As spring emerges yellow flowers do too, all over our yards. One is the buttercup, which is poisonous. The other is the dandelion. I’m no big fan of them, but I do realize they have their edible and medicinal merits. They can even make an interesting wine. The only plant you could confuse with dandelion is cat’s ear weed (Hypochaeris radicata), sometimes called false dandelion. It’s edible too.
The yellow trespassers have a basal rosette of foliage with irregular opposite pointed lobes. Leaves and stems have a bitter milky juice called latex. Plants have perennial roots and produce abundant seed which blows everywhere, making them one of our most prolific lawn weeds.
Despite dandelion’s productivity, many common broadleaf herbicides are effective, but repeat applications are often necessary. Some chemicals called pre-emergent herbicides are also effective at preventing seed germination, so ridding your lawn of bright yellow flowers is not impossible.
If you shun chemicals you can hand weed but it’s a job. One bonus is that you can save the greens and eat them. I’m not a big fan of raw dandelions. The latex renders them too bitter for my palate. I lightly steam or boil them and then rinse and repeat. This removes some of the bitter flavor, but don’t overcook them. Top with salt, butter and maybe a little vinegar. These cosmopolitan greens are great sources of vitamins and minerals, especially potassium and can lower cholesterol, reduce stroke, and lower blood pressure. The bitter taste is an appetite stimulant and arouses the entire digestive system. Dandelions, especially root extracts might even help treat anorexia. They improve calcium breakdown and absorption, and encourage healthy bile production. Flowers contain antioxidants that might aid immune systems.
Flowers also have another use, making wine. Several recipes can be found on the internet. I must admit I’ve never dabbled in that, but most recipes are a conglomeration of dandelion petals, some type or mixture of citrus, sugar and yeast. Most concoctions contain other spices such as cloves or ginger. Some formulations are dry or sweet, depending on the amount of added sugar. Reviews are glowing.
Before we get too carried away, precautions abound. Those allergic to ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigold, chamomile, yarrow, daisies, or iodine should avoid dandelion. Some people suffer from increased stomach acid, heartburn, and skin irritations. Like many greens, dandelion is a diuretic and could interfere with absorption of medications.
Dandelion has blood thinning properties, which could be good. It could also be a problem if you already take aspirin, Plavix, or Coumadin for that purpose. Chemicals that lower blood sugar levels are also present. That is also generally good but should be noted for diabetics.
When collecting any wild food, be careful where you harvest. Pesticide residues can be real. So can other contaminants, like lead. Older homesteads might have paint residue near the dwelling. This will accumulate in plants. A good practice is to start your collections several feet away if you suspect lead based paint or other persistent toxin might be present.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.