If every plant is here for a purpose, then few have as full an agenda as the dandelion. For starters, few plants announce spring with as much fanfare.
Those joyous little yellow dots are everywhere you look, thanks to the plant’s talent at procreation. It needs no pollinating insect to set its fuzzy balls of seed, scattered by the slightest wind. After touchdown, those seeds will sprout in any well-drained, moderately fertile soil, colonizing it with their deeply branching taproots.
Some tidy gardeners consider dandelions a plague sent to torment them. Even with one of those forked dandelion-diggers, it’s very hard to make them go away. Any part of the root that remains will re-sprout. Your best chance is to dig them out carefully while they’re very small.
I don’t consider herbicides — or any other garden poison — an option, Many a weed killer displays a dandelion plant on its containers, like a mug shot in the post office, a symbol of Mother Nature’s perversity. Maybe she sends us dandelions to us to keep us from getting too serious about our lawns.
I’m not anti-lawn. I like to wiggle my toes in the cool grass as much as anybody. But the typical lawn is as lifeless as a broadloom carpet. I like mine sprinkled with the confetti of purple violets, lavender ground ivy, fuzzy white pussytoes, mounds of tiny, pale bluets and enough dandelions to keep things interesting for the bees that visit them.
In times past, dandelions were lauded as one of the most beneficial plants known to humankind. The role their mighty taproots play is to bring up minerals and other nutrients from various soil layers, making them available first to the dandelion itself, and then to whatever fortunate creature eats it. That’s why the Chinese call it the “earth nail.”
The dandelion supplies hefty amounts of beta-carotene, potassium, sodium, phosphorous and iron, and also contains, zinc, magnesium, vitamin C, vitamin D and B vitamins.
The dandelion has long been planted for specific medicinal uses. Among its various names, the French “pissenlit” and the English “piss-a-bed” attest to its strength as a diuretic. It’s also highly touted as a digestive aid and liver tonic.
In Europe, where the plant originated, and in some parts of the United States, its green rosettes of toothed leaves still signal an end to winter’s dearth of fresh green food. People go out and cut the tender young leaves for salads or as a cooked green. The fleshy roots, stored and cooked in wintertime, are nutritious as well, but it is that first “mess of greens” that really perks up the system. They’re the best thing to feed to baby chicks, or any other creature that needs a little boost.
So why do people now rush to poison a plant judged to be health-giving, even life-saving? Partly because we’ve lost our taste for the touch of bitterness that so often signals a plant’s potency.
Besides, dandelions aren’t even bitter if you catch them early. By the time you see yellow flowers, the leaves taste too strong to eat raw, though you can still boil them, drain them and season them with bacon or ham and some sweet onions. You also can use the petals as a garnish, strip them of their green parts and turn them into omelets and fritters. Or brew them into dandelion wine.
Very early in the season, the plants are easy to spot, because they’re still greener than the grass around them. I wash them and cut off the roots and any foliage that isn’t young and perfect. (The developing buds at the center, and the crowns of tender white leaf stems, and are also good by themselves.) Then I add them to a spring salad. I also love to sauté them in butter with shallots, or in olive oil with garlic. Or dip them in batter for a tempura. They taste a bit like very mild Brussels sprouts.
Spring also is the time to order seeds of cultivated dandelions and grow them in the garden. For a fall crop, cut them back when cool weather has just started, then harvest the new young growth. Or let them winter over and pick them in spring.
A number of more refined dandelion varieties were developed in France in the 19th century for the Paris market and some are still around today. It might seem ridiculous to actually plant dandelions, but Baker Creek Seeds does sell a traditional French dandelion variety. Johnny’s Selected Seeds offers Italian Dandelions, also called catalogna, which are more properly an endive (you can always tell an endive by its cornflower blue flowers). Both types are, not surprisingly, easy to grow.
In any case, they’ll soon be growing in my front yard, my back yard, my side yard, and it’s good to know that something in my lawn might someday save me from scurvy or starvation. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to the show.