A familiar weed in sunny lawns, fields, and playgrounds, the dandelion elicits strong reactions among gardeners and lawn lovers. If this weed is the bane of your existence, I’m about to suggest an excellent revenge. Or if, like me, you don’t care what plants make up your lawn as long as they’re soft underfoot, here’s how you can enjoy one of the most versatile and tasty weeds around.
Dandelion gets its common name from the French "dents de lion" which means lion's teeth. These teeth are an important identification characteristic. There are lots of weeds out there with toothed leaves, but dandelion leaves are smooth and deeply toothed.
Their teeth point back toward the center of the basal rosette. The direction in which the teeth point is important. Other plants with notched leaves, like wild lettuces, cat's ear (which is hairy), and false dandelion also have notched leaves, but the teeth point forward, out and away from the center of the plant. The depth of the notches on dandelion leaves is highly variable, but the direction in which they point is not.
Dandelions produce one flower per flowering stem. And while one plant may produce more than one stem, that stem will never branch or include multiple flowers. The dandelion look-alikes have branching stems and often produce more than one flower at a time.
Which Parts of the Dandelion Can You Eat?
The dandelion has multiple edible parts, and years ago was a well-regarded edible and medicinal plant. In fact, American colonists brought dandelion seed with them from Europe and planted it for food and medicine. Since then, dandelions have spread far, wide, and plentifully; you couldn't eradicate the population if you tried. Feel free to pull them up by the roots and use every bit of them.
- Dandelion greens are packed with vitamins and minerals. Mature dandelions can be quite bitter, but fresh, young dandelion leaves are a good kind of bitter, the kind that gets your digestive juices flowing. They can be used raw in salads to balance mild greens like chickweed or miner’s lettuce. As the weather warms, dandelion foliage can go from pleasantly bitter to overpowering in just a few days. Plants growing in shade remain palatable longer.
You can extend the dandelion season by cooking the leaves. Blanching dandelion greens in boiling water remove some of the bitterness. Then, combine them with milder greens like nettles and dock in pitas (that's pies in Greek), egg dishes, custards, or stir-fries.
- Unopened flower buds can be used raw in salads, pickled, or lightly boiled for no more than a minute or two. A little butter, some S&P, and you’re all set. Collect the buds from the center of the foliage at ground level, before they expand. And remove the calyces before eating; those can be too bitter. To separate the petals from the bitter green calyx at the flower’s base, grab the base of the petals in one hand, the calyx in the other, and twist in opposite directions.
- To use open flowers, remove the petals from their calyces, then use those petals in cookies, quick bread, jelly, and wine.
- Dandelions have taproots that are best harvested in late fall to early spring when they're full of stored nutrition. Remember that a piece left behind will produce more flowers. If you’d like to cultivate your dandelion crop, this isn’t a problem, but if you’re trying to eliminate dandelions, remove the entire root. While large roots can be eaten as a vegetable, their taste is mild and not particularly interesting. Instead, why not make your own New Orleans style coffee by using roasted dandelion roots?
A plant with such tenacity and so many edible parts certainly deserve your respect, if not your admiration. And the best way to pay tribute to the dandelion is to eat it.