A familiar weed in sunny lawns, fields, and playgrounds, the yellow dandelion flower elicits a strong reaction from gardeners and homeowners. The Pilgrims brought dandelion seeds to the New World to grow them for medicinal and culinary purposes, and the prolific and deep-rooted plant spread across the continent more quickly even than the European settlers.
Modern homesteaders recognize the dandelion's versatility, turning the roots, greens, and flowers into homemade wine, jelly, syrup, and other pantry stock. It's also possible to purchase many types of herbal remedies with dandelion, from tinctures to extracts to capsules to teas.
What Are Dandelions?
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) gets its common name from the French "dents de lion," which means "lion's teeth." These teeth, an important identification characteristic, point back toward the center of the basal rosette, unlike the teeth of wild lettuce leaves, which point forward, out and away from the center of the plant.
You can eat the entire dandelion plant—roots, stems, leaves, and flowers (before they go to seed)—but it can be difficult to find a commercial source for fresh dandelions other than the leaves. While it's possible to harvest your own, make sure they're far from any potential source of pollution, such as a road or industrial site; haven't been sprayed with pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers; and aren't growing in a place easily accessible by dogs or other animals.
How to Use Dandelions
Add fresh raw dandelion greens to salads to balance mild greens such as chickweed or miner’s lettuce. Or blanch them to reduce the bitterness and soften the leaves. They work well this way paired with milder greens such as nettles and dock in egg dishes, custards, and stir-fries.
Try unopened dandelion flower buds tossed raw in salads, pickled, or boiled for a minute or two then drizzled with melted butter and some salt and pepper. Ideally, collect buds from the center of the foliage at ground level, before they expand. Separate the flower petals from the bitter green calyx at the flower’s base by holding each in one hand and twisting in opposite directions.
After the flowers open but before they turn to seed, you can remove the petals from the calyces, then use the petals in cookies, quick bread, jelly, and wine. You can also batter and fry the flowers to serve as fritters.
Harvest dandelion taproots in late fall to early spring when they're full of stored nutrition. Leave a piece behind to produce more flowers or remove the entire root if you want to eradicate the dandelions from your lawn. Large roots can be eaten as you would other root vegetables such as carrots; you can also dry them and grind the root to use as a caffeine-free coffee substitute or herbal tea.
What Do They Taste Like?
Mature dandelion leaves taste unpleasantly bitter unless you cook them, but fresh young dandelion leaves have a pleasant edge, the kind that gets your digestive juices flowing. 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.
The mild taste of the root isn't particularly interesting. However, roasting them brings out a deeper, sweeter flavor. The flowers are crunchy and sweet.
Dandelions have been used for centuries by homesteaders and DIYers for everything from medicinal tinctures, to skin and lip salves, to fabric dye. These modern recipes provide updated instructions for some of the more common culinary uses.
Where to Buy Dandelion Greens
Dandelions are the first greens to appear in early spring, well before lettuces and other broad-leaf greens. Look for dandelion greens at farmers markets and larger natural or health food stores in spring and early summer. You can also order them online seasonally.
Like most greens, dandelion leaves should be rinsed well with cool water and dried thoroughly before you store them. Wrap them loosely in a damp paper towel and store them in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator for a few days. You can freeze dandelion flowers or dehydrate them for use as a tea.
Store preserved dandelion products such as syrups, jellies, oils, and honey according to the package or your DIY recipe instructions.
Nutrition and Benefits
A one-cup serving of dandelion greens delivers an impressive 535 percent daily value of vitamin K, an important nutrient for regulating blood clotting and blood calcium levels. It also contains 112 percent of the daily value for vitamin A, which helps with vision and the immune system, as well as the function of many organs, including heart, lungs, and kidneys. The greens are also high in vitamin C and contain a healthy dose of calcium, all for only 25 calories per cup.