By Dr. Mercola
Dandelion greens are nutritious, delicious and versatile. They can be added to salads, soups and stews or sautéed and served as a side dish. What you may have only thought of as a pesky weed in your yard is actually a flowering herb with significant health benefits.
The dandelion plant belongs to the largest plant family — the Asteraceae or sunflower family — which includes more than 22,000 species, such as daisies and thistles. The dandelion alone has more than 100 different species, all of which are beneficial to your health.1 In fact, every part of the dandelion can be used, from the roots to the leaves and flowers.
You probably know how difficult they are to eradicate from your yard. When you mow them each week, the plant accommodates and grows a shorter stalk.2 Dandelions have become masters of survival, which is likely what makes them such successful weeds. However, while you may not want them growing in your yard, there are benefits to growing your own patch of dandelions and harvesting the greens for your table.
History of the Dandelion Herb
The dandelion has been embraced across cultures and centuries, but has now been branded suburban enemy No 1. An estimated 80 million pounds of chemicals are poured on yards across the U.S. to eradicate the little flowering herbs, but year after year these hardy plants return. Before the invention of lawns, however, gardeners used to weed out the grass to make room for more dandelions.
The name of the plant originated from the French who called it "dent de lion" or tooth of the lion, as the jagged edges of the leaves are suggestive of a lion's tooth.3 Although it is native to Europe and Asia, it has been carried around the world and is probably one of the most recognizable plants worldwide. It is believed the European settlers found the plant so useful they purposefully brought the dandelion with them to the New World.
The official botanical name for the dandelion is Taraxacum officinale. The pollen from the dandelion doesn't cause allergic reactions as the grains are too large. However, the sap from the plant may cause a common contact dermatitis resulting in swelling and itching.4
The plant is known to grow just about anywhere, but loves direct sunlight. As the flower matures it forms a familiar white puff of seeds that can float as far as 100 miles in the wind before settling into the soil and seeding yet another plot of land.5 Some outdoorsmen claim the dandelion helps them predict the weather. After the flower has gone to seed, if rain is coming the head reportedly will cover the seeds to protect the seed ball until the threat of rain has passed.6
Plant Your Dandelion Crop in the Spring
If you are planting your own dandelion crop, it is probably best to plant them furthest from your neighbor's yard and remove the heads before they seed. You can grow a full crop in your backyard using an inexpensive hot house that allows sun in and keeps the seeds from spreading. Even with such precautions, seed can still leave the hothouse on your clothing or on the sole of you shoes, so you'll still want to remove the heads before the seed ball forms.
When you are starting a crop, the first seeds can be sown outside approximately four to six weeks before the last frost.7 Once they have sprouted, which takes seven to 10 days,8 you'll want to thin them so they are 6 to 8 inches apart, allowing for full growth of the greens and plenty of room for the tap root. You can choose from a variety of different dandelion plants to meet your particular needs. The Clio produces upright greens that are easy to harvest and the Ameliore is a French strain with broader leaves and a milder flavor.9
The root of the dandelion routinely goes 18 inches deep into the soil and is an excellent way of keeping the soil from compacting.10 The root is sturdy and often has little hairy rootlets that may remain in the ground when you harvest your plants and regrow a new plant.11 Although the plants are incredibly resilient to poor conditions, the quality of nutrition you receive from the greens will depend on the quality of the soil the herb grows in.
Dandelions thrive in full sun, but will grow in partial shade. Use soil that drains well and compost the soil in the fall to encourage a strong spring crop. You can harvest the leaves and flowers throughout the summer months. The roots are best harvested during frost-free fall months.12 Before harvesting the leaves, cover the plants with a dark opaque cloth so the leaves blanch, reducing the bitterness of the greens.13
The blossoms should be harvested when they are young and tender, just as they have bloomed. Putting them in a bowl of cold water will prevent them from closing before you eat them.14
Dandelions will grow problem free. You won't have to treat for pests or change planting location unless they are planted in full shade. Dandelions may also be grown in container gardens, which makes covering them to blanch the leaves, or cutting the flower when they go to seed, much easier than if they are planted in your herb garden. Containers can also be set up high to reduce the potential for back pain as you are bending to care for the plants and prevent them from seeding your lawn or your neighbor's yard.
Dandelions Have Significant Health Benefits
Small birds eat the seeds of the dandelion; pigs, goats and rabbits eat the flowers and the nectar is food for the honey bee.15 But, beyond a food source for wildlife, the dandelion holds an amazing amount of health benefits for you as well. There are uses in your kitchen from the root to the flower, and health benefits to each part of the plant as well. Some studies have demonstrated the greens help produce antibodies to cancer.16
Dandelion greens are high in calcium, iron and potassium.17 They are also rich in vitamins C, A, K,18 thiamine and riboflavin,19 and surprisingly rank ahead of both broccoli and spinach in nutritional value. A full cup of chopped greens is a low 24 calories, packing more nutrition in a serving than some of the vegetables you routinely grow in your garden each year.
The vitamins and minerals provided in your dandelion greens help prevent Alzheimer's disease, eye disorders, support your immune system and the development of strong bones and teeth. Practitioners of folk medicine have been using dandelion root and leaves for centuries to prevent and treat several health conditions. The root of the plant increases the flow of bile that may help reduce gallstones, liver congestion and inflammation and jaundice.20
The plant has a second name, "pis-en-lit," (wet the bed) — a name that refers to the diuretic effect of its greens.21 When eaten before bed, they may require you make several trips to the bathroom during the night. Some find the leaves to have a mild laxative effect that aids in movement through your digestive tract.22 Traditionally, the root of the dandelion has been used in the treatment of rheumatism, as it has mild anti-inflammatory effects.
