From the remote trailsides and meadows of national forests and parks to suburban lawns and abandoned lots in temperate regions here and around the world, dandelions (generally Taraxacum officinale in this country) make themselves at home.
They appear to be almost everywhere. For some who are compelled by their occupation as gardeners to weed dandelions, this is a challenge we accept. There is no other choice. But a slight shift in consciousness allows us to see these excellent plants not as an encroaching enemy but as our helpful friends. It feels a lot better to be surrounded by allies than invading enemies. Dandelions provide us with food, medicine and dye. And they begin flowering early, offering bees a source of nectar and pollen before a lot of other plants are blooming.
Dandelion reproduction…not so straight forward. Apparently, they’re more likely to reproduce sexually back home in certain parts of Eurasia (though asexually in other parts). Here in North America, they generally, but not always, reproduce asexually. I am not a geneticist, not even close, so I won’t embarrass myself trying to explain what I don’t fully understand.
Here you have it succinctly and clearly by Dr. T. Ombrello of the Union County College (NJ) Biology Department in the Plant of the Week column:
Most dandelions produce seeds by apomixis, where unfertilized egg cells in the ovaries produce viable seeds that will germinate to become clones of the parent plant. The plants reproducing by apomixis are polyploids (mostly triploids) with an irregular number of chromosomes in their cells. A population of dandelions can contain plants reproducing by both methods. This flexibility in seed production, with both asexually and sexually reproducing individuals in a population, allows for some diversity within each generation, while permitting adapted asexually reproducing individuals to clone themselves. This is just another little feature of this amazing species that makes it so successful.
Agreed, it is an amazing species. It treats our livers and gall bladders, contains beta- carotene, calcium, manganese, zinc, iron and potassium, vitamins A, B, C, D, E and K and more. How strange, the effort we put into growing less nutritionally robust, domesticated greens that are plagued with pests, require large amounts of supplemental water, fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides (organic or conventional), soil that has been tilled or otherwise loosened, and much of our time and energy.
Maybe more of us should be growing dandelions in our vegetable gardens alongside the beets and spinach instead of weeding them out of our lawns. Or, better yet, we should be harvesting what we weed. They get bitter when they flower, so pick the greens before the plant flowers (unless you like really bitter greens, as some of us do) and the root between fall and early spring, when the previous year’s energy is stored before moving upward to create new spring foliage and flowers. Fresh or dried, the roots can be used to make a tea/tisane/infusion/decoction or whatever you choose to call the liquid you get when you steep or simmer fresh or dried herbs in hot water. When roasted, dandelion roots can be steeped or simmered in hot water to make dandelion ‘coffee’.
To prepare a batch, harvest as many dandelion roots as you need, wash and chop them into small pieces, then run them through a food processor until they are ground up. How you roast them is up to you. You could pan roast them as the Japanese do with hojicha green tea, or put them in a thin layer, up to half an inch deep, on a baking sheet in the oven with the door cracked at 250 degrees (or higher or lower, depending on how light or dark a roast you want your ‘coffee’ to be) for a couple of hours, stirring every 15 minutes or so. Once cool, store them in a tightly sealed glass jar in a cool, dark place. They last for a long, long time. Dandelion coffee has no caffeine but it does have that rich depth of flavor that coffee drinkers crave. The flowers too are edible and many people use them to make wine and for dyeing. The unopened flower buds can be pickled as you would capers (the unopened flower buds of the Eurasiafrican shrub, Capparis spinosa).
It feels like spring today, as this mild winter continues. Dandelions and a lot of other wild greens are growing nearby, maybe in your yard or nearby park. There’s so much bounty free for the taking but mostly we walk past or over it on our way to the grocery store.
With the huge, seasonal aggregations of salmon and other species of anadromous fish largely gone from our dammed and polluted rivers (at least in the lower 48 states), our cities covered in concrete, much of our available land contaminated with toxic chemicals, our peri-urban and suburban spaces filled in with lawns and ornamental landscapes, it’s not possible to seriously pursue a hunting/gathering way of life here in Seattle or in the other dense population centers of North America, though the freakish explosion of white-tailed deer numbers on much of the east coast might warrant it and a very rare, careful, ingenious, tenacious but statistically insignificant person might pull it off on the fringes for a while with some raccoon, squirrel, possum, mallard, Canada goose and whatever else is abundant in their neck of the woods added for variety.
Even so, we can use common sense to harvest what we know is edible (get a good field guide at your local, independent bookstore or public library) from safe places to supplement our increasingly uniform diets with some plants that haven’t had all the flavor and nutritional qualities bred out of them. Nettle season is in full swing!
If you’re local and have some time tomorrow, stop by Anderson Hall at the UW and attend Jo Robinson’s talk about eating healthier plants that still bear some of the nutritional attributes of their wild relatives :
Jo Robinson, author of the bestselling Eating on the Wild Side and resident of Vashon Island, will be the guest speaker at the UW Society of Ethnobiology’s Winter Speaker Event on Tuesday, March 10. The event is from 1:30-3:00pm in Anderson Hall, Forest Club Room (floor 2). A reception and poster session follows.
eyes out for wild greens
creeping over the wastelands
as we did before
See you in the garden.