(Originally published as a newsletter for The Dragontree Holistic Day Spa)

There is an understated yellow flower called Taraxacum – AKA dandelion – which can be found nearly everywhere in the world – Asia, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, North and South America, and southern Africa. It’s often considered a weed and a menace to the perfect lawn. With its tenacious taproot and its fluffy seeds, so easily lofted by the wind, it is fantastically effective at surviving and reproducing.

To me, it’s fitting that such a ubiquitous plant should be a medicine and food. The whole plant is edible, particularly the leaves. Raw leaves tend to be rather bitter, so if you’re eating them this way, choose the young (small) leaves, since they’re milder. Mixed in with a salad, they add a nice bitter kick. Plus, they’re rich in vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, and calcium.

Larger leaves can be steamed or lightly boiled and eaten with a little salt, or some olive oil and lemon. They can also be sautéed with a little butter and seasonings of your choice. If you dislike bitterness, try boiling them for three minutes and then taste one. If they’re still too bitter, cook them for another five minutes. If they’re still too bitter, you can dump the water and boil them in fresh water for another three to five minutes (you may lose some of the medicinal value by doing this, though you’ll end up with a milder green). Dandelion greens are said to be least bitter in the early spring and late fall.

The root can be dried and made into tea, or roasted and brewed into a coffee-like beverage (minus the caffeine). Fresh roots can also be parboiled to reduce their bitterness, and then stir-fried with other vegetables, baked, or added to soup. Alternately, the roots can be boiled for about 20 minutes, usually changing the water once or twice in the process. Some sources advise adding a pinch of baking soda to the first batch of water. Then they can be seasoned and eaten as is, or sautéed with butter and seasonings.

Finally, the flowers can be made into wine, thrown into a salad, and blended into smoothies. There are dozens of other interesting recipes out there on the internet if you’re curious.

So, why should you consume dandelion? I don’t believe that there is any herb that’s simply good for everyone. We are all different, so there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to medicine. But, given the typical Western diet, which is heavy in sweet and salty foods; and given the increasing incidence of food sensitivities; and given the growing prevalence of environmental toxins, dandelion’s properties tend to be useful for the majority of us.

Dandelion is cool, bitter, and detoxifying. Bitterness is a taste most of us avoid, but it’s something we really need to balance out our overindulgence in the other flavors (you can read more about the value of bitter foods here).  Dandelion is a metabolic enhancer, particularly activating the liver, kidneys, and intestines. In Western herbal medicine, it’s often thought of as the ideal liver cleanser (particularly the root), because it’s effective yet gentle. It can be consumed day after day. It causes the liver to increase bile production and the gallbladder to increase bile secretion. It’s used for cirrhosis of the liver, hepatitis, gallstones, and for general liver detoxification.

As for its action on the kidneys (primarily the leaves), it stimulates urination, mildly lowering blood pressure, and helping to clear stagnant fluid. It can help dissolve kidney stones, and it’s useful for congested and/or inflamed, painful joints (what was once widely referred to as “rheumatism”). While most diuretics have the unfortunate side effect of depleting our potassium, dandelion is rich in potassium, so it doesn’t cause this problem.

Dandelion is used for a variety of conditions marked by toxicity, inflammation, or the retention of harmful material, such as acne, gout, high cholesterol, eczema, obesity, constipation, appendicitis, carbuncles, boils, abscesses, painful urination, tumors and swellings. It is used both internally and topically for breast swelling and tenderness, especially with blocked lactation. One of my teachers has even used it successfully (a few drops of the tincture a few times a day for a few months) for bipolar and obsessive-compulsive disorders.

The usual medicinal dose for adults is one-quarter ounce to one ounce of the whole dry herb (usually tending more toward the lower end of that range when using just the root) simmered as tea for half an hour, then strained and divided into two or three doses to be drunk over the course of the day. When using the fresh herb, two to four times as much can be consumed.

Here are a few final tips:

(1) Since dandelions pop up everywhere, especially in freshly disturbed soil, they’re usually not grown intentionally. So, make sure when harvesting it that you get it from clean land that hasn’t been exposed to chemicals. Wash it before using it, and scrub roots off with a vegetable brush.

(2) There are a few other plants that look very much like dandelion (the most common is cat’s ear – Hypochaeris). True dandelion has leaves with widely spaced teeth, minimal to no hair on the leaves, and – most importantly – flower stems that are hollow and exude a white latex when broken.  Also, dandelions never have more than one flower on each stem.  Make sure you have the right plant!

(3) If you have health problems, ask a healthcare practitioner who’s knowledgeable in things such as dandelions before making them part of your diet. Rarely, someone will have an allergic reaction to dandelions. If this happens to you, stop using dandelion. Listen to your body, do what feels good and right.

(4) Dandelions are one of the most targeted weeds by lawn pesticides. Besides being nutritionally and medicinally valuable, dandelions’ strong tap roots aerate lawns and bring minerals from deep in the soil up to the surface. If you don’t like how they look, and don’t plan to consume them, at least consider digging them up and composting them, rather than spreading poison on your land. But maybe a lawn of dandelions isn’t so bad!