In Defense of the Lowly Dandelion

Dandelion Blossoms

Spring is in full swing here in Kansas City and the flowers are in full bloom. Though the crocuses have now faded, the mid-season tulips are out, along with the daffodils and muscari. The spring "weeds" are in full force, too--the purple and blue ground ivies, the violets, and the dandelions. I say "weed" because I don't think in the terms of many gardeners; I try to assess each interloper by its function or aesthetic value. For instance, ur yard is full of violets because I love the leaves and the flowers, and they fill in the spaces the grass refuses to inhabit. I usually only remove them to make way for other plants. The weeds I dig up are the ones I have no use for.

Everyone knows that the lowly dandelion is the worst "weed" of all, so of course it is the one most vigilantly combated. An overgrown dandelion can really ruin the look of a flowerbed, and once it's gone to seed you're guaranteed another batch to dig up in the summer. Thus the cycle never ends.

As for myself, I've learned to love the lowly dandelion and don't struggle much to keep them at bay. Growing up, I was always charmed and fascinated by fields of the cheery yellow flowers and the shimmer little seed globes that fell apart in the wind. When I read Bradbury's Dandelion Wine in my teens I was mesmerized by his description of a family gathering the flower heads to make wine:
The boys bent, smiling. They picked the golden flowers. The flowers that flooded the world, dripped off lawns onto brick streets, tapped softly at crystal cellar windows and agitated themselves so that on all sides lay the dazzle and glitter of molten sun.

"Every year," said Grandfather. "They run amuck; I let them. Pride of lions in the yard. Star, and they burn a hole in your retina. A Common flower, a weed no one sees, yes. But for us, a noble thing, the dandelion."
I never knew anyone who made their own dandelion wine (or any wine, for that matter), but I always imagined eventually tracking down a bottle or making my own.

The dandelion, despite its common weediness, is an immensely useful plant with a history of human cultivation going back some centuries. Every part of it is edible and considered to have medicinal properties. The bitter leaves, mildest before the plant has flowered, are similar to arugula and can be eaten raw in salads or sauteed with some oil and spices. The raw flavor is too strong for my tastes, but I love using it as a replacement for arugula in a pesto recipe from Serving Up the Harvest. The mature root of a dandelion can be dried or roasted, then ground into a coffee substitute or additive similar to chicory, which is popular in New Orleans and France. Last year I ground a bit with my usual coffee and found it added a very subtle but nice smoky flavor. And of course, there are the blossoms, which are most often used to make dandelion wine, something that I am finally attempting this year. Lacking proper winemaking equipment, I sought out a basic home recipe and found this one from Texas Cooking. I can't tell you yet whether it worked, but I should know in a few months.

Another thing you can make from dandelion blossoms is jelly (or preserves), which sounds a bit odd but turns out to be quite good. I made up my own recipe using Pomona's Universal Pectin based on this recipe for violet jelly. The process is basically the same (and quite similar to making dandelion wine): you make an infusion by pouring boiling water over the blossoms, then let it steep overnight to deepen the flavor. Once the infusion is made, it is similar to any other jelly. Here is the specific recipe I came up with:

Dandelion Jelly
1 C dandelion blossoms
1 C boiling water
2 TB lemon juice
1/2 tsp calcium water
1/2 C sugar
1/2 tsp Pomona Universal Pectin

1. Wash dandelion blossoms thoroughly and remove any stems. Pour boiling water over blossoms and let steep up to 24 hours, covered.
2. Pour infusion into non-reactive pan and then add the lemon juice and calcium water. Mix together sugar and pectin.
3. Bring infusion to boiling and pour in pectin mixture. Bring back to boiling and cook for 1 minute. Pour into one pint sterilized jar or two half-pint jars; process for 10 minutes.

The flavor of this jelly is interesting, sort of light and floral and "dandelionesque," with none of the associated bitterness. As noted in the base recipe, this can be adapted to any other kind of floral/herbal jelly (if using flowers, obviously make sure they're edible and not sprayed with pesticides).

Dandelion Jelly

Besides the practical uses of dandelion as a food, there is evidence to suggest that the oft-loathed taproots may actually be beneficial, drawing up nutrients that might otherwise be locked in deeper soil layers. Taproots can also be a helpful way of breaking up dense, clay-ridden soils.

I'm not suggesting that every gardener stop pulling up these lovely and useful weeds altogether. We all have a certain aesthetic standard we'd like to maintain in our gardens, and too many weeds can disrupt our enjoyment. Nonetheless, it is surprising how little people consider the practical value of the plants growing around them (many of which, like the dandelion, have escaped cultivation) and spend all their time fighting the poor things in a quest for the perfectly neat lawn. Permaculture asks us to rethink the ways we live within our environment, whether there are not more harmonious ways to deal with it. So I'll keep letting a few dandelions grow and enjoy what they have to give.

P.S. For an overview of uses and lore associated with the dandelion, A Modern Herbal is worth checking out. Also information on various wildflowers and herbs with medicinal/culinary value. One of my favorite online plant resources.

1 comment:

Corner Gardener Sue said...

I enjoyed your post. My husband goes around with a weed digger, and pulls any dandelion he sees. When I see one in the flower beds this time of year, I pull it out and munch on the leaves, knowing I did not get all of the roots. Today, when I went out with our 3 year old grandson to see if the milkweed was coming up yet, I noticed a dandelion in bloom, and just left it there.

I hope your wine turns out good. My dad made some a long time ago, but I don't remember if I had any.