By Anne Rothfeld
The dandelion—a quaint, yellow-flowered, perennial herb loathed by homeowners and gardeners—was once praised for its many useful properties: its roots for medicinal remedies; its flowers for wine; its bitter, earthy leaves for cooking. Similar to chicory, the dandelion’s stalk stands tall with its sweet-smelling flower head, which turns into a downy ball of seeds to be carried off with the wind. Its roots have a milky, bitter juice.
Its name comes from the Latin Dens Leonis; the French translation of which is dent de lion, meaning lion’s teeth, perhaps describing the plant’s tooth-like leaves. The English changed this phrase to dandelion. A folk name is piss en lit (“piss in the night”) or in English sometimes “piss-a-bed” or similar because dandelion tonics have strong diuretic properties.
Native to Asia and Europe, the dandelion has been recorded in ancient writings, and Arabian physicians used the plant in medicine in the tenth and eleventh centuries. For centuries, the Chinese and Indians have grown the dandelion to treat liver diseases and digestive problems. The dandelion arrived in the Americas at the time of the Mayflower.
Bees and other pollinating insects love dandelions. The flower heads consist of tube-like florets, each containing nectar and pollen. Although seen as a weed, it can make a good companion plant in the home garden. Its deep roots pull up nutrients for plants with shallower roots, and add nitrogen and minerals to soil.
Dandelions grew alongside vegetables and herbs in home gardens to create remedies from the discomfort of many ailments: baldness, toothaches, fevers, weakness, lethargy, and depression; and as a food commodity. In his sixteenth-century book, Garden of Health, William Langham, a physician and herbalist, wrote a preparation for baldness:
“The [dandelion] juice often applied, layeth downe the staring of the haire of the eybrowes, and causeth newe haires to grow.”
Tonics and teas made from dandelion roots resulted in a gentle, nutritional diuretic that aided digestion and helped the body remove toxins from the liver and bloodstream. It was believed that the bitter root stimulated salivary and gastric juices and improved bile flow to alleviate any blocks or inflammations in the body.
Nicholas Culpeper, an English botanist, herbalist, and physician, described in his 1789 book Culpeper’s English Physician and Complete Herbal, the dandelion’s qualities of removing obstructions in the liver, gallbladder and the spleen:
“…it wonderfully openeth the passages of urine, both in young and old; it powerfully cleanseth aposthumes, and inward tumours in the urinary passages, and, by during the temperate quality, doth afterwards heal them; for which purpose the decoction of the roots and leaves in white wine, or the leaves chopped as pot-herbs with a few alisanders, and boiled in their broth, is very effectual.
John Gerard, a seventeenth-century botanist and herbalist, observed what is still true today, that dandelions are found in in great numbers meadows, gardens, and alongside highways. He wrote about dandelion remedies in his book The Herball, published in London in 1630:
“Boiled, it strengthens the weake stomacke, and eaten raw it stops the bellie and helps the Dysentery, especially being boyled with Lentils; The juice drunke is good against the involuntary effusion of seed; boyled in vinegar, it is good against the paine that troubles some in making of water [urinating];”
In the late spring, dandelion wine was made to drink in the autumn and winter. Ladies drank the sweet and light wine as a digestive. The drink was celebrated in 1957 as part of American culture in Ray Bradbury’s famous novel, and recipes can still be easily found on many popular online recipe sites.
Here is a basic recipe for the twenty-first century cook (from almanac.com),
Pick two quarts of dandelion blossoms (check for bugs!) and snip off the stem and collar. Rinse in cool water. Place dandelion petals in a large pan and cover with four quarts of water. Boil for twenty minutes. While boiling, cut two oranges and two lemons into small pieces and place into a bowl. Pour the hot liquid and petals over oranges and lemons. Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature. Add one yeast cake [equivalent to about 2-1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast (or one 1/4-ounce package)] and let stand for 48 hours. Strain mixture through cheesecloth, squeezing to remove juice. Return the mixture to a bowl and add three and one-half pounds of sugar. Stir well to dissolve. Pour liquid into a glass cider jug and cover with lid. Gently screw on the lid. Let stand for six weeks. Strain and bottle. Age for about six months. Makes about five, four-fifths wine bottles.
Another common culinary use is roasting dandelion roots for a caffeine free coffee substitute. Similar in taste as coffee made from chicory, dandelion roots contain more antioxidants and nutrients than regular coffee. To make dandelion root coffee, thoroughly scrub and rinse the roots. Once dry, place on a baking sheet and slowly bake them for four hours at 150 degrees. Grind room-temperature roots in a blender or food processor. Store in covered jar until used. To make the coffee, add one heaping teaspoon of roasted roots to one cup of boiled water, and let seep for about three minutes. Strain while pouring the coffee into a cup and serve. Add cream and/or sugar to taste.
Dandelions have been eaten for centuries because the leaves contain numerous vitamins and minerals, including iron, potassium, and calcium. Add young unblemished dandelion leaves to salads and smoothies. Substitute them for other leafy greens, including spinach, endive, mustard, and collards. Macerating the leaves in water pulls out some of the leaves’ bitterness. Sauté larger leaves with olive oil, onion, garlic, salt, lemon, and add to pesto, pastas, omelets, soups, and savory pies.
Anne Rothfeld, PhD, is a librarian and historian in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.