Time of harvest affects the properties of the root. Fall harvest has the greatest health benefits and produces an opaque extract with higher levels of inulin and levulin, starch-like substances that may help balance your blood sugar.23 Spring and summer harvest of the root produces a less bitter product, but with less potent health benefits.
The herb has been used by Native Americans to help heartburn and upset stomach and the Chinese have used it to improve breast milk flow and reduce inflammation in the breast during lactation.24 The Europeans used dandelion greens to help relieve fever, boils, diarrhea and diabetes. As a precautionary note, dandelions may make the side effects of lithium worse, and may increase your risk of bleeding if you are taking a blood thinner.25
Dandelions Propagate Profusely
Dandelions growing in the center of your yard can be harvested and eaten as long as your yard is chemical free and your neighbors don't spray. Even if your neighbors use chemical pellets to treat the yard, the chemicals migrate to the edges of your yard, so don't harvest and eat the dandelions within 10 feet of your neighbor's yard.
You may end up with dandelions in your own yard in places where you don't want them growing. There are several ways to remove them without resorting to chemicals. Even the pellets you sprinkle across your lawn to control weeds contribute to the damage done to wildlife in your area and groundwater pollution that affects the quality of drinking water. Over 5 billion pounds of pesticides are used annually across the world.26 These chemicals affect both plant life and the birds and wildlife that feed on the vegetation.
In most instances the chemicals are fat soluble. This means there is significant biomagnification as the chemicals remain in the insect and animal bodies and accumulate up the food chain. A conservative estimate is that 672 million birds are exposed to pesticides in the U.S. annually and 10 percent of those, or 67 million, are killed outright from ingesting the chemicals.27 The extent of the damage done long term to the bird population is difficult to estimate.
Birds exposed to chemicals also suffer "sublethal" effects that include thinning egg shells that break under the weight of the incubating adult, hormone disruption, impaired immune systems and a lack of appetite.28 Each of these consequences severely impairs the ability of the bird to reproduce, migrate and survive.
Birds may be particularly vulnerable as they can both mistake the pesticide pellets for seed and eat insects that are also laden with chemicals, doubling the load of pesticides they ingest.
Children are also more vulnerable than adults as they absorb more chemicals for their size relative to adults and are more vulnerable to the effects of the toxins in their bodies. A report by Environmental and Human Health Inc. found children exposed to pesticides had a higher incidence of childhood leukemia, soft tissue sarcomas and brain cancers.29
Some assume these chemicals are safe for use as they are sold over-the-counter, but while the Environmental Protection Agency classifies four of the more common lawn chemicals as having insufficient data to assess the impact on the development of cancer in humans, all are associated with the sixth most common form of cancer in the U.S., non-Hodgkin lymphoma.30
These chemicals don't disappear after a couple of days either. They are incorporated into the leaves of the grass eaten by insects and your pet dog. They seep into the groundwater in your neighborhood, which affects the water that eventually reaches your tap. Residue is tracked indoors on the bottom of your shoes where it accumulates in the dust in your home.
Get Rid of Your Lawn Dandelions Naturally
There are several ways to keep your lawn clear of dandelions without resorting to toxic chemicals. Dandelions thrive in direct sunlight so when the grass grows 3 to 4 inches tall it helps to reduce the growth of the plant. The plant won't flower until all the leaves have formed and only if there is sufficient sunlight and moisture.31 In the short time-lapsed video above you can watch one dandelion go from flower to seed ball in two days.
You can kill the plant, and therefore not worry about the tap root producing another plant, by spraying a mixture of white vinegar, water and salt directly on the plant. This will kill the surrounding plants as well, so use a direct spray and be careful where you aim it.
Your third option is to pull the plants from the ground, being careful to pull up the tap root from the end as any root you leave will produce another plant. Work in your yard when the ground is moist, such as after a deep watering or a long slow rain. Mother Earth News recommends three different weeders designed specifically for dandelions to help you remain chemical free.32
Each of the weeding options allow you to work standing up to reduce strain on your lower back and knees. The prices range between $20 and $30. Using a combination of all three strategies — length of grass, spraying individual plants with vinegar and salt and pulling individual plants — may help you keep a lawn free of dandelions and even address other types of weeds. Remember to address the plant before it goes to seed, as once the seeds begin to spread, all control is lost.
Use the Leaves, Roots and Flowers in Recipes at Home
In this short video, a chef from the Martha Steward test kitchen demonstrates making a chick pea and dandelion salad using fresh from the garden vegetables. Using the greens in a salad is just one way to use the plant — there are many more:33,34
✓ Roots can be dried, ground and brewed like coffee
✓ Dandelion wine made from the flowers
✓ Flowers fried in butter
✓ Dry the roots, roast a 300 degrees F and grind; add to hot chocolate
✓ Mix greens in potato salad or egg salad
✓ Sautéed like spinach and added to eggs, served as a side dish or in a quiche
✓ Cold pickling in a salt brine; heat may destroy the delicate leaves
✓ Kimchi made with dandelion greens
✓ Flowers mixed with apple peel or orange zest and made into jam
✓ Roots chopped fine and stir fried
✓ Dandelion pumpkin seed pesto
✓ Dandelion blossom cookies