Documents: Regional Gardens (Canada) - Prairie:

Dandelion
by Susan Wittig Albert
April 16, 2000

Which herb is both loved and hated, depending on which side of the globe you live on-or how old you are? Which herb is the target of more herbicides than any other? Which herb is used to feed plants, pigs, poultry-and silkworms? Which herb can help you lower your blood pressure, reduce your cholesterol, and lose a few pounds?

Why, it's the dandelion, of course. But if you didn't solve the mystery, you're in good company. Most people don't even consider the dandelion to be an herb! They think of it as an unwelcome weed that invades their lawns, and they spend their weekends trying to eradicate it. But as herbalist Steven Foster remarks, maybe they'd better get rid of the grass and encourage the dandelion instead. If we all used dandelion instead of abusing it, we might be healthier and happier.

Dandelion is a biennial or perennial herb with a long taproot and lance-shaped leaves. The sunny yellow flower (perfect for children to wear in their hair, or to wish on) perches on a hollow stalk (perfect for children to whistle with). It isn't a single flower, however; actually there are hundreds of tiny flowers packed together in a single blossom. The plant is propagated from the tiny, airborne seeds, which can be the cause of a great deal of neighborhood rancor. Dandelion grows in any soil (even in cracks in the pavement) but flourishes in a deep, rich, moist soil that allows the taproot to grow long and large. Research shows that the roots are best when they are harvested in autumn, as the leaves begin to die back and the chemical compounds in the root are at their peak. Leaves are best harvested in the first year of the plant's growth, before it blooms. Otherwise, they can be bitter. (On the other hand, cooks in other cultures prefer the distinctive bitterness of the summer dandelion.) Fresh leaves, which contain protein, fiber, potassium, vitamin A, and many other minerals and vitamins now appear in gourmet markets, and are used in salads and many interesting dishes. The blossom is used to make wine and jams.

The dandelion offers many health benefits. For centuries, it has been considered a "spring tonic" that cleanses winter toxins from the bloodstream, helping to dissolve kidney stones and prevent or cure liver and gallbladder diseases, and generally improve gastro-intestinal health. It is mildly laxative and strongly diuretic (one of its common names is "piss-a-bed," which suggests that you'd better not drink dandelion tea before you go to bed). The high potassium content of the plant helps to reduce blood pressure and reduce the risk of strokes. Its starch, which is called inulin, converts to fructose in the stomach and results in a slow increase in blood sugar-important for diabetics and hypoglycemics. The plant also contains linolenic acids, essential fatty acids which are now known to play a role in reducing chronic inflammations (such as arthritis), regulate blood pressure, and keep the arteries free of platelets. These important chemicals are not unique to dandelions, but their combination is potent, and probably accounts for the fact that the dandelion is one of the most ancient of medicinal plants, and is used in so many different cultures.

You can find many commercial dandelion products in the form of tea, tincture, or capsules, often combined with other herbs-or you can grow your own. The best kind of home-made preparation might be dandelion "coffee." To make it, collect uncontaminated roots from older plants late in the fall. Wash and cut into 1/8" pieces. Place on a cookie sheet and roast at 250° for 2-4 hours, turning often, until they are brittle and dark brown. Remove from the oven and dry for a few minutes before grinding (in a coffee grinder or food processor) and storing. The ground root absorbs moisture, so grind only a few days' supply and store the rest in a closed container. Place a teaspoon of ground root in a tea ball, pour a cup of just-boiled water over it, and let steep to desired strength. This caffeine-free beverage is flavorful and relaxing. It gently stimulates the digestive and eliminative organs, and will give your body a welcome vacation from the energizing coffee bean.

Susan Wittig Albert is the author of the China Bayles Herbal Mysteries. The series features China Bayles, a former attorney who owns an herb shop. Each of the mysteries has an herbal theme and an herb-related title. The latest is Lavender Lies. You can find out more about Susan's books and read one of her free web mysteries at www.mysterypartners.com

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