I remember a sunny day not too long ago in early May when I was visiting my parents in western Pennsylvania. Everywhere we drove, dandelions were growing, their beautiful, bright yellow heads serenading the sun. After one of the coldest winters in modern history, seeing fields and lawns full of dandelions reflecting back the light of the sun was a blissful experience. “Here we are!” the dandelions cried out. “We are bringing sunlight and spring back into the world! Hear our song!” And I could tell they were doing just that, their sunburst flower heads reflecting the warmth and heat, welcoming spring to the lands once again. As we were driving, I remarked to my parents how nice it was that people were letting them grow instead of mowing them or putting chemicals on them. The photograph is below–this was one of the fields that I saw. However, I had spoken too soon–not a day later, fields and lawns I had photographed full of dandelions were mowed, one after another. It seemed that everyone took that day to mow down their dandelions, spray them, and then the fields left their magical dandelion state and went back to mundane green.
The dandelion, perhaps more than any other plant, instills hatred and virility across the US landscape. The dandelion seems to be enemy #1: Americans and other industrialized nations spend millions of dollars and dump millions of petrochemical weed killers on getting rid of dandelions. In my few short days visiting my parents, I witnessed people digging them out, mowing them down, spraying them, and expressing frustration and anger at the sight of them. In some townships and developments, they are banned from the landscape. A friend tells me how her subdivision has banned the dandelion and anyone who has them growing in their yard can be fined up to $100 a week. The irony of all of this, of course, is that the reason this plant is in the US at all is because our ancestors brought it here due to its highly beneficial nature.
Why is there such hatred for the dandelion today, when in previous generations, it was a revered plant? I think there are a number of underlying factors. First, the perfect (tame) green lawn is an incredibly powerful myth that people hold onto, something they strive to have, for reasons largely lost on me. The dandelion challenges that myth and requires work to remove; it challenges the idea that we can tame nature. Second, we have a profound lack of knowledge about about the role of the dandelion and how beneficial it can be to the land, the insects, and ourselves. Third, the linguistic framing of the dandelion as a “weed” masks its beneficial nature–weeds are pests, unwanted plants that plague humanity….if only they realized that settlers brought the dandelions here in the first place due to their beneficial nature!
In this post, I’m going to present an alternative view to the dandelion, and discuss its important role in our ecosystem and in our own lives. If we want to shift to more sustainable practices and a more spiritual way of interacting with the land, we need to start seeing dandelions as allies, not enemies. And allies they are, providing us with land healing, nutrition, medicine, beauty, whimsy, and even wine!
What is a Dandelion?
A dandelion (taraxacum officinale) is a hardy perennial wildflower that grows across temperate regions in the Americas, Asia and Europe. It often appears as one of the first flowers in spring, although can be found blooming throughout the summer months. The dandelion is naturalized to the North American region, being brought here by European settlers, who found dandelions to be so useful that they planted dandelions wherever they went.
Why does the Dandelion grow in your lawn? What is it doing there? Why is it important?
Before I get into the specific benefits of the dandelion, the issue of the lawn must first be addressed. The lawn itself is an attempt to put nature in an unnatural state that requires fossil fuels and many human hours of labor to maintain. The lawn is the largest “crop” in cultivation in the USA, yet it produces no food. The dandelion’s role in the ecosystem is a restorative plant: it comes in and attempts to restore the lawn to a more natural state, to heal the damage that has been done. It does this in at least three ways: through rejuvenating the nutrients in the soil, through reducing soil compaction, and through preventing soil erosion.
Dandelions, according to Gaia’s Garden: A Home-Scale Guide to Permaculture, are helpful plants that rejuvenate damaged and compacted soil. When we strip the soil bare (say, at a construction site or in a new subdivision where the current practice is to remove all topsoil and sell it), dandelions and other rejuvenating plants (burdock, yellow dock, yarrow, clover lamb’s quarters, ground ivy, etc.) start growing to begin to regenerate the soil. These plants are the first of many that will eventually grow, but these plants job is to bring nutrients from deep below the soil, to pull in nutrients from the air into the soil, and generally build soil health. If this bare soil was left on its own, eventually dandelions would give way to larger shrubs and bushes, eventually trees and forest would move in (and dandelion would be long gone).
