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For the Love of Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Perhaps we might be inclined to think of dandelions as weeds first and (maybe) as herbs second. But since, by definition, all herbs are weeds. But dandelions are more than just weeds (or herbs). More often than not, they’re the first flower of spring, and so hold a special place, both for the eye and for our body’s “spring cleaning” process.

Spring cleaning is an unwavering urge that comes over us as soon as the days start to lengthen—it’s definitely time to dust away the darkness of winter. The same applies to our bodies. During the cold months we conserve energy and naturally slow down; evolutionarily speaking, we just don’t get inspired to really move during the winter. Our metabolism slows down to conserve energy, food and warmth, so the detoxing organs (the liver and kidneys) get a little sluggish, too.

We can think of the urge to clean house as a manifestation of what’s going on inside our bodies—our winter-logged systems want that same kind of airing out. Enter dandelion, which helps support the body as it rids itself of stored metabolic wastes.

Dandelion is practically an herbal apothecary unto itself: as a powerhouse liver and kidney tonic, it acts as a diuretic, so wastes are removed quickly from the body. As a bitter herb, it stimulates the digestive system, causing you to absorb nutrients from your food more efficiently so that less metabolic waste is generated. This means that the liver can focus on the really important tasks, like helping to rid the body of excess fat stores. And, like all early spring greens, dandelion leaves are loaded with vitamins and trace minerals — something we generally lack over the winter.

With this tonic action on the body, dandelion also helps reduce inflammation in the liver. Further, dandelion is very high in vitamins A and C, beta-carotene, potassium, iron and copper, serving as a major nutritional jump-start for the body after a winter of heavy meals. Dandelion serves as a tonic for the whole body, helping correct elimination problems such as constipation, gallstones, indigestion, sluggishness and fatigue. It also helps fight skin problems and may ease the impact of diabetes by helping to regulate blood sugar and lower cholesterol.

As soon as you see the tell-tale leaves popping up in your (pesticide-free yard), you can begin by simply adding the young greens to your salads, or lightly steaming or sautéing them. If those options aren’t that appealing to you, try a tea. But, a few notes: As a strong diuretic (which means it helps clear waste and excess fluid from your system — great for relieving bloating, by the way), dandelion shouldn’t be ingested at the same time as other medicines; otherwise, those drugs will flow right out of your system. Time your tea-drinking for 30 minutes before to 1 hour after ingesting any drugs or medications. And, as always, talk to your healthcare provider before taking any herbs.

When harvesting dandelions, be sure that they are at least 100 yards away from a road and contain no chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Also be sure that you have permission to harvest if you aren’t on your own land (a universal truth that I’ve discovered — no one will begrudge your taking their dandelions; in fact, people will call and beg you to come to their house and harvest). Gather only young leaves—the older they are, the bitterer. If the flower bud has already formed, cut the plant to the ground and wait for new foliage to appear, then harvest and cut to the ground again. You can do this a few times before the leaves get too bitter. Let some flowers bloom, however; they are good for bees as well as various syrups and dandelion wine. You can gather dandelion leaves and flowers anytime during the growing season, but gather roots, which are especially healing for the liver, after the first frost, when the nutrients have collected in the long taproot. After harvest, carefully wash the roots, chop them, then roast in a 250°F oven, occasionally turning the pieces until they are dry and aromatic. This can take a few hours; keep checking the roots, taking care not to burn them. You can store these for several months in a clean, airtight, container at room temperature.
One safety caveat: consult a physician and use dandelion with caution if you suffer from gallstones.

Nutrient-dense Tea
Rinse one handful of young dandelion leaves under cold water. Chop the leaves roughly and place in a preheated mug. Pour boiling water over the leaves, cover, and steep for 10 minutes. Drink as much of this as you crave — it’s a wonderful nutritive to restore the body after a long illness or a long winter.

Dandelion Syrup
Dandelion flower syrup is a great way to get the benefits of this early spring tonic into the little ones of your household. Use to sweeten hot drinks, on its own or as a syrup for French toast or pancakes. Using honey instead of sugar makes this a marvelous cough and cold remedy.
Ingredients:
1 cup dandelion flowers
2 cups sugar (preferably dehydrated cane juice or Sucanat, alternatively, you can substitute 2 cups of honey)
3 slice citrus fruit (any kind), cut with rind on (for flavor) or ½ cup berries of choice
Method:
1. Steep the dandelion flowers in 3 cups hot water overnight.
2. Strain the dandelion water into a saucepan and add another cup of water. Add the sugar (or honey) and the fruit. Bring to a boil over medium heat and simmer 15 to 30 minutes, or until the liquid thickens. Strain and store in the fridge.
Makes approximately 2 cups syrup

– Amy Holt, CMBG Writer/Editor and master herbalist
Amy (Jirsa) Holt is the author behind Herbal Goddess: Discover the Amazing Spirit of 12 Healing Herbs, which can be found in our Gardenshop.