Dandelion: a Beautiful and Useful Gift of Nature
Large colonies of dandelion in early spring are a most uplifting and glorious sight. Its flowers are loved by bees that visit them particularly for pollen which they crave in spring as an essential food for their young. Dandelion usefully flowers the second time in September-October when very few flowers are available to insects. Its Latin name, Taraxacum officinale, emphasises its extensive medicinal use: it derives from the Greek taraxos ‘disorder’, akos ‘remedy’ and Latin officinale ‘of apothecary’s shop’.
A dandelion seed is a most perfect fit of ‘engineering’. Its ‘parachute’ can carry it large distances, and when it lands, it ‘drills’ the seed into the soil. It then becomes a ‘tent’ that protects the seed, as drops of rain hit its ‘roof’ and hammer the seed deeper into the soil. So well equipped, it is not surprising that dandelion can thrive almost anywhere. It is usually seen as a weed, but there are many reasons to think of it as a gift from nature, and a highly nutritious vegetable that requires no effort and is free for all in almost all seasons.
There are many recipes for the culinary use of dandelion. Modern recommendations, that appear on social media every spring, tend to focus on its flowers: dandelion wine and ‘honey’ made from its flowers are just two examples. These recipes are lovely and definitely worth a try, but for 18th and 19th-century gardeners dandelion was first of all a salad vegetable, grown all year round for its leaves. 18th– and 19th-century gardening books describe special cultivars with larger and less bitter leaves. They also recommend bleaching the leaves by growing them in darkness (as with chicory and rhubarb) to make them more tender and less bitter (see below).
I always add some dandelion leaves to salads, particularly since they are available in the garden from very early spring and until late autumn. They are somewhat bitter on their own, but in a salad, finely chopped with other leaves, and with a dressing added, I find that bitterness either completely disappears, or is not unpleasant. If desired, however, different methods can be used to remove bitterness from dandelion (see below).
As with all other plants, dandelion should not be collected next to roads and areas where it can absorb heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilisers and other pollutants. Dandelion is particularly known for its ability to accumulate substances from its environment.
Removing bitterness from dandelion
1. To remove bitterness from leaves or buds, submerge in cold salty water from 30 minutes to 2 hours. The exact time depends on taste and how much bitterness you would like to preserve.
2. Alternatively, boil in salty water for 3-5min.
3. To remove bitterness from roots, boil in salty water for 5-10min.
Boil basal rosettes (tops of roots with leaves) of dandelions for 5-10min in salty water. Cover with flour or batter. Fry in vegetable oil. Instead of rosettes, leaves and green flower buds can be used (in this case to get rid of bitterness prepare them first by pouring boiling water over them, or boiling them in salty water for 3-5min).
To make a salad put dandelion leaves in cold salty water for 30min. Chop finely. Add a dressing made from apple vinegar, vegetable oil, and a little salt and pepper. Dandelion greens combine well with other vegetables and hard boiled eggs.
To make picked dandelion rosettes, collect dandelion plants with roots in early spring when the leaves are mall (2-5cm). Cut off the roots leaving 2-3cm. Wash carefully and soak is salty water for 2 hours. Discard the water, put in a jar and fill the jar with 10% salt solution (100g of salt to 1 litre of water). Keep in the fridge.
To make dandelion ‘coffee’, wash the roots, dry, and roast in the oven until they turn brown. Pulverize in a coffee grinder. Add a teaspoon to a glass of hot water, and bring to boil.
Growing bleached leaves in winter
For this the following method can be used. Dig out dandelion roots in autumn. Cut off the leaves close to their base at the top of the root. Plant the roots densely, close to one another in a pot in light soil or compost. Put them into storage in a dark cold place, such as a shed, cellar or garage. When you want to start growing the leaves, bring the pot into a dark warm (around 20C) room and water. Soon pale leaves will start appearing and in the darkness will grow white, tender and with very little bitterness. This will continue for some fairly long time. When the growth slows down, the roots can be either discarded or replanted in the garden, and a pot with fresh roots brought in.