In addition to regenerating the land in terms of nutrients, one of the things that dandelion is particularly good for is breaking up compacted soil. Most of the “lawn” spaces are repeatedly driven over with heavy machinery, causing substantial soil compaction. To see how compacted your soil is, go and try to stick your fingers down in your soil. If they don’t slide in easily, the soil is likely compacted (compare this to a freshly turned garden soil). Because of soil compaction, its very hard for many plants to establish root systems. Therefore, one of the most important roles dandelion plays in our ecosystem is to break up compacted soil with its deep taproot.
That same deep taproot and carpet of dandelions can help quickly prevent soil erosion and the loss of nutrients from the soil. Soil erosion is a serious issue–in our nation’s history, the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s was largely caused by poor soil erosion control (wind erosion). This led to substantial crop and farm failure and contributed to the worsening of the Great Depression.
Understanding a bit about the soil quality, soil compaction, and soil erosion, we can now understand why dandelions show up in so many lawns! They are attempting to heal the soil so that other plants can grow.
Other Benefits of Dandelions for the Land
In addition to building healthy soil, the dandelion has numerous benefits for other creatures in the landscape. Bees and insects of all kinds depend on it for survival, as do various other animals.
As a beekeeper, I welcome the dandelions at the start of spring. After a long, cold winter, all of the bees are hungry; dandelion provides them with the earliest source of nectar and pollen. Pollen is a critical part of the bees’ diet; pollen provides protein that the bees use as a food source and to raise their own young. Without the pollen in the early spring from dandelions and other flowers, bees might sacrifice protein in their own bodies to raise their young. Considering the plight of the bees, especially the honeybee, anything we can do to aid in their survival (such as letting dandelions grow) is critical.
Furthermore, if one mows a field of dandelions in full bloom, one risks killing thousands and thousands of bees–domesticated honeybees as well as wild pollinators like bumble bees or mason bees. We need those same bees to come along and pollinate our tomatoes, cucumbers, apples, and many other plants later in the season, and they form a vital part of our ecosystem! For the sake of the bees, don’t mow down that field or lawn of dandelions!
In the sections that follow, I’ll describe some recopies using the different parts of the dandelion plant–this info on harvesting will help you understand how to ethically and safely harvest. When harvesting any wild food/medicine, you want to be very careful about where you harvest. Harvesting from your neighbor’s lawn, when your neighbor sprays every few weeks, is a very bad idea. Likewise, harvesting too close to an old house (that may have had lead paint) or by the roadside (that once had cars with leaded gasoline) is likewise not a good idea. I usually harvest my dandelions from inside my organic garden–encourage their growth on the edge of my garden to attract pollinators, and when the stray ones grow up in my beds, I pull them out.
If you are going for the root, you’ll obviously be harvesting the whole plant. I suggest harvesting roots early in the spring or late in the fall if you can do so–the energy of the plant is in the root during these times. Once the root sends up its greenery, you lose some of the energy of the plant into the greenery and seed production. With that said though, roots can be harvested all through the spring, summer, and fall. To clean the roots, you can wash them easily with a big bucket and a hose outside–rinse them off till the dirt is gone. I usually go through several changes of water and use a scrub brush and they are clean. What you do with the roots at that point is up to you (see “Dandelion as Medicine” and “Dandelion as Food” below).
The greens are best harvested in the spring, as the plants are shooting up their new growth. If you are harvesting greens, the rule of thumb is that the younger the greens, the less bitter they are. The energy of the plant is in the greens at that time. You want some of the bitter nature of the plant (more on that below) but too much bitter may not be so palatable! Again, you can harvest from any safe place and then wash them lightly.
I don’t really think in most places you can overharvest dandelion to the point of threatening the plant. Do be aware, however, of how many dandelions are in the immediate area (especially if you are digging roots) and harvest only as many as you need. Do also be aware that bees and other insects need them as a food source, so harvest with that in mind. I have an abundance of dandelion in my yard, so I harvest as much as I’d like, knowing there will always be more!
Dandelion as Medicine
The way that I use dandelion most often is as a medicine. Dandelion’s entire plant has medicinal qualities.
