories while still providing quality dietary fiber.

The flowers have numerous uses. Harvest without the stem and when processing look under the flower head for a ring of curled down leaves. Those must be pulled away to avoid an unpleasant taste. What appear to be vertical green leaves are OK because that is the underside of the outermost petals and are fine to consume.

Hint: the flowers are difficult to handle after they are wet. The blooms are slick and tend to clump together so it is best to remove the curled leaves before washing.

One option for consuming the flowers is to eat them whole. The taste is not repugnant, but it is unfamiliar. Shredding the blooms adds some color to a salad and there is no discernible taste after mixing in with the greens.

Another option is dipping them in batter and frying in oil. The consistency is similar to batter-fried mushrooms, but the only taste is from the batter, which creates options for experimenting from sweet to spicy. Some people make infused oils and vinegars with the blooms or turn them into jelly.

Dandelion tea is possible from the flowers, the leaves, dried roots or a combination of all three. If using fresh blooms, bring the water to a full boil but let it cool for three to

five minutes before pouring over the flower heads. Water at a full boil immediately cooks the flowers and precludes proper steeping.

The tea finishes with a green color and has a distinctive taste that is not something I immediately enjoyed like I did with sassafras tea. One, however, could learn to drink dandelion tea as an acquired taste. Adding a sweetener might help. 

The flowers have healthy antioxidant and polyphenol properties, and one study using rats indicates the flowers may help reduce inflammation. Folk medicine also claims eating dandelion plants is good for everything from preventing cancer to controlling high blood pressure and promoting kidney health, but such claims are not accompanied by citations to double-blind studies verifying the health benefits. People should always consult a physician regarding health concerns and not self-treat with a folk remedy. Dandelion consumption won’t hurt, but it may not help.

It was an interesting experiment. Cleaning the flowers of the curled leaves is a time consuming process, and the overall taste does not encourage further exploration. 

My efforts were basic and somebody else may have techniques that produce much better results. Is so, submit a piece for future publication.