Bitters. One of the primary medicinal qualities of a dandelion is that it is a bitter. Bitters are found quite a bit in the wild, and as humans evolved, we most certainly ate a lot of bitter foods (just go sample any number of wild greens and you’ll get exactly what I mean). But when we cut bitters out of our diet, our digestion began to suffer. My herb teacher, Jim Mcdonald, describes bitters as stimulating all digestive functions, including the stomach acids, saliva, stomach enzymes, hormones produced in the stomach, bile, and so on. Each of these, in turn, help break down food and add to digestion and overall gastrointestinal well being.
Bitters should be seen as a tonic, that is, they are something we don’t take only when we are sick, but rather something we take every day to help keep us in optimal health. I take my dandelion bitters before each meal–in order for the bitters to be effective, you have to taste them. A few drops of my dandelion root tincture on my tongue (see recipe) will help my digestion each day!
Beyond the immediate physical benefits, I there is also a spiritual side to the bitters. You are taking and extracting the essence of a plant, preserving it in alcohol, and then taking that plant as medicine. This puts you in communion of the plant (even more so if you harvest/grow the plant itself). This has powerful spiritual implications for those who choose to seek them.
Dandelion Root Tea
Another way to take your daily dose of dandelion is through tea. Here are two kinds of recipes:
Fresh tea: The fresh tea is simple to make–dig up a number of roots (which shouldn’t be too difficult). Wash your roots, chop them up, and bring them to boil with several cups water (think about 1/2 tablespoon root per 1 cup water). Boil for 40 minutes and then enjoy.
Dried Tea: The dried tea can be enjoyed the same way as fresh. After harvesting, you can chop and dry out the dandelion root. I usually just let it air dry, but you can also use a dehydrator. The dried root tea can be prepared like the fresh tea. Also consider adding other medicinal herbs to your blend!
Dandelion as Food
Dandelion can be ingested in many ways, the health benefits of which I discussed under “dandelion as medicine.” The nutritional value of dandelion plants are also quite high–they are high in vitamins A, B, C and D, and contain potassium, zinc, and iron. This makes them an all-around great food and drink. Again, remember that dandelion is a tonic plant, which means we want to be taking it often!
Roasted Root Coffee: The dried and roasted roots also make a great tea (although its a little more like a coffee, and some people drink it as a coffee substitute–coffee, like dandelion, is also a bitter that “moves” you!) Again you’ll want to dig up as many roots as you’d like. Now you’ll want to chop them. To chop them quickly, you can use a food processor. Set your oven to 250 degrees, and lay your roots out on a baking sheet (or several). Over the next two hours, check on them fairly often, stirring them to ensure an even roast. When you have them to the desired darkness, you can pull them out of the oven. Before serving, I usually grind them up further in a coffee grinder so that I get a nice ground. You want to store the grounds in an airtight container (like a mason jar). You can use 1 tablespoon (level) for 1 cup of coffee. You’ll want to boil it for 10-15 min (not just brew like regular coffee). Add cream and honey! Delicious!
There are many other ways to enjoy dandelion in the spring, especially the leaves, which can be used in salads, stir fried, sauteed, made into fritters, etc. An online search will reveal many more recipes!
Shifting Consciousness: Dandelions, Whimsy, and Magic
I remember as a child how I would go out into a field of dandelions, pick one seed head after another, and blow them all away. Dandelions have a very whimsical quality to them. As they take flight, they appear like little fairies.
Dandelions are truly a plant of the sun–their flowers open when the sun is out, and close at night or in overcast or rainy weather. The seed heads, however, have a lunar quality–they appear like a full moon, and stay that way regardless of the weather or light or darkness, until the wind (or some child) comes and blows them away. At this point, the seeds take flight; a delicate umbrella carries off the tiny dandelion seed to new ground.
What I’ve been attempting to convey in this book is the importance of shifting our own consciousness, of understanding dandelions as more than just a “pesky weed” but an incredibly important plant ally that gives so much to the land and to us if we only allow it. I encourage you to spend some time and sit with the dandelion plant. Watch her softly move in the breeze. Watch her seeds take flight. Dig one up and examine her deep taproot, turn it into medicine, and see the dandelion as a magical, incredible plant that